Friday, November 19, 2010

Falling up

I am not sure how to write about my feelings for New Orleans. So many people have; it’s almost a cliché. But though my emerging attachment to this place is hardly unique, it is real and mysterious enough for me to want to share.

Before becoming a NOLA transplant, I spent 7 years in Ithaca, New York--not a place I was lukewarm about. During several years away, living in New Mexico, Virginia, and Alabama, it haunted me. There is a joke that because Ithaca is in a valley, it boasts a gravity that sucks people back in. In my house in Alabama where, as a poetry grad student, I spent most of each day writing, I had daydreamed of Ithaca: the lake with different colors of ice; waterfalls gushing each spring; the tidy grid of streets, yards messy with flowers; the high likelihood of glimpsing Tibetan Buddhist monks around in red and orange robes. During my last stint in I-town (as it is called), I often walked with Sara in her stroller along Cascadilla Creek. Watching the ducks or geese drifting by, and dreadlocked youths streaming in and out of Gimme Coffee across from a pretty park, I felt I was in a paradise of beauty and simplicity.

When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. Like, at all. I envisioned myself buying one of the Victorians in the coveted Fall Creek neighborhood and settling in. At the time I could have done so (probably a ranch, not a Victorian) thanks to an inheritance from my grandmother. I had a support network of friends and my mom 3 hours away to help with Sara; she and I lived in a spacious apartment in one of the downtown’s “high-rise” buildings (i.e., it had 5 floors) where there was a balcony from which we could see the whole city and surrounding farmland. Packing up in July 2009, I felt a huge ache.

At the time, my then-boyfriend and child’s father was heading to Tulane Law. Things between us were tenuous. If he left and I stayed, I felt, I would always wonder if I could have made it work, and would bear the responsibility of depriving my child of a day-to-day relationship with her dad. It was a natural time for me to think of leaving, too, since I craved a change in my career situation and—laughably—thought New Orleans would have more, not fewer, opportunities. Delusion is probably a big reason why anyone does anything in life.

But in the end, I moved because of a dream. I am not a religious person except when it comes to Mary of Guadalupe, whose images/statuettes have taken over my décor in the past ten years. So I prayed for an answer—stay or face an uncertain move—requesting that Mary’s response be as immediate and unambiguous as possible. That night, I dreamed that my boyfriend and I were in a boat together suspended in the sky over New Orleans. He skillfully guided the boat down to land on Lake Pontchartrain. It was like a precognitive dream for dummies.

The first months in New Orleans, though, were reminiscent of Biblical plagues rather than an affirmation of my divinely-guided choice. Car break-in and GPS theft were followed by months of scabies (if you don’t know what that is…good). The almost-immediate breakup with my boyfriend segued to 10 days of homelessness when the energy company killed the power at my new apartment. That October I somehow found myself on 3 leases at once, with no job; subsequently, over 6 months and with a Master’s, I could not land even one interview (eventually securing a temp position with the Census).

Yet New Orleans gave me things I didn’t even know I was missing. Ripe citrus on trees in November; king cake; the St. Charles streetcar lit up at night, full of tourists eager to abandon themselves to this place of muscular oaks and joyous funerals and decadent cuisine. Several friends I know of were arrested here in their youth, because it’s that kind of place where you do things to excess. When you lose, you lose big, and when you receive, you have more than your arms can hold.

Like any experience of love, my love for this city has been complicated. I resent the insufficient drainage system that causes water to gush up onto my lawn almost every time it rains; and I was exalted after the Superbowl win when people in the Carrollton neighborhood (where I watched the game) stopped their cars in the middle of the road, jumped out, and hugged strangers. Due to the endless summers, everyone always seems to be partying like it’s prom night or New Years, so there is pressure to make every day and night a tremendous event: to be, as one of my Counseling classmates labels it, a “fun-seeker.” If you feel isolated in such an atmosphere there is not much support, and it can be challenging to break into groups that have been established for years among locals.

Last Friday, I witnessed a brass band playing outside near Frenchmen Street, the bohemian hub of New Orleans nightlife. Watching the musicians, I didn’t want to stand still, and I could feel that happy energy in the crowd of strangers around me. Wanting to dance in a crowd outside is what this city is about. It is also about yellow-tape crime scenes and poor neighborhoods lacking any trees to shelter residents from the brutal months of heat, the monsoon-like rains. There is no illusion of anything being egalitarian or offered easily. When you can’t get a job in your field, your water is shut off due to a bureaucratic misunderstanding, and you are part of the massive population on Medicaid, there is a sense of living close to the fundamentals of life, having to discern and love what is of greatest value.

And I try to. I love that my daughter is growing up here, that—in contrast to my early, homogenous environment in the North—she is among kids of diverse backgrounds at daycare. I am excited that she will be able to claim this place, with its unique resemblance of European and Caribbean cities, as part of her identity. She won’t have to mumble, “I’m from…Jersey,” as I do every time someone asks my origins. Growing up in New Orleans will give Sara years of conversation at parties, at the very least.

As for me, what this place will provide in the final analysis (as my grandmother used to say) is a mystery. I have experienced its chaos and my own insecurity, felt keenly the Otherness that excludes and attracts me. Here, I am invited to be stronger than I have ever been rather than remaining a person who is self-characterized as “Falling Over” (the previous name of this blog). It is easy to fall: fall in love, fall apart. It’s a matter of gravity and of old patterns. It is harder, and richer, to rise.