Victory in Time

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My two favorite cities these days are Florence and New Orleans. This month I have been fortunate enough to visit both of these wonderful destinations only two weeks apart. So, what is it that moves me so deeply in these places? Why do I never tire of these lanes and levees?

Art, Music, History, Beauty, Cuisine. Both cities offer an overflow of sensory delights, aesthetic entanglement for all of my senses.

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On these streets, I feel I am walking in the exact footsteps of Galileo and Danny Barker, Michelangelo and Louis Armstrong. I look around, and my eyes are seeing what they saw. In Firenze, I taste unsalted focaccia bread, white bean and lamb stew, and earthy red wines. On elegant Renaissance lanes, I walk through the old market where Leonardo bought his groceries. I look up and marvel at the church of Orsanmichele, adorned by Dante’s inspired hands.

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In the Crescent City, gumbo simmers while Po-boy sandwiches keep body and soul together. A lyric coronet sounds in the distance. Ah, the music of New Orleans! Jazz was born here with a great shout of freedom, and it lives on in an ever-evolving, ongoing celebration of spirit. I sleep in an attic atelier, a freshly remodeled room that has stood since the 1880’s. Through triangular dormer windows, I see the magnificent river winding away from me to the left, while on the right the three spires of St. Louis Cathedral frame the view. Faintly, I hear the up tempo tune from a Dixieland jazz band playing in a restaurant below.

The past lives on, despite cell phones, selfies and diet sodas. Without a time machine, this is as close as I can get to another era, specifically the moments in time and space that changed the world of art and music. In fact, these are the places that changed the world through art and music.

I have come to realize that my imagination is playing an active role in bringing this illusion of history into my reality. The New Orleans I want to experience perhaps never existed. I desire the elegance of the gentrified Garden District without the brutality of slavery; the unique, European-esque charm of the French Quarter without the segregation of Jim Crow. In Florence, I enjoy magnificent sculptures, paintings, buildings and piazzas paid for by the Medici without dwelling on the violence and greed that founded their empire. While the worst of these atrocities may be over, the wounds of racism and exploitation remain.

I want to hold hands with a handsome, ephemeral history that embodies the remarkable achievements of the past despite the miseries of crime, war and disease, the creativity that answered terrible abuses and obstacles with dignity and beauty. Perhaps it is this heroic achievement that is my siren song, luring me back time and again to taste, hear, and see what they achieved through cuisine, music and art. Standing the test of time is the sweetest victory of all.

Unstoppable Music Man

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A force of nature, an amazing performer, and a lot of fun!

Over the last several years I have watched Glen David Andrews perform at least twenty different shows, from Jackson Square to festival stages, and now headlining his own band of exceptional local musicians. Every time it’s different, and always terrific. I have seen this man turn random stragglers into an audience, HIS audience, with just a few lines of music from his horn. To call him “mesmerizing” is an understatement.

Glen works the crowd, literally. He fearlessly leaves the stage to stroll through the audience, his powerful voice—gravelly, soulful, beautiful—needs no microphone. Trombone swinging in the air over our heads, the Crown Prince of Treme won’t quit until we’re all on our feet, dancing and struttin’ New Orleans style.

When not on tour, you can find him at d.b.a. on Frenchman Street every Monday night. Actually, he plays almost every night. Check OffBeat magazine, free in the New Orleans area, for great music all over town.

Second Spring

She was 81 years old, and a freshman in college. She surprised me then, and inspires me today.

My very first day of college, many years ago now, we all assembled in the coliseum for chapel. I attended a small Christian school in Texas, one of the few schools in the country to still require daily attendance at chapel (basically a brief, informal worship service). On the opening day of school the mood was cheerful as friends greeted each other after summer break, and those of us who were freshmen tried not to show our awe and anxiety as we searched for a seat or a familiar face in a sea of thousands.

The marching band played a spritely processional as a parade of flags filled the floor of the coliseum. Each flag represented a home country for the international students, carried by one of the students from that land. It was a mesmerizing and impressive display, as if the whole world had stopped by.

Soon the announcements began. The voice over the loudspeaker boomed: “We’d like to introduce to you our oldest freshman this year. Innes, please stand up. She is 81 years old and starting her freshman year as an English Literature major.” Cheers and applause filled the stadium as Innes stood, waving her arm and smiling. She was talking, but her greeting was drowned out by the enthusiastic crowd. She was tall, with straight silvery gray hair. She wore a simple dress of blue and white cotton, not too different from those that my grandmother used to make for herself. She seemed strong, energetic and happy.

What a strange thing, I thought, to start college at eighty-one. Was she thinking of working after she got this degree, when she was already past retirement age? Why was she doing this?

Innes became a familiar figure on campus. I didn’t have any classes with her, but many freshmen classes were held in the same few buildings, so we passed often in the halls and stairwells. Frequently I saw her in the women’s bathroom of the student center just before or after chapel. Near the mailboxes and the cafeteria, it was a huge and often crowded restroom. A large area was given to a wall of mirrors with a long counter in front of it. We would set our purses and backpacks on the dry counter to fix our hair and makeup. When Innes was there, she never hesitated to speak to anyone with an easy friendliness.

“Your hair is so beautiful. It’s such a lovely color,” she would say to someone brushing out their hair. Or “Your purse is falling. Here, I caught it. What a pretty bag.” Her German accent was noticeable but not thick, and her cheerful compliments easily accepted by the young girls that surrounded her.
One day someone asked Innes what brought her to college. “Vell,” she answered, “I sent all of my children to college. And all of my life I wanted to go to college. Now that they are grown up, I decided it was time that I go to school!” She laughed. “I love it here. This is a great place.”

On a warm day in October, Innes was wearing a short sleeved cotton dress. As she washed her hands at the sink I noticed something for the first time. Across her forearm was a faded blue tattoo, a long string of numbers.

At seventeen years old, I was remarkably young and foolish. But I knew what that was.

I wanted to go up and hug Innes, but I was too shy. I quietly left the bathroom, deep in thought. That tattoo was a mark from a concentration camp. She was a Survivor. That meant that when she was a young woman, she was not fixing her hair and wearing pretty clothes, or worrying about seeing a certain boy on the way to the next class. She had spent her youth slaving away in a prison camp, starving, being beaten and tortured, and every other horrible thing that men have conceived to do to other people. Innes had survived all of that, and somehow she now managed to be cheerful to others who surely didn’t appreciate the comfortable lives they had. And…she was genuinely happy!
Innes graduated a semester before I did, surrounded by a crowd of children and grandchildren. She beamed and waved as they again announced her name, this time as the oldest graduate. The next semester, I met the young man who would become my husband. His first semester was my last, so he missed Innes. But he’s heard the story and felt her influence.

I learned from Innes that you are never too old to reinvent yourself, and it is never, ever too late to follow your dreams.

Innes was not afraid to start over, and because of her, I have discovered that I have the courage to reinvent myself too. I am not the reader of my life, but the author. When it is time to write a new chapter, or a whole new volume, I open the first blank page and dedicate it to Innes.

When Art and Life Collide

Been There!

The Moment: The Branford Marsalis Quartet perform at the Dallas Museum of Art on June 25, 2004.

In the grip of a smoldering Texas summer, the pounding rainstorm came as a refreshing release.  That whole Friday afternoon, the seas seemed to splash around us.  The rains trickled off just in time, leaving downtown Dallas cleansed and sparkling like a cut crystal goblet.  We found our way through the city maze, my husband, two little boys and I, to the grassy plaza behind the Dallas Museum of Art.  We planted ourselves in the earthy lawn at the foot of a gargantuan red steel sculpture (Proverb by Mark di Suvero).  We were in for a truly unique experience: a free jazz concert by the Branford Marsalis Quartet celebrating the visual arts of Romare Bearden and the music Branford had written in response (Romare Bearden Revealed, 2003).

As the gleaming sun slipped behind the diamond point of the Fountain Place tower, we stretched out on the lawn on thick blankets, sipping sweet summer wine and chatting with a nearby couple recently transplanted from New York.  When the band took the stage, a mere thirty yards away, cheers from the crowd met melodies that are worthy of the spheres.  My little red-headed boys ate raisins and gummy bears, kicked their feet more or less in time to the music, and blinked intently at the stars.  My husband and I polished off the bottle and leaned against each other, reveling in this blissful and fleeting moment.

But it got better.  The highlight of the night for us was “I’m Slappin’ Seventh Avenue,” a tune where Dixie-style jazz splashes into the blues, and together they race a course over a modern funk groove.  The inspiration may be a bit further north, but I was instantly transported to the City Beneath the Sea, where Creole cooking wafts from the narrow doors of the French Quarter, where music echoes from every corner, where everything is just a little…easier.

I put my lips to the ears of the love of my life and whispered, “Wanna go?” “What, can we?” was his answer, no explanations needed.  The wheels started spinning.  Time we had coming a few days ahead.  Money?  I could get my hands on some if I made some cuts elsewhere.  Desire?  Every song brought me closer.  Crescent City’s call is as seductive as a siren’s song.  Branford’s music captured us somewhere between haunting rhythm and celebratory melody.

After the quartet’s fabulous ninety-minute set, the museum kept its doors open until midnight.  We all made our way inside to pick up a cup of free (yes, free!) Starbucks coffee and line up for the Bearden retrospective.  The harmonies of a gospel quartet filled the cavernous halls and kept the gleam in everyone’s eyes.  We filed slowly through the exhibit, a stirring collection of paintings and collage multimedia reflecting the culture of life in Harlem: the music, the righteous and painful struggles for human rights, passion and hope, love and defeat—it was all there.  That evening was a rich synthesis of the senses; everything I love all in one place.  Realizing its rarity makes it all the sweeter.

P.S. The Big Easy hasn’t lost an ounce of charm!

Previously published in Being There Magazine, Summer 2004

http://beingtheremag.com/archives/content/0502/beenthere.html