One morning during our first week in New Orleans, when I was having trouble going back to sleep after waking up too early, I tried to inspire myself by walking around the city for an hour. On a whim, I decided to eat breakfast at Commerce Restaurant, a local diner in the business district. Mornings like these happen to me often, no matter where in the world I am. I frequently go days in a row running on three or four hours of sleep, but I’ve learned to embrace my restlessness. We’re back from Cajun country to rest in New Orleans for a few days now before heading back to California. I’m having a bout of sleepless mornings again. I’m starting to suppose this is some sort of mental menstrual cycle, but in any case, I’ve decided to visit Commerce again to eat eggs (hoping I can encourage spiritual and intellectual fecundity by ingesting them) and write this. The servers think I’m funny because I keep declining coffee. Truth be told, I don’t need it. I’m very awake. It is 7:30am. I’m going to share two very permanent stories: one is about a tattoo, and one is about this place I’m in right now.
In my most recent blog, I described a sense of restlessness in New Orleans, its capacity for ennui and malaise, and its ability to dwell and distract itself as an antidote. After getting out of the city, I’m starting to see that it’s not just New Orleans. It’s Baton Rouge, too. I went on a run along the Mississippi one evening and saw at least ten different couples sitting along the water together, watching the river flow out of sight, letting romance settle. Funnier yet, I think Breaux Bridge, Louisiana dwells and distracts itself too. In fact, I know it does because I was playfully invited to play the washtub bass in a Cajun band jam session at the Joie de Vivre café for two whole songs, and then later enjoyed similarly delightful music at a local brewery while I sipped a couple beers and read The Moviegoer. Loving these curious distractions and dwelling in a moment is not just an antidote to some malady of discontentment. I’m learning that it’s a vitamin for happiness. A true gift.
Five years ago, I was in Paraguay for the summer on an exchange trip in a rural community. During that summer of speaking a language I barely knew in a country I knew even less, I read a book called A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It changed my life profoundly. I knew it was an important book for me. I remember highlighting parts that I knew were especially important, even though I couldn’t pinpoint why. Below is a passage that has kept coming to mind these past mornings. I have been trying to understand it for a long time. Owen Meany has a weird voice so Irving writes his dialogue in all caps:
I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time recently reading astrology, religious texts, histories, and now fiction, dwelling on the design of how time or imagination or God has played out before. Here I’ve studied both the motivations of a past culture and spent generously on future visions of psychics, trying to entertain my own desires, how I can interpret where I am. These stories have made me aware of different ways to live—the distractions—all the ways we might find design and meaning in our own lives. (I want to avoid using the word coincidence, but basically dwelling and distracting yourself is like using art and intuition to become aware of the coincidences in your life, or why certain events or conversations or books are important to you.)
My very first blog post on this Louisiana trip was about the confusing estuary I was in. I’m still in it, but I’m much more aware now, and I have a better idea of how it’s flowing. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why then, but I just knew that what I was feeling, thinking, and reading at the time—May 12, 13, and 14 of 2018—was important. I was entertaining myself, pretending I was Edna Pontellier, getting distracted by stilted homes, dwelling on lone flowers on the beach. I was floating between dots of past and present.
But I knew this trip was a gift I couldn’t understand yet. I could feel it held some permanent lesson for me, yet to be articulated. I knew meaning was coming. This is the start of my first story: I decided to get the lone flower that entranced me from the beach tattooed on my arm. I get tattoos like a first step in the creation of art. I draw on my body like I write—it all begins with some thought that seems important, some impulse of meaning at first that I want to document. So I do. I know that through dwelling and dwelling (what others may call the creative process), deeper meaning will unveil itself. I still haven’t discovered the full meaning of my other tattoos, and so when people ask for the story, sometimes I just make up the gist of one. Not that that’s wrong, but there are plenty of interpretations and stories I have yet to unveil. As I grow, I’m slowly understanding why I acted on the notion to get them, why something was so important to commemorate permanently. I’m getting better at paying attention to these moments and urges in my life. When I make a bold connection, I let it dwell. The flower I got here was a morning glory, the same one I drew in my first blog, the one that could mean love in vain, tenacity to follow your dreams, or lasting love. My hunch is it that this tattoo will mean all three of these things eventually. This ink marks the start of a story, a journey full of coming meaning. I’ll read into the tattoo as it starts to manifest its importance, when I can begin to understand how those mid-May moments come back to my past or my future.
I guess this is what I do because I like to think I’m a designer. I live by design, for metaphors, to connect the dots. I think I’m understanding now the way of life I love. All this conversation, all this reading, all this reading into things—I think that’s what bookpacking is. We’re always bookpacking, always dwelling and distracting ourselves with good discussion of both fact and fiction, packing our personal stories and every learned tale with us, whether we’re visiting plantations with abominable pasts or stepping into a diner for a simple breakfast. This is the way of life I love. I’m supposed to dwell on things I find beautiful and distract myself with them, read meaning into those beautiful things, and live the most beautiful ones into existence. It doesn’t matter where I find them or where I learned them necessarily, just like how if you have faith or believe, it doesn’t really matter why. I’m just supposed to connect the dots. Each time and place has meaning—what brought me there? I did! This book did! This dream did! These feelings did!—and psychic intuition and fiction and 9am class sessions all have me in common. I’m meant to relate the philosophical discussion about goodness I had with Claire over dinner to my own intentions in relationships. When the tarot cards tell me I’m set up for success but have to let go of some grief first, I need to think deeply about how I can move on from what’s bothering me. I’m supposed to take the books I realized were important from five years ago—the ones that are popping into my head on restless mornings as I pace a new city—and read into why I can’t stop thinking about its meaning now. When our professor Andrew tells us the secret to a lasting love is to love the person your lover is going to be, I’m supposed to dream a little about the loves I experience in my own life. I’m meant to understand that I have the choice and the courage to follow dots of serendipity into meaningful stories for my own life. I can believe every cliché if I pay attention, I can treat every lyric or encounter like a prophecy if I want. I accept the gifts I’m aware of, so I can indulge in connections when they come. We’re always bookpacking, moviepacking, songpacking, conversationpacking... We're distracting ourselves and dwelling. I think this is my happy place. Reading books and drawing pictures and enjoying music are all forms of having good conversations. Through them, we’re meant to be searching for the ways we want our lives to be. Dwelling on dreams and distractions, getting swept up in their meanings, and being grateful for them every single day.
So here I am at Commerce, typing all of this out. This is my second story: when I came into this restaurant the first time, I didn’t expect to come back. I strolled in on a whim with my sketchbook on me. Because my illustration inventory was running low, and I decided to sketch the scene ahead of me while I waited for my omelet. I could tell the owner and servers were curious about me, the girl who didn’t need coffee at 7am, but they left me alone to draw. I drew, I ate, and I realized I didn’t have enough cash to leave a tip. So I took a photo of my drawing, ripped it out of my sketchbook, and tucked it under my plate as gratuity and left.
This morning, I wake up with a feeling that I should return to this restaurant to do some writing. I knew to trust this feeling because I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else, and I was hungry. When I walk in, the owner and I make eye contact. I know he recognizes me. I look at the shelf on the wall behind him and see my drawing. Without a word, I smile and take a seat.
“He wants you to sign this, queen.” A familiar server brings over my drawing and a menu. “Can I get you coffee, darling?”
I’m beaming. I gently refuse coffee but ask for my eggs. This is a beautiful diner, I am a queen, I sign, and we dwell in this moment together. We’re distracted by the drawing and the exchange, the smile and the nod.
“Hey, Jenny,” the owner of the restaurant calls from behind the counter, after I’m already halfway done with my food. “I’m going to frame it and hang it up. Are you an artist?”
“Kind of, I would like to be an artist,” I nod in his direction.
“I love that drawing,” he gestures to the shelf behind him where my picture takes its throne.
“I’m so happy. I love this place,” I grin into my omelet.
And I do love this place I’m in. I always have, even before I was able to write all of this down, even before the first morning I came to Commerce. I’ve loved it since at least five years ago, when I first discovered that Owen Meany book and realized for whatever reason that passage would be important. Maybe I’ve loved it even before that, because there might be dots from my past I’ve yet to connect, gifts I’ve yet to receive. It was serendipitous that I walked in that first time, but not a coincidence. It was self-awareness that brought me in this morning, so I could sit here now and begin to understand, through every conversation and story—through Edna and Binx and Louis and Ignatius and Jefferson and Wiggins and Buddy Bolden—where I am and why.
Andrew told us to find our happy place on this trip, to look for that special spot in Louisiana. I was expecting to choose some comfortable café simply because I liked the beignets, but I’ve distracted myself with a beauty much sweeter than sugar now. I’m dwelling in this diner, and it’s nearly 10am. The servers are still offering me coffee, but mostly just to tease me and peek at what I’m writing on my laptop. They come around with their coffee pots, they call me queen and Jenny darling. Queen, they ask me, you all good, Jenny darling? We just share smiles and nods. They know I’m happy where I am, and that though I’m in this diner, I’m also dwelling somewhere outside of it, too. The art of life. I hope they’ve also been here. Nothing is meaningless because everything is full of meaning. We just have to read into things a bit, and I think it’s natural to be a bit restless on that journey. I am charmed. I want to thank Andrew for bringing this specific place and these specific characters into my awareness. This is an important gift to my life. I will let you know just how important soon, when I’ve connected all the dots.