Week Six of a Six Week Series
What happens when you wake up in a place, five generations later, and you suddenly don’t know where you are? And then what happens when you drive the infinite west to find out that the west is not infinite and that your home was violently stolen from other people?
There is no geographical place to “return” to or retreat into.
Will Ireland have me with this Austrian nose?
Will Germany have me with this Irish name?
Will any of the fractions of ethnicities that my family claims, take me in as their daughter-come-home? In a country so obsessed with race, ethnicity, and lineage, there are many of us “New World Mutts” that can claim nothing singular. Yet so many crave singularity.
Dammit, can I just be happy that I was born here and leave the rest to someone else’s history? My family doesn’t seem too concerned about it but I am afraid to be fully content, as though it will make me stop reaching and moving toward the omnipresent, unnamable, ever-shifting goal. I keep a grain of sand in my mouth— keep myself unsettled. I have found that there is a feeling of home in all this restlessness but familiar is not home. It is coupled with the shame of wanting something good and the shame of feeling as though I deserve something good.
I wonder what it is about the brackish marshland that felt comfortable to me, put me at ease, even. I had been anticipating this part of the trip and couldn’t wait to get on a fan boat with Elizabeth and explore the bayou. I had fallen, completely, utterly, and hopelessly in love with the Everglades in Southern Florida— maybe the bayou would hold even more magic.
As we rode down the long avenues of water I pulled out my notebook. For the first time in the entire trip I heard poetic language and thought in images. Nothing stirs my poet bones like the swamp. I have no idea why, but I am grateful to know my muse.
The gators swam up for marshmallows, the guide offered in-depth explanations of alligator behavior, and whipped us around the turns, riding the wake of slower boats. It was spectacular. But there was rain coming. We could feel it in the air. The captains talked about how many tours they thought they could get in before it started. No one seemed sure when it would end.
We picked Dave up from the airport directly after our swamp boat tour and went to meet up with a dear friend of mine—another labor-minded poet who makes it his business to live a genuine artistic life. He took us on a tour of the Garden District and to one of the best Po-Boy spots in New Orleans. He offered another oasis on this trip—familiarity and genuine happiness to see us. I was and am grateful for the light I see in others.
The rain came down intermittently. We knew we wouldn’t be able to walk the city like I had hoped. The concierge at the hotel showed us the weather radar. While weather reports were conflicting, all had this “low pressure system” hanging out over New Orleans for days.
Since it was not feasible to tour the city on foot, we booked a bus tour for 7:30 the next morning. I was intent on seeing what I could of this amazing city.
For three hours that next morning we drove around the places of note throughout the majority of New Orleans. When we reached the ninth ward, it was as though Katrina was a woman, not a storm that still walked the streets. The devastation was still apparent and I could not help but picture the bungalows and small homes ripped from their foundations and torn apart throughout the shoreline of Staten Island. Sandy and Katrina could have been sisters in another life. The difference was the aftermath: NYC and New Orleans, Poor and Poor, White and Black.
I remembered the people who came to Cedar Grove and New Dorp Beach with still and video cameras, while I was doing relief work. I remember them stomping through the yards to get close ups, the complete violation of personal space and grief. These tourists of devastation enraged me. As the bus drove through the eighth and ninth wards, I felt like that tourist of devastation, even through the kinship and affinity I felt for these communities.
By now the rain was steady.
My plan had been to drive the Gulf Coast, seeing Buloxi and Mobile, then heading up towards North Carolina for the final week of the trip. Water was already pooling in the streets and low lying areas. I was feeling the arms of the Gulf and Mississippi River stretching out to touch fingers. Even if the flooding did not continue or worsen, we would be driving through solid rain for days. Dave and I made the sad decision to track north right away.
Mississippi then Alabama: the lush green of kudzu laying its blanket over anything that wouldn’t move. I imagined the worlds created underneath this invader species canopy. I wished we weren’t rushing through this part of the country. But I suppose I’ve left myself somewhere to return to.
After a brief respite with family in North Carolina, we headed to Hiddenite. Traffic was slow, especially for a Saturday and we crawled along I77 until we reached the flashing lights and rubberneckers. It was disorienting because fire trucks and police cars were on and below the overpass, on both sides of the highway. And then I saw him.
There was man on overpass.
There was a young, black man on the overpass.
He was standing on the wrong side of the guard rail, holding something to his neck.
What he held to his neck looked like the shard of a broken mirror.
The guard rail created a new divide between him and the officers coaxing him down.
There was no guard rail between him and I— just air; just flight.
As we drove past, traffic was entirely stopped in the other direction.
People were standing outside of their cars, phones pointed at the overpass.
They weren’t filming the scene, they were hoping to film the jump, the fall.
For the sake of a successful video, that man needed to jump.
We are a culture with the luxury of developing a finely-tuned empathy.
Violence. Witness. Participation.
I had my own instinct to grab the camera, photographer’s eye framing the shot. And people would look at that photo, hands at their throats, holding their breaths. People would feel pulled in multiple directions, a multitude of emotions elicited. I would not be the one to bring them that image—it will have to live on differently here. I witnessed utter suffering in another human being. What was my responsibility to that man? His jumping felt like an impossibility to me. What is my responsibility to the pain of others? Because I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the guard rail.
The rest of the drive was pretty quiet. I fought back tears because Elizabeth had not seen what we saw, her face buried in a simulator game that she enjoys. While she created worlds she wished to inhabit, we listened to reports about the rain.
I had not expected to enjoy creek sluicing so much, but let me tell you, rolling up your pants and wading around the creek with a shovel and a screen is a hell of a lot of fun. We pulled out rose quartz, amethyst, smoky quartz, red jasper, and the list goes on. The more gems we pulled out, the less we cared about the water and red clay and by the time we were done, we were soaked and caked and smiling ear to ear.
En route to our final stop in Hot Springs, VA, we stopped off at the summer cabin of Elizabeth’s best friend, Lynzey. Elizabeth screamed and smiled and jumped up and down as much as her car seat would let her when she first laid eyes on Lynzey. This had been a surprise for her.
Me, Dave, and Lynzey’s mom, Jen sat on the back porch overlooking the river when the skies opened up— fat rain poured down through scant clouds on to the tin roof. We could tell it was a passing shower and readied our floats for a trip down the Cow Pasture River.
The river was lazy with a few rapids and varying depths. Our small flotilla drifted easily, pointing out fish and dodging tree roots. Two-thirds of the way to our exit ramp, the sky opened up again. My raft was in the lead and I looked back at Elizabeth on her father’s lap and Lynzey on her mother’s. We were all smiling at our situation, unafraid of the sky, of the possibility of lightning or being trapped.
No anxiety. The breath caught in my chest throughout this trip, dipped down into my diaphragm, filling my abdomen. The trip continued on for a few days after these few moments, but I am going to end my telling of it here. Pilgrimages are tricky things. What we seek to recreate in our individual homes and lives, exists as a solid thing somewhere in the world. This has been a multi-layered journey of geography and relationships. The moments I remember most are being at peace with the place I found myself in, my own body, and those around me.
I closed my eyes, dipped one hand in the water, felt how still it was just below the surface, how sturdy this fluid is when contained in vessel and current. 100 foot trees lined the river bank on both sides. The droplets exploded the surface in tiny pocks. I was grateful to be there in that very moment— to feel the rain and solid river pulling me nearer to steady ground. This was water as healer. This was a rebirth into the depths of stillness, regardless of what happens on the surface. This was home.