There’s this Mary Oliver poem that I read to Lindsy as she drove me to the airport under southern clouds that I cannot find the words to describe—puffy? Languid? Impossibly beautiful? A word that denotes something in relationship to greenery and heat. But Mary Oliver knows how. Here is her line:
I will be that small cloud, staring down at the water,
the one that stalls, that lifts its white legs, that
looks like a lamb.
The world is white thunderheads and green grass. The time is po’boys and long mornings, late nights and grottos, a flowered dress released of its clasp leaving the back of my heart exposed to night, sleep in front of a small fan, turning over the stickiness of my dreams, the air sweet with magnolia, night blooming jasmine, and sweaty, earthy, swamp, papaya, turtle in pond, splashing water babies’ kisses all covered in sweetness. It’s so hot here. So that, in the morning when I step outside the most prolific sensation is the tiny bead of sweat that becomes a line of twine down my whole spine, under my dress like a good secret, waiting to be shared, or a burden to be borne silently. I remember again, as if for the first time that it is good to be a part of the world.
I stand in the sun at Jazzfest to just sway and then sing out loud. My own heart puffs up like the selfsame clouds, with Bonnie Raitt’s voice and her silver streak of hair. And she sings a song I listened to repeatedly when I was an adolescent and which I now understand both more and less. I am surrounded by loved ones and alone. Everything is flux and flow and slowing. I am reminded of a Tom Robbins line about the hungry beast of heat that lives in New Orleans and which to stave off, you must eat. And eat I do. Like I said, po’boys, pulled pork, crawfish dumplings (which aren’t actually called that) with a sort of gumbo and the buttery-est and creamiest, fat oysters I’ve ever had. Add to that mint-rose sweet tea, jambalaya, fried chicken, gumbo, éclairs, breaded eggplant, red peppers with fish inside of them, crisp and bubbly white wine, absinthe, oblivion, hurricanes, and longing. The good kind of trouble.
A friend sends me a letter about the Crescent City while I am there and remarks about the yummy food, giving me a few recommendations and then the last line of his letter, an entreaty, haunts me: Please, be careful. That town can turn dangerous quickly.
On the way home, that line rolls around my mind a bit. I am startled by the realization that New Orleans contains an essence of something we’d often rather ignore: you cannot control everything. There is something wild and exciting in that danger and quickness. Maybe the best you can do is celebrate each moment as it passes, on porches, in the crisp call of a French horn, in the sway of the hips of dark skinned women who are not afraid. Proud black queens. And then it hits me, there are many places in the world that are dangerous but try to hide it. This place seems so unmasked in its guilelessness that it is both frightening and appealing. Don’t get me wrong, nothing bad happened to me there at all. Only delightful, wonderful things happened to me there. But there is a fear-provoking sensation to match the richness that is unmistakable and feels like a part of the fabric of the place itself. It feels as compelling as New Mexico. New Orleans feels like a place saturated. Saturated with color, flavor, scent, music, heat, water, error, desperation and celebration. More than once people remarked to me that there were neighborhoods I should definitely not go into. And I wondered what secrets and disaster lived in those places that might make them so boundless.
And, one evening, just after Jazzfest, I was attempting to ride my bicycle home alone in the dark. I was swallowing gulps of anxiety about my safety. I had no idea where I was going at all, being a bit directionally challenged already. I stopped to ask directions from some women talking on the street. One in particular, who I will call the angel Barbara, put me into her suburban (she was on off duty cab driver who took pity on me) and drove me all the way home. My faith restored, we talked like old friends. More than once she mentioned Katrina and openly shared how it had left its mark on her city. And the mark wasn’t physical; it was psychological. She told me about the school kids who she drives on her other job and how they were emotionally shaped by the hurricane. How it made them terrible. But she told me with a confessional giggle and a smile that, while it did nothing hide the seriousness of her story, did much to make me feel like the open-hearted compassion of this city was making a concerted effort to take it all in stride.
Yet, in writing this, I am struck by the idea that this place shouldn’t, can’t, be spoken of truly by an outsider. In that way it is also much like New Mexico, difficult to describe but so palpable that you must rub yourself up against it until you understand. We understand in a variety of ways; one of them is language. Lindsy teaches me a few phrases that I turn over and they make me laugh. I can’t pronounce the names of streets and she laughs back at me, Decateur, Marigny, Freret, Treme. And, (like another friend of mine relates from a book she is reading) language cannot be separated from place and so place cannot either be separated from language. I do not know the language of Lake Pontchartrain, but I am enrapt nonetheless. On the plane ride it stretches out like an ocean and the man beside me tells me, as if I do not know, that this lake swelled and flooded the city of New Orleans, once, in a storm called Katrina.
On Monday afternoon, Kasey invites me over to his farm. It is on an ancient plot of land and he tells me how old the soil is there and how it misses the floods, which would bring nutrients needed for richness but the ground is now deprived. And yet, he speaks of this quarter acre with such pride and understanding that I see things, not yet growing, coming into being under his attention. And then we get on our bicycles and ride around the street corner so that he can show me an old cypress. This cypress covers its house in shade and is magnificent. We curl like small cats in its direction with wonder. Only Kasey would notice this tree, in this way, and think to share it with me. The way an old friend tells me he loves me. When he knew me best, I was a child and so it is good to return to that place, like a child and look at trees. We ride by beautiful houses and an old cemetery. I am remembering to stop and smell the magnolias with their waxy leaves. My New England life mercifully melts away and I shed a roughness I’ve been building to survive. That roughness indeed also momentarily dissolves into the loving arms of my Taos friends who are there in New Orleans with me. It dissolves into the long days spent in heat and near rivers and swamps. I feel both alive and like I am dreaming in this city. My guess is that I am not the only one to feel this way and that this elusiveness, this lack of boundary between awake and sleep, magic and reality is part of the appeal.
My last night, later in the evening, Johnny and I drive along on the way home from the swimming pool in the Bywater and stumble upon Armstrong Park. We are alone in this inky world with one bright set of lights, out of place and so fantastic that we circle around it in its Treme neighborhood trying to discern what this magical palace is doing in the midnight. And then we drive home through quiet streets, still alive.
As abruptly as my ruminations, my time there ended. I got back on a plane and headed north and left those contradictions behind for a land that is more clearly defined in its borders and boundaries. But, as the Angel Barbara said, you just have to remember, this city is like a crescent, and everything curves. But it meets up again eventually. The roads lead into each other. After all, New Orleans knows it’s ok to be both dark and light all at once, that might just be where the magic is born. And we all need a little magic in our lives…