Tuesday, August 28, 2018

AL: Cathedral Caverns State Park

Those of you who aren't interested in my musings on spiritual revelations or drawn out details, but who just want some pretty pictures, this post is for you.

We got back from New Orleans late Friday night, and Saturday woke up early to head to a local adventure; my sister Rebecca and her husband Chris had invited us to join them and their daughter Sarah for a fun family day on her last weekend before heading back to college out of state. Of course we had said yes!

The cave entrance, greeting its visitors somewhat ominously. 

 That appeared to be a very thin and wide lip of rock above us. A bit disconcerting to be entering under--it looked so thin to be holding up itself, let alone a forest on top!

 The massive piles of boulders and fallen rock we passed going in and throughout the tour were not all that reassuring either. 

 This was my favorite moment--where a perfectly still, black pool of water created an optical illusion that made it appear that railing was separating us from a precipice. 

 I could not tell which photo managed to capture the effect better, so I included both. 

 Colorful, "frozen" waterfall.

You can see how the cave got its name. At one point in its history, when it was in private hands, they promoted it as a place for weddings.  Apparently not for people into mythology or symbolism. 

If I were at home and had my photoshop tools, I might be able to tweak this photo's lighting--but even backlit, it shows happy kids experiencing & learning new things. Which is pretty much the point of the whole trip.

I do want to throw in one bit of spiritual reflection; in my French Quarter post I mentioned having what seemed like a supernatural energy the entire time we were in New Orleans. Seriously, it was bizarre. I always had the urge to use the stairs in the hotel instead of the elevator, even after a long day of walking around. I enjoyed zipping around at a brisk pace anytime I was walking alone. And on the driving days anytime we stopped for a break I didn't just stretch my legs--I would be happily chugging around the expansive rest areas. I remember distinctly one rest area at night, at the very end of our drive home, that was very hilly. Chugging up one particular steep spot felt SO GOOD on my legs, my body, that I kept circling around to do it again and again and again. I never felt tired, I just felt amazing. 

Then getting up early the next morning, making breakfast and packing a picnic lunch for me & the kids, navigating & driving them to the cave 2 1/2 hours away (since we had to take 2 cars), hiking the steep slopes inside the cave, driving back to Tuscaloosa, and then walking in the door and immediately helping cook dinner, clean up dinner, and starting all the dirty laundry from our New Orleans trip so we would have clean things for church the next morning--it was non-stop go for me that long day. And the energy stayed throughout, keeping me cheerful and capable, meeting all of my family's needs.  As it had felt so amazingly good physically the night before, this night I was aware of how it felt so amazingly good spiritually. I felt like superwoman!

And then, when my last task was done late that night, the energy was done too. It wasn't adrenaline, which I have a hard time coming down from, and which leaves me feeling thin and edgy after a long high--no, this felt like a covering of Grace that was being lifted when I no longer needed it. I didn't have to come down from anything, I just was done, and satisfied. 

I'm like the kids, experiencing and learning new things, on this spiritual journey. I'm recording and sharing them because they are as real and tangible and awe-inspiring as any wondrously featured cave. And sometimes as briefly experienced--I don't know why that energy came and why it has not visited since (much as I could use it at times!), so it feels like one special place I visited and very much enjoyed. I'm better just for knowing it exists.

Monday, August 27, 2018

NOLA Day 3: beignets & plantation

The last morning of our time in New Orleans was completely outside of the original plan, but was a great way to wrap up our stay there. (Well, at least for me and the kids--my parents not so much. They chose to stay back and load the car and check out of the hotel, which seemed the most stress-free course of action, until they ended up experiencing the frustrating consequences of poor communication between the hotel front desk and the valet parking, which kept them waiting way too long. They definitely took one for the team!)

We realized the night before that our streetcar tickets would be good for 24 hours; since we didn't start out our second morning until 10 a.m., that meant we had until 10 a.m. our last morning to get free streetcar travel!

I finally remembered to take a pic of one. The history of these is really interesting!  

So the kids and I headed out on one last adventure together in the French Quarter, doing something that was on my "must do" list but which had not happened the day before because of our family not feeling good enough to enjoy it: beignets at Cafe du Monde. 

Because it is such an iconic New Orleans landmark, it was busy, even early in the morning, but the patio seating was still relaxing.

The change I got back from the waitress. Covered in powdered sugar.

A contented Smiley. Covered in powdered sugar.

After breakfast we walked along the riverfront to the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park visitor center (thank you Susan for the tip!).  

Since I was carrying extra beignets and coffee for my parents, I sent the kids into the center to start learning while I waited--and I found behind the center a stone courtyard complete with bubbling fountain, peaceful and cool. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the moment, sipping my cafe au lait. I don't even drink coffee, but I had bought it with my breakfast because I knew it was the thing to do. It was delicious in this moment.

The kids and I hung around the visitor center learning about the origins and cultures of New Orleans until my parents got successfully out of the hotel and came to pick us up.  

I had so very much wanted to see the famous old cemeteries there in the city, but the best were charging $20 per person for a tour. If we had more time and Mr. Incredible was with us I would have considered it, but as it was we settled for craning our necks and stealing a few photos over the wall.

Strategic siblings.

The planned adventure of the day yet awaited us, further down the coast of Louisiana: visiting a Creole plantation.

With a brief roadside stop to pick sugarcane. And taste it. Because, homeschool.

Some photos from the Laura Plantation tour:

Sometimes the small print tells a big story.

Former slave quarters. 

Still used as a home until the 1970s. 

The tour was interesting, because the stories of generations of Creole people who lived there were interesting, and said so much about the culture of that area and time. They knew so much about it because Laura Locoul Gore, the last owner of the plantation, began a memoir in 1934 of her childhood there. It was discovered by researchers in 1993 and is now published in book form as Memories of the Old Plantation Home. (Eschewing the expensive new copy being sold at the plantation gift shop, I later scored a used copy off of amazon, which we are now reading to follow-up on our learning.)

But the most interesting part of the plantation visit was the discussion I had afterwards in the gift shop, with Robin and Reggie, a couple from the San Francisco area who had been on the tour with us. They had visited another plantation previously the same day--the Whitney plantation, which focuses on the experience of the African-American slaves who lived and worked there. I had considered visiting the Whitney instead of the Laura plantation, but photos online make me think it is the Holocaust Museum of Louisiana plantation museums--intentional, powerful, important and worthwhile, but perhaps too raw and brutal for my youngest, most sensitive kid (who is, at this exact moment, hiding his head from the climactic intensity of a family movie we're all watching--Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, if that tells you anything), which made me not want to make that our only plantation experience. Cry selfishness and white privilege, but I didn't want to end this trip with a depressed and/or traumatized crew. But when I overheard Reggie commenting about the differences between the Whitney and the Laura Plantations to his wife during the tour, I asked them about their experience, as black Americans, with both. 

We stood and talked for over half an hour, Reggie sharing how his family was from Louisiana, where his father, uncles, and grandfather had lived and worked there sharecropping under Jim Crow. But he had never asked them about their stories, never wanted to know. And so only now, in his 50s, is he waking up to all the history that belonged to his family, and himself.  He and Robin shared too about their experiences--as native, city-dwelling Northern Californians--traveling in the South, where in Alabama a cousin they visited told them not to linger in that area at night. Suggesting they would be in physical danger from the Klan or other white supremacists?!  Neither they nor I really knew quite what the cousin had been implying or why, but we were all astounded that such a worry would even exist. Funny, I felt at that moment our being Californians was more of a cultural connection than the color of our skins. I so appreciated Reggie and Robin sharing their story and perspectives, and wish I could contact them again back in CA, to ask about the rest of their journey to connect with family in the South. And maybe I can--as it turns out, Robin has a cousin who owns a restaurant in Soquel, just a few miles away from our home. It's a small world.

Driving away and heading back on the long drive gave us time to talk about all the things we had seen, done and learned. It was a really good trip, but so much to take in. I think we were all glad to head back to home base in Alabama. And then to start planning our second trip with my parents--to the Florida Keys!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

NOLA Day 3: The French Quarter & the Holy Spirit's Still Small Voice

Our second full day in New Orleans we had planned to spend walking around the French Quarter, basically looking around and eating a lot. My parents have been here several times and knew their way around to some must-see tourist sites and good restaurants. I had researched some too, and knew a few things I wanted to see or try. 

But I'll just tell you up front that this day, that I thought would be my favorite day in the city, ended up awry from the beginning. First, after the long day before, we decided to sleep in and head out around 10. We started out physical refreshed and headed for the streetcars that would take us to the French Quarter.

Smiley emulating his Papa. So cute.

Stopping to admire and photograph the amazing Jesuits' Immaculate Conception Church near our hotel.

Definite Moorish influence.

By the time we had transferred to our second trolley, I was aware that everyone was just a wee bit sluggish and crabby. It wasn't overt, the effect was subtle, but somehow everyone seemed to be just a tiny bit grim. Oh, boy.  What kind of a day was this going to be?  I could feel those old codependent urges rising--the guilty pull to feel responsible for everyone's happiness; the urge to fake enthusiasm as a way of pretending all is well, thereby deflecting my own anxiety or disappointment; the need to control a positive outcome and be cheerful enough to lift everyone back up.

Do you see the crazy-making spiritual bondage in all those urges? And these are exactly the things God had already freed me from in my spirit earlier on this trip--and because of that, thankfully, I could see clearly those urges and the choices laid out before me, even as we all rode in silence on the streetcar. How to live out truth and freedom in this moment? How to be ok even if other people aren't? How to rest in peace in Margaritaville, even if there's a storm starting to swirl around/inside me?  (And clearly you see the depths of the bondage I've been in probably my whole adult life--that my family being just a little tired and quiet would set off such strong feelings!)

And then, God showed me the way, through a man who got on the second streetcar to which we had transferred. He was part of a group of black Americans heading the same way we were, and as we rode there was joking and laughing back and forth between members of their group. Except when my Dad struck up conversation with the man we realized that there were really two small groups of people who had been complete strangers until moments before they got on the streetcar, and that realization made the banter and laughter between them all the funnier. Everyone on the streetcar was smiling and chuckling if not laughing out loud, mainly because of this one man and his exuberant spirit that morning, quick to see humor and generous in sharing it.

And right there, riding the streetcar with now smiling family, God's Spirit whispered to my spirit. He used that man to show me a different way to be. I didn't have to fake enthusiasm or force cheerfulness--trying to control an outcome for everyone, making myself somehow responsible for everyone's happiness and the overall success of the day. I could just choose to be happy. Choose to be at peace in the midst of the codependent storm. I could choose to enjoy this day and whatever it had to offer, no matter what. Because of course I can't control a positive outcome for everyone, and I don't want the burden of making the day a success. And I can't choose for anyone else what to do or think or feel, I can only choose for myself. 

And right there on that streetcar something shifted in my spirit; as my mind was renewed with truth, so my spirit responded with grateful peace. I determined that I would enjoy myself, no matter what--not because I had to, but because by the grace of God I could and I wanted to. And God showed me that I could be that man for my family--not responsible for them, not obligated, not faking anything, not trying to artificially bring about a more positive outcome, but able to spread warmth and happiness just by being my own whole, contented, joyful self. 

It's a very subtle difference between the two different ways of being. They might even look very much the same on the outside. But the first way of being was bondage--based on performance, lies, and unhealthy old interpersonal patterns that would have left me anxious and miserable all day. The second way of being was liberation--based upon grace, truth, and choosing to rest in the knowledge of who I am in Christ, which is enough, and which leads to peace. 

All this happened in just a few moments there on the streetcar. By the time we got to our destination, the French Marketplace, I was completely confident that the day was going to be great, no matter what. Not because it had to be, but because no matter what would be perfectly enough!

The French Marketplace probably used to be utilitarian, providing the means for the local population to buy and sell everything needed for living. Now it is food and tourist stuff, and what felt like miles of of interesting local art and souvenirs.

And right away I saw that God's timing of His whispering had been none too early. Because we had not been there 30 minutes when Smiley told me he wasn't feeling good. It was a very hot and humid morning, and while the marketplace was covered so were not walking around in the sun, the heat did feel oppressive that day.  I thought he was just overheated, so he and I parked and sat in the shade by a drinking fountain and I made sure he hydrated (we always travel with hats and water bottles, so were prepared, but it's nice to have cold water from a fountain when battling heat). 

About half an hour later second daughter Merry complained that she was not feeling good either. I had located a little tree-shaded park with a fountain just off the marketplace, so everyone parked there and I zipped around the food area scoping out the best place to get the kids something cool and hydrating. When I found a smoothie shop I brought the family there and we all had lovely mango or Pina colada smoothies. And that started a theme for the day: while I'm trying to be careful about money on this trip, there will be times when spending money seems the wisest course of action at that moment. Fun and tasty is bonus. 

The smoothies were delicious and did help everyone feel somewhat rejuvenated, but yet everyone but me was still sluggish and not feeling all that enthusiastic for walking around the French Quarter taking in the sights, as we had planned. So Dad and I decided to leave everyone resting around the fountain while we went ahead to procure our planned lunch--the original muffuletta from Central Grocery & Deli. Invented in 1906, it is a ginormous sandwich of cold cuts and sliced cheese with a chunky green olive tapenade. I had wanted to try it because it is one of the foods New Orleans is famous for--but while it was very tasty, it was also heavy and greasy and probably did not help everyone's heat queasiness. Still, I'm glad to have tried it, and we finished off all of it!

After lunch we slowly worked our way through the French Quarter, admiring architecture and oddities as we could, and ending up in Jackson Square. The girls and I walked over to see the Mississippi River, but soon joined the others sitting once again on shaded benches. Where we sat. 

Given how the kids were flagging, Mom and Dad must have been feeling it too. They were troopers and didn't complain, but seemed perfectly content to hang out at the park in the shade. We needed a Plan B.

And you can see how the kids were faring at this point. (At one point all three girls were sprawled out.)

It is important to convey that this entire time the Holy Spirit's streetcar sermon had stayed with me. No matter who was not feeling great, no matter how the day was not quite going to plan, it was all ok. I was in perfect peace. I was cheerful because I was content. I was having a good time. Because, hey--if you're going to sit on a bench for half an hour, it might as well be in New Orleans! Whoo-hoo! ; )

I also, miraculously, had loads of energy. Seriously, I believe it was a supernatural energy, not generated by anxiety or dredged up out of necessity, but a generous gift from my loving eternal Father. All morning, while others moved slowly or sat, I was chugging around finding water and bathrooms and shade and smoothies and whatever else my family needed. I was no less aware of the oppressive heat and humidity--I experienced sweat in places I never had before--but somehow I was at peace with it, and it did not affect me. 

So after we had been on those benches for a while and I realized my family was not reviving, I set out to explore options for how to spend the rest of the afternoon, avoiding the worst of the heat and still making the most of our time there. In my research I had learned about The Presbyt√®re, a local museum that sounded like it could be worthwhile, and which was located at the other end of Jackson square. Sunny and Smiley decided to come with me to check it out. 

Walking into the museum, the air conditioning hit--ahhhhhhhh. Sunny and Smiley immediately sagged down to sit on the cool stone floor with their backs to the wall of the small lobby. I gestured they should scoot slightly around a corner where the woman at the counter could not see them, just in case she would be bothered by them there. The museum would be open for another hour and a half. It was reasonably priced for that length of visit. It was the second time that day when wisdom said, it's worth the money. We'd have air conditioning, cold water, and bathrooms, and if people still weren't feeling well--hey, at least they would have interesting things to look at while they sat.

Leaving the two kids silently sprawled in their corner (I was hoping the desk would not notice the unattended children--no point in making them walk back to the others and then back to the museum), I went to collect the rest of the family.  And that museum ended up being exactly what we needed. By the time we left when it closed everyone was much revived in body and spirit.

There were two exhibits going on at the museum, the bottom level dedicated to Hurricane Katrina. That made my geeky homeschool mom heart happy because it tied in perfectly with family learning we had been doing. It was really well done, and I think everyone learned a lot. We had good discussion in the car later about what we had seen, too.

The only pic I took--I appreciated the layers of meaning, which were great to discuss with the kids. Because this sign greeted us at the very beginning of the exhibit, I was a little wary there would be a heavy political bias throughout. But overall the exhibit was very well done, and there were plenty of perspectives shared and not just one narrative.  We learned about the history of the canals and the water engineering decisions that had shaped the city, why the hurricane had the impact it did, how it affected the people of New Orleans, how the mistakes in leadership caused more human suffering than the hurricane and flooding did, how the disaster could have been averted, how the people of New Orleans came together to help each other, and how the city set about rebuilding. There was also a small section on Hurricane Rita that came soon after Katrina, to acknowledge the damage and suffering that happened in the rural areas around New Orleans. 

(Later I followed up the museum experience with learning about the science behind hurricanes and tornadoes, and an excellent short documentary I found on Youtube, which was perfect for showing the responsibilities and failings of the three levels of government in the aftermath of Katrina--which bridged perfectly into our government studies we're starting this fall.)

The top floor of the museum was dedicated to the history of Mardi Gras. There were beautiful costumes, interesting photos, and pretty artistic renderings. . . 

And some displays that I found downright unsettling: 

I think this photo captures how often the beautiful and unsettling were entwined. 

When the museum closed--apparently we are people who close down museums--it was clear that had been a great way to spend the afternoon. Everyone was feeling much better, and it was cooler outside by this time, still hot but much less oppressive, and so we enjoyed much more our walk back through the French District towards that night's dinner destination. 

Preservation Hall, which Sunny and Merry had learned about last semester in their community college Survey of Popular American Music class. 

Of course we had to walk along the infamous Bourbon Street for a spell. Even at 5:30 midweek there were tourists clearly ramping up to party.

I never pass up great backdrops and perfect lighting.

One of the kids turned the camera on me. 

And now that everyone was feeling better, we could enjoy some of what we were there to see--the fascinating architecture. 

Apparently there have historically been a lot of Irish and German immigrants in New Orleans. Who knew?

I also never realized that the French Quarter architecture, for which New Orleans is famous, is heavily Spanish. I mean, it makes sense when you look at it, and know the history of the area, but this was all new to me.

For dinner we went to Maison, a place my parents and my sister Rebecca both like. There was live music--a Cuban jazz band. 

We all spilled into a big booth by the front window and the savvy waiter immediately brought over glasses of water for everyone. Then I ordered a round of sodas--Cokes for the adults and root beer for the kids. We normally don't do soda, but I had a theory the problem all day had been dehydration, and I knew they would drink much more liquid if it was a special treat. And I told them they had to finish their water glasses before they could have the soda. The plan worked. They drank their water, and then their soda before we even got our food. The waiter then brought pitchers of soda so we could refill. They drank at least four large glasses of liquid--and still ate a full meal.

The definite highlight of the meal--Cajun mac n cheese with alligator sausage.  Mmmmmm.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel, glad for the day we had, but glad it was winding down.

Except for the kids, who apparently were ramping up. I think my dehydration theory had been correct, and they were restored by the liquids at dinner. The sugar they consumed must have helped too, as did the lessening heat. Because when we got back to the hotel, the kids begged to visit the exercise room. Where they proceeded to exercise.

Yeah. The same kids who I practically had to drag throughout the French Quarter. all. day.

Lessons learned: a) as they say down here in Alabama, "hydrate or die-drate." b) when in hot places, get going earlier, and time physical activity and air-conditioning to the most logical times of day. c) sometimes $20 worth of soda is actually sensible. d) always listen to that still, small voice. 

All in all, it was a memorable day. Sight-seeing, spiritual lessons, new & tasty foods, and family fun.