Beardstown, Illinois

Beardstown – the town I grew up in from birth to around age 10 will always hold a special place in my heart.  Illness plagued my family in the years that followed but these were largely idyllic years.  I had moved away 48 years ago and had not been back in over 28.  The town has struggled since my departure — clearly there was a mourning period throughout the town when I left but I can’t take credit for the economic challenges of small Midwest towns.

I arrived before sunrise to take pictures, hoping that the gentle light would soften the images while still allowing me to glean old memories and ghosts before night fully dispersed.  I plotted a course to see the bridge across the Illinois river with barges passing by; the old grain silos and other buildings in the small port (many now shuttered); the old movie theater and bowling alley where I got such joy – closed many years past; and my first home – so much smaller than I remembered.

Beardstown Montage
From top to bottom: my first home, one of the water towers, the Illinois River, the sign proudly declaring the population is 5,800 (thanks to immigration), the shuttered movie theater, an abandoned building in the port, grain silos and the Congregational church.

While Oscar Mayer pulled out after a labor dispute with the union, others took over the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant that provides the lifeblood for many.  It now attracts a diverse workforce that replaced those that fled to greener pastures.  In the local schools, students speak over 13 languages and small ethnic restaurants fill in some of the empty storefronts on the town square.

My visit was going to be short since there were no friends remaining.  I decided, however to attend a service at the First Congregational Church where I was baptized. There were probably 20 people in the pews when I entered the knave.  The minister appeared to be 80 years old and much of the congregation was in her age bracket.

What was overwhelming was that despite not having been in the church since I was 10, it was exactly as I remembered.  This congregation is QUITE informal.  During the point in the service where you share “the peace of Christ be with you . . . and also with you,” people took 10 or so minutes to walk around to each other shooting the breeze.  One man walked up to me and introduced himself.  When he asked my name, he beamed – “I know you and your family”.

When he was a junior, my mother taught him at the high school.  He was quite a personality, often making vocal fun-loving jibes during the church service (I said it was informal).  He pulled close to me to let me know that my mother, unlike other teachers, cultivated his sarcasm and encouraged him to be more creative in his writing.  He used to just try to make her laugh with his essays and stories.  His memories were a loving tribute, especially since they dated from over 50 years ago and 40 years after my mother died.  You never know the impact of the ripples of your life.

Having finished my visit, I headed to Springfield for an Abraham Lincoln tribute visiting the museum, presidential library, tomb and historical district where his house can be toured. The afternoon of sightseeing was wonderful but my heart was back in Beardstown.  (But of course I rubbed Lincoln’s nose for good luck.)

Springfield Tribute to Lincoln

Cruising Through the Midwest

The joy of these days are in reunions with good friends and vistas from my upbringing in the Midwest.  The first stop after Pittsburgh was Columbus Ohio for a night with Deanna, a good friend I hadn’t seen since she moved from Arlington.

DeannaWe had slightly less than 24 hours to catch up and barely caught our breath as we talked non-stop while meandering through the Ohio State University campus, viewing a provocative exhibition of works by contemporary artist Cindy Sherman, enjoying dinner with her friend Bernard at Guild House in the Short North Arts District and eating pancake balls (you’ll need to ask me later).  We packed a lot in but most importantly we had an opportunity to renew our friendship.

On the way to the next reunion, I stopped in another Columbus prompted by an article in the Washington Post travel section heralding this “small Indiana city of 45,000 people, known to modernist design geeks the world over for its concentration of buildings.”  I only scratched the surface but it was well worth the detour.  It is also worth reflecting on the role of the Cummins Engine Company in sparking this investment in architecture and in its long-standing commitment to investing in the community – a model that few major corporations seem to follow these days.Columbus Indiana

 

 

Visit with KentIndianapolis was the location for the next reunion with Kent Mitchell, one of my first hires at Pew and one of the true talents I had the privilege to work with during my tenure.  The day was filled with my first experience duck pin bowling, great conversations throughout the evening with Kent and Anastassia and hilarious entertainment by five year old Sadie.  Most importantly, my car now has a name for the journey thanks to Sadie – BLUEBERRY.

Blueberry and I have been enjoying the long flat highways of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and will soon set off on the next journey tracing my roots.  I’ll leave you with some of those vistas.

Midwest road scenes.JPG
Turkey Run State park where I went scrambling through ravines, sights along the road and, of course Blueberry

Pittsburgh – Day Two

I’m staying in an AirBnB in the Mexican War Streets Historic District , an up and coming section of the city that still has some significant “up” ahead.  Having finished my night of canvassing, I desperately needed a bite.  With few options, I stumbled down the block to Casellula, a tapas restaurant, only to discover it is connected to City of Asylum, a book store and community center with a mission to provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that they can continue to write and their voices are not silenced.  That evening they were hosting a forum to showcase two poets (one from Bangladesh and one from Burma) and the maestro, artistic director and performers for an upcoming showcase of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, The Creation, by the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra.

I woke up the next morning and walked to the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum and experimental lab featuring installations created by artists in residence from around the world.  It was fascinating, perplexing and well worth the visit. Mattress Factory.JPG

On the way I passed “Randyland” a whimsical folkart creation and project of love by a true eccentric.  Randyland

After a ride on the Duquesne Incline cable car for a view of the city, I returned to the Mexican War Streets district to go to the National Aviary, an indoor zoo with more than 500 birds from around the world, many of them endangered in the wild.

This eclectic mix of experiences all arose by happenstance or recommendations of individuals I met on the streets of Pittsburgh.  Not bad for less than 24 hours.

Bridges

While MS and LA were wonderful, yesterday was the start of the true journey.  It was unsettling to pack up the car realizing I wouldn’t be home for three months.  By 7am, I was on the road striving to beat DC’s rush hour.  The radio was blaring the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man and the sun was glistening off the Potomac.  With mixed feelings I was off.

The route between DC and Pittsburgh is glorious as you cross the Appalachian Highlands. Cut through on Trip to Pittsburgh As I traveled, I tried to slow the torrent of thoughts that swirl through my mind and be more aware / more present in the moment.  There are challenges even when you’ve minimized distractions.  You can only be aware of one aspect of your environment.  I’d be soaking in the scenery and realize my mind had drifted off a podcast; I’d focus on a magnificent outcropping and realize I missed the farmlands below.

I kept most of my attention on an extended interview with Brandon Stanton, the photographer and storyteller behind HONY (Humans of New York).  His interviews have a raw authenticity and the podcast offered his tips on how to get strangers to open up.  That theme followed me when I arrived in Pittsburgh and joined the Working America team to learn about their door-to-door outreach in working neighborhoods.  Like HONY, Working America seeks to engage those that are on the periphery, but it also has a political objective to engage those without a union (it is an offshoot of the AFL-CIO).  The canvassers were a small but articulate and passionate group and I went out with the Field Director later that afternoon knocking on doors.

Why – many of you are asking.  It actually fell in my lap.  A former Pew co-worker sent me their January 2016 Front Porch Focus Group report that distilled 1,700 conversations they had with swing voters in white working class neighborhoods.  The report offered insights into Trump’s appeal to Republican and moderate Democrats that I clearly should have paid more attention to last year.

One of my objectives is to listen and HONY and Working America have emboldened me to push past discomfort to seek out conversations with strangers along the road.  The experience knocking on doors and Brandon’s tips affirm that most people have a story to tell and want to be asked.  You just need to get past their initial protective shields and your own hesitance.

The need to reach out and build bridges seems out of reach in this political climate. According to a recent Pew Research Center report Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life

Partisan animosity has increased substantially. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.

I can’t accept that we should write off our neighbors.  PittsburghInspired by Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges (reportedly more than any other city in the world), I’ll keep seeking out individuals and groups that are attempting to build bridges.

Mississippi

Rambling – For the second leg of the Louisiana and Mississippi road trip we traveled up the Mississippi river through towns steeped in the Civil War, into the delta (the ancestral floodplain of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers that stretches two hundred miles from just south of Memphis to Vicksburg), diagonally across the state through the capital of Jackson and down to the Gulf Coast.  (Highlights on what not to miss appear at the end of this post.)

In contrast to Louisiana, they were harvesting cotton rather than sugar cane and the casinos were much larger, no longer restricted to river boats after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina but required to be within 800 feet of a waterfront.  The Delta leaves an enduring impression with fields extending far into the distance, huge bales of cotton covered  in pink or yellow plastic sheeting, and its muddy beauty waiting for the next crops to be planted.MS Cotton.JPG

We also fit in some whimsy.  Anyone who follows my Instagram feed saw the photo of the World’s largest rocking chair in Gulfport, MS (or is it?  I now see Casey Illinois has a competitor for the title – perhaps that warrants a stop).  In contrast, the quest for Rodney was not your typical roadside attraction.  I have an obsession with abandoned towns.  Rodney was a thriving community until two bouts of yellow fever, bombing during the Civil War, fires and the death knell, a shift in the Mississippi that left it six miles from the economic life blood of river traffic.

Getting to the remaining crumbling churches and buildings was an adventure as highway turned to country road, pavement disappeared, and precarious wooden bridges and daunting hillsides arose between us and our next stop, the Windsor Ruins, remnants of a plantation that burned just a few miles further up the river.  Linda is still recovering.

The most striking images when traveling through rural Mississippi reflect significant depopulation – abandoned homes and schools with boarded up windows, collapsed roofs, and vines covering what remains.  Following the turn of the century migration of African Americans to escape back-breaking work in the fields, oppression and segregation, the population continued to decline with the mechanization and consolidation of farming.   One county we drove through, Issaquena County, has seen its population drop by more than 75% with only 1,386 people left.  The average income is now just over $10,000, half the level of Mississippi as a whole.

Listening – It is not possible to get a full picture of a state driving down its highways so the vignettes I share are true to my experience but frustratingly incomplete.  I can only dip my toes in the shallow end of a few pools while straining to see the vast waterway beyond my eyesight.  To help compensate, I have become addicted to podcasts, historical films at local museums and stories told by local residents.

While the stock of antebellum mansions in Natchez was stunning, their local film was self-serving with little sense of history or place.  In contrast, the National Park Service headquarters in Vicksburg offered a sweeping overview.  Driving into the Vicksburg battlefield, you are reminded of Gettysburg with myriad monuments to the fallen from northern and southern states and to minor skirmishes and full-fledged assaults.  I did not realize how pivotal Vicksburg was in the war.  Abraham Lincoln called it the Gibraltar of the South and declared that “Vicksburg is the key and this war will not end until that key is in our pocket.”  In Jefferson Davis’ words, Vicksburg was “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together.”  After a 47 day siege, Union troops under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant prevailed, splitting the confederacy and severing a major economic and military lifeline.  The battlefield that remains stands as a testament to the approximately 20,000 dead and wounded.

We also listened to an array of podcasts.  The one that stood out from The Civil War series was an almost apologetic episode unearthing General Robert E. Lee’s appalling treatment of his slaves.   I also stumbled upon the University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History and particularly enjoyed one podcast that shared the recollections of Buck Wells, a juror in a trial for the murder of Vernon Dahmer, a Hattiesburg businessman and civil rights activist who had the audacity to help African Americans register to vote.  Despite a confession by one of the members of the Ku Klux Klan, no one expected the all-white jury to convict one of their own for the killing of an African American.  The story from the struggle in the jury room and the historic guilty verdict underscore the value of oral history.

Celebrating – When you are in the Delta there is one way to celebrateDelta blues.  Clarksdale is an epicenter for Delta blues and Roger Stolle at Cat Head is the first person I contact for tips on where you can see great artists anywhere in the state.  We had been to Clarksdale before and had the pleasure of seeing octogenarian Leo “Bud” Welch playing at one of the last remaining juke joints.  Red'sBefore the population plummeted, juke (a term reportedly from the Gullah word joog meaning rowdy or disorderly) joints were at crossroads across the Delta offering gambling, drinking, music and dancing.  Only a few remain and while the clientele has changed with partying locals replaced by reverential tourists, Red’s offers you a view into the past.  Morgan Freeman has a club in Clarksdale and there are a handful of other venues that ensure you can see music any night of the week.  The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and BB King Museum in Indianola are also well worth your time.

Reflecting – Whether it is Delta blues, the struggle for civil rights or the Civil War, history seems more profoundly tangible in Mississippi.

Perhaps it exudes from the mud in the Delta.  In driving to Money, Mississipi where Emmett Till was murdered (if you don’t know the full and painful story there are many books including last year’s The Blood of Emmett Till), my senses were overwhelmed each time I crossed the Tallahatchie River wondering whether this was where his body was dumped or was it at the next bend or the next.

Perhaps it is a culture that deeply values stories or has a deeper sense of place.  In my earlier blog post asking for reflections on three questions – Who are you? Who are your people? What defines your community? – it is intriguing that only individuals of color and those from the South responded.  And the responses were powerful and tied to place and history.

Perhaps it is the inevitable constraints of a weak economy that doesn’t lead to tearing down the old and building the new.

Perhaps it is simply that Mississippi’s history is reflective of struggles that are enduring and extend far beyond the borders of that one state.

I leave you with an excerpt from Mississippi Beyond Katrina,: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Natasha Trethewey, United States Poet Laureate

The landscape is inscribed with the traces of things long gone.  Everywhere the names of towns, rivers, shopping malls and subdivisions bear witness to vanished North American tribes, communities of former slaves, long-ago industrial districts and transit routes.  We speak these names often unaware of their history, forgetting how they came to be.  Each generation is further from the events and the people to which the names refer – these relics become more and more abstract.  No longer talismans of memory, the words are monuments nonetheless.  As Robert Haas has written, “A word is elegy to the thing it signifies.”

Don’t Miss

Further down the road – a note for future stages of my road trip:  The influence of our history continues whether recognized or not.  But who tells the history and what is told matters.  So I’m looking forward to being in Alabama in April to commemorate the opening of The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first comprehensive memorial dedicated to over 4400 victims of lynching.  It is daunting to consider the challenges in design and curation for such a charged part of our history but it is long overdue.

Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting in Louisiana (part one of the LA and MS road trip)

Rambling – Louisiana was the perfect state to launch my gap year.  We had already planned a family gathering to attend VoodooFest, a three-day long music and art festival held the weekend before Halloween.  When we left New Orleans a week later sated and exhausted, Linda and I ventured through Cajun country and then on to Mississippi.  1,000 miles later we were back at the Louis Armstrong airport heading home for Thanksgiving and a countdown to my first cross country trip that will start the week after and likely last three months.

There is no way to convey the profusion of experiences from this first trek but I’ve highlighted what I wouldn’t want to miss below, included books I read in the sidebar, and detailed the route on this planning site (see the map on the righthand side).

A great joy of rambling is simply staring out of car windows at the landscapes that you pass.  Louisiana’s bayous and swamps offer enchanting images and jumping on a boat in the bayou is worth a detour.  While your first thought may be of alligators and Spanish moss draped over cypress trees, swamps and bayous have a graceful and quiet beauty.  Fortunately I did not read this article from NatGeo before our tour – Beware in the Bayou: Alligators and Crocodiles Can Climb.

Lacking that beauty were the massive heads of lawyers staring down from billboards every few miles pitching their courtroom finesse at getting a large settlement for your injury and the casinos attached to truck stops every few miles.  More fascinating was the sugar cane.  I had no idea sugar cane was still so heavily cultivated in this region but large harvesters were cutting cane throughout central Louisiana and trucks were transporting the yield to massive processing plants.  We stopped abruptly at the sight of one of these plants and watched in awe at the scale of the production facility.

Listening – I’m still struggling to find ways to move past a tourist experience and learn more about the states where I have the privilege to travel.  I am gobbling up any books that are recommended and reading newspapers to get local context.  In Louisiana, papers offered tips that led us to a small-town church festival we attended with phenomenal Zydeco music and home cooking and recounted myriad accusations and indictments for embezzlement and other forms of sleaze for minor and prominent politicians.  I’ll leave it to you to draw lessons from the latter.

Celebrating – But if there is one thing Lousiana knows how to do it is to celebrate.  You can’t help but jump up and dance with all the Cajun, Zydeco, and brass band music.  It is so energetic and joyous.  And New Orleans has to be one of the most magical places on earth with its cross current of cultures, the rich and complex history, its musical traditions, pain and triumphs, . . .

For me, much was encapsulated in one of those chance opportunities that arise – a second line to celebrate the life of Fats Domino who had died at 89 a week before.  Starting in the Bywater and marching to his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, you saw the devastation that remains from Hurricane Katrina but your primary experience was of an exuberant cacophony of people, sounds and music celebrating the life of this music pioneer.  If you have never joined a true second line, make sure you look for one when you are in New Orleans.  WWOZ, a fabulous radio station, offers a wonderful resource on second line and Mardi Gras Indian events.

Of course, the real celebration was having our daughters, their boyfriends, and family from England and North Carolina join us.  We rented a house in Mid-City, a wonderful part of town which placed us within walking distance of VoodooFest, in the midst of some of our favorite local neighborhood bars and restaurants and a short cab ride to the French Quarter, Garden District and other tourist locations.

VoodooFest offered an array of music from Kendrick Lamar (who dominated the stage), to Black Pistol Fire, Chicano Batman, Gnash, Durand Jones and the Indication, Afghan Whigs, LCD Soundsystem, Nightmre . . . Don’t worry I hadn’t heard of many of these groups myself but with four stages you always had something to choose from (even if you didn’t have any place to sit which got VERY tiring for the 12 hour days).

We made it down to Frenchmen Street three times including on Halloween ending our All Hallow’s Eve at 2am at Oz on Bourbon Street.  You can imagine the costumes and party atmosphere.  The day before we had taken a Haunted History Tour through the French Quarter (which tied nicely into an American Horror Story season we watched when in need of a break) preceded by at Pat O’Brien’s of course.

Linda and I followed the musical muse out into Cajun country where we ended up on stage with the band at the end of the Rendez-vous des Cajuns, joined the Holy Ghost Creole Festival in Opelousas, stumbled into a club where the Cajun French Music Association Chapitre de Lafayette was two-stepping, etc.

And food – you can’t talk about Lousiana without the celebration your taste buds enjoy.  I’ll leave the list of some favorites below but would be happy to offer many many more recommendations.  (Actually just invite me down and I’ll be your personal tour guide in NOLA.)

Reflecting – With all of this what became clear was that I have a real challenge ahead.  How do you immerse yourself in a state, a community, a culture while on the move?  One phrase I just heard on a podcast from a buddhist/meditation teacher (more on that side of this gap year later) stuck with me – “follow the pretense of accident.”  Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which was inscribed on a beautiful old compass some colleagues at Pew gave me on my departure, it is subject to differing interpretations.

On this trip, I found that it was through a strange mix of planning and spontaneity that I stumbled on what felt genuine.  When I walked into Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ simply because it was the closest church near our rental house (I plan to attend a service from one community of  faith or another each week since they are welcoming to strangers and offer unique insights on the world and their community), I found a truly diverse congregation, a fluid order of service with congregants weaving in and out, quirky elements such as their sole commitment to acapella music (no instruments allowed), and a deep engagement with individuals and neighborhoods in need.  That intention to attend weekly service combined with a decision to follow my feet to whatever house of worship was first on my path led to a wonderful experience.  The same could be said of our decision to walk through the Treme neighborhood to the Backstreet Cultural Museum at the hour when the ailing founder, Sylvester Francis, was there to share his stories and further down the road in Breaux Bridge to open the door to a somewhat intimidating local club, La Poussiere, only to walk into the warm embrace of Debby who promptly led Linda onto the dance floor.  One way or the other, there will be adventures ahead and some of the best won’t be on any of my spreadsheets.

Don’t miss (This blog post can only cover a snippet of the many great restaurants, music clubs and experiences on this journey.  Here are a few I wouldn’t miss on my next visit to Louisiana.)

In New Orleans

In Cajun Country

  • Boat tour through Lake Martin Rookery and cypress/tupelo swamp with Champagnes Swamp and Bayou Tour
  • Gumbo at Buck and Johnny’s in Breaux Bridge – and of course the music
  • Holy Ghost Creole Festival in Opelousas —a small town church fair of Holy Ghost Catholic Church (a primarily African American congregation) that features Zydeco music and Creole food.
  • Rendez-vous des Cajuns” Cajun music radio and TV show in Eunice –weekly Cajun music performances recorded live from the historic Liberty Theater
  • Two step at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge – down home Cajun dance hall
  • Next time I have to make it to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou.

 

Who are you? What should I expect from this blog?

The gap year has begun and so much remains the same.  Yes – I’m not going into Pew each morning but it remains front and center in my mind.  The send-off last week was absolutely amazing with poignant testimonials, live music, hugs and touching side conversations, and, of course, three bars.  I remain overwhelmed, so grateful and at a loss for words.  There is much to reflect on from almost 13 years at Pew and I’ll return to that I’m sure in the months ahead.

What should you expect from this blog?  I keep getting asked – What is this gap year all about?  Is it a chance to reflect on politics at the grassroots leading up to the 2018 mid-terms, a personal navel-gazing journey, a means to prepare for my next professional leap, an opportunity for education and enlightenment, or simply a fun tour and travelogue through amazing sites and experiences?  The simple fact is that I don’t truly know (although my navel is fascinating).  The value is the freedom and privilege of taking a year to let experiences cascade over me, to approach each day as fully aware as possible and leave myself open to serendipity.

So many of you have provided advice on what you’d do in my place, set up meetings with friends you find inspiring, offered a spare bedroom or your vacation homes or shared words of encouragement.  Thank you! I’m cataloging this treasure trove and will refer to it frequently.

As I prepare to leave for New Orleans tomorrow, I’m also planning for the first set of adventures.  To start, however, I need to establish a new rhythm.  Without being too regimented, how do I want to structure my days and the months ahead?  What do I want to bring on the road?  How do I want to shape my conversations with people that I have the good fortune to meet?

One thought was inspired by a recent visit to an exhibition on race through the lens of science, history and personal experiences in Raleigh, NC.  “Race — Are We So Different?” had a fascinating section where it included responses from people across the country describing themselves.  Many departed entirely from the question as it was posed.  The respondents’ willingness to blow past the expected boundaries of the inquiry led to a fascinating variety of responses.  I was inspired to experiment with injecting a few open-ended questions into those fun exchanges you have sitting next to someone at a bar stool or diner counter just to see how they choose to interpret the question and what I learn.

Want to help?  If you are up for it, send me a note back to mcaudellfeagan@gmail.com with your responses to one or all of the following:

  • Who are you?
  • Who are your people?
  • What defines your community?

OR feel free to disregard this entirely.

Fear not – the next entry will be from New Orleans where we’ll be attending the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience, delving into the Halloween crowds on Frenchmen and Bourbon streets, and myriad other adventures in the Big Easy before hitting the road for a ramble through LA and MS.  Sounds like the perfect mix to generate some stories . . .