Memories of Brazil

Here in Seattle, it’s pouring buckets today. I turn up the heat, put on a pop CD called “Rouge,” and instantly, I’m transported to Brazil.

In my mind, I smell the tropical vegetation and the sea air. I feel the hot sun pouring down on my bare shoulders. I hear the upbeat sound of Rouge coming, not from my stereo, but from a battered truck driving down the street with huge speakers mounted on the outside.

These are the easy memories, the physical ones.

If it had been a simple beach vacation, most of the memories would have been like these. But it was not, and so, four years later, I’m still processing the rest.

That trip was the first of what would become Bahia Street’s small group study tours. There were seven of us, plus our guides, Margaret (of Seattle) and Rita (of Salvador).

We flew into Salvador, a city in northeast Brazil, and immediately we were whisked away to Arembepe (Air-em-BEP-ee), a small seaside town about a half hour down the road from the airport. We spent the evening on a veranda on the beach, drinking powerful caipirinhas and eating exquisite food — fried fish, tomato salad, and potatoes, presented on a stunning platter, lined with deep green leaves and accompanied by piles of ruby-red grated beets and neon orange grated carrots. We were getting to know each other as traveling companions, and that night, we told stories and laughed until we cried.

Beautiful and yummy food

That was the only part of my Brazil trip that could be called a “simple beach vacation.”

The next day, driving through the countryside and along the beach, I snapped hundreds of photos. I was captivated by barefoot children, thatched huts, and women carrying their laundry to the river for washing.

As we traveled, Margaret and Rita began to gently educate us about the implications of what we saw. It was picturesque, but it was poverty: The people I photographed all suffered from a lack of healthcare, education, and income.

Fishermen Thatched huts along the beach near Diogo

On our third day, I came down with an eye infection, and we stopped at a medical clinic. Even that was an education. We walked into a low concrete building, to a room with benches around the walls. Women sat there with their sick children, waiting for hours to see the doctor. We stood around, waiting, too. There was a lull, a momentary quiet that was broken by the sound of a child coughing. “Let’s go outside, ” Rita said. On the other side of the door, she shook her head. “That one’s going to die,” she said.

Over the course of the week, we learned a great deal about Brazilian systems, political, cultural, and socio-economic. Looking at the big picture, I could see how this poverty affects us all. Even someone in far-off, wealthy Seattle who doesn’t speak Portuguese.

It wasn’t all work and no play. We swam in the ocean and hung out at beach bars, thatched roofs on poles with cold beer. We took a canoe ride and spent a glorious day in dune buggies at Mangue Seco, a remote place with giant sand dunes and the largest palm trees I’ve ever seen. We hiked to a waterfall in the mountains and ate new and wonderful things like cashew fruit.

But we also passed roadside encampments, groups of families living in shacks of black plastic sheeting and scrap wood. They were part of Brazil’s Sem Terra movement, some of the country’s 1.5 million dispossessed, landless people.

Seeing the desperation of the landless people helped prepare me for the shantytowns. Both groups seem like refugees in their own country, eking out a living as best they can.

After about a week traveling the countryside, we arrived back in Salvador. Our briefings on the road had prepared me for the danger, the crowds, the shantytowns. And when we finally visited the Bahia Street Center, it all came together, and I could see where I fit into the picture.

The quote from Margaret Mead was brought home to me that day: “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Girls at the Bahia Street Center Girls at the Bahia Street Center

The last day of our tour was the Santa Barbara festival, an early December event celebrating the patron saint of firefighters. I was overwhelmed by the crowds, a human sea dressed in red, and the elaborate flower-covered palanquins bearing statues of Santa Barbara.

Woman in Santa Barbara procession Santa Barbara procession

We followed the procession to the fire station, where the emcee and a bishop were perched in a cherry-picker above the crowd. The emcee kept shouting over the loudspeaker, “Viva Santa Barbara!” and everyone would respond with a loud cheer. Suddenly, Rita grabbed us and dragged us back against the wall. They turned on the sprinklers from the cherry picker, and the crowd was drenched with holy water. Rita’s quick action kept our cameras dry.

Standing against the wall, I watched a woman go into a religious trance, her arms upraised and her eyes closed. Her red dress clung to her body, and the crowd milled and spun around her, thrilled with the drenching.

Woman in trance

Then the holy water shower ceased, and we headed out of the fire station. Although we had seen only blue skies and no rain since we arrived, it suddenly began to rain. “It always does that today,” said Rita.

In the African-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, Santa Barbara has a powerful equivalent, an Orixá, or goddess, called Iansã. I think she was responsible for the rain.

It was powerful experiences like these that I am still processing today.

I have not been back to Brazil yet. There are many other places in the world that I want to see first. But the lessons I learned in Brazil are lessons I take with me on all my travels, whether it’s a fishing village in Newfoundland or a native village in Alaska.

Things are not always as they seem. Look deeper. Listen. Get involved, stay a while, and gradually, things will reveal themselves.

A trip like this could change your life. It might lead you to improve the lives of others. And if you’re thoughtful and committed, it might change the world.


For more information about taking a Bahia Street study tour, e-mail me or visit the Bahia Street website. The next tour is scheduled for June of 2007.

Bahia Street and how I got empowered

It started with a salsa dance class. Barry and I had been taking salsa for a year, repeating the intermediate class for months until we were ready for the advanced. A few weeks later, Margaret Willson waltzed into the advanced class and turned our lives upside down. In a good way.

Margaret had never taken a salsa class, but she knew how to dance. She jumped right into the advanced class with confidence and aplomb.

At the time, she had just returned to the States from Brazil. My first impression was of a statuesque blonde with an intriguing accent. It wasn’t quite British, but she said “holiday” instead of “vacation.” Margaret was an anthropologist, originally from Oregon, who had lived all over the world, hence the accent I couldn’t place.

Our friendship formed around dancing, walks, and swims in chilly Lake Washington. With her Ph.D., several universities wanted her to teach anthropology, but she wanted to leave the academic world and do something else. I now know that what she was considering is called practical or applied anthropology.

At the time, I was a graphic designer at Arthur Andersen. Although I’d previously had my own editing and design business, at AA, I was a second-class citizen. The company valued employees who worked directly for clients and brought in revenue. My position was considered overhead and less valued. As a result, my self-esteem was low.

So I was surprised and honored when Margaret told me one day that she was starting a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and she asked me to be on the board of directors.

I had no idea what I was taking on. None of us did.

Margaret described to me the grueling poverty in the shantytowns of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. She had lived there for several years and had worked with a remarkable research assistant, a woman named Rita (pronounced HEE-ta) who had graduated from college in spite of her shantytown upbringing. She and Rita had decided to address the poverty by helping girls get an education.

In Seattle, there were four of us on the original board, one for each position. Margaret was president. Eduardo Mendonça, a Brazilian musician, was vice president. He was the one who came up with the name, Bahia Street. Pat Ingrassia brought years of social activism experience, but it was the first time he’d ever been a treasurer. Margaret had met him while riding the Metro bus he drove on Vashon Island.. I was secretary, responsible for taking notes at the meetings.

I vividly remember the meeting at the corner booth in the Jackrabbit restaurant, in downtown Seattle. The four of us put our hands together on the table and committed to one year of funding. We agreed to be responsible for the education of one girl, an orphan named Juliana who lived with her sister. Our bank account had about $45.

It was a overwhelming commitment. To pay for Juliana’s private school tuition alone, we needed several hundred dollars a month. We also needed to pay for her books, school uniforms, bus fare, and a small stipend to her sister.

I was so panicked at the thought, I never stopped to think about the level of commitment Rita was taking on.

At the time, I thought of her as another friend of Margaret’s, someone who’d been talked into this project by my earnest and persuasive friend. Nothing was further from the truth. In the beginning, Rita had been the persuasive one. She had talked Margaret into starting the project.

Thousands of miles from Brazil, I jumped into the challenges of starting a non-profit. I designed a Bahia Street logo and a fancy brochure and we had our first mailing party, using a mailing list loaned to us by Eduardo. We had house parties and dances and sold beer at Carnival. We put on a summer festival, São João, with a day and a half of activities. We even had a rummage sale at my house, although most of the volunteers would like to forget that one.

Meanwhile, Margaret was doing what she does best, connecting and inspiring people to get involved. She raised substantial sums from wealthy friends in England, wrote grants, and turned the supporting community into a real community. The money began to trickle in, not the big grants we expected, but many small monthly checks from individuals.

In Brazil, Rita found four additional girls to add to the program. They were bright, but the public schools had left them illiterate. One, Renata, was 7 years old and had never been to school. Rita hired a tutor to work with them, and our first student, Juliana, began attending the tutoring sessions as well.

Rita and Margaret were working full-time hours on the project, but neither of them was paid.

I put many hours in, too, designing flyers and brochures, editing letters and grant applications, organizing events. I wanted to craft an image for Bahia Street that looked professional without being slick. I cranked out amazing things on laser printers at work, since there was no budget for printing. Every penny we raised went to Brazil.

It was amazing how much Rita could do with so little. She expanded the tutoring program to the point where it was as good as any private school. Since the school day in Brazil is only four hours, the girls could then go to public school for a half day and then go to Bahia Street for a half day. Not only did this allow her to admit more students, it improved the public schools.

As the number of girls in the program grew, so too did the number of volunteers in Seattle. I jokingly call Barry “Volunteer Number One,” because he was there all along. Margaret was not technically savvy, so when Barry and Pat and I told her we needed a database, she just nodded and tried to look knowledgeable. The same happened when we launched our first website in 1998.

Margaret still chuckles about Barry and the database. He told her he was bored with computer games, and he thought developing a database would be “fun.” We have over a thousand people in our relational database now, with tens of thousands of records on donations and volunteer activities, and because of Barry, it never cost us anything.

After about five years, Margaret insisted that Barry and I go to Brazil on Bahia Street’s first study tour. It was in the Salvador airport, feeling grubby and exhausted after the long flights from the U.S., that I finally met Rita. I recognized her huge smile from dozens of photographs.

From the windows of our 12-passenger van, I saw the horrific shantytowns where our students live, some in houses made of cardboard and poly tarps. I saw the conditions that turn girls into prostitutes or domestic servants before they’re even teenagers.

At the Bahia Street Center, I saw the solution.

There were fifty girls there, vibrant, happy, excited, and loud. They gave off an aura of self-confidence and assurance. Their artwork and projects covered the walls. They danced and sang and played. The teachers, who all come from shantytowns or rural villages themselves, were proud of what they’d accomplished.

It was the last day of school for them, and the girls put on a program for us. Their excitement was not because school was ending for the year, but because there were visitantes — visitors. Some of the girls’ parents came, too. They seemed shy and overwhelmed.

To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the music and feel the exuberance.

I don’t have any children. I could never work every day with difficult kids in that environment. And despite all I know about Brazil, I’m not a “Brazilophile,” a non-Brazilian with an interest in Brazil. So why have I been passionate about this for so many years?

My goal is empowering women. My work with Bahia Street has done that.

Most of the girls in the program have single mothers. Some of their mothers look barely old enough to have children. In addition to almost no money, they have limited parenting skills. Through education, we keep their daughters from getting pregnant and help them develop self-esteem.

Regardless of whether they go to college or not — and three of the first students have gotten university scholarships — by the time our students reach high school, we’ve already done an enormous amount to break the cycle of poverty in each family.

The Gates Foundation is right across town from me. They’d like to break the cycle of poverty, too, with their billions of dollars. But we have something they don’t have.

Rita and Margaret.

How can the Gates Foundation staff understand the needs of impoverished people? As former bankers and politicians, they’ve never suffered hunger or struggled to stay alive.

Rita came from an impoverished background, and she took her chance for a better life and used it to improve her community. To change the world, we need more amazing, dedicated people like her.

But Margaret’s story is just as amazing. From the very beginning, I knew her as a strong, powerful woman. Yet over the years, she has deliberately given all the organization’s power to Rita and others in the shantytowns. To say she empowers them is reality, not just a buzzword.

All those powerful people at the Gates Foundation could learn a lot from Margaret.

A few weeks ago, I saw Rita again. She had come to the United States for the first time in her life, to celebrate Bahia Street’s tenth anniversary. Like the girls in the school, she is more confident. She is no longer Margaret’s friend in Brazil. She is the driving force behind Bahia Street.

Rita seems much taller now. I introduced her to my friend, Brett, as “a dignitary.” At several events, people gave her standing ovations.

Over Rita’s two-week visit, Margaret served as interpreter and introduced Rita, but her role was that of facilitator, not star. People who have just met Margaret have no idea how much she has done to inspire and mobilize thousands of people and raise tens of thousands of dollars.

Mentorship is one of the biggest parts of the Bahia Street curriculum. Every one of the girls we’ve had in the program has gained confidence and self-esteem. We’re especially proud of our first student, Juliana, currently attending the Federal University of Bahia.

But it’s a little known fact that even before we had even heard of Juliana, Margaret had already empowered two women and changed their lives: A one-in-a-million social activist named Rita. And myself.

For more information about Bahia Street, see the website at www.bahiastreet.org.

What does Mother Theodore have to do with Bahia Street?

It’s confession time (no pun intended). When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a nun.

Most people who know me find this astonishing. Why would I want to be a nun?

The reason is role models. I have two aunts who are Sisters of Providence (in Indiana, not to be confused with the order in Seattle). When I was barely five years old, they were permitted to cast off their restrictive black habits. For most of my life, I’ve known them as empowered women, women who did meaningful work.

Initially, they were school teachers. That and nursing were the careers open to them. But over the years, the world and the church changed. They received advanced degrees. Sister Mary Pat became the liturgical director for a huge Catholic parish in Chicago. They marched in protests and conducted letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. They worked for peace and social justice.

In the 1970’s, they were allowed to travel on vacation, so they visited family members in places like New York, Florida, and Las Vegas. They had an audience with Pope John Paul in Rome and took a cruise to Alaska.

Sister Mary Pat and Sister Mary Julia are in their 80’s now, retired to the “motherhouse” at St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana. I’ve visited the campus many times, with its tree-lined avenues and 19th-century buildings. Located in the backwoods of Indiana, outside Terre Haute, it has a church that is as awe-inspiring as any big city cathedral.

The sisters there have a role model, too. In 1840, Mother Theodore Guerin was about my age. She left civilized France and traveled to the wilderness, which at that time was Indiana. With five companions, she started the Sisters of Providence and opened a school for girls in the woods.

The school became St. Mary of the Woods College, the first liberal arts college for women in the United States. The sisters also expanded their work, opening schools and orphanages across the U.S. and the world.

Mother Theodore was a strong, empowered woman, but she was also very religious. In the years since her death, many people, including my family, prayed to her for intercession. Some of those prayers were answered: On October 15th, she will be canonized as a saint, partly because of two miracles attributed to her.

But the real miracles are not curing cancer or blindness, they are the millions of students who have been educated through Sisters of Providence. They are the foster children who have had a home, and the elderly (including my own grandparents) who have been nursed by the sisters. The miracles are the disenfranchised who have been not only served, but recognized.

Mother Theodore’s mission has been flexible enough to change with the times. Today, the order has a host of forward-thinking projects, such as the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, teaching about environmental issues and giving children the message that all creation is connected. In 1973, the college launched the Women’s External Degree program, one of the first distance-learning programs in the nation. It was intended to make a college degree possible for women with families. Today, it’s been renamed the Woods External Degree program, and it’s open to men as well. They’ve recently opened Providence Cristo Rey High School, a college-preparatory program that allows economically-disadvantaged students to earn their tuition while gaining job skills at local companies. And they run countless smaller projects, like food banks. adult education, day cares, medical clinics, and services to migrant families.

It’s unbelievable to see what a small group of people, such as Mother Theodore, soon to be “Saint Mother Theodore,” and her five companions, can begin. They had no idea how widely the ripples they created would spread love, justice, and mercy around the world.

I’ve seen it happen, firsthand.

Ten years ago, two women in Brazil, Rita Conceição and Margaret Willson, decided to start a project to break cycles of poverty in the shantytowns. I met Margaret shortly afterwards. Through luck or fate, I was destined to be one of those initial companions.

We started Bahia Street with one student and almost no money. Today, it is a thriving school program for 50 girls in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, giving them education and hope for their families. It links a worldwide community of hundreds.

We had no idea how widely our ripples would spread, either.

Of all the things I’ve done in life, I’m most proud of Bahia Street. And now I see the connection to my own roots. Through the Sisters of Providence, I have been inspired by strong women with a commitment to social justice. My mother, who considered joining the Sisters of Providence in the 1940’s, decided instead to raise a family and become an artist. She told me I could be anything I wanted, that my gender would not stand in the way.

Now it is my turn to inspire young women to make a difference in the world. All it takes is one small pebble, and the ripples can go on forever.

Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Detroit

A series of Google searches illustrates life in Seattle these days. Only 6 results for “Seahawks frenzy” and 28 for “Seahawks hysteria.” “Seahawks mania” brings back 738 results. The one that really stands out brings back 12,400 hits: “Seahawks fever.”

In normal times, few U.S. cities exhibit more reserve and decorum than Seattle, the polite city. The last time I saw a city go this crazy was Mardi Gras in New Orleans. That doesn’t really count; they do it every year, and the crazy people are actually tourists from Duluth or Peoria or Schenectady.

National columnists have had a field day making fun of Seattle, saying they’d rather root for steelworkers than barristas and Microsoft geeks. Superbowl XL is being pitched as “brains vs. brawn,” and we are not being portrayed sympathetically.

Pittsburgh is portrayed as a gritty, hard-working town full of steelworkers, manual laborers, and blue collar workers. Nice, average folks. Seattle, on the other hand, is supposed to be a bunch of snobby, brainy Microsoft millionaires.

Not true! We do have our share of latté drinkers, but Pittsburgh has at least 20 Starbucks stores. Seattle has blue-collar workers, with a steel mill right inside the city limits. I used to ride the bus by it every day, and I loved getting stuck in traffic, so I could watch the heavy equipment and the red-hot metal rolling down the line.

What about those nice, hard-working Pittsburgh folks? Their murder rate is more than three times that of Seattle. Robbery and assault rates are almost twice as high. Our stealthy criminals have much higher rates of burglary and theft, crimes that require thought and planning instead of brawn.

Take away the question of reputation, and what it comes down is regional pride. Pittsburgh itself is smaller than Seattle, but there are many, many more people who live within a thousand miles. Why would they root for the Seahawks, unless they think our uniforms are cool and they once flew out to see the fish tossed at the Pike Place market?

The third city in this equation, of course, is Detroit, where the Superbowl will be played. Detroit lives up to its reputation as a dangerous city, with a murder rate that’s ten times higher than Seattle’s. When I was in college, I took a road trip through Detroit, and I remember being terrified. We locked all the doors, but we were really nervous at stoplights. The city was much more pleasant when viewed from a distance, at an overlook on the Canadian side, protected by Mounties.

This year, millions of dollars will pour into Detroit for the Superbowl, many of them brought by ecstatic Seattlites. Still, the one-day event doesn’t do much to address the city’s staggering unemployment rate, which some say is as high as 14%, and the grueling poverty in the inner-city. Officials think the game is a huge boost, but in the burned-out blocks, almost nothing will trickle down.

One Detroit man, Raymond Parker, was interviewed for an Associated Press story, saying he wouldn’t be joining in the Superbowl revelry.” We, as people who don’t have that kind of money, shouldn’t even be downtown,” he said.

That’s enough to give pause, even to a feverish Seahawk fan.

What would Mozart think?

Rosa Parks rides the bus with me these days. Ever since she passed away, on October 25th last year, our local bus systems have immortalized her by dedicating seats (in the front) to her, even silkscreening her image on the window so it looks like she’s sitting there.

The bus systems are doing their best to respect her memory, keep it dignified. Still, it’s a quirky way to be remembered.

I read a book telling the story of Rosa’s heroic act, and it was no accident. She didn’t merely stay seated, a tired black seamstress. She was an activist, and the event that got her arrested and provoked the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was an opportunity, carefully planned for by the leaders of the civil rights movement.

One of those leaders, of course, was Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated a few weeks ago. News organizations reported some difficulties with the 20-year-old holiday and the memory of Dr. King. One blog was entitled, “Did Anyone Notice Martin Luther King Day?” A New York Times article mentioned a lawsuit between the family and CBS News, saying “the family has long been criticized by scholars for its aggressive profit-making approach to Dr. King’s legacy.” One new book alleges that King had extramarital affairs.

Still, there are no sales on MLK day. Most people know that you’re not supposed to spend money on gifts or cards, and the t-shirts for sale are mostly inspirational images.

“It’s supposed to be a day of service,” said my friend Tina, who works for the University of Washington and had the day off. The UW, which has over 23,000 employees, had gotten the message out, organizing volunteer opportunities and work parties for charities.

Like Rosa Parks’ moment of protest, the “day of service” message about January 16th is also no accident. King’s estate works actively with chambers of commerce and business groups, convincing them not to put on MLK day sales. The Corporation for National Service has a website, www.mlkday.gov, listing service projects and urging Americans to participate.

I think King would be satisfied with the way his holiday is celebrated. His name has not been defamed or belittled, and if the holiday isn’t as big as it should be, that’s because his work is still not done.

At the other extreme, we have January 27th. Today is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday, and Austria is going crazy. It’s a tourism event.

Unlike MLK, Mozart doesn’t have anyone to protect his name. According to one branding expert, “If (his name) was protected and did have an owner, there’s no way that you’d just let someone slap the name on a salami.”

Someone has slapped his name on a salami, and some chocolate, and a milkshake. In the absence of such protection, the commercial side of things has gone crazy. There are the usual Mozart t-shirts and mugs and bags and calendars. There are Mozart golf balls, despite the fact that he was Austrian and golf is a Scottish invention. And my favorite, a bra that plays “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” when you unfasten it.

Based on the confused but party-loving fellow portrayed in the movie “Amadeus,” back in the mid-1980s, I don’t think Mozart would mind terribly. In our day and age, classical music is serious stuff, not to be taken lightly. But there was as much humor in past ages as there is now, and I find a lot of it in Mozart’s music. Like Shakespeare, it’s not all tragedy.

Mozart died penniliess, but his music accounts for 25% of classical music sales. Austria’s national tourist board estimates that the Mozart brand is worth $8.8 billion. If he had a sense of humor, as I think he did, he’d probably find the irony funny.

I wonder if Rosa Parks would mind if I move up to her seat?

An earth-shattering Kaboom

There’s a great Looney Tunes character by the name of Marvin the Martian. He was always trying, unsuccessfully, to blow up the Earth. Usually, his equipment would act as a dud, until he walked over to it. In a little nasal, strangled voice, he’d say, “Kaboom… There was supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom…” Then it would blow him up.

Whenever Barry and I send out a big important e-mail, one of us will say, “Kaboom… There was supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom…”

A big important e-mail can be a resume for a job you really, really want. You’re praying that you didn’t misspell your own name when you hit Send. It can be a party invitation for Friday the 10th, only half your friends show up on Friday the 9th and the other half show up on Saturday the 10th. It can be a holiday letter to 50 friends that says “Had a great trip to Fart Rock this summer.”

I’ve been volunteering down at the Bahia Street office for about a month now, and I’ve had several “Kaboom” moments. One of my first projects was sending out our quarterly update e-mail, a delightful letter written by co-director Margaret Willson. That went to about 575 people, mostly by e-mail. Then I wrote a brief e-mail to our Seattle area donors and volunteers, about 400 people, asking for volunteers for an event. I got a number of friendly and positive responses.

Yesterday, I worked on my most earth-shattering project yet. Once a year, we send out a real letter in the mail, asking for donations. I was brainstorming with Margaret Willson about it, since she has always written and signed such correspondence since we started in 1998. Somehow, we came up with the idea that I, as a founding board member, should write and sign the letter. It sounded like a fun writing challenge, so I said, “Sure!”

I sat down at the computer and mentally pictured a couple of friends who are on the mailing list. Then I started typing what I would say to them. It wasn’t all that difficult, and the letter was done in an hour or two. I showed it to Margaret and Nancy and Barry, and each of them suggested some good edits. I listened to each suggestion, thinking, “Would I use those words if I was speaking? Then I made changes carefully, being sure to keep the letter in my own “voice.”

That’s where a letter is different from an article or a book. As a professional editor, I believe everything written can benefit from editing. But a letter is a special case: If it’s too polished, or if there are words the author wouldn’t normally use, it can actually lose credibility. It’s the difference between having your name at the top of the paper, and having your name (and signature) at the bottom.

I didn’t give it a lot more thought until I arrived at the office yesterday morning, ready to do the actual mailing. Nancy had done all the printing, and boxes of envelopes were stacked three and four high on the table. The letters themselves sat nearby, a pile of almost 700 pieces of paper with my name at the bottom.

Stuffing envelopes all day was not like hitting “send” on an e-mail. It was much worse. During the hours of envelope stuffing, my mind was free to really worry. Was the letter OK? Would our supporters mind that I had written it, instead of the usual Margaret? Would someone find fault with my grammar or spelling? Would anyone be offended?

I suppose that’s one reason people are often intimidated by writing. There’s a fear of putting your words on the line, such that you can’t take them back or soften them. I’m never been intimidated by that before, but then, I’ve never sent a letter to 700 people.

Was there supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom, or is that just the sound of my confidence cracking?


By the way, if you aren’t on the Bahia Street mailing list, and you’d like to receive my wonderful letter, let me know. You can also go to the site and sign up for the mailing list. While you’re there, please make a donation — thank you!

The Cajun Food Crisis

I was lying in bed last night, thinking about the devastation of New Orleans. Our five months there, just over a year ago, seem like yesterday.

Suddenly, my thoughts turn to mustard. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake.

What does this mean to the distribution of Zatarain’s Creole Mustard, my favorite condiment in the whole world? What about Tabasco? And Louisiana Fish Fry products? Will there still be Luzianne tea?

Forget about the strategic oil reserves. We have a Cajun food crisis.

The destruction of New Orleans’ infrastructure means not only houses are gone, but jobs. The people who worked in those factories, who lived paycheck to paycheck, have no paychecks now.

Where Barry and I lived, in a boatyard in an industrial zone, was surrounded by black neighborhoods. To the west were tiny houses, black folks trying to move up the ladder. To the east, on the other side of the canal, were vast tracts of subsidized rentals with weedy lawns and abandoned cars. We came face to face in the grocery store, the gas station, the post office. These are not people who could load their cars and flee north. They are the ones who were left behind, because they couldn’t afford a car or a bus ticket to get out.

I wonder what became of Darren, the young black felon we met at Mardi Gras. We’d made the mistake of parking in a desolate spot, and he followed us to our car, high on drugs and drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag. He showed us his scars — knife wounds, bullet entry and exit holes. He badgered us for a lift across town, but we refused, afraid we’d never be able to shake him. When the hurricane came, I doubt anyone would give him a ride.

These people can’t leave New Orleans and make a fresh start somewhere else. It’s been their home for generations. There are vast networks of siblings and cousins and grandparents, people who gather for barbecues, parades, and birthday parties. You can’t just pick that up and move it to, say, Peoria.

Lying there in bed, thinking about the upcoming mustard crisis, I thought of a way to help.

What we need to do, as a country, is help New Orleans reconstruct their economy. Forget tourism. When New Orleaneans finally go home, it’s going to be a smelly mess of garbage and rubble. Instead of jazz funerals, there will be mass burials. These folks won’t want visitors for a long, long time.

Instead, they’ll need to rebuild their factories and export stuff. Blues, gospel, and jazz music. Cajun, Creole, and Southern ingredients.

So run out today and buy a Henry Butler CD — poor Henry’s really got the blues now. Pick up some Zatarain’s Jambalaya mix, which we’ve seen for sale as far away as Alaska. Replenish your supply of Tabasco, Crystal, or (in our case) Melinda’s XXX hot sauce. Check your local grocery store for blackened spice mix, marinades, gumbo file, cornbread mix, and dacquiri mix.

This Monday, and every Monday, serve up red beans and rice to all your friends. Take up a collection for the relief effort. And remember: The more New Orleans products you buy, the more jobs you make.