Monday, October 26, 2009

South Louisiana: Come as you are; Leave Different?

Each visit back to Baton Rouge brings change, but none more than after The Storm. But South Louisiana is more than about “Post-Storm,” I realize as I write. For if I begin with intention to expose change, I end with acceptance of what has never changed. A Louisiana slogan is: “Come as you are, leave different.” I think it should be, “Come different, leave as you are,” for South Louisianians would never try to change anyone, only affect them.

If pre-Katrina Baton Rouge was crowded, post-Katrina Baton Rouge is bulging. The crowding reminds me of those sacks of crawfish stuffed full and taunt, and the squirming wet sound they make as they jostle to fit. In South Louisiana, I see the familiar swirling with the new. The ancient oaks still hold their spilling moss. On the LSU campus, the hundred-year-old grandfather oaks branches are as big as the trunks of every tree in the state of Texas, some of those limbs so heavy they curve down and touch the ground—lovely. In spring, the Azaleas spill out on nearly every yard; they arrive early, because they do not want to share the spotlight. Lush colors of reds, pinks, purples, white, some allowed to spread and grow however they please, and others pruned and cut back to fit a gardener's idea of beauty. Azaleas inhabit the yards of the rich, the poor, the black, the white, everyone, for the azalea is the great equalizer.

Places where I'd last seen pasture, trees, vacant lots, or old buildings gone to ruin, have in their place new apartments, retail shops, restaurants. Cars line up to sit through two or three red lights, the interstate is noisy and slow, the surface streets are over-filled with cars that have futilely escaped the interstate. It’s as if a great foot stomped across an anthill and caused the ants to rush out and scurry here, there, and yonder…chaos. And I, now country-come-to-town, gaze wide-eyed with both wonder and terror when visiting my former adoptive city.

While watching WAFB Channel 9, I can’t help but compare little Maggie Valley to Big Baton Rouge. Newscasts begin with shootings—not one, not two, but in multiples. The camera pans over sheet-covered bodies, first on this part of town, and then on that part of town; the camera operators and the reporters scurry about to include all of the lumps under draped sheets, which seems so surreal I have to remind myself those “lumps” are people. People who were once children who ran laughing across summer-burnt grass. People whose mothers will rock back and forth, clutching chests that once cradled their infants’ heads, their lost-child moans inconsolable. I have to stop thinking about it.

I ask my friends, "Do you feel a change in Baton Rouge since Katrina?"

One answers, "Well, at first it was bad, then it leveled off."

Another says, “It’s gotten a bit crowded, I suppose.”

And yet another, “Maybe, but I love it here and would never want to move. This is home.” At this, she eyes me as if to say, “Unlike some traitors who move away from their best friends in the whole wild world to live on some mountain where I bet your booties the food ain’t good and it snows and gets too dang cold and big mountains where a body is likely to fall off a cliff never to be found!” Matter of fact, she does say this, loud and opinionated, and I laugh at her; tell her she’s such a flatlander. Tell her the mountains are Home for me and I’ve missed them, ached for them, knew I’d someday return to them. She harrumphs, tosses her head, and then pushes more food at me, tells me I’ve gotten too skinny since moving to “them mountains where I repeat the food ain’t good.” It’s all about the food in South Louisiana, everything is considered in terms of food. At breakfast, lunch is discussed; at lunch, dinner (or supper) is discussed; at dinner (supper), dessert is discussed; at dessert, the food eaten during the day is discussed. Funerals, weddings, birthdays, Just Because I’m Sad or Happy or Mad days, any excuse for a party where food is King and Queen and Subject: this is South Louisiana.

South Louisiana has always been a diverse, colorful, energized place. And Baton Rouge has never been a stationary, stagnant city. Baton Rouge is like that pot of spicy water waiting for the crawfish, roiling, bubbling—hot, steamy, pungent.

My visit ends. I drive back to the Smokies. I was born a mountain girl, and a mountain girl is who I am, but my visits to Baton Rouge are different now, for I now see it from the eyes of distance. I feel a tug for the Spanish moss, the great oaks, the swamps filled with cypress, the spicy flavor of the food and the people, the friends I've left there, the memories, the old ways squirming with the new ways, the gulf shrimp, the boiling frying grilling blackening, the jambalaya, the real gumbo,—the rich dark kind with goody goodness floating in it—the etoufee, Louie's, George’s, Mike Andersons, Don's, Calandro’s, Bet R, the bait stores that are also groceries with cheeses and wines and Stage Plank gingerbread.

I come back home to my mountains and with a strange awe, I ask, "What just happened to me?"

(This is an excerpt from a piece I had published in New Southerner Magazine--I thought it'd tell you more about my visit to Baton Rouge - tomorrow, more about the Louisiana Book Festival and So Louisiana.)


Kathryn Magendie said...

And that friend, the flatlander, feeding me is none other than our own Angie Ledbetter, Gumbo Writer, my bestestestst friend ... :) miss you!

Diane said...

It reminds me of that verse unless a seed falls to the ground and dies.... Good change usually occurs at a cost. :O)

Susan R. Mills said...

I love it! Thanks for sharing.

Analisa said...

Lovely post. We long a little for the old secure place but wouldn't trade anything for what really defines us. For you it seems to be your mountain home. :)

Glynis said...

What an interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Thanks for the trip to Baton Rouge, I enjoyed it!

It's got me thinking; the discussing food all the time--I think my kids are from South Louisiana!! That's got to be it! :)

~JarieLyn~ said...

Katherine, I just loved this post. It was very interesting reading about Louisiana and your trip back there and the changes that occur. Changes in perspective, maybe that's it.

Anyhow, I enjoyed it.

Have a wonderful day.

B.J. Anderson said...

Beautiful post!! I haven't been down that way for awhile now. I'll have to make a trip. The last time I ate crawfish near there was with my great great grandma. My uncle spread a whole pile of them in front of her. Even over 90 years old, she ate those things faster than anyone I've ever seen! Lol. Thanks for sharing your memories.

Carol @ TheWritersPorch said...

It is a world of it's own! We too had our population double after Katrina being only 90 miles north/east of New Orleans and 70 miles north of the Gulf Coast. I was so homesick for TN after I first moved back here but now I'm content that I'm a half days drive or less from all the places I love to visit! Someday I'm coming to see you!! GREAT POST ! *muwah*

Debbie said...

It's interesting how different places can have that pull and tug on us. But, I'm selfishly glad you are back in the mountains.

Sheila Deeth said...

What a lovely piece. You make a place I've never been come alive for me.

Karen said...

I just relived my last visit four years ago. Yes, the traffic is horrendous, but the people are the treasure--not to mention the food!

Great post.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

, "Just Because I’m Sad or Happy or Mad days, any excuse for a party where food is King and Queen and Subject: this is South Louisiana."

I think I'd like it there!

Marguerite said...

Fabulous post! It really resonated with me because I lived away for 20 years and saw things much differently when I moved back, at first. But it's like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget. It's such a fun lifestyle and as you know, Cajuns love to have fun! :)
ps- I love your writing!!!

Doreen said...

very interesting and I now have a feel for Louisiana, the before and after of Katrina. The people are the glue for sure!!

Sandra Leigh said...

I've moved so far, so often, that I hardly know what "home" is, and reading your story makes me very aware of that. I almost want to say that I envy you your connection to those two places, the hold they have on your heart - but that's not it. I'm glad for you. What a wonderful thing, to have so much love of home, to be able to find your home even when it has changed almost beyond recognition.

Katherine Aucoin said...

First, thank you for visiting my blog and commenting.

Second, this post REALLY hits home with me since I grew up in New Orleans and moved to the Smokies after Katrina.

We are the better for having left. We found a better place to raise our children. We don't have the fear of losing everything again; (Katrina was theird time our home flooded.)we were tired of running.

New Orleans will always live inside of me, my husband and children, but the mountains, the four seasons and the people, have a hold on us too. It's a blessed combination!

Angie Ledbetter said...

*SNIFF* You can perch up on your lovely mountain home's porch, but I KNOW you still love Red Stick, the food/flavors, music, sweet people and all our other good stuff. And me too, of course. :)