(written after the August, 2016 floods)
Louisiana – home, and homage in hard times –
Sometimes, you really can go home. A decade ago, I never would have imagined that anything about Louisiana would draw me back. Not the hellfire heat, not the motley mess of history and values and quirks and flat land and murky waters. Not what I had seen, for most of my younger adult years, as the small-minded, overly-polite, racially tense, slighty dangerous morass of overeating and overdrinking and gun-toting and codependence and rigid religiosity. I had broken free!
But after the death of a beloved 102 year old aunt (who had, herself, escaped), I brought her ashes home. I stood at the door of the church in the tiny town where seven generations of our family had been born and raised, and saw faces I hadn’t seen for 50 years. I went to a cousin-hosted gathering where plenty of food and even more people were served up, and I tried to learn who was related to whom. (Pretty much everyone, as it turned out).
My body remembered those people, and that place….the way the air smelled when the river was high and water crept over the land, the high pitched drone of cicadas in trees, and the fierce mosquitos, the low flat fields. Trains hooting in the night, the ancient, moss-bearded trees whose limbs scooped down to the ground. And Cherry Bounce, and crawfish, and alligators. Herons rising over the levee. Names from the past rolled by like dream-scapes of childhood as I walked by the old homes – Tante Fafitte and Uncle Bizou, Tante Ella, Tante Loule, Mamere Martin, and Manny and Bebe, and Sunny J, on and on.
I wrote in my journal later how odd and sweet it felt – how unexpected, that sinking into family soup. I couldn’t get enough. A fierce and hungry body-love for that flesh of my flesh, and for the land my own roots had known since my feet could walk that heavy soil, came over me, and wouldn’t let go. I wanted to go home. And so I did.
This past year, after living in Maine for 30 years, I trekked down to Louisiana in January, and settled in. I bought a little house only a five minute walk from where my father had been born. I stood on the levee behind the house, and was swamped by an overwhelming homage and gratitude for the heavy impossible soil, damp air, the green tangles and wild throbbings. And for the long and wide and not-quite-tamed river of our people, and their courage to take it all on – the unpredictable skies, the ever-present political corruption, the river that rises and threatens and nourishes and rolls on and on.
It was so good to be there. But it wasn’t all easy. Louisiana is a complex place. So much of what I ran away from years ago is still there. I wasn’t sure what to do with my own values shaped by three decades of northeastern influence and liberal thinking and Protestant ethic. I really didn’t want to give those up.
But I began to understand some things. One cousin talked about the gun she carries when she goes down the bayou in a boat, fishing alone. My near-pacifist self cringed, but I could see her concern: there could be alligators, or wild boars, or who-knows-what. I went with a cousin-in-law to his job with National Guard pilots who were coming in from a practice run. He was so proud of those guys, so in love with the planes. He explained the problems of landing – how feral pigs would run out of the woods toward the jets. Or how seagulls would fly right into an engine, and how dangerous that could be. While we were talking, one jet screamed in to land. My cousin gently grabbed my shoulders, turned me around to face away from the jet. I didn’t know why – until the plane landed, and the fierce, strong wind of exhaust blew straight at us. He’d been protecting me.
So far, being down there hasn’t changed my hard-won values. But its changed how I see theirs. And I still have a lot to learn.
Now, from my safe and dry seasonal perch in Maine, the devastation in Louisiana just breaks my heart. I wonder how they’ll recover. The state, and its people, are nothing if not resilient. Already, volunteers have banded together, gathered boats and food and bottled water and supplies, and headed toward the disaster areas to help out. The “Cajun Navy,” they call themselves. One cousin sent me a photo of folks going out in a boat to rescue people, and to bring supplies. A motto was printed across the page – “In South Louisiana, we don’t wait for help. We are the help.” Another posted websites where donations might be made. And another is helping to find foster shelters for animals abandoned during the floods. She was running out to find buckets for 600 rescued horses in a temporary shelter. Where the heck do you buy 600 buckets?! But I know she’ll find out.
As a country, we have a tendency to ignore Louisiana, and remain nationally ignorant of the importance of the deltas, the marshes and swamps, not just for flavorful and abundant seafood, but for their critical role in protecting the coast. And there are other hidden graces you might now know about: how family is everything; how fabulous food can be when you pay attention to every cooking step; how you can disagree about some very basic values and still love people to pieces. How you can straddle the mess of what still needs to change, and remain wholeheartedly committed to a place where you sprouted up.
For most of us, when we talk about climate change and how it will affect island nations and low-lying areas of our own country, it’s still a theoretical exercise. For Louisiana, its a reality much too close to home. It is smack on the doorstep. Or washing over it.
I wish I were there now. I wish I could help. I wish I could see it all, and share the sad struggle . But what could I do, really?
Well…I’m telling you now: it’s a good place. If you were in trouble, people there would do whatever they could to help, no questions asked. If you just happened to drop by, the door would always be open and the kitchen bubbling with something fabulous to eat. And you’d be handed a plate and told to help yourself.
I know that means something. No matter what our political persuasions might be, Louisiana represents something of our country’s best values. I think that’s too important to lose.