Yet it’s not just the voice of the sea which seduces. The roar of the air conditioning, a promising respite from the humidity of Grand Isle, Louisiana, is nearly as enticing. Late into the night, the beachy breeze remains warmer and stickier than the air inside of our roomy cabin. No wonder Kate Chopin’s quintessentially maternal Adele Ratignolle, and exceptionally individualistic Edna Pontellier, are frequently fanning themselves and fainting on their Grand Isle vacation in The Awakening.
Fortunately, Grand Isle has come a long way since the work was written, during the late 19th century. Once Joseph Hale Harvey shaped the place into an up-and-coming beach resort, the natives of New Orleans couldn’t resist. Wealthy citizens flocked here to exchange the stinking heat, humidity, and yellow fever epidemics of the city, for the salt spray and sandy shores of the coastline. To this day, Grand Isle remains the easygoing vacation spot of Kate Chopin’s era. This tiny island, dotted with quirkily named rental cottages, cordially invites locals and visitors alike to relax.
Each restaurant we visited featured a sign imparting the message: “Laissez les bon temps rouler”, which translates from French to, “let the good times roll”. Thanks to its history as a valuable territory for European conquerors, Grand Isle maintains a cultural identity impacted by the French, Portuguese, and Spanish. This melting pot of influences is only one of the island’s curious juxtapositions. The best biscuits in town come from a restaurant attached to a gift shop and gas station. A well-worn cemetery rests steps away from a rusty playground. Rickety homes quiver on tall wooden poles, some crumbling with age even before the hurricane-prone area gets hit with seasonal storms.
There is something uniquely rare about this place. It isn't the abundance of fried food, or the absence of LA traffic. The timing of our visit to Grand Isle was deliberate; we were meant to slow down from the pace of our everyday lives, before we leap ahead into the hustle of New Orleans. What makes Grand Isle distinct from other beautiful beaches, and from my hometown of Newport Beach, is that the quiet locale forced us to slow down, and do nothing. There was so little to do, and so much time to do it-- the opposite of a typical day.
Before this trip, I thought I was pretty good at doing nothing. Like most college students, I spend too much time on my phone and not enough time on the things that count: bonding with family or friends, or studying. Yet the "nothing" of my phone still sucks up my energy, emotionally and mentally, and after a day of doing "nothing" I'm left drained and confused as to where the time went. On this tiny island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, sharing a house with 12 strangers-turned-friends, I learned what really doing nothing feels like.
It's boring! After a lazy morning lounging in the sun, flopped on the shore like a whale, I am astounded to discover that it is barely afternoon once I return to our cabin. I take a leisurely shower, and waltz into the shared living room to see what everyone's up to now. Seven college kids are just sitting there--reading. How perfectly, wonderfully boring.
I follow suit, launching into the book, ready at any moment to join in on an adventure, should one of my neighbors choose to start having one. Nope: they all sit there, stoic, lost in another world, a world that looks alarmingly similar to the one steps away from my squishy recliner. Suddenly, it is my turn to get sucked into this alternate universe, where Edna swims for the first time amidst the waves eagerly crashing onto the shore, then curling back into themselves. I think of Edna and Adele, as they sat on their shady pension (boarding-house) porch. Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, is one I have been captivated by for a long time, and depicts the world of Kentucky-born Edna Pontellier. Mrs. Pontellier is locked into her role and responsibilities as a wife and mother, yet she discovers she wants something else entirely for her life.
What a depressing existence this is for the protagonist! She has no guiding force in her life aside from her own capricious whims. Edna lacks joie de vivre, although she is fleetingly happy while painting portraits, or listening to a certain Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. Yet most pitiful is how desperately she falls in love with a faraway man to whom she is not married. Edna feels most alive in the presence of her lover, yet she is keenly aware of the futility of pursuing a relationship with him.
One of my fears is being totally, utterly, irreparably wrong. It's not because of the element of wounded pride in being mistaken. Instead, my fear is choosing the wrong major, picking the wrong job, making the wrong friends: resulting in a disappointing, inauthentic life. Edna, in her superficial love for her husband and children, and her genuine love for the wrong person, is frustrating to watch. Chopin avoids an inevitable tough decision by killing off Edna, rather than having her protagonist choose between living authentically and abandoning her old circumstances, or suppressing her truth and fulfilling her family commitments.
In reality, even on vacation in Grand Isle, we cannot evade catch-22s like this. Life is chock-full of choices, and the wrong ones especially can be educational. Fully experiencing failure, loss, or disappointment points us in the direction of the "somethings" we most care about. Without being in a situation that puts our favorite "somethings" at risk, we may never realize what those are. When "something" matters, it demands a response, a defense. A song by The Script puts this well, declaring, "You've gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything".
Evidently, both something and nothing are important. The "nothing" reminds me to live in the moment, and relish the mundane in order to better appreciate adventure. The "somethings" bring me joy, and guide me in living a life aligned with what, to me, matters most. Too late does Edna discover what meant the world to her, as her world was already set in stone around her. What began as a fortress-like life structure devolved into a prison of her own design, from which she couldn't escape without paying a steep cost.
At this point in my life, I encounter a number of crossroads important to my education, career, and relationships. Deciding on my "somethings" that count helps me to build my life foundation, while the "nothing" reminds me that the "somethings" aren't everything, either. Grand Isle is the perfect place to hone the art of nothing, and I am reluctant to leave. But the future in New Orleans is calling, beckoning, louder now than the sultry voice of the sea.