Laura Madden's Blog

Stories of change

Sister Cities

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It’s bittersweet for me to post photos of Salvador. This city in northeastern Brazil reminds me so much of New Orleans, that battered city in the Southern US where I volunteered after Katrina hit. Both cities share more than a warm climate and rich culture of music. What Americans call southern hospitality Brazilians call axê. These sister cities also both have a vibrant cultural scene with a blend of Christian and African religious rituals.

Salvador’s woes aren’t environmental – that is to say, it’s not under as immediate a threat as NOLA. No, Salvador’s danger is people: specifically, gentrification. The colonial city is bursting at the seams as some of Brazil’s biggest corporations set up shop, pushing out its poor and lower class inhabitants as the cost of living soars. There is even a shantytown that the locals have named City of Plastic. Tarps and plastic bags make up the tent-houses that protect its residents from the rains.

Soteropolitanos like to joke that their city has enough churches to celebrate the feast of a saint on every blessed day of the year. The following photos are a glimpse of what it means to feast, a preferred pastime of these sister cities. Why, just a few nights ago, The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac joked that as an oil slick approximately three times the size of Rhode Island floats toward the gulf coast, New Orleanians are busying themselves doing what they do at holidays and funerals, in the face of joy or disaster: partying.

A young woman is bathed in popcorn on the feast of São Lázaro. Popcorn is the food that appeases Omulú, the catholic saint’s corresponding orixá in the afro-brazilian religion of condomblé.

A mãe santa, or condomblé priestess, participates in catholic mass by filling the church with flower petals.

The sun comes up on Rio Vermelho as street vendors and devotees of Yemnajá gather to celebrate the feast of this goddess of the ocean.

In exchange for answers to their prayers, devotees offer flowers to Yemnajá, placing their flowers in a group offering that is taken out to sea in a large fishing boat at the end of the day.

Others prefer to put their offering in personally at the water’s edge.

Sometimes Yemnajá will reject an offering, leaving certain prayers unanswered.

Oh that we only saw flowers wash up on earth’s beaches! To volunteer with the gulf coast cleanup effort, or to donate, follow the link below. Thanks for reading.


Written by Laura Madden

May 10, 2010 at 12:33 am

Gesturing As Communication

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In 2008, I went to China to attend the Beijing Olympics. Speaking no Mandarin, I managed to get around just fine because the government had packed the city with English-speakers. In more provincial areas, however, I had to rely on that age-old traveler’s crutch: gesturing.

In China, I can’t count the times I gestured for the bill and received a pen and paper. When I finally did get the bill, the cost was the hand signal I’ve known all my life to mean “hang loose” and I would find myself trying to communicate “Dude, I gotta jet. How much is my bill?”

Topping the list of instances where gesturing is a bad idea is with your hair stylist. Try to explain you just want a trim because you’re growing your hair out. How do you pantomime long layers? How will your hairdresser communicate a counter-suggestion? Just trust me, the outcome will not be what you’re expecting.

Communication with an octogenarian taxi driver in Dujianyan (Sichuan province) proved difficult. After each of his sentences, I sheepishly repeated my newfound Mandarin catch phrase, wo ting budon (I don’t understand). I eventually made myself understood by yelping as we drove by half-toppled buildings, probably damaged in the 8.0- magnitude earthquake earlier that year. I asked him, via gesture, whether this was the case. A simple nod was the answer. During the quake, he had fallen down and been hit by some debris, cutting a gash in his head, his index finger indicating the trail where the blood had trickled from his temple to his chin.

Tired from my long day of communication, I wandered around the neighborhood where I was staying. In search of some retail therapy, I stumbled into a lingerie store. Now, I love the idea of shopping in a lingerie store. I always imagine having some magical experience where I’ll walk out with a bunch of sexy bra and panty sets that will make me feel like a new woman. What usually happens is I’ll walk out of Victoria’s Secret in a huff, primarily because they call thirty bucks a sale. They also don’t make non-padded, non-underwire bras for women who have accepted their mammary lot in life.

So naturally, in the Chinese lingerie store, I walked past the beautiful silk bras and headed straight to the pajama section. The saleswoman stepped forward to greet me. She was wearing a smart knee-length skirt with pumps and the most adorable red shirt made of double-layered chiffon. Sheer ruffles around the neck dipped and criss-crossed the front of the shirt, making her look like a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

I wandered unexpectedly into the bra section, and the saleswoman excitedly began to take bras off the rack for me. Caught off guard, I was unable to gesture that I prefer simple cotton bras that don’t falsely advertise my goods, thankyouverymuch. She nudged me toward the fitting room and in I went with three sets of pajamas and a padded bra.

After getting changed into the most depressingly cute-except-when-on-me pajama sets, the red shirt lady joined me in the dressing room with another handful of padded bras. Annoyed, I glanced in the direction of the one she’d given me to try on earlier, still untouched on its hanger. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. In the dressing room, I realized, all need for communication is checked at the curtain.

She shoves the bra at me, an admittedly cute little padded thing with a floral design on a silky-soft material, and I grudgingly put it on. Reaching into each cup of the bra, she pushes my boobs together, then grabs my ribcage and squeezes just below the underwire. Stepping away, she smiles at her handiwork, and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Holy cow, I have cleavage! She hands me my t-shirt so that I can see how I’ll look in my clothes. Not too bad… actually, kind of cute. She models her own rack to show how these bras make the bustline look smooth.

I peek at the pricetag. 30 yuan? Sign me up, sister! You got another one of these puppies laying around? Yeah I’ll try it on! Again with the breast adjustment, and the t-shirt test. I smile widely, gesturing that I’ll take the pair. Ripping the tags off one, she hands it back to me and takes my old bra with her, fake-tossing it in the wastebasket. The last clear message of the day: “Get rid of that thing.”

Written by Laura Madden

May 10, 2010 at 12:18 am

The photographic portfolio

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Warning: some images are graphic.

Written by Laura Madden

May 10, 2010 at 12:10 am

Lafayette Avenue Community Acupuncture

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I used to get migraines- splitting headaches exacerbated by looking at anything, listening to anything or smelling anything. I missed days of work on end, stuck in bed with a throbbing headache that would make me puke. That all changed when I started seeing an acupuncturist last spring.

In 2007, I had been telling my friend, Hope, then a student at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, about my headaches. She asked me if I’d like some seeds for my ears.


“Seeds that I press into certain parts of your ear. Each part of your ear represents a different part of your body,” she explained.

“Well, what part of the ear represents my head?”

Months later, Hope excitedly told me the news: upon graduation from the Swedish Institute, she and her peer, JoseLo, would open a community acupuncture clinic. The best part: it was at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, a 5 minute walk from my place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

LAPC was founded by militant abolitionist Theodore Ledyard Cuyler in 1857, who pressed president Abraham Lincoln relentlessly on the emancipation of slaves in the south. Under the direction of a different pastor, the Presbyterian church was later opened in Korea. In the early 1970s, to reflect its multiracial, multicultural community, the church commissioned a mural for its upper balcony by a young Pratt Institute artist, Hank Prussing. LAPC continues to grow as an inner-city church with a strong gospel foundation; outstanding music (including the best choirs in the city); a full menu of education programs and social service projects; and a high profile in the community. Many of its members, feeling alienated by more traditional church models, have “discovered” LAPC after attending a show or course.

Walking through the church offices to the clinic is like an enviro-warp: noisy construction and the rainy weather outside are soothed by the scent of incense and the sounds of Buddhist meditations. Sitting down at a table to fill out a comprehensive medical history chart, memories from childhood flooded back about my health- why, yes I did have bloody noses as a kid, those veins had been cauterized… Why yes, I had suffered trauma- I’d had a car accident in which my face hit the steering wheel… Why yes, actually my job is pretty stressful managing a team of six assistant editors, a coordinator, and 12 edit rooms all with different deadlines. No wonder I have headaches….

Two needles on either side of my temple, a couple in each wrist, and a few in each leg later, I was sailing. I couldn’t move for, like, half an hour. Any time I thought about work, I clenched my jaw, which hurt at the points where the needles were sticking out of my temple. The lesson was not lost on me: don’t think about work when you’re not there. I went back the following Tuesday, and every Tuesday for the next couple months. My headaches aren’t completely gone, but I am way better able to manage them.

Appointments are walk-in only on Mondays and Wednesdays between 10am and 3pm- soon they’ll be open Saturdays, too. Two board-certified graduates of the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences run the place — one currently on paternity leave — and they charge their rates on a sliding scale between $10-$50 per visit.

Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church
85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11217
Ph: (718) 625-7515

Written by Laura Madden

May 9, 2010 at 10:22 pm