The problem with believing in anything is that belief itself is a delicate thing.
Last week I met a small business owner, Stephanie Chambliss, who recently opened a PJ’s coffee shop in New Orleans East. Many folks from New Orleans who hear about anything in New Orleans East have an instinct to hear it and forget it, sort of like when at a cocktail party you meet someone and immediately forget their name because you know you’ll never see them again. It’s understandable that New Orleans East bears the brunt of forgetfulness. The once vibrant, middle-class stomping grounds of the '70s and '80s took on crime in the '90s and Katrina in the early 2000s without a prayer’s chance of winning. The East lost badly. Today it’s heavily blighted and lacks the obvious presence of promise. No one’s putting a Shake Shack there anytime soon.
But this lone coffee shop down Read Boulevard has given the East something it hasn’t seen in a long while--possibility. The owner didn’t live in the East until high school. She grew up Uptown, but she spent her weekends in the East, roller-skating on Chef Menteur Highway. I’m the opposite. I grew up in the East and now live Uptown. Whenever I say where I’m from locals’ reactions are almost always the same--a mixture of curiosity and fascination. Newer residents have no reaction. They just nod. I might as well say I’m from St. Rose--the last neighborhood before a big interstate stretch of an I-10 trip. So I was so excited when I met this pioneer in the East and asked, “Of all the places in New Orleans she could have chosen to open a PJ’s, why the underdog of New Orleans?”
She knew she could make a difference where no one else was. There, among the ruins of the forgotten suburb, her work mattered.
She got me thinking…
There’s money--the obvious driving force behind why we get out of bed and get going. For some, that’s the brass tacks. I needed a job. How many times have we heard someone say that when explaining away a job situation? For others, there’s an obvious calling. She was born to do that, we might say, basking in the flyaways of someone’s success. Uniting both is the belief that things can always be better. It’s the wind beneath the humdrum layers of the job we just do to pay rent, while clinging to the hope that one day we’ll break through to something better. And it’s why those who’ve made it big don’t stop their hustle. But there’s something else that drives us, far more powerful and far more fragile. Deep down at the core of why we do what we do every day is the innocent belief that the mark we leave behind could be noticeable, could make a lasting impression, and that all of this--the good, the bad--would have mattered. It’s the selfish selflessness that gives us the guts to take chances.
That tiny little book shop where the owner knows the book I should read next before I do, the grocery stores that pack my groceries like they are made of the finest silk instead of tossing them in plastic bags, and the taco restaurant where I see the tortillas hand made and nothing is “nuked to order” believe in what they do enough to keep going even as big stores with deep pockets inch closer. From the outside, we see their determination and applaud their drive, but we also consider them with a certain degree of pity that we never give flashy companies. No one feels sorry for Amazon. But we do for the small business owner because we know the crushing blow of trying and failing--the universal stumble and fall we don’t talk about enough. We’ve all been wrong about something. We’ve all stuck out like a sore thumb. We've all hated the ego sting so much that we let it prevent us from trying again because belief itself is a delicate thing.
You can spot those whose belief is broken: A teacher who no longer stays after school for the students who are behind, a mom who dropped her stay-at-home pyramid scheme job, an artist who now wears a suit and works in a cubicle all day, or maybe the second string volleyball player who didn’t try out this season. Sometimes we have to put our nose to the grind and put aside our ambitions for responsibility. Just as often, we quit because our ego tells us to do so.
I am no stranger to ego. Each week I choose a topic for my tiny slice of the publishing world, and I’ll be honest with you, my topics are rarely written at whim. I accept this challenge like it’s a job I’m not just working because I need it. It is my starry-eyed belief that thousands of someones will latch onto my latest thought train and follow along until we’re kum ba yahing at the end, ready to make the world woke. In reality, off my blog goes into the internet netherworld where I don’t know if it makes a damn bit of difference or if it face-plants. Occasionally when I share it on my social media, I get that validation I crave, but often...crickets. I can string together fifteen of the most fabulous hashtags and Instagram still gives a collective yawn. It’s social media’s cruel game where millions of people can be brought together while simultaneously making you feel like the last loser standing.
So why do I bother? Why do you? Why do any of us keep trying even though half the time we’ve stopped believing that our work matters?
Because when it does matter to someone, their belief in us has the power to reignite our flame. Sometimes it takes just one person to mend our belief that we can make a difference.
Two weeks ago I received a gift all the way from Canada. It was from a reader who found this blog via a social media post that I assumed was wasted effort. Little did I know she had been following along since about the middle of last year, through November when my father passed away, and still follows now. When I opened the gift box, inside I found a pink bracelet, engraved with Pop’s birth date and death date--something to wear and keep his memory present as I write. I’ve certainly never been given anything so personal from a total stranger. I pictured her back in Canada, waiting for her weekly dose of my crazy to splash across her computer screen. You mean, the catalogued meltdowns and hot messes that so often I pictured vanishing almost as soon as they published actually mattered? And if she read them, who else has? Who is reading this now? It’s altogether humbling to realize just how significant you really are because with that startling realization comes a conviction to stop worrying about what’s superficial and to start placing your heart into your strongest attributes.
My work matters. Your work matters. Like The Starfish Story, it matters to someone.
I know enough to know that each one of us has a Starfish Story to tell. We matter by not giving in to the fragility of belief. Doubt just might be the biggest evil in the world because we don’t know what it has prevented--cures, discoveries, great works of art, and so many stories that never went to press. What a waste of belief. And I think that just as we have starfish in our lives--like my Candadian reader--we are starfish, ourselves, every time we take a chance on someone, acknowledge their effort, their place in this world, and remind them that we need their lasting difference.
Stephanie Chambliss believes New Orleans East is a viable market. Stephanie Chambliss believed that belief isn’t something someone decides for you. Otherwise she would have believed what people told her about The East. She held to her truth. She saw an opportunity to give thousands of forgotten New Orleanians opportunity. She is not just the girl on the beach, tossing starfish in the ocean. To the people in New Orleans East, delighting in a cup of fresh, locally brewed coffee in a clean, comfortable café, she is their starfish too.
Because they matter to each other.
“The Starfish Story”
A young girl was walking along the beach one morning after a storm. The beach was littered with starfish as far as she could see. Walking along, the girl stopped and picked up starfish, one after the other, and threw them back into the sea.
An old man stopped the girl and asked what she was doing.
“The starfish will die in the hot sun unless I throw them back,” she explained.
“But there are millions of starfish,” the man countered. “What difference does it make? What you’re doing doesn’t matter.”
The little girl, filled with purpose and the belief in who she was and who she was meant to be, picked up a starfish, turned to the old man and said, “It matters to this one.”
With that, she tossed the starfish into the sea and continued her work, leaving the old man behind.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.