Sunday, January 14, 2007
The Unbearable Lightess of Bienville
New Orleans is in some ways always a strange city, even to those of us who are from here: the original island of misfit toys. It is the one place I feel entirely comfortable, something my wife long knew and which lead her to agree to move here even in the uncertain days after the storm. She does not suffer from that particular strange attraction. I (and a handful of my oldest friends) are misfit toys enough for her. As much as she loves the food and the music and the atmosphere of New Orleans her real pleasures are closer to home, something I believe is a natural part of being a mid-westerner, an attachment to the hearth that is central to life in a cold climate.
And so it was more than a bit surprising last night when I stayed home to change and finish laying out the food for a Twelfth Night party while she took the children up the street to usher in Carnival at the start of the Phorty Phunny Phellows annual streetcar parade. That she naturally accepted my suggestion that she go while I hold down the fort, that she be in charge of taking the children to the first event of their first Carnival as Orleanians was the crossing of an invisible line just as she approached her first anniversary here, a more significant act than buying a house or serving her first holiday dinner here.
She became, in that moment, an Orleanian.
My own sense of myself as an Orleanian, my feeling of being home, comes to me in similarly small moments. An absence of nineteen years is enough to disrupt my sense of being "home". On top of that, there is the profound change in geography and society that the Federal Flood brought about. At first it was a daily wonder just to rise and walk the length of my shotgun home to the craftsman porch and look out and see not the wide suburban streets of Fargo buried in snow, but to see New Orleans.
The longer I am here, however, the easier it is just to slip into the routine of life and forget the tremendous sacrifice my wife made to allow us to be here, the miracle of all that came together to make it possible, to lose the sense of wonder. Wonder does not get the laundry done or the children to school. It doesn't get up and go downtown everyday to pay the bills.
Still it continues to creep up behind me and tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it. Standing in my doorway watching it rain last Sunday, the latest among scores of rainy winter Sunday's I spent here in the first 30 years of my life, it happened again. It was as if all the memories of all of those Sundays woke in me at once, came thundering up my spine into my brain shouting: this, this is what a rainy January Sunday morning is like in New Orleans. Remember.
It was a moment in which I understood what Joyce meant by an epiphany. It was an awakening to the very moment, a freeze frame of experience--the smeary house fronts across the street through the curtain of rain in the flat grey light, the hiss of the rain on pavement and the chuckling of a downspout dumping the water off of the roof all on this particular dreary morning--and yet it partook of every other rainy Sunday afternoon I had ever known here, was a visceral experience of not just my own memories but those of every Folse who watched a the rainfall out of a window in Louisiana over nearly three centuries. Just as I had on a rainy afternoon last summer, I reclaimed in a moment of commonplace another small bit of myself as an Orleanian, took possession of or was possessed by this particular point in time and space and felt myself suddenly and profoundly at home in that moment.
That same evening I returned from an errand to Metairie. The unavoidable shopping trips up Metairie Road or Veterans reinforce a sense of the common place: so many things about where I left them 20 years ago, down to the game room next to Dorignacs where I squandered some of my youth. There is no haunting backdrop of shell buildings and debris, no immediate reminder of the catastrophe. As the commonplace replaces the remarkable, its easy to forget that I am living in an incredible place and time, washed up on my own personal Ithaca after a journey fraught with peril and wonders. And still the movies must go back and there must be milk for breakfast, and so the wonderful is set aside in favor of the practical.
As I came back from the Metairie Road exit and turned off City Park Avenue onto Bienville, driving slowly and looking around to see who had taken down the Xmas lights and who had hung up their Carnival decorations, the intersection of a bit of song and perhaps a scent or trick of the light and I was suddenly struck by the painfully obvious: I was driving up Bienville to my house in New Orleans. The dark street that rolled past took on the magical quality of a film, one in which the suspension of disbelief is so complete that I entered into that scene as through a door and found myself in another place: at home, in New Orleans. At that thought, something incredibly warm rose up from somewhere just beneath my heart and spread through my body, blooming as it reached my head like a lotus flower and shaping my face so that I knew I had the biggest, stupidest looking grin imaginable on my face.
As the feeling slowly passed I turned left off Bienville at North St. Patrick toward Toulouse Street, but I was already home.
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And today for the first time in a long time I think we are going to be ok.
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