Walking Home

The first overcast morning in New Orleans feebly sprinkles tiny, warm droplets. It’s early and quiet. Something about rain, in New Orleans is strange, even as light and harmless as it’s falling now. My mind tired from a late night, drenched in green, gold and pearl beads and fake flowers in exchange for one St. Patty’s Day kiss on the cheek, after another. I’d just dropped off the rental car (driving to the office across town after reading the “closed – drop off at Convention Center” post-it note slapped over the “Open Monday 8am – 5pm.” It’s typical New Orleans.) Can we call a taxi for you? No I’ll walk. I’m already halfway out the door before they catch me with the receipt. I’m ready to go.

I walk through the gray morning. Trying to think about nothing after thinking so much the last few days.

It’s the sound of a lone trumpet, somewhere. It echoes off the high stone walls until it feels like I’m surrounded. (Stage Instructions: Cue the trumpet and please tell me what is this movie I’ve feel like I’ve been staring in lately?! I’m growing weary of the poignant moments…but here it is in front of me..) Playing through the morning fog the old gospel revival notes I know so well, “so sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” Then silvery notes get lost in the grumble of a delivery truck rattling down the street, the laughter of kids, the yelling of a thick man whose waiting for the traffic light to change.

As I keep walking, I find it again, a little stronger ”Once was lost but now am found…” My head aches, but it pushes my legs faster, stronger. Through the warm water and gray clouds, through the empty square, past the empty, folded chairs the street psychics had abandoned, past the giant silent church, past dark, quiet restaurants with rows of tables set in linen and china, waiting for the fever of another New Orleans night to begin, again. The final notes trickle slowly then cease, ”Was blind but now I see…”

The city exhales. Palm leaves rustle with the warm wind. A shuttered window slams closed. I keep walking.

It’s bittersweet. But how amazing is this? Being here, now. Living this, now. It’s not the best day, but I’m here. I would not be here, doing this now, but for a series of events–some amazing, some difficult. But all necessary. Now I’m seeing and feeling, in this moment, what no one else will ever see again.

Life is so abbreviated. How much time do I spend; running, chasing, worrying, fearing. Forgetting that, always, there is beauty to enjoy – even in these gray mornings. The gray itself is breath-taking. It’s different from anything else.

It’s worth the time it takes to walk home. In fact, I need to take time for myself and slow down to a walk. In writing about this morning, every morning, on this trip away, I realize I’ve found some perspective and peace, and acceptance that this too has meaning and purpose. It’s part of the adventure – not knowing what’s around the next corner. Just have to keep walking to it. What’s more, in these days, I’ve discovered something. Even though I’ve been writing since I was given a pink-paper diary when I was eight, I’ve been embarrassed by my clumsy prose and unsure what it was I wanted to say. Now, broken open, heart fluttering with nervous excitement, I’m somehow finding my own words. I’m finding my own voice. It’s not what I thought it would be, nothing really is, but it’s mine own and that feels good.

And I realize this more than anything. I realize I’m ready now. I’m ready to be home.

In the smokey distance, the trumpeter suddenly picks up the tempo and shoots out a happy, roller-coaster of a scale — keeping in time with my thoughts, or perhaps my heart keeping in time with his -– it’s a new, modified, jazzy version of Amazing Grace. Upbeat, hopeful, happy. My feet trip trying to keep up with the new pace of things.

It feels good to know again what I want and need. It feels good to realize I want to go home now. I’m ready. I smile. I suppose sometimes you have to leave. Get away from everything to know what it is you miss the most. To discover the things you think of when you are far away from all you recognize – those are the things that are most important. Those are the things worth keeping.

I make my list as I keep walking. The cozy little house with cedar shingles on Findlay Street, my peaceful little garden, my writing, the snow (oh the snow!), the bikes, the adventures of falling down and getting beat up and getting back up and trying again, taking my new nephew snowboarding, meeting my niece-to-be, laughing with my sisters, hugging my mother and father, talking to my brother, making new plans with old friends, living, realizing, learning – open and honest and kind as I can be – trying again, again, and love. Most of all, love.

He’s playing on the corner of Conti and Chartes. A faded, old accordion, that sounds like the French riviera forlorn but hopeful, playing in a faded vest and cap. I open up my wallet and give him every dollar I have. I want him to have it all and hold nothing back.

A Long Drive

I keep driving and writing. North through Alexandria, east to the cold cobblestones of Natchitoches, through dark pines and green grass. Then south. Tired of the cold rain, I head back south to the water and endless bayous.

At my hotel in New Iberia (where the room comes complete with complimentary Tar-Off!), the batteries on the door die while I’m outside packing the car. I’m locked out. It’s pouring rain – the first cold and wet day in two weeks. The maintenance guy works the battery case as we talk about his previous job working on the bottling manufacturing line at the McIlhenny Tabasco plant on Avery Island (yes, it’s the tabasco everyone uses, no it’s not really an island). We talk about Seattle, the mechanics of mass production, the sudden change in the weather.

He stops to look up at me, “It’ll all change again. But now, it is what it be, ma’am” waving around him, “It is what it be.”

I smile. Driving off, wipers on high, swishing sheets of cold rain across the glass so I can see through the dark morning – I know my site-seeing will be limited today. Nothing more to do than drive, think, sing. Well, it is what it be…

I promised myself then, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most everything else is small stuff, he tells me as we sit on his couch, practicing ways to navigate the space separating his world and mine.

It wasn’t the only thing I learned from him. Twenty-eight. I’d bought my own home and spent weekends getting lost in my little garden. I was tied to a 9 – 5 office job scheming of ways to someday being a girl who was adventurous and free, not just on weekends but for always — in the meantime I threw myself at every challenge on my corporate climb up, making a point to always, no matter what, wear flip flops to work. Lots of flip flops.

With him it’s different, I feel like I’ve met a friend, my equal, a partner who also tries to walk that line between kickass and kind. And we begin walking together now. It’s new, different, interesting. I feel calm and curious, excited. I look back at see now how the turns and dusty falls of my past have prepared me for this. And yet, it’s like nothing else.

You can do it he tells me. I look at a group of guys standing around him. He winks and says a little softer, I know you can do it. I’ll stand here to catch you if you fall.

It’s the perfect little push mixed with reassurance. I hop off my bike and smile. Walk through the dust just around the corner. I can’t see him, but I know he’s still standing there.

And if you fall, I tell myself, you’ll get back up, smile, and try again. Three times. Try at least three times. Even the best fall down sometimes, you just have to keep trying.

Feet clip in, heart pounds, mouth dry, scarred legs – that have taken so many falls already – fearlessly pump metal pedals, faster and faster.

Look to where you want to go. he calls.

I come around the corner past the blur of flesh and blackberries. All I see is the very last rung of the wooden ladder of a teeter-totter five feet up. And up I go, straight up, above them all.

I feel his fingers, just barely, brush my pack.

A pause then. The balance shifts. I ride down the other side and land on the ground.

They’re shocked, amazed, pleased.

I’m smiling, breathless, excited. I can’t believe I did it. But I did. He tells me later he’s never seen another girl ride like that. His friends tell him he’s a lucky man. I blush, I’m just happy. Now I just had to try again and get better, I tell myself.

Seasons pass — together, and alone, we’ve climbed uphill and around unknown corners, to see what’s there — now it’s raining in torrents and we’re back at the same trail we’d raced down before. Thunder cracks as we ride through deep puddles in soaking shoes, faces wet, mud spattering up from churning of wheels. It’s gritty in my teeth. We both smile.

I come around the corner, but he’s already gone ahead, and I wish silently that he would have waited for me. Instead, it waits. Slick, rotting, crooked. Harder than ever.

Deep breath. A forced smile. Don’t stop. Just try. Looking at that last rung, so high. Look to where you want to go. Three times, just try.

I pedal up, way up, pause, shift, down. Teeter slaps the ground in approval and ignites a flash of perfectly timed lightening.

I chase after him. You do it? He asks.

Nailed it!

I can hear his smile, of course you did. I would have waited for you…but I didn’t want you to feel like you had to do it, if you didn’t want to. I’m glad you did. He understands and I like that. We race off through the rain to the canopy of trees. Hearts flying, legs tired but so alive. It’s good to be out. It feels good to be together.

Driving through the rain now, I head through bayous and devastated neighborhoods and oil drills, constantly spinning, tirelessly mining the darkness, below the surface. I sit and wait for the smallest 14 car ferry to take me across a 20 foot waterway, watching pelicans skim across water and wondering what it is about all this time, alone, thinking, writing, reading, that has me feeling so alive, curious, excited to see what happens next. And why, eventually, I lose sight of this in the midst of another.

More and more I’m realizing, it really is a process — discovering the muscles of our strengths and the shocking, frustrating flaws. We’re all on some path, where we’re fortunate to intersect with the paths of others for days, or for lifetimes. Who’s to say? The most-maddening-beautiful part is that you just never know until you get there, to that last rung you’ve been staring down, only to realize the trail
starts from the moment you land. Come and go, stay and leave, try and fail, try again and grow. Grow straight, and true. Over time. As the sun shines and rain falls. But, for what seems like the one hundredth time, I’m reminding myself: try, always try, again. Again. Again…

As if on cue, iPod randomly selects the last song I sang to him: a sweet, playful Patty Griffin/Josh Radin duet, “the best thing I can give to you, is for me to go, leave you alone, you got some growing to do.” I think that the line suits us both, right now, and that’s all I know for sure. I look back at the turns and dusty falls along the way and see how each prepared me for this moment. How these moments are showing me so much. And yet, it’s like nothing else.

I call Jamie. Where are you? She asks.

I don’t know, but I think I’m ready to come home now.

Good. She says. Seattle’s not the same. I’ve missed you. I can’t wait to see you again.

Bayous and Backroads

A big paper map in one hand, the steering wheel in the other–I amble off the main highway for something less traveled. Today I want to see what’s behind the tourist brochures and swamp tours. So I fly down lonely roads of crushed, white shell (recalling Barbara’s comment last night: They use the oyster shells for gravel here. That’s the one problem I got with Louisiana – there’s no rocks! She cackles Why, if you wanted to throw a rock at something – or someone – you can’t, you just can’t! Doesn’t matter how mad you are! There’s no rocks!), across ghostly bayous and houses that grow increasingly ragged. Enjoying the open road ahead, I speed past some of the best photographic material, determined to get there. Until I realize that I’ve just sped past some the best photographic material because I’ve been so determined to I had to get to some other place….I hit the brakes.

It’s rusted and turquoise. Enormous river boat laying on its side, in the gently churning water and muck of the roadside canal. Bones from a broken mast rise partially out of the water. Then there’s another mast, another boat, huge boats, half sunk and rotting. A strange cemetery. I count 5 from the car.

I grab the Nikon. Jump from the car and sprint across the field to the canal, like a 5 year old, just to feel my legs moving in the sun and wind. They’re standing there watching me, two fishermen on an old, but operational, boat. I wave as I run by them and playfully lift the camera (see, it says, I’m a tourist!).

I snap my shots. Stand for a minute. Then walk back.

His name is Ivey. They fish for shrimp, mostly shrimp. When I ask how long, he only smiles and says, years, ma’am, years. When I ask if I can take his picture, he smiles slightly and says, why shore, ma’am. Never lifting the hand from his head.

Then they tell me the story of the turquoise boat – Ike got that one. The others, oh who knows anymore. But that one, they could ‘ave saved it. Ah was he-ah fo Ike. See the lock on that door-ah, ma’am, the watah was high than that. The boats were moving all ovah the place, an ah was he-ah, on this boat.

Were you scared?

No ma’am. You have to sit out thah storms a’times – an thas what ah did. If ya leave it, it ges swallowed up. The river water, it rocks the boat so, comes overboard to drown it, if no one’s the-ah to right her. But they didnah and that boat jus leaned over – but it could have been saved.

The other broken boats – why are they left here, drowning like that, why don’t they fix them?

He smiles, amused, Why, they’re broken! Not going tah work now. Why they ah half filled with watah. What’s more tah do but let ‘em sit?

But there are so many – I mean, you could fix it, have a boat, couldn’t you?

He shrugs, too much work and he doesn’t have the time.

We’re both laughing by then, trying to understand the world of the other.

His partner has no teeth, and hides behind the fishing nets except to ask me if I’m working at the community center. When I tell them where I’m from, they wave off Seattle, too far away.

We wave goodbye and I promise myself that I’ll take the same route back and get those shots I’d overlooked earlier…trying not to hear Frost laughing at me with the line:yet knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.

A turn here, a turn there. I’m shortly in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to be, no one to know any of it. It feels both devilish and delightful. A sunny afternoon all to myself, to do as I please as I please to do it.

Leaving the City

I left the black asphalt 100 miles ago. Since then it’s been warm, ruddy concrete framed with bright emerald-grass. Against the red background the yellow line in the middle is that much more intense and brighter – and I follow it blindly. I have general sense of where I want to go, but it’s so much more fun this way. Just going. Not trying. Just driving.

I had a list of places to see. Over dinner, Barbara and Tom had rattled off a few places I had to hit (yes, my sweet landlords invited me out to dinner on the enormous Lake Pontchatrain, where we dined at sunset, talked and laughed. At the end of dinner, out of nowhere, tough-as-nails Barbara pecks my cheek and whispers to my ear, voice scratchy –I’ve known you only a little, but you’re a real special girl, like no other. You take care tomorrow, you’ll find what you’re looking for. I don’t know why she’s telling me this. I’m not sure what to say. I don’t even know what I’m looking for—a change of scenery, I told everyone. But it was more – Understanding, peace, perspective, hope – that the difficult times when life meanders–or waterfalls–its way into the unexpected that it really is for good, it really is a time to grow…)

So here I am speeding down HWY 90, stopping in strange, worn towns with melodic names to grab a coke or fill up on gas, playing with a melody in my head, racing through the sunshine and the stands of stunted, gnarled, gray trees as far as I could see – surrounded with murky water and weeds – pushing out the first bright, almost neon, green leaves of spring. Against the blue sky – it was unbelievable. There were no offramps or medians to pull to for a photo – instead everyone speeds by, and as a driver/navigator/photog of one, I had no choice but to do the same.

I Won’t Hesitate No More, No More

Up bright and early, bags packed, and a nice walk to St. Louis Street—-past the street cleaners and sweepers, preparing for the weekend crowds—to pickup my rental car. On the way, I help some grateful tourists find their way to Toulouse Street. I got a little turned around when I first got here too, I tell them. They ask how long I’ve lived here? I laugh, I live in Seattle, I’m just visiting. They ask the typical questions (how long are you here, how did you manage that, what do you do for a living? Oh, that sounds wonderful!) I pretend to pinch myself and tell them that sometimes I can’t believe it’s real either, but I’m trying to make the most of it, while I have this arrangement. At a street corner in New Orleans, Louisiana, we talk about Thailand, Africa and other interesting places to travel before heading our different ways.

It’s sunny, perfectly warm. It’s one of those days where I feel like I’m walking in a sunbeam. The world smiles at me and I smile warmly back, as I skip along, down the bumpy, winding Rue Royal. That happy little pop tune of Jason Mraz blares from a shop and I can’t help but pick it up and sing-hum-harmonize long after I cross St. Ann’s and past the store. So I won’t hesitate no more, no more, it cannot wait, I’m sure there’s no need to complicate, our time is short, this is our fate…

He’s standing outside a restaurant, turquoise-blue tie, talking to another man. Stops. Smiles. You, my de-eah, beautiful voice. Let’s start a band, darling! You’ll sing.

I laugh/blush my way down the street. I didn’t realize I’d not hesitated for one moment and was singing so audibly. But there it was. I shrug my shoulders and smile widely!

Oh, that smile to go with it. It’s like the heavens spilled wiiide open. But you a-ah a pretty one, at that! Yes ma’am, you a-ah!

It makes me happy to hear the compliment, freely given. I think of all the radient sunsets I’ve watched over the last couple days. Brilliant gold and rose spilling through the darkest clouds. Strong and gentle, timeless. Beautiful. I’ve never liked being called ma’am, until that very moment, in that tone, with that honesty, with that reverence – I decided I could get used to it.

Move if You Wanna, Move, Move

Food and music. My favorite things about traveling are discovering and enjoying both. The street musicians on every corner are phenomenal. The other are the street performers and the (dirty South!) hip hop. Walking through stately Jackson Square. I’m greeted by a loudspeaker, broadcasting the familiar scrrrrratch of a record then bass, as the song transitions into Mim’s “Move if you wanna move, move…”

He’s spinning – on his elbow – as is body twirls over his head faster than I thought possible. Around and around he goes, while the other two do flips, back and forth, and then stop! They breakdance and stop, move and stop, speed through mind-numbing stunts to the beat of the song. Choreographed battle, schooling the movie kids in “Step Up”–they bounce off the hard concrete as if their appendages were rubber, a street-dance scene like no other. I instinctively reach for my Nikon. Only to realize I’d forgotten it. Damn…

So I guess you can watch “Move if you wanna move…” and see if you get the idea, the real-life show was WAY cooler.

The Second Line (Life & Death in New Orleans)

Barbara dropped the paper off yesterday, Look. A second line on Frenchmen St. It’s tomorrow.

So I wrapped up work early, locked up shop at 1pm like everyone else in town, to walk down to The Spotted Cat, to watch the funeral procession, trying to not look like the awkward tourist curious to snap some shots of their grief, though the Nikon around my neck said otherwise.

The crowd slowly spilled from the bar onto Frenchman Street. Elders from the senior housing complex were wheeled to the street, lunch goers and shopkeepers lined the sidewalks. They come out then, a man and woman, my age, holding a picture frame of their smiling father in one hand, a beer bottle in the other. The Treme Brass Band starts up a ruckus, loud, audacious tune, the same sort of tune that would start a wedding procession—it really was the start of another celebration. Leading the way are the first-liners, a brother and sister, his adult children.

The two toast his soul with a clink of glass. The music picks up and they dance. Even as tears stream down their face, they dance. In the very face of death, they dance. Behind the band swirl the crowds of “second liners”, fantastic colors, sequins, drinking, laughing, dancing, waving brooms, umbrellas, anything, while admirers carry the huge colorful canvas paintings he’d created in this life.

The parade–this unlikely celebration–progresses through the street. There’s no suffocating church organ, no dimmed lights, no hushed tones, no overbearing preacher to admonish us all in our most vulnerable moment. And the emotion that courses through the crowd. It’s electric. There is no shame, no hiding it away, no cowering in the dark sadness alone. Instead, the sadness is brought out into the light, in the middle of the street, for all to see, to behold and to feel. There, in the bright sunshine, it becomes something else, it disintegrates some. A strange,bittersweet blend of joy and bold sorrow.

In the middle of the street, she looks at me, her eyes dark with intense grief, yet she smiles beautifully, while letting tears fall down her face. Peace and despair. Sunshine and rain. Both brave and sad. Honest and open.

I smile at the beauty of it all. And that little bit of nothing pulls at my own sadness. And there I am–crying! In the middle of the street, on a sunny day. Feeling both elation and despair. Is that even possible? But it’s that mixture, that blur of honest emotion that connects me to those strangers standing around me. The flow of humanity swells as others join the line, they disappear slowly down the street, only an echo of what was. Breathless. I stand, alone, in the intersection of Royal and Frenchmen Street, amongst the peeling paint and worn shutters, I tell myself for the hundredth time this week that honest love is a brave, beautiful thing even as it stings with the sadness of loss. There is no shame in feeling both sides of that. None at all. I’m starting to realize how special it is…

Later, I overhear a man, in faded pants and an old army coat, tell another man, over a beer – I consider myself lucky to have known him well. He lived a full life. He was loved by all as deeply as he loved. And he loved with all he had. Never knew another friend like him. I know he’s honored by this party.

Hey Lady!

I was walking home from the French Quarter. Had a craving for lemonade, baguettes and raspberry sherbet, decided instant satisfaction was well worth the beautiful walk to Rouse’s at sunset.

Walking through the meandering streets, past pepto-pink stucco, worn brick and peeling paint of the wonderful old buildings, I hear, “Hey! Lady!”

I look up.

Kid of 6 or 7, emerald green Spiderman mask is crawling about the wrought iron balcony stories above me.

“Lady…” his voice softens, “you want some beads?”

I laugh. He extends a handful of faux emerald, ruby, sapphire and gold – all mine for the taking. I shake my head – I’m flattered, but no, thank you!

He shrugs, ok, but don’t ya at least want some?

When I shake my head no, he looks further down Rue Chartres and calls out, hopefully, to the next passer-by, “Hey Lady! You want some beads?”

Twenty-one. We chased each other through the smokey, greasy, lethargic fair crowds, laughing and flying, heads pounding from cheap beer and hitting every adventurous/upside-down/crazy ride we could find. At the upside-down-ferris wheel, he puts a handful of pennies into the pocket of his blue Hawaiian shirt. I give him a funny look.

He laughs and grabs my hand as we squeeze behind the safety bars of the squirrel cage, we adore each other, and as we ascend to the heavens, then upside down–spinning wildly out of control–bronzed silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln shower us and the confused people below. We laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

Later we’ll accidently kiss on an island in the Puget Sound, and like best friends I’ll confide in him that I love him months later, because I honestly do. He’ll return the words months after that. But I’d already moved on—drowned myself in my new-found admiration for the words from Dunne, Milton, Cheever, Dybek, Melville (how I wondered at “The Tartarus of Maids”) Nabokov, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Byron…that essay by Ruskin blasting industrial perfectionism…a hundred others whose names I could never remember but whose words, when read, changed my thoughts forever. Walking across the UW campus, as cherry blossoms bloomed, faded, fruited for the hundredth time, and their words shaped my thoughts into something new and fantastic, dark and exciting.

When I realize he’s waiting for me — I’m scared, cold, disconnected. Not sure what to do I fly to Germany only to return and lose him forever.