The Chateau, The Flood and Me

17 09 2016

A few years ago I saw a story about an Australian couple that had bought and were attempting to restore the 14th century French Chateau de Gudanes.  They recently shared a Vogue article about the Summer at the Chateau. I got lost in the stunning photography and found myself drawn back to the story over and over. It seemed so different than my life in flood-soaked Louisiana.

The photos showed antique chairs and a settee outside casually placed around a fire pit with a glimpse of the Chateau’s weathered wall; colorful summer wildflowers placed in front of a crumbling fireplace or artfully placed in a vintage china bowl. Centuries old bedroom furniture comfortably arranged in a room ravished by time; broken windows opened to a stunning summer mountain view unchanged by time; a stairway lit only by candlelight. As I explored this beautiful, other-worldly place, I found a blog post written by the new lady of the manor. She wrote of the Chateau as a real, living thing and she told of the gifts, as well as the difficulties that she and her husband had experienced in trying to bring life back to the crumbling structure.

She wrote of friendships that have been forged as people from all over the world were drawn to restoring this old structure that had survived wars, droughts, famines, and time. But it was her short mention about the frustrations of hitting government bureaucracy that made me see similarities in my seemingly unrelated Louisiana life. It’s clear in her writing that she doesn’t want to complain about her frustrations because it’s obvious that she comes from wealth and privilege to be able to not only buy the Chateau, but to attempt a restoration on such a grand scale.

My home did not flood, so I too come from a place of privilege. The waters crept close, but the house stayed dry unlike my neighbors a block away. I have a bit of survivor’s guilt and know I can’t complain. But loss and sadness hit me anyway.

 

 

I’ve lived in my home nearly 30 years. The people that own businesses around me are my friends. The family that owned the best Chinese take out—whose children I watched grow up—will not be reopening, nor will the drugstore, or the dance studio in which a generation of little girls twirled and danced. My hardware store and garden center, where I bought my Christmas trees, my birdseed, and who helped me with my garden was swept away forever. My gym is gone, as are the three grocery stores I frequented. While it’s just an inconvenience to find another place to shop, I don’t know what happened to the people who worked there, that I knew by face and smile only. Did they lose their home and car along with their job? Or were they lucky like me?

trash

House after house, street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood. Photography by my daughter, Jade Th’ng

 

trashpile

Photography by Jade Th’ng

 

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Photography by Jade Th’ng

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In front of the nursing home where my mother use to live. Photography by Jade Th’ng

There has been progress made in the weeks since the biblical-sized flood hit south Louisiana. The trash piles that contained people’s lives in the front of their homes are starting to be picked up. By spring the trash piles will all be gone and new growth will erase the brown stained yard that’s left behind. But right now, spring seems a long way away.

Like the Chateau owner, I have many, many, friends frustrated by bureaucracy. Everyone is desperate to get normalcy back into their lives, to get back home. Only to be bitch-slapped by insurance, or FEMA, or this or that agency. They’re told their claims are being denied, or to start over, or to fill out this form, or go to that office, or to wait in that line, or to be put on endless hold.

So I continue to go back to gaze at the Chateau’s photos. I’m an art director, so I understand it’s the contrast of the time-damaged walls with the exquisiteness of hand-crafted antique furniture, or beautiful flowers next to crumbling brick, that makes the images so powerful.

I’ve now walked through friends flood damaged homes. I’ve seen the contrasts in their lives. These home are in the process of being restored too. I see their precious, salvaged items scattered out on tables in gutted homes. I’ve seen made up air mattresses replacing bedroom furniture on concrete floors. I’ve seen temporary privacy walls shielding bathrooms that have working plumbing. Like the Chateau, my friends’ homes are trying to come back to life.

Expert historians, artisans, and just plain folk are drawn to help restore the Chateau. The job is much bigger than the Australian couple can accomplish by themselves. Across the world in my beloved Louisiana, volunteers, faith-based groups, friends and family are helping each other try to bring lives back to normal. It’s bigger than any one person, or one family, or one town, or even one state can accomplish.

Life in south Louisiana is in a new normal. Many things we love are gone forever. They will be replaced with something new. It will take time, and patience, and money. Restoration has a timeline of it’s own. It may take another generation to see the fruits of our labor. But it will eventually be restored, just like the Chateau.

If you’d like to contribute to Louisiana’s flood recovery these are organizations that I trust.

Together Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge Area Foundation
Woman’s Hospital (where I work)
GoFundMes
A friend, Trent Bland and family
A musician friend, Joey Decker and family
Where my daughter and parents went to High School
For McKinley Senior High School students

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Church and Comfort Food

10 07 2016

It’s a brutal time for my hometown, Baton Rouge, and the nation. I have felt shock, anger, fear and hopelessness. I don’t profess to have answers for all the problems of today. It’s been hard for me to find hope, but I felt it Sunday. I felt that glimmer of hope—of future possibility—in places that have been a part of my Sundays my whole life. I found hope in church and at Piccadilly.

Piccadilly

When I was a little girl, I did what many white families did after attending their Sunday service, we went to Piccadilly. Piccadilly is a Baton Rouge born cafeteria that specializes in southern-style, comfort food. As a child I was allowed to pick whatever I wanted; fried chicken, greens, deviled eggs, fried okra, cornbread and a slice of pecan pie. I learned the phrase, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” from a Piccadilly meal. Families would go in their Sunday-go-to meeting’ clothes and white gloved, black waiters would carry our trays to our table, while a black man played the piano.

As an adult, I have learned how lucky I was to be raised in white privilege.

After the horrific week that my city experienced I had a desperate need for comfort. My sweetie was raised Catholic, but I can bribe him to come with me to my church if I tell him we’re going to Piccadilly afterwards.

This Sunday may sound the same as the segregated southern town I grew up in, but a time traveler from 1966 who landed in 2016 would not recognize it. I drifted away from the Southern Baptist church I was raised in during my college years. As I got older, the answers it offered to life’s difficult questions, no longer made sense to me. I found the Unitarian Church when I was expecting my biracial daughter. Her father is Chinese and Buddhist and many of her cousins are Muslim. It was important to me to find a faith community that was not going to tell her that her father and family were going to Hell because they weren’t “saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, amen.”

What I didn’t know when I joined 26 years ago, was the church’s history of social activism. The Baton Rouge church began in the turbulent 60’s when bus boycotts and downtown riots were happening. It was always a church where blacks and whites could worship and strive toward justice together. This was an idea that was so threatening to some that in the 60’s the church was visited by the KKK and told to stop. But the church didn’t stop and we still come together to strive for a more just world more than 50 years later.

This is the church I attended Sunday to be uplifted. It’s my place to grieve the past week in sacred community. It’s a place to support the protestors and the cops. It’s a place where we try to envision a more just community. It’s a different kind of church than the one in which I was raised.

greens

After my spirit was comforted, I got my southern comfort food fix. I deluded myself into thinking I was eating healthy because I was just eating vegetables—cooked in butter and bacon—and I didn’t get that slice of pecan pie. We were in our Sunday best and I realized with a sip of sweet tea that Baton Rouge has changed since my childhood. As I savored the meal I realized the staff and patrons were a diverse group. Black and White and Hispanic and Asian working and eating side by side. We carry our own trays now and we break bread together too. This simple thing, a diverse gathering of people eating and working together would have been impossible to imagine 50 years ago. I do, however, miss the piano.

I’ve heard over and over this week that things are worse than ever. But I realized at church and at Piccadilly that they are not. What has changed is technology. Because of videos, smart phones and social media, we are now seeing for the first time what has been happening all along. Many still delude themselves and want to blame the victim. It’s hard to change what you believe to be true.

I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but I’m not naïve. I feel a glimmer of hope. We have moved forward. It’s a slow, painful and often brutal journey. As my minister said, I believe in a God that moves us towards justice. I have to believe that love and peace and justice will win the day.

 





Embrace the Flaw

5 07 2016

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept that embraces transience and imperfection.

The Shakers are known for their simple, classic furniture style. They believed that one should not aspire to the perfection of God. In their simple woodcraft they include a flaw, thereby keeping the work as humble as their faith.

The Navajos weave an imperfection into their blankets. It is their belief that the “flaw” makes the blanket more beautiful.

Yet our society tells us to strive for perfection, that anything less is failure. Striving for perfection, however, can sometimes paralyze us. Things rarely go as we plan them. I say embrace your creative flaws. Understand them and own them. Exercise your creative muscle. It’s how we respond to the twists and turns of life that gives our life it’s quality. It’s our creative muscle that can lift us up during turbulent times. That same muscle can help us, even power us through creative blocks.

It’s important to know and understand your own unique creative process. Understanding your process means you can consciously change it up. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic”, she writes of getting dressed up for your creativity as you would for a lover. Change it up, get out of your bathrobe, let yourself feel your beauty and take your creativity into your arms like a lover.

Embrace the Flaw
Children are naturally creative. They haven’t learned the woulds and shoulds of striving for perfection. They live life with simple creative joy. One of the favorite projects from my daughter’s childhood was her taking advantage of a “broken” project. She was making a plaster of her handprint when the caste broke in half. Instead of seeing it as a broken hand, she turned it into a face. Of the many art projects from her youth, it is one that I kept and is still on display.

Jade hand face

Exercising the Creative Muscle

Before mirror

Mardi grasI saw a cracked mirror on the side of the road in a trash pile on the way to work. As I drove past it I thought that it would look great in my garden. I have a long weathered fence that dominates the small garden and the mirror was very large. It had a gold ornate frame. It looked like it could have been in a House of Ill Repute. Gaudy and shiny things draw me in and amuse me. It’s like catching worthless beads at Mardi Gras, I don’t want one single strand, I want to wear a hundred strands of colorful beads, only during the parade. It’s transient and imperfect. It’s not classic and timeless. I know this about myself and embrace it.

I drove two blocks past the cracked mirror and turned around and went back to get it. It was dirty and weathered and so big it barely fit into my car. My creative wheels started turning. Before long I knew I wanted to embrace the crack, the obvious flaw. I bounced ideas around with a friend. By the time I got the mirror home after my workday, I knew I would etch a vine along the crack. Since it was going outside I needed to put caulk on the edge where backing meets the frame and to put waterproof paint on the back.

After mirror

So with the help of my sweetie, it’s now hanging in our garden. It’s my interpretation of wabi-sabi. Perfectly imperfect. I know it’s transient—it’s living in the hot, humid Louisiana weather. I don’t know if I’ll have it for a season or for years. But for the present, it hangs outside my bedroom window and expands my small sliver of a garden. It gives me joy every time I look at it.

Night mirror

Embrace the New Direction
Embrace your imperfections, your flaws, your creative blocks. Ray Strother said in a Creative Hero blog post, “Creativity is the spark of God.” When your project or your life turns in an unexpected direction, embrace the change. Know there is divine inspiration when the creative spirit takes you in a new direction.

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CREATIVE HEROES: Jonathan Palmisano

15 06 2016

Jonathan’s creative reputation as The Lunchbox Doodle Guy preceded my getting to know him. I’ve since learned he’s funny and is always up for an adventure. He’s someone you can count on and his son is his top priority. I admire that he has managed to combine his creativity with parenting. He is a Creative Hero.

Jon header

Jonathan was always drawing as a child and always felt love and support from his parents. He became very good at drawing dinosaurs, sharks and monster trucks. While his love for dinosaurs was strong, he also knew from early on that he probably wasn’t going to pursue a career as a paleontologist. He has a sweet memory of his mom putting hand-written notes in his lunchbox. Looking back he doesn’t remember the specific messages, but remembers the love and connection it gave him. When he became a father he wanted to give his son something similar. He began drawing cartoons on his son’s lunchbox napkins when his son was too young to read.

His son is now nine and feels that creative connection to his dad every day. He now saves those napkins from his lunchbox and brings them home for his napkin collection. Jonathan plans to continue the tradition as long as his son wants him to.

Jonand napkins

Jonathan believes it’s the small things that make a difference. It’s also small steps that take us on unexpected journeys. It was after a friend’s encouragement that Jonathan started posting his napkins online. He was surprised by the enthusiastic response and discovered other parents who wanted to share their similar connections. He now communicates with a creative community of parents from around the world. In another unexpected turn, the lunchbox doodles will be featured at an upcoming gallery opening.

napkins

A sampling of favorite napkins

son's napkin

Jonathan’s son’s napkin drawing

This dad draws, paints and plays music. Being creative is in the marrow of his bones. He nurtures his own creativity and shares it with his son. They play music together, as well as video games. They go to art galleries and love to do collaborative drawing, where they take turns drawing where ever their imaginations lead them. I see gentle parenting with Jonathan and his son. He asks his son’s opinion, he listens and he guides. And I see a child who is thriving.

It is indeed the small things that matter. Parenting is hard. When we are in the midst of child-rearing and working—that day in and day out chore of getting the must-do’s done—it is a challenge to find the time to take care of our own creativity. I celebrate my friend for finding a way to infuse parenting with his unique creative spirit. He and his son are living fully creative lives. That’s why Jonathan Palmisano is a Creative Hero.

CREATIVE HEROES VIDEO

 

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Listen to Your Mother

8 05 2016

I backpacked across Europe for six months in my 20’s and jumped out of a plane for my 50th birthday. I was my daughter’s Girl Scout leader for 13 years and taught them how to hail a cab in NYC and how to appreciate art in Italy. So as I start my 59th year, I closed the show with my mom’s stories for the inaugural performance of Listen to Your Mother in New Orleans. Once again she was center stage. 

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My Mom, my daughter and me

The Wild Woman

My Mom would say, “I don’t drink or smoke…but I lie.” She certainly never let the truth get in the way of a good story. She passed away last year at the age of 86, and I have a few true stories that couldn’t be told at her funeral.

What makes Mom’s stories so wild to me is that I watched her grow into her wildness. She got feisty in her senior years. She could always read her audience like a book and knew just how outrageously she could push it. She had that sweet, little ole lady thing going for her. Think a southern, genteel, frail Betty White. I could never deny that she was a drama queen, and when she had an audience, she liked to perform.

I’m wearing a piece of jewelry that was hers (it’s the one she’s wearing in the photo). One of my guilty pleasures is “Long Island Medium,” and part of me believes the sparkle I’m wearing helps me channel her stories. While she was a diva, she was also known for her style. We were a little surprised at the home jewelry party when she went for the “big country music star,” blingy cross. And it wasn’t because she was that devout. When asked why she wanted it, she said, “Well, you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl.”

We traveled to her Texas family roots for a holiday a few years back. As we gathered round the table, Mom tells everyone about her new boyfriend at the nursing home, Dick. She tells us one night she carried her boom box down to Dick’s room, very late, when everyone was asleep. She slipped quietly into his room, turned the sexy music on and she proceeded to do a strip tease for him. She then picked up her boom box, put her robe back on and went back to her room. The next day, Dick tells her that he had the strangest dream. She never tells him it wasn’t a dream.

Not long after this, Dick and Mom move into the same room. She tells us all that she can’t get any sleep. “The night shift, she says, keeps coming in our room all night trying to catch us doing it!”

Only that’s not really what she said. Instead of the genteel phrase “doing it” she went for top shock value and used…another term.

Her last year involved a few trips to the hospital as she became frailer.

She had a young doctor whom she called Doogie Howser. I appreciated the time Doogie spent with her, especially when her answers were long and had nothing to do with the question. I knew he was about to ask her about Do Not Resuscitate orders when he said he had a final important question to ask her.

That’s when she said, “You want to know if I still have sex?!”
He actually blushed.

I am an only child and so is my daughter. The three of us had a very special connection. We knew when she told us that her 90-year-old boyfriend was building something with wires and batteries that she thought was a bomb—it was his hearing aid—that something had fundamentally changed in her mental state.

In those last weeks as she slipped away from us, either my daughter or I went by daily to check on her. She had the most amazing hallucinations. In them she was a strong, powerful woman. After one visit, my daughter called me.

“Nana was sitting in her wheelchair by the nurse’s station,” she said. “Nodding toward the wall, she asked if I saw that big hole in the wall.

I did that,’ Nana said. ‘There was a gas leak last night, and I punched through the wall and saved everybody here.”

At her funeral, my daughter delivered a beautiful eulogy full of Nana stories that could be told in church. A few months later, my baby girl moved to Chicago to pursue her dream of becoming a comedy writer.

I told my daughter about Listen to your Mother, pointing out that Chicago had a big production, that she should try out, and that we’d both have the same Nana stories. To which she replied, “What makes you think I don’t have stories about you?”

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CREATIVE HEROES: Jade Th’ng

17 04 2016

When I started this series my idea was simple; interview people who were living fully creative lives. I often say our lives make sense in hindsight. That’s especially true when you reflect back on your life as a creative journey. The interviews, so far, have been people looking back on long, adventurous journeys. This interview is someone at the beginning of their adult journey.

jade cover

Jade Th’ng is a talented, smart, beautiful woman in her mid twenties. As a child she preferred crafts to dolls and Office Depot with its endless supply of markers, pens and pencils, to Toys R Us. She would be the last one to finish when working on a group creative project, paying attention to the tiniest details. She was drawn to music. She says it has it own language; one that all musicians—around the world and throughout the centuries—understand. She also always loved the sound of applause. Her audience could be just her parents when 4-year old Jade sang the entire Sound of Music score to keep from going to bed to 17-year old Jade performing an oboe concerto in front of a full theater.

Crafts

Creative projects

As a teen she was still creating; sewing and making jewelry, painting and drawing, baking and decorating cupcakes. She started a jewelry business with her mom called Nekkid Girls Designs. I know all this, because I’m that mom. Both her father and I are graphic designers, so she grew up in a home where creativity and making things were just what we did.

Performing

Always performing

Jade entered college as a music major. She hit a roadblock her sophomore year when she recognized she was not thriving. This future of being a musician did not fill her with passion and her grades suffered. Changing majors was a hard, tear-filled decision. She meandered for a while and it took her 6 years to graduate. She ended up with a liberal arts degree with three seemingly unrelated concentrations; Italian, film, and communication. Her Nana never understood and kept asking when Jade was going to cook her an Italian meal, since she was studying Italian.

jewelry

Jade made her first pair of earrings at nine. She’s still making jewelry.

Learning Italian allowed her to be an au pair in Italy one summer for the only daughter of a pair of doctors. She polished her writing skills with a quirky and funny blog chronicling her adventures called “Twenty-One in Tuscany”. Her jewelry making skills creatively connected her to the strong Italian mother in a way that nothing else did. She also returned home with a wonderful authentic lasagna recipe and her  Bellini’s now make brunch a memorable event. So her Italian did make her a good Italian cook, which pleased her Nana.

Italy

Jade in Italy from a summer as an au pair. She brought a great lasagna and Bellini recipe home.

Student jobs included waiting tables, bartending, and working in production on TV commercial sets. Her sewing skills put her in the wardrobe department and she once made a caveman costume for a small budget commercial. Her attention to detail led her to assisting Louisiana’s top food stylist for several national commercial brands.

In her meandering she took a class that ignited a new passion—screenwriting. She discovered while her classmates were all writing dramas; she had a talent for writing comedy. She once filmed me for a mockumentary to talk about the evils of Comic Sans (my own personal nemesis).

After graduating, she knew she wanted to pursue comedy and set her sights on Chicago. She studied comedians she admired, like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. What many of these comedians shared was learning comedy and improv in the windy city, Chicago—1000 miles away from the sleepy, southern city she grew up in. So off Jade went last summer, to what is her unofficial graduate school. She’s taking comedy classes at the renowned iO Theater, she’s honing her writing skills, she’s getting her work produced on stage, and she’s waiting tables to pay the bills. She has also found a creative tribe of friends who are creating their own art while starting their own adult lives.

I know one day all her skills will fuse together. It will make sense in hindsight. I don’t know where her journey is going to take her, but I do know that creativity will always be a part of her life. She is making her dreams happen. She is living a fully creative life. That is why Jade, my baby girl, is a creative hero. She will always have my applause.

Click here to watch an extended conversation with Jade (be sure to watch the very end—it’s the best part).

screen shot

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CREATIVE HEROES: Raymond Strother

24 03 2016

Ray and my sweetie’s friendship goes back decades. While he was down from his Montana mountains and in Louisiana, I grabbed him for a conversation for my Creative Heroes series. A creative hero is someone who lives a fully creative life and Ray teaches us all how to do that. Ray believes that creativity is about seeing the world differently and breaking the rules to create something unique.

ray art

Ray has lived a big life. He’s gotten the powerful elected. He’s a renowned author. He’s piloted planes. He’s taught at Harvard and is an esteemed professor at the small Louisiana university that kicked him out when he was a student for his political views. He is still married to his high school sweetheart and together they have traveled the world. Their home houses a stunning, eclectic art collection from their life together. His musical tastes go from opera to rap. He is a master woodcrafter and can bake a damn good loaf of bread. He is a true renaissance man.

It took breaking the rules for Ray to break out of the life he was born in the blue collar, oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas where neither parent graduated from high school. As a young adult he learned to embrace a new direction when faced with a roadblock. After it was “suggested” by the small town university president that he transfer to the more “liberal” LSU in Baton Rouge, Ray packed up his new bride and moved. Having lost his track scholarship in the process, he knew he could write and became a Journalism major. The seeds of his professional life had been planted.

His life proves that all things one learns are useful. A student job of sorting the printing letterforms gave him an understanding of typography, which evolved into an understanding of design. A teacher taught him the basics of photography and he created a studio in the unused attic of LSU’s journalism building. These learned skills would eventually lead him into writing and directing commercials when he entered the political advertising world.

His understanding of living a working class life drove his life mission of trying to make the world a better place. From Ray’s Wikipedia page, “My father taught me that you had to stand on the picket line … and you had to get involved in politics — because people like us had no other choice. So I became a political consultant. It was a calling like the ministry.”

Knowing himself well enough to know that his personality was not suited to being a politician, he used his creative skill set to help people he believed in get elected. It was Ray’s fearlessness, insatiable curiosity and hard work ethic that propelled him on his own creative journey that eventually led him to being a top political consultant based in Washington DC, the most powerful city in the world.

Creativity is the spark of God
Ray does not believe creativity ever grows out of a committee decision. His creativity grows out of solitude. He isolated himself to write his novels. He fell in love with the rugged majesty of Montana while working on a political campaign there. The locals thought he was crazy when he bought the vertical slope of a mountain. Thinking differently allowed him to create a mountain retreat built on that impossibly steep slope, which he named Heroes Ranch.

Hero's

Hero’s Ranch, the Strother’s Montana mountain retreat

Wise Chair

His decades of experience have turned him into a sought after professor. The university that once kicked him out now has an honored chair for him. It’s called the Wise Chair. Ray believes creativity grows most intensely when youth and passion are combined.

“Creativity is the spark of God,” Ray said. What a blessing that a few teachers saw that spark in Ray’s early life. Today he see’s that spark in his students. He is still helping change the world by turning those sparks into creative fire. He is a creative hero.

Click here to watch an extended video conversation with Ray.

Ray video

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