Sadie Cibula

A Romantic

This month of May was one of open blossoms, potent colors, blue shutters, and luscious green trees and grass. This month of May was spent in Louisiana, where the hot air does not let you forget sensation and leaves you sticky in sweat. In Louisiana, even the air feels romantic, as it rests on your skin when you gaze at a saxophone player, watch the fingers of a bass player, see the childhood one-room school of a famous author.

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This romance I am rattling on about is not just the passion between two lovers, but about being a romantic and wondering about all the different kinds of love. If you have read my other pieces, you can probably tell I am enchanted by the world around me in all its symbols and metaphors - the lyrics, the human connections, the air, the nature, the stories, the aesthetics, the ideas. And being a romantic, I believe in love and always have. But, on this trip, I learned about the various kinds that tried to explain themselves to me this month of May.

Each novel we read, as most novels do, embraced some kind of struggle for love. For Edna, it was the romantic, erotic love she craved that spun wild in Storyville and the life of Buddy Bolden. Vampires are an embodiment of lust, but Ann Rice reconstructs complex ideas of love for these supernatural creatures torn between companionship and manipulation. Jefferson must learn to accept love. Grant, Miss Emma, Grant's aunt, and so many others in the plantation community - even Paul - try to express familial and friendship love even when its hardest. Floyd loves his daughter in the way that he does everything he can to be the best father for her, and the town comes together in their community love to keep them from losing each other. 

Edna comes to the realization that she does not love her husband, Mr. Pontellier.

“As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.”

She loved the attention and devotion he gave her, but that connection was thin. She married him out of convenience, in following the expectations of society. She chose “dignity” over passion and romance. A romance in which she finds with a man, Robert, whose relationship with her is far from allowed in their society. In The Awakening, Edna felt she was forced by her world to let go of romance like her childhood fairytales. As a novel about female independence, and an “awakening” in more ways than one, my mind explored how I felt pressures to “find love” in my society and how expectations have and have not changed since the late 19th century. What do we prioritize, the euphoria or the logistics? The timing or the passion? The simplicity or the wildness?

A piece at NOMA presenting a woman as a painting - love as being the energy of a gaze. 

A piece at NOMA presenting a woman as a painting - love as being the energy of a gaze. 

“You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions - and that is love.”

A Lesson Before Dying is a lesson on love. Grant tries to understand how much of himself he needs to give in order to be a loving person, swinging on a pendulum of selflessness and selfishness. Jefferson struggles with accepting the love that surrounds him, not believing in the words and the efforts of his family and Grant. Grant explains to Jefferson that even though his life has not been fair, he has something that is priceless - a huge space in many people's hearts. He urges Jefferson to share that love, because it is the greatest gift.

~~~

As I read these stories, I was also having long talks about all these different kinds of love with friends during and in between. A friend going through her first heartbreak, another one contemplating her relationship with her mother, a friend confused about his feels for a girl, a friend forgetting how actions affect other people, a friend facing divorce in the family, a friend falling for a friend, a friend worried she always loves the wrong person.

What sunk its teeth into my neck and strummed my heartstrings - it was love. It was discovering, and absorbing, all the different kinds of love that melt into each other and sometimes lead to confusion, disbelief, bliss. I came face to face with pondering the allusion of love, bleeding love, guiding love, and the desire to be loved.

Evangeline Tree

Evangeline Tree

New Orleans and Southern Louisiana - a place so saturated - was this tangible backdrop for discovering all these kingdoms of love. It is so naturally beautiful that it feels like it holds your hand to lead your down the road of an old Southern romantic story. Sit on the edge of the Mississippi River with people that mean a lot to you, feel rain pounding on your soaking clothes as you run to a psychic that will tell you to open your heart, visit the “Evangeline Tree” from an Acadian Romeo-and-Juliet-esque poem your dad read to you as a child, eat warm beignets as you discuss philosophies on long lasting love.

Perfect should be in the future, Andrew said. You will change, and they will change. You cannot be trying to get back to something in the past.

It hit me a few times while in New Orleans that this trip, in its way, is a romance. A romance with myself, the world around me with its fascinating people, and storytelling.

For me, love exists. It exists in the serendipities and smiles and wanting to hold your friend's hand. It exists in the way your mother agrees to fill out your paperwork even though you just complained about something irrelevant for an hour. It exists in the way the a golden light catches a pink flower or slides across the green eye of someone who means a lot to you. A little boy giggling with his brother, not wondering at all where the jingling open air trolley may be taking them for the afternoon. 

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I am going to keep reading, and writing, these "love stories" because it is a good one.

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more than a kitchen's gift

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Louisiana culture, like Ernest J. Gaines' novel, is interlaced with food. 

“And now I could smell fried chicken” Grant says when he walks into Miss Emma’s home. I stopped chewing. That fried, well-spiced batter, was stinging my mouth. I had not planned to be tasting the words as I read a novel. I sort of froze, and sat there on the cracked laundromat chair, and contemplated. They say the best way to learn is to immerse yourself, and that in essence has been the main aspect of this bookpacking journey. But to have it happen on accident, unknowingly, Ciannah’s “let’s go get food while we wait” to the laundromat manager’s “go to Tony’s” to stepping into a neighborhood favorite to my friends’ “I might wait for a big dinner” to my “well I’m just going to grab something” — all of this led up to the moment where flavors were sinking into my tastebuds, aromas drifting through my nostrils as the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying experienced the same.

We were sitting in a laundromat in Baton Rouge. We thought we should eat something since it was dinnertime, the manager of the laundromat with his Southern drawl and enthusiastic rolling of the tongue told us to go down to Tony’s, a big seafood warehouse. Women in aprons and white hats lined a buffet taking orders as they filled the styrofoam boxes. “What you want, baby?” one said to me. “Can I get a fried chicken? Is that good?” “Yes, baby, okay you want two?”

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Her assuming I’d want so much food, and her maternal tone reminded me of Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother, in A Lesson Before Dying. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma sends food with Grant for Jefferson at every visit. It is the expression of her love, when words are not enough. On a night out, a saxophone player who said “I’m skinny because I drink a lot of whiskey and play a lot of music” had made me think of Miss Emma when he stopped his zydeco band, and, pointing to an open air party bus that squeezed by the tiny road, said, “Ahh, You all see those big beautiful curvy women? Want good food? Y’all can go to the restaurants, and they good. But you want real N’awlins food, its in the homes of those beautiful Southern women right there. I tell you, jus’ get invited into their homes and you will have the both meal you ever had.”

Miss Emma, when she cooks for her family and her loved ones, seeks to feed much more than their stomachs. With Jefferson, her expression of love and support is an effort to feed his human soul. Miss Emma’s food offerings become a symbol of the love he cannot accept, the care and affection in which he cannot bring himself to believe any longer.

“”Your nannan can sure cook,” Grant says to Jefferson bringing a bag of food from her kitchen.

“That’s for youmans” Jefferson replies. 

A young man who is sentenced to the electric chair for being in the wrong place at the wrong time albeit utterly innocent, has become obsessed with the idea that he is not a man, but a hog. He has difficulty accepting the food brought to him. 

Reading that line about biscuits made me remember these buttery, soft biscuits we all piled into our take-home bags in Grand Isle. It reminded me I needed to hand my friend a $5 dollar bill for the fried chicken and biscuit dinner she picked up for me when I decided to stay on the porch to watch the sun go down. I ate my fair share of sweet potatoes throughout my journey in Louisiana, sometimes without even noticing it would come as a side. 

On a sunny afternoon in Pointe Coupee, the hometown of Ernest J. Gaines, a charming pharmacist sent his son to take us out on the water in their boat. It felt like a perfect summer's day - skies blue, skin just slightly sticky with sweat, a bubbling warmth in every inch of my body. I wanted ice cream. 

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While Andrew was getting gas, I jumped out of the van and ran into the gas station store. A vanilla ice cream sandwich was just waiting. I pulled out two dollars, handed it to the employee, and skipped back to the car. In moments like those, food can make your feelings become tangible - the simplicity, the sweetness, "dog days," smoothness. 

I have always felt something for the aesthetic of ice cream. It evokes innocence, simple pleasures, easy summers, and favorite childhood memories. 

The moment in A Lesson Before Dying that stirred me - made my heart jump and my nerves simmer, was the first time Jefferson asked for food. "A whole gallona vanilla ice cream" he said, smiling for the first time during any of his visitations. But he explained to Grant that he did not want the vanilla ice cream in that moment, he wanted it for his very moment he could before his execution. I ended up writing my essay about his moment, Jefferson's enthusiastic request for a whole gallon of ice cream. The boy was cheerful in this moment. Grant noticed “He looked at me with an inner calmness now. Was it the ice cream?” I think it was the ice cream, and all the memories and lyrical easiness of innocence. 

I don't know how I could have written about New Orleans and Louisiana without talking about the food. Because reading about the food, you realize its importance in psychology and deeper meanings. And consuming the food, whether you understand its emotional meaning or not, you absorb the mash of cultures and heart that makes the South such a special, strange place. 

 

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Live-Oaks Remembering

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I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,

But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,

(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)

Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,

I know very well I could not.

- Walt Whitman" I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing"

I was excited for the trees in Louisiana, the low-hung branches of mossy trees that stretch far over a shady ground that would otherwise feel the scorch of a heavy sun. In my head I've always pictured myself reading under a maternal tree like this, waving at the summer bugs and pulling at floral dress to cover my lightly dirt-marked knees. When I saw the trees, I was not disappointed. It was the trees that made me wonder if I had lived a past life in Louisiana. As we walked through the Garden District, I murmered that I was going to write about trees. Andrew smiled and stopped us, and read the poem by Walt Whitman. It is a romantic poem, with curves of curiosity and edges of lonliness - but it is beautiful. It was about a tree that probably stood in front of me - one of these trees held the memory of Mr. Whitman reaching up to pull a twig from its arms. I wanted this to be a romantic blog. But a few more beats of looking at the trees, remembering a tree I had seen in Grand Isle, and feeling stunned by images from museums and classrooms in my mind's eye, then I knew it could not only be that.

Trees are a symbol of nostalgia. They frame a memory in any person, whether it be your Christmas pine trees or tapping sap out of a maple tree or your backyard's eucalyptus scent. There may be the tree that was your favorite hiding spot, the one that held the tree house that always needed fixing, the fig tree that would drip fruit the neighbors dog would escape to eat, the tree whose branches held your after-school swing.

In the South, there is a nostalgia as fertile as the plush greenery and as thick as the roots and trunks of the oak trees that line the Garden District. The theme of Southern Gothic, a genre in which Interview With a Vampire falls with its aching decadence and death, romantically swings through ideas of a decaying beauty. We discussed in lecture how Southern Gothic represent a nostalgia for the "Old South" - a luxurious moment of medieval idealism. It is a nostalgia for that delicate beauty, for the time when these gorgeous homes were built. New Orleans homes were even built with nostalgia on the mind, as pillars echoed ancient Greek and Roman architecture that fill the myths and ornate fences whispered European descent.

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Little girls dream of walking down the aisle in a garden next to a mesmerizing plantation home lined with mother-like trees laced in Spanish moss trees and humming to a chorus of crickets. There is a nostalgia for ladies in pretty dresses, chivalric men, the heartfelt warmth of Southern hospitality. If you type into Google "plantation home wedding venues," you'll find plenty of options.

On our trip, we visited the Whitney Plantation. Today's Whitney Plantation opened in 2015, a plantation-turned-musem focusing entirely upon the experience of slavery. It is the first, and only, of its kind in America - a public plantation that prioritizes the ugly truth over pretty nostalgia.

The romanticism of the old American South stretches turns a blind eye to the suffering, class lines, and inconsistencies of the past. The nostalgia is a thick cloud that blinds even the hindsight that is supposed to be 20/20. The sight that should see that the plantation the girl dreams of is stained with the sweat of thousands of black backs, and was watered by the tear ducts of enslaved ripped families and tortured individuals. The nostalgia thoughtlessly craves, in Langston Hughes's words, "The lazy, laughing South/with blood on its mouth"

View from the Big House on Whitney Plantation

View from the Big House on Whitney Plantation

Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit," in which she immortalizes the memory of bodies hanging from tree branches, has lyrics that express the bipolar nature of beauty/horror. This can be seen in much of the South's representation in honest art, like Langston Hughes' poem quoted above "The South." The lyrics display a split between the South's physical beauty and horror.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Originating from a poem by New York writer Abel Meeropol, the song does not only dwell on the horror of dead bodies. The song gets its title from the "strange fruit" - human beings - hanging from the trees in the South.

Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

To further my immersive learning, I have tried to be "moviepacking" alongside bookpacking. After visiting the Whitney Museum, I watched 12 Years a Slave. The film tells the story of Solomon, a free black men living in New York, who is tricked and captured to be sold into slavery. He, among, others, are shipped to New Orleans, the largest slave market in America. Solomon spends twelve years as a slave named "Platt."

The film, consciously or subconsciously, also displays the idea of beauty/horror by juxtaposing the physical "heavenliness" of Louisiana's natural beauty with hellish slavery and racist culture. The visual filmmaking choices are tied to reality - and do not diminish the natural beauty of the film locations in order to perpetuate a story of ugliness and terror. Shots would hold a lacy branch against a delicate sky, or show sensuous Southern grandeur before representations of enslavement crossed the screen. On a pretty summer Southern day, Solomon spends an entire day with a noose around his neck, tied to a grand oak tree with drooping Spanish moss that looks like it wants to caress him.

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While Southern trees remember the georgeous gowns of Louisiana's elite and the small toes of a playful child, they are also remember the lives they took. Lynchings played an elemental part in torture and hate crimes. The third season of American Horror Story, "Coven," takes place in New Orleans so I added it to my "moviepacking" list. An episode begins with a young black boy dressed sharply in a white button down shirt riding his bicycle to his first day at a white school, only to be captured and hung by a group of white angry men. In 12 Years a Slave, an abusive plantation overseer attempts to hang Solomon for defending his hard work. He is stopped from going through with the hanging, but Solomon is left to tip toe in the mud for the whole day as punishment. The morning after I watched the film, Andrew discussed a famous photograph of a lynching. Here is a cropped version of the photograph. I have also included a photograph of a demonstration protesting lynching in Washington D.C., 1934.

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Evangeline Tree in St. Martinville, Louisiana

Evangeline Tree in St. Martinville, Louisiana

I did not just see in Louisiana a live-oak growing, I saw in Louisiana live-oak remembering. It remembered beautiful times, laughter and carriages and bare feet and a first kiss - the tree above is the claimed meeting spot of the lovers that inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" - but it also remembered hearing hearts shattering, abuse, corrupt deals, and souls leaving a body. And the tree will continue to watch, as will all Southern trees and trees around the world. I embrace the Louisiana oak's beauty, and feel the power of its heartfelt memories and happiness, but I also let them honor the stories of those who faced injustice.  They will sketch their memories with their roots in the ground, and they will whisper their secrets to their offspring carried by the wind. They will not act, but they will guide, teach, and watch, as we grow up and out and into ourselves - as humans, as animals, as a community, and a society.

To end, I am including an an old folk song that has always rung in my head, most famously performed by Eva Cassidy. It is called "Tall Trees in Georgia." The haunting melody leads lyrics of a woman reflecting on the Southern trees that watched her through her pink beloved youth and into her faded, lonely old age.

Tall trees in Georgia/they grow so high/they shade me so/And sadly walking through the thicket I go

The sweetest love/ I ever had/ I left aside/ Because I did not want to be any man's bride

But now I'm older/ and married I would be/ I found my sweetheart/ but he would not marry me

When I was younger/the boys all came around/ But now I'm older/ and they've all settled down

Control your mind my girl/ and give your heart to one/ For if you love all men/ you'll be surely left with none

Tall trees in Georgia/ they grow so high/ they shade me so/ And sadly walking/ through the thicket I go

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The Poeticism of New Orleans

There is a poetry to New Orleans. It’s a rhythm. It’s odd, and it doesn’t make sense, its wandering and complex and it lies but gives you moments of the purest truth. It’s a lost and mischievous 17-year-old, who doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be. New Orleans acts like a “troubled” adolescent - violence, alcohol, sex, imagination, creativity, clashes of ideas, the testing of limits - they all run wild here. It is a city with stories of murderers shuffling down the alleys and pirates crowding the bars, has a distinctive pride in its unique red light district of Storyville, and is home to a music that transcends all rules, even ones that it made for itself. The city rests on soil that asks for sickness and sinking, always on the verge of an outbreak or flood. A world with voodoo - pushing past the Catholic force or African “wildness” and allowing a humming religion of dance, spells, and pleasure.

Divine Ladies Parade

Divine Ladies Parade

Part 1: Rhyming Spirituality

The spirituality of New Orleans is lyrical, intertwined, expressive. It is not fastened, but rather like the West African and islander ceremonies brought to the Americas by people stolen from their homeland — it dances. An curiosity about the "magic" aspect of Catholicism was first sparked by the recent Met Gala's theme "Catholic Imagination," but New Orleans expanded my awareness and fascination. The French and Spanish descendants and dominant white class in Louisiana, Creoles, were Catholic. As slave masters and first class citizens, they tried to instill Catholicism into the Africans and islanders they enslaved. What happened, though, was some sort of spiritual, fascinating miracle - the Africans incorporated Catholicism into their animism and deities. When I first heard this, I struggled to understand how these two spiritual cultures could hold hands. I wondered how the black community would accept Catholic ideas into their culture while still maintaining their own so strongly, and why the Catholics did not entirely strip the slaves from their native religion like their Christian counterparts did in the rest of the country. That concept - it is part of the poetry of New Orleans, or that is the word I can find closest to it. 

New Orleans helped me understand how different religions and spiritualities intertwine. "Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures," I read. From this idea I could draw a thread into the magical theme of voodoo. For an example, “Papa Legba” is combined with Saint Peter. Other Catholic saints were used to represent spirits of similar domains. The African and island people continued using many aspects of their spiritual customs, like the dancing, dolls, chanting, potions, types of good luck charms called "gris gris" bags, and offerings associated with Louisiana voodoo today. 

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Part 2: Music Notes & Rhythm

Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter chronicles the life of a man who similarly lives for ecstasy. Buddy Bolden, the subject of Ondaatje’s book and a jazz legend, existed on a mental brink of the freedom of creativity and the flexibility of morals. It’s a “place” in the mind which invites the rush of adrenaline and eventual satisfaction. By day, he worked drunk with a razor at the neck of a sweating barbershop client and offered them spontaneous advice without merit. By night he seduced and overwhelmed music notes and women. He lives his life like a young man testing every limit he finds, just like New Orleans tests the limits on the definition of a city and its culture. Buddy Bolden’s mentality reflects the dualistic mentality of his hometown - the experience is weathered but its recklessness is youthful. He does not bend to the rules - rather, he skips over and under the rules, peeling back wallpaper to see what’s underneath, and skirting under the dresses of women who are not his. It is not only Buddy who commits such dramatic acts, but the people around him as well. His friend Bellocq sets himself on fire rather than reasons, his mother-in-law chooses the companion of a snake rather than a cat, and his wife and her sisters come from a past of prostitution. 

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Ondaatje writes in a style that conveys this wildness, exoticism, youthful recklessness that characterizes New Orleans. His sentences break classic structure, thoughts flow with unregulated consciousness. I thought it interesting that some of my classmates felt frustrated with this writing structure. They found it confusing, disorienting, and overly “flowery.” But this is exactly what I loved about it. The poetic personality of the storytelling gave the scenes a genuineness that I don’t believe can be captured when forced into the confines of structure. We don’t think, imagine, or reflect in clear or regulated manners. The purity of Ondaatje’s representation of memory and experience is palpably strong, and matches perfectly with the experience I’ve had in New Orleans. It doesn’t make total sense and you’re never sure what is genuine and ingenuine, you may even consider what your definition of “genuine” may be. Could “genuine” just be our attempt to steer real experience into the stereotypes we have collected and stored? Ondaatje uses Bolden’s relationship with music to further allude, purposefully or by happenstance, to New Orleans. 

“We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot - see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.” Like Bolden’s music playing, New Orleans, and one’s experience in New Orleans, can feel “formless.” It is formed by the French, West Africans, Spain, colonial Americans, the Vietnamese, among other cultures. Therefore, its identity is impossible to pinpoint its cultural “form.” It “tears apart the plot” of a city’s history, particularly of an American city set specifically in the South. It approached typical racial hierarchies in alternative ways, decorated its neighborhoods with distinctly different architectures and lifestyles, and promoted a sense of chaos over the usual order of American cities. The “music” that sits on top of Buddy’s life is his jazz. New Orleans generated a new form of music, one that experiments with structure, instruments, cultural backgrounds, and emotion. The concept of this music echoes through the city - accidents are ecstasy and a sip of adrenaline. 

Part 3: Poems on the Street

To turn an intangible feeling tangible, my feeling this city was some sort of poem, as Jenny and I wandered down Frenchman Street on a Saturday night we found a line of young men with battered typewriters. 

Here is what I wrote, in a style inspired by Ondaatje, Sunday morning.

Just past midnight - a few men sitting in front of beat up typewriters, smelling of beer and a long day, shirts unbuttoned for their hairy chests and hanging necklace charms. What do you want it to be about, he asks, rolling his tongue inside to wash across the sip he took. His mind swims in alcohol but his eyes are deeply invested in mine, peering through any stupor. A flick of the corner of his mouth to offer a smile when I say “youth.” 

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New Orleans was the city where my grasp of poetry blossomed. I found it in Coming Through Slaughter, the lyrics and rhythm of a city known for its music, I observed it in its dynamic and stylized culture. What better place could there be to ask for a poem about youth, while I am in my youth - I hope I can capture its essence of fearlessness and imagination and magic as I write out my own life. 

A Present place

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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