Cure will provide cocktails. All profits will benefit @wckitchen and @southern_salt_found for continued relief efforts for Houston and Puerto Rico. Tickets available on the Coquette website.
Cure will provide cocktails. All profits will benefit @wckitchen and @southern_salt_found for continued relief efforts for Houston and Puerto Rico. Tickets available on the Coquette website.
The link at the end of this post will send you to one of the best pieces I have read on the maturation of an activist. For me, this essay by New Orleans activist-writer John Clark is up there with Michael Harrington’s autobiography and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s memoir of her participation in the 1960s-1970s social movements, which includes her time spent around New Orleans. I’ll also add Diana di Prima’s second memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman and Sonia Johnson’s story of her excommunication from the Mormon Church for her feminist activism in From Housewife to Heretic.
John Clark is a legend among those of us organizing around direct action, liberation, and social ecology – and not just here in Louisiana. As a matter of fact, it was his name that made my acquaintance with the great Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft in San Francisco in 2006. I had gone out there with a few Louisiana fishing families to gain them some new long term buyers of their products while our state was still in shock and its people mostly still evacuated. While out there, I contacted a few names in movement work working on place and equity, including Peter and Judy’s Planet Drum Foundation. Berg’s name was already known to me for his guerilla theater (a term he coined in l963) work in the 60s through his amazing Diggers and before that, with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but I knew nothing of his Planet Drum efforts until I read about it in one of Gary Snyder’s books. Once I investigated their site, it seemed a great fit for recalibrating my own post-disaster framework and so I sought them out. They immediately answered my email and invited me for lunch in the Mission District, taking me on a tour of community places, and then to lunch where they gave me gifts of wooden utensils and an envelope of Peter’s poems.
The pair asked after Clark, who I had only met once or twice, but of course, knew from events around town and through our shared workplace, Loyola University. That Clark connection led me into a deep conversation with Peter and Judy over a few hours where they listened to me describe the conditions we were facing in New Orleans. Peter finally said to me, “Well, it seems to me you just need to keep agitating, keep eyes on it, keep being there. Shout about it, cry about it but be there.”
The truth was, I was thinking about possibly bolting from New Orleans for a short time to recover my own equilibrium and peace. Their conversation and the reminder of Clark et al being back home doing revelatory work rekindled my desire to stay in New Orleans, in my little FEMA trailer on the bayou.
Additionally, John’s writings have helped me define my own world ethic and opened the door to knowledge a little wider, connecting me to writers that I would not have found on my own. As an autodidact, I rely on the informal and relational to find my education and so I was surprised as anyone to find a university professor as one of my wells of knowledge.
This piece is a reflection of his time agitating, shouting, crying and being there around the American Alligator region of Turtle Island.
Perhaps the most decisive turning point in the transformation of my perspective on radical change occurred in 2005, when I experienced the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation of much of New Orleans in the flooding, and the corporate capitalist and structurally racist re-engineering of the city in the post-Katrina period. I learned the most important lessons from participation in Post-Katrina grassroots recovery communities. I learned to appreciate more deeply the meaning of crisis and collapse. I learned about the role of trauma in personal and group transformation. I learned that another good criterion for assessing groups is the extent to which at crucial moments they put aside everything that is merely habitual and inessential and respond whole-heartedly to the greatest and most vital needs.
… I decided a few years ago that it was necessary to leave the university where I taught for decades, and to start working more directly, full-time, for the process of social and ecological regeneration. I started a project called La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, situated on what has now grown to 87 acres at Bayou La Terre, in addition to having programs in New Orleans, to help pursue this work. I have learned from the early stages of the project that it is urgently necessary to find a small community of similarly motivated people who can work together, in order to make this undertaking a success.
I have become preoccupied with the question of how, given the actual conditions in the world, we can break with, and then overcome, the capitalist, statist, patriarchal system of domination, and prevent global collapse, while at the same time creating a free, just, and caring society. I have learned that it is necessary to focus carefully on the question: “What is the decisive step?” or perhaps more accurately, “What is the decisive process?” A few years ago, in a book called The Impossible Community, a work that was very much a product of the Post-Katrina experience, I argued for the need to address at once all the primary spheres of social determination. These include the social institutional structure, the social ideology, the social imaginary, and the social ethos. I concluded that to achieve this goal the most urgent necessity is the creation of small communities of liberation and solidarity, of awakening and care.
The few times I saw her she always gave me a big smile and reached out to touch me when we met. I do not know why she did so, but it may have been that she could feel my respect for her organizing skill and longevity. I certainly hope that was why.
We did not lose our ability to fish. Don’t bring the fish to our door, just bring us some fishing poles and some bait. We didn’t lose our minds. I don’t know why we didn’t, but we could have. We lost all of the necessities we need to support our survival. Just give us that. Just give us that, and I promise you, in six months … come back, we’re going to make you some gumbo.
….In the heart of the feminine nature of Seed Carriers lives the instinctual calling to be intentionally aware of the essence and influence of every thought and emotion, of each spoken word and action taken. Our personal and collective future – all that comes to be – grows out of our here and now choice-making.
So what do you want to be seeding…
…in your life?
…on the earth?
…for the generations to come?
Copyright © 2011 JoAnne Dodgson
A friend left us this week. True to her life, the news was quietly passed from friend to friend with everyone wishing they had seen her just once more and could smile at her, thereby passing joy back to her. We were flabbergasted that she was the one who was taken, as she was a healer with a very strong life force. But as she said recently in her gentle way:
We’re all going to get something.
I don’t have to be the impervious, always healthy Tai Chi teacher.
I am simply a human being.
That illness should not define her – even her passing – so I won’t focus on it except to say she handled it with courage and grace and love and used it to share her very personal but teachable moment to us all.
Marilyn Yank. That is her name. I always liked her name. It suited her: a bit formal yet graceful with a strong old-world finish.
I met Marilyn when she moved to New Orleans with her partner, Anna Maria Signorelli. Anna Maria was a New Orleanian and they moved here partly because all New Orleanians are unhappy when away from here and partly because Marilyn had taken over the care of her ailing father and the Signorelli family was here to depend on. And the weather was warm and sunny and moist most of the time and the two of them were deeply dedicated to farming the land. Maybe there were other reasons too that I am unaware of that mattered. They had come from Austin where Anna Maria had taken the helm of the Sustainable Food Center after its dynamic founder had moved to bigger work. Marilyn was working on the La Cochina Alegre project there; a team was born. I remember Marilyn told me they lived in a tent together while learning sustainable farming in Santa Cruz and once they made it through that, she knew they were partners for life.
Once back here, Anna Maria was immediately in her element. I assume that she was like that when they were in Austin too cuz she is a powerhouse especially (as Marilyn always observed) when she has a team around her. Marilyn took it slow, marveling as only she could about the intricacies of life here and her partner’s large Sicilian family’s wonderful togetherness. We met because a mutual friend, the thoughtful Max Elliot for those of you in urban agriculture here, in Austin or in Shreveport, helped them put together a small group of activists to talk about building a network for food and farming in New Orleans.
We had a few meetings in Marilyn and Anna Maria’s meditation center, AMMA, so named partly for their combined names and the word for nurse or spiritual mother. We sat cross-legged in a circle and talked about our visions and beliefs and then after a few meetings, a few of us got a little antsy and asked if we could meet in a more active space. I remember Marilyn being fascinated and bemused by the request. Her activism was rooted in her quietness and centeredness. Her idea of activism was also illustrated by a story she told me of the people in an Asian country who had firmly and publicly set the goal that they would become a society totally absent of violence – in 1000 years. So every tiny and personal step they made towards that goal now was meaningful, and to expect total success in one’s lifetime laughable.
I also remember when Marilyn asked me to coffee at the fair trade coffeehouse after those first few meetings and said to me with what I came to know was her very direct but gentle way of asking a question: ” I have been wondering about you since we met. Do you mind?”
I did not mind and we bonded. Turns out she was originally from Detroit. I thought I recognized the steel backbone of a fellow rust belter under her beloved Southeastern desert style. It didn’t really matter where she was from, as her presence came from her embrace and sharing of the small shared whatever right in front of her – moment, garden, food item, gesture, idea and linking it to the gigantic: her quiet assessment and acceptance of humanity’s and the natural world’s pace.
Her Little Sparrow urban farm was a turning point in the city, both in its description of the vision she had for it right there on the board on front and its urban market box program, the first of its kind around town. There was an open invitation for people to carefully pluck food from its constant profusion of well-tended food and beauty although she encouraged some wildness to flourish on its edges too. The tropical climate got the best of her at times as a farmer and she was justly impressed by her dear friend Macon’s skill in growing food in this brutal climate, constantly championing his patience and knowledge as a grower to anyone who would listen. Many growers directly owe their experience to her willingness to share hers as she would always credit her teachers like Macon’s willingness to share theirs.
With a group of around a dozen others (the aforementioned Max as the nucleus), she and Anna Maria built a lasting network of food and farming leaders, myself and Macon included. The work to grow this network of activists took years and could take pages here to recount my personal observations of her and Anna Maria’s resolve to see it happen. Sooner or later, just about everyone else involved in the founding either gave up or moved on to other work, except for Marilyn. She stayed in it as long as she was needed and as long as she thought she had something to offer. In some form, that entire group owes most of its interconnectedness to Marilyn directly. Most of those founders are still honored colleagues of mine and some are also close friends, but all of us certainly remain fellow travelers who gladly remember those days when we meet up again. I’d like to thank her again for her dedication to the group and the idea.
Even after I moved away from assisting directly with the work of the New Orleans Food and Farming Network that our little group had realized, she and I reconnected regularly and when we did, her stories were always of a lesson learned or a description of the path of a karmic connection that had been experienced since I had seen her last. Some were very personal and painful. I found that I easily shared more of my deepest thoughts and fears than I did with most others, maybe because of her reciprocity or because of her abilities to see without judgement, or at least to recognize the judgement and to self-correct. Or maybe because she expected kernels of truth and revelation as the unspoken agreement of friendship.
One of the best times I had with her and Anna Maria was recent: during the Louisiana floods of 2016, I wrote them because I knew they had moved to that farming area affected away from the city. She immediately wrote me back, telling me their house and property were indeed in the path of the rising water, so they were in the city until they heard. Would I have dinner with them? I did and we laughed and shared updates and drank glasses of wine and laughed some more. As we parted, the text came from their neighbors that the water had stopped rising only a few inches from the top step of their raised home so they were going to be okay. After sharing their relief, I thought about how they had been totally present and joyful all evening, never seeming to worry about their looming crisis.
As soon as I heard the news this week, I had a strong impulse to find a dandelion clock and blow its blossoms to the wind. It struck me as I explored that thought that the dandelion is a flower, but a tough little one at that. It has healing properties and is carried by the wind to the most unlikely places. Marilyn, you went far and wide and added much nourishment; carry on. I certainly will, using as much empathy and humor as I can muster in honor of Marilyn.
One of the trueisms about living in the Quarter ( and different from even the experiences of our “almost-residents” aka storekeepers or other business owners) is the scads of information that one gets from popping out on the sidewalk dozens or more times in one day, observing the activities or even while still back in your space, hearing them happen and perhaps noting the time in the back of your mind while you put laundry in the washer before any commerce is even beginning. Those activities include workers arriving at dawn and standing in front of your door soberly assessing current tip levels; delivery trucks huffing and puffing outside from 5:30 am on, pulling cases of items out (which ramps up especially in mid-week); knowing the tour guides who do their work with respect and gusto and those who do not; separating the good hustlers from the dangerous ones and much more. One other is learning the names and company of the sanitation crews and the identification of who actually works versus those who just walk and swipe at the ground once in a while. One of the good ones is Royal Carriages. In case you didn’t know, all of the carriage companies are supposed to take their turn in the Quarter, cleaning up after their mules; however most do not bother. The one company that is consistent and conscientious is Royal Carriages.
Recently, they had an open house at their stables in the Marigny where they invited the locals via social media to see what was up and offered some free food and drink and music. I went by and was impressed by the cleanliness and attention they paid to their space. So when I saw the cleaner out on the cart today and that he was stopped right in front of my door, I thanked him for his work and we had a short chat. His name is Roger and he is proud of his company and told me that the mules there get 4 months off per year and the place is kept “spotlessly”clean. He was as cheery of a worker as the modern world has and I am glad to have him around and to have a name to assign to his face.
The workers and residents of the Quarter acknowledge each other’s dependency on the other. We share a pride in our place and a willingness to play the hosts to the city’s millions of visitors. Royal Mule Carriages illustrates that truth.
One relevant reason for this book is the recently reignited protests centering on race inequities and immigration across America, a conversation that is always sadly necessary in the American South. Local historian Rien Fertel addresses it by writing about the elite Creole literary circle that, starting in the 1820s/1830s, largely created and sustained the story of the region’s “exceptionalism.” That era of virtuous manifest destiny – not just in the South of course- is largely to blame for the lack of understanding among those who continue to grow up amid their own ethnic myths in the U.S.
For New Orleans, most people know the story of Creole culture only through Creoles of color who continue to inhabit the city, partly because they are largely responsible for much of what we continue to value culturally in New Orleans such as live music, public and family culture, and informal Carnival activities. But it is also convincingly identified here as resulting from the profiled writers unapologetic and sometimes incorrect assertion of their whiteness and its embedded privileges during Reconstruction through the turn of the 20th century. Yet the historical details contained here give those actions context and perspective; Fertel’s description of the politics of post-Louisiana Purchase New Orleans and the concern from the White House on any potential allegiance to the Old World as partially responsible for the Creoles’ sensitivity about the eclipse of their history is especially informative.
By offering individual profiles of prominent writers of Creole history starting with eminent historian Charles Gayarré, “Transcendentalist” New Orleans Choctaw missionary Adrien Rouquette and through those writers who took up the “cause” in the 20th century, including Grace King, Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon, Fertel offers a human-scaled trek through that complicated history and time. Having the book end with the profile of George Washington Cable and his more inclusive history of the city, he shows the reordering of history that began with Cable as well as the tension among writers, which (partly) led to Cable’s self-imposed exile from the city. Fertel does his best to fairly catalogue both good and bad (or the long and the short) of that tension; for example, he shares how Grace King’s later-in-life acknowledgement of Cable’s value to the city showed the potential for change among those earlier devoted only to the “gallant” Creole story.
The details gathered by many of these writers will continue to offer us a rich tapestry of Louisiana life and cannot be entirely eclipsed by their love of heroic epics or even their insistence on racial “purity” and entitlement that belied the truth that existed in the tumultuous and complicated times of Jim Crow’s America. Yet, the dismissal of most of these writers works in the last 50 years as provincial cheerleading with either a stated or unstated allegiance to the “Lost Cause” should be a lesson in these Tea Party days and is vitally important for any writer in these times to consider.