The moment we rolled into the marshy lands of Louisiana, I was reacting with gasps and gazing. There was something so visceral to my attachment to the landscape as we approached Grand Isle. I felt like it had been a part of a previous life, or that I could finally catch a glimpse of what another saw hundreds of years ago without distracting establishments and environmental changes. I felt the overwhelming urge to embrace, with my mind, what I was seeing - the long, stretching green with swooping trees, soaking green grass, lands meeting the sky as a reflection, tiny ice cream shops on a stretch of nothing, hitting a gas station or two and a truck and soon the soft hush of the ocean. At our first step into the hot air of Grand Isle, before beginning or knowing anything about Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I turned to a friend and said “This is the perfect place to fall in love.” It felt like it lounges and waits for romance, threatening ennui but twinkling a bell in your ear to remind you of passion, holding its breath and letting out warm steam only to stimulate your senses enough to stir something inside. Once I plunged into Edna and Robert’s story, I couldn’t help but doubt their romance would have ever ripened had they not felt the gentle nudges of the Isle.
In an early part of the novella, Chopin comments upon the sensuousness of Grand Isle’s water. “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell to abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” The “voice” foreshadows the romanticized end of the book with death into ultimate solitude, and the provocative doomed-yet-stimulating affairs. This seductive nature of the sea reminds me, in retrospect, to the other side of the road in Grand Isle. It offered a pulsing, low orange moon giving way to dusk, sinking into sultry marshiness, and lures you to the end of a desolate dock that lends you a pathway until it doesn't above still waters. The “touch” of the sea, which she describes as soft and embracing, brings to mind the sweetness of love and its tenderness. This sensation of the ocean was what resonated most with me, the first time I touched the water. It was warm. It wasn’t biting, or exhilarating like the California’s Pacific, that inspires you with a lust for success and progress. It makes you want to sit, to float on your back and muse on the meaning of your life and absorb the loveliness as the Creoles did.
I wrote in my journal:
“The sand is white and the waves are as affectionate as the ease of your consciousness. Everything is so still that you must create movement, and much of that movement comes with your social interactions, peddling in the water, racing across the sand because if you don’t the bottom of your feet will be toasted. It’s a present place. Everything forces you to be present; the heat is strong the sounds are few so you latch onto what you can, there are no distractions to bury your thoughts. So you create meaning in the people and things around you - there’s nothing else to do.”
So, what one would do is think, reflect, and search for passion (one of the easiest ways for which is through love). This is what Edna experienced that summer, grazing through lazy days with Robert by her side for hours on end. I came across a line in Victor Hugo’s poem “Nuits de Juin” about summer, which I find appropriate not only for its season but also for its French roots. It translates to “A vague half day dyes the eternal dome.” Summer days can feel endless, vague - days melt into one another, and so we melt into each other like Edna and Robert do. They melt under the sun, and melt into one another’s crevices, exploring each tiny bit of each other’s presences.
The air and the ocean of Grand isle affect the soul by dusting off the layers of age and revealing memories. The moment I touched the water, I felt immediately reminded of my childhood summers in my friend’s suburban back yards for a birthday party. Swimming in the pool, sunlight streaming through a colorful floatie, the chlorine-blue water bouncing under the piercing dry heat of Northern California’s valley. It moved me when Edna had a similar reverie while experiencing Grand Isle’s air, about which she opens up to Adele Ratignolle. “The hot wing beating my face made me think - without any connection that I can trace- of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist… ‘sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided.” When I think of those memories as I child, I was just as aimless, unthinking, and unguided as Edna’s childhood memory. I was present, not expecting what would come at the end of the day, what I would be when I grew up. I was aimlessly doggy paddling in the water, letting my small body be smeared with sunscreen, reaching for a bag of chips or a friend’s water-tangled hair.
Grand Isle still holds the luxury - in the non-material sense of the word - that it held all those years ago when women like Kate Chopin sat under parasols and lounged on chairs as their nursemaids tended to the pudgy-legged children. Luxury as in wet mud, potent air, soothing waves and pleasant stillness. As I wandered away from the group, I found myself in perfect awe of whatever was in front of me - a young man wading through waist-high water at dusk as he cast a fishing rod and dragged a crawfish catcher. I thought of the Cheniere Caminada fisherman, and bet my view was the same as any other young woman standing on a beach or a dock watching. I walked towards a proud wise tree hanging over a perfect reading spot, but slunk back to another tree when I noticed an old rope hanging from the big tree. The “little black girl” waiting at the feet, literally, of Madame Lebrun - was this the last sort of sight her ancestors could have seen?
After finishing the Chopin’s story, and minutes before ending my time in Grand Isle, I tiptoed to a mound of sand to reflect upon The Awakening and my time in Grand Isle. I have had trouble putting a word to what moved me so deeply about that sea town - a place where memories bubble, pressing at the thinnest layer of soil like the water that threatens to drown the isle. That thin layer is all that separates us from sinking into Chopin and Edna’s world and the ones of those that preceded them. I wrapped my journaling entry musing “How many stories, mournings, awakenings, heartbreaks, were spread on this isle? I know I could say that of anywhere, but here it feels tangible. Like you can reach into the past and come back holding something in your hand.”