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Life Lessons in The Big Easy by Martha Gragido

Posted: Apr 10, 2012

There’s something maternal about a train. It carries you where you need to go and rocks you along, sheltering as new horizons flash past your window. Places you’ve never been. Places that have never known the press of your weight.

(The bathrooms on the train are very interesting to say the least, and absolutely nothing like my mother, or any other person I’ve ever met who invoked a maternal feeling. I felt like I was on a spaceship, bound for galaxies unknown. Until I flushed the toilet, and tried to use the “Everyone has touched this with their nasty hands” sink fixture and then I thought I was somewhere else.)

The sixteen of us piled onto our mother ship bound for New Orleans. Would we be ready for so much world? Our first impression was cloaked in night, everything gilded with silver at first and then illuminated with colors flashing and hinting at glimpses of what we might see with daybreak.

(What’s so interesting about the world, is you can pick any location, no matter where, and you’ll be able to freely compare the good places and bad places just like the good and bad times we have in life. The top, the bottom. The happy, the sad. The new, the old. The clean, the dirty. The reserved, the lewd. The satisfied, and the starving. The sanctimonious, and the sac ? religious. However, no other place on this earth will display this so perfectly as New Orleans.)

What we found was a dichotomy.

New Orleans is brimming with secrets that spill out of every ancient brick and cobblestone. What a story they’d would be able to whisper as we stood in their shade, our backs against them, the coolness of that clay sinking into our skin through our shirts, the grooves of the stones on the sidewalks pressing through the soles of our shoes, as we faced the city and tried to commit every twisting dance of iron to memory.

(The French Quarter was like a time warp. You almost get that dizzy feeling in the back of your head when you walk through. So much energy left behind, from generations before me. So much beauty to declare to us. So many dark alleys that freaked us out…, and then just a longing.)

We also found a bold, rich honesty. It was in the love of the arts, the eyes of the locals, the spices in the air, the powdered sugar on our tongues, and the smell of the river across from Jackson Square. Music was always in the distance, or right in our faces like the glare from a mirror. The music absolutely could not be ignored, and its source had to be found. Every time. It? came in the form of tradition passed down, so generously shared with whoever wished to take the time to stop and join in with seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and dancing along.

(Something has to be said about the beignets at Café DuMonde. All you ever really need in life is a visit to the Superdome, and a big pile of “beanyays” and you’d be able to go home happy and perhaps die knowing you had lived a fulfilled life.)

Snippets of conversation flitted past like moths from one person to another. Poetry, Art, Music, and Literature always trailing behind. Stirring our minds like a pot of gumbo. Our desires for more, building passion -- always more to hear and see. And The Big Easy did not disappoint.

(We also learned the local lingo. For example, if you hear the phrase, “Put some cheddar on this cracker,” that means, “Put some money on this palm.” The cracker being the palm, and the cheddar being the money. And the keeper of the cracker being without cheddar. That’s why you should always carry crackers and cheese with you wherever you go. Just in case. Incidentally, when a person tells you, “No money,” it means they have no money. There are several variations of the cheddar and cracker phrase.)

Just like a small suitcase, there’s an abundance of things that can be accommodated in the span of four days. Our days were spent on our feet, tracing the same paths Faulkner may have ambled down, immersing ourselves in as much as we could, desperate to not miss anything, each of us certain we would never be the same again.

(At times, I observed absolute chaos around me. No order whatsoever, but everyone was so happy to be there. It was infectious. People are crazy and amazing. We shouldn’t forget just how much. Other times, right in the middle of the city, it would be so still and silent, filling my ears with gray cotton, making me sleepy. People should sing more.)

As if this weren’t enough of an education, we would take a break from our life lessons long enough to sit in the presence of eloquence, our ears eager to take in what their talent had to offer and our minds poised to record the words they spoke and the tones of their voices.

(Being in the presence of so much talent was a very humbling experience for me. I left those lectures with my face sore from smiling, and my sides aching from laughing. Singers hold their hearts up to the microphone. Writers go a little deeper. A song can touch your heart, and a good poem or book can change your life or the way you see it. It’s frightening when we consider the power a pen holds, especially when it rests in the hands of true talent. Who knows what they’ll pull out of us next?)

During all this walking, and sweating, and listening, and eating, eating, eating, our family, which had grown with each day in this streaming city, was also growing closer. When we left our mountain, we were eager to be exposed to the ease of tangibility New Orleans offered. Our growing pains were sweeter for sharing laughter. Experiencing a new place together pulled us tighter in the fabric we’d started weaving from the second we boarded the train in Birmingham, Alabama.

(We can all safely say we know our way from Canal Street to, and all throughout, the French Quarter. When asked where we were from, “Alabama! Northeast Alabama Community College!” would be hollered out by most of us. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of so much intelligence, kookiness, and fellowship. To us, we were proclaiming ourselves. To the locals, we were little lambs wandering too far from the safety of the fold. But something can always be said for enthusiasm. And we had plenty.)

When I look at my fellow classmates, a sense of pride kaleidoscopes. My teachers fill a spot, along with the sight of all the other SKD members from all over the United States. And perhaps in the middle, is a small fragment just for me, and just like in life, I find myself surrounded by what I am so grateful to be a part of.

(None of us would be where we are right now without the support of such capable instructors. I can speak from personal experience when I say they will guard your back on a dark street, make sure you cross said street, encourage you to push forward, and believe in you when you can’t remember how to do it for yourself anymore. They will even stifle their laughter when one of the natives gravely wounds your self esteem. Yes. That’s also speaking from experience. But at least I can say I’ve been mentally assaulted by a complete stranger. How many people can say that?)

Now, as we ride back to our safe little mountain at Northeast Alabama, we are carrying so much more with us than we started with. And somewhere on Canal Street or down Decatur Street, all the way to Jackson Square, if you put your hands to a metal railing and let it trail softly, or skim your fingertips over those bricks, or drag your feet down a stone path, you will know something wonderful was left behind a long time ago, just for you.

Martha Gragido is this week's guest writer for Swampland. Martha recently attended the 2012 national conference for Sigma Tau Delta/Sigma Kappa Delta, the national English honor society. While in New Orleans, Martha was moved to write about her experience in the Big Easy. I asked her to tell the Swampland readers something about herself. This is what she said.

"I’m Martha Gragido, a sophomore at Northeast Alabama Community College where I’m majoring in English. I’m the married (thank God) mother of twin boys and I can often be found in the wild, hanging by my toes from a tree with binoculars and a notepad, observing them at play. Writing is my version of guidance counseling, except it’s my pen telling me what I need to say.

This essay was the merging of my observations of attending the national conference hosted by Sigma Tau Delta and Sigma Kappa Delta. I was asked by my instructor to write about the trip, and that’s how the essay came about. Well, mainly because she’s so much more knowledgeable and slightly deadlier than me, so out of respect and fear, I did what I was told. Let the record show that good things happen when you respect your elders."

----Penne J. Laubenthal
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