Friday, April 06, 2007

A Long Thank-You Note

Lately I’ve been going on epic morning walks through my neighborhood, in the earliest beginnings of daylight, before the sky becomes blue instead of silver and all the sleeping turtles are still lined up in rows on the banks of Bayou St John. I’ve become accustomed to spending that hour outside, waking up while moving through the world, drinking coffee and shaking the foggy sleep out of my head, watching the bayou change colors while the sun starts to rise. I love having that time, slow and alone, to bring in the day.

Of course I’m not really alone on those walks. My cousin and aunt recently informed me, really really enthusiastically, that they see me walking Almost Every Day when they’re driving to school. Awesome, I remember thinking. There I am in my sweatpants and my coffee mug and my old clogs and that almost-awake look most of us have on our faces before we’re truly ready to face the world, and maybe it’s not only them; maybe there’s actually like forty more people I know driving by every single day and thinking, “Look, there’s Catherine!”


When my cousin and my aunt told me that, I was reminded, once again, of something I’ve been knowing since I was, like, five: For me, at least, there is no anonymity in New Orleans.

This is not because I am famous, or special, or even particularly interesting. It is simply because I was born here, and because people in New Orleans know about each other, and talk about each other, and keep tabs on each other in a way that seems claustrophobic to people who aren’t from here (or so I've heard). For me, though, I'm realizing, this has become one of my strongest anchors.

My cousins and I joke constantly about how we can barely go into a grocery store in New Orleans without somebody walking up to us and saying, “Darlin, I bet I know your mother.” This is how it goes here. Sitting at a table with someone you’ve just met, it’s probably only a matter of time before you figure out who in your family knows somebody in their family, and there’s probably a story about it one of you can tell; and, even if only for a second, the meal you’re sharing stops being about spending time together and takes on a whole deeper meaning about how we’re all connected in such strong and often concrete ways.

When I was younger, of course, this was a constant source of the desperate stress and frustration only adolescents can feel. We were all basically good kids growing up, which may have been because we were all really, you know, mature and responsible people-- but I think it was actually because we all knew that there was absolutely no way any of us would be able to do anything we weren’t allowed to without our aunts, or our neighbors, or our aunts' neighbors, finding out.

These days, though, I’ve been recovering from mono and heartbreak, and I keep coming back to the knowledge that there’s nowhere I’d rather be than home. Being home means that I have lunch with my dad on a random Wednesday, and dinner with my best friend from first grade the same night, and my mom and I go for long walks through the park (not nearly often enough), and my grandmother takes me to the grocery, and old high school friends move in down the block, and my niece knows me well enough to shriek my name when I walk into a room.

And being home in New Orleans? Especially this time of year? It's so special I can barely stand it. I go to the racetrack with my dad, and my brothers, and my friends from medical school. My old high school teachers run into me at the Farmers’ Market and tell me how proud they are that I’m going to be a doctor. I reunite with old friends at second-lines and Super Sunday. Longtime local organizers turn up at my kitchen table and spend hours asking me hard questions about healthcare, racial justice, and my long-term future plans in the struggle. My yoga teacher gives me a big hug at the end of class and tells me she’s glad I’m feeling better. I go see live music and maybe run into my cousins. I marvel at the springtime with my octogenarian neighbors, and they ask me what I think they should do about their arthritis. I jog past my teacher's house one evening, and he ends up offering me a beer and firing off questions about differential diagnoses on the stoop.

Evenings, lately, I grab a friend and a blanket and walk to the bayou with pounds of crawfish from around the corner. There’s so few mosquitoes out still, we can stay outside till well past dark. Last night we rode bikes to Brocato’s, to fight the boisterous, multigenerational crowds that gather nightly for the best gelato in the city. Our bikes clattered over potholes down streets that are still so hollow, houses still empty and yawning without their people back, and out of everything we could’ve talked about, surrounded by all that bleakness, we couldn’t stop saying how much we loved this neighborhood.

Being surrounded by so many people who really know me, ultimately, is not just about feeling ridiculously, overwhelmingly, sometimes undeservingly loved. At best, and I don’t really know if I’m there yet, it keeps me honest. It keeps me committed to this place that has created me and given me so much, and it reminds me, daily, that any authentic work I will ever do must, necessarily, take into account absolutely every community of which I am so honored to be a part. And it keeps me humble, because anything I'll ever accomplish will never exist without the scores of hands that shape me, all the shoulders I'm standing on.

The other night, when I came home from having dinner with Gerrish, who’s been my friend since her family moved around the corner when we were six, my roommate said, “Wow, I don’t know if I even know anyone anymore from when I was six. You have so many layers of people here. It really must be a full-time job, being you.”

“It is,” I said. “I’m so, so thankful.”


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