It’s been a rough week in my house, as we were scourged with an intestinal virus that started with my 20 month-old daughter. As my pediatrician says, parenting is not for the faint-hearted, and my week at home with her matched the weather – the lows were bristling while I mouthed prayers that she would find relief and with the highs I wanted to throw her into the sunshine to celebrate when she kept a few sips of water down. On Tuesday it was 25 degrees with icicles, by Saturday, 75 and muggy. Everything came to a humbling, begging halt – work, writing, cooking, laundry – while we managed the health of our home for 7 days.
I’ve spent a lot of time at this blog thinking about New Orleans as a home, but this week has forced me to consider the four walls that shelter us and resuscitated some infrequently accessed memories of my own childhood.
My small town in the middle of nowhere New Mexico where my father was born is still home to my elderly parents. They still live in the house where I spent my first eighteen years. I spent approximately twelve of those eighteen years fantasizing about life away from the community of 26,000. Our closest international airport was a 3 hour drive. It is sheltered by mountains on one side, a river on another, and the very plainness of flat west Texas off to the east. My desire to evacuate that place as soon as possible was equal parts longing for adventure and longing to stand out in a positive way, instead of the lonely sense of being different that permeated my childhood. My dreams of New York City were formed by Sesame Street, which is what I imagined Manhattan to be like.
My love of writing developed in the high school library there, as I wrote my first novel during my senior of high school, (and no, you will never read it) but all writing about New Mexico abruptly halted as soon as I moved to New Orleans. Perhaps it was because of the surge of opposites – I was overwhelmed by the climate, urban life, rigorous education, and other people my age who I seemed to connect with. It is easy to lean on the stereotype of New Orleans being a muse herself for artists. She inspires and provides stories all at once.
There was too much to say about current circumstance, and my roots at that point seemed dull and boring in comparison. Good stories need drama, after all, and what did my white, middle-class, rural upbringing in a Christian home with unbroken family ties have to offer drama? My sudden happiness in New Orleans, which I would later learn is a common high we all keep trying to shoot up, flooded the parched loneliness of my childhood, literally, as I moved from desert to swamp.
This palpable sense of isolation was regurgitated this week, along with several meals, as I turned on an episode of Sesame Street for my daughter to watch. We generally have a ‘no screens’ rule for her, but her malaise was making her sleep all the time, and I hoped a little Elmo would stimulate her enough to keep her awake for a spell. (It worked.) Amazing how Big Bird immediately took me back to how I would get dressed in the mornings watching the show while my mother showered. I remember the patch of sunlight on the wood tiled floor that would move from the doorway to the sofa in the wintertime throughout the skits.
I watched my sick daughter moan and try to smile at me when I did something to comfort her, and thought of my own mother bringing me Sprite and Saltines. It solicited a softness for my Mom, something I think many new parents experience as they endure the challenges of child rearing. But it also reminded me of the times I faked sick at school, just so I could come home and get away from the other kids. I had an act Ferris Beuller would appreciate. I’m sure my Mom knew, she was no dummy. But drinking tea on the couch and pretending not to feel physically well was how I then coped with not feeling emotionally well. Isn’t that what we all do to sort out feelings of displacement? Change places?
These are obvious memories we all might expect to experience in similar conditions, but what was poignant for me was this: my first story about Carlsbad came to me on a whim while traveling through the Czech Republic two and half years ago. Fourteen years had to pass before I wrote even a word, much less a long thought to the fictional possibilities New Mexico held for me. Ostensibly I had gone to a writing workshop in Prague, but I also wanted to experience my grandmother’s culture. As many descendants of immigrants feel, I hoped that putting my feet on her soil would tingle my blood somehow, make me feel some sort of connection. I traveled alone for over three weeks through Eastern Europe, and most of my journaling was spent thinking about my husband back in the states and wondering if I was ready to try and become a mother when I got home.
See the pattern here? Looking for a connection. An ease to this feeling of disassociation, or loneliness in my own life. A longing for family and understanding them, even if a long dead ancestor or a nonexistent newborn. And that happened for me, though I won’t digress into those really profound and spiritual moments. It was amazing. Sitting in a teashop next to the Vltava overlooking a cobblestone road, a scenario as picturesque, inspiring, and distracting as New Orleans can be, I wanted to write about Carlsbad. And did. The next thing I did was board a train to Karlovy Vary, which at one time was German and called Karlsbad, oh, and happened to inspire the name of my hometown. The synchronicity was eerie.
Among Southern Lit scholars, the word “place” is burdened and laden, and I’ve started to wonder lately that if I leave a few books behind in the wake of my life, will I be considered a Southern writer? This August will mark my turning point, the moment where I have lived here in New Orleans longer than anywhere else, the place I never thought I would stay. When I started college, don’t laugh, but I really believed I’d take that B.A. to NYC for a spell and try my hand at writing and directing musicals. And I probably thought Snuffaluffagus would live next door, too. But the writing I’m doing these days are the short stories about Carlsbad, the Southwest, which for some reason is now speaking to me with singular and unique perspective, and I find the work I’m doing requires an “insider’s” eye to represent it thoughtfully and without stereotype. If that is the only work I leave behind, would I then no longer qualify as a Southern writer? What does it mean that it took opening myself to motherhood to really be willing to confront, and expose, my childhood? As I turn myself inside out on the page, how will that impact my parents? And should I care about that?
These are not really the things that keep my mind gearing in the middle of the night, but rather the circular ponderings of home and its place. Where do we put a home? How is it ordered? How often does a culture, family, or set of symptoms put us in our place? What connections am I giving my daughter to her childhood house, to me and her Dad, to her city? Will her home provide her a grounding sense of comfort, or a listless loneliness? Or all of the above plus more?
Like writing, I don’t have the answers. Like writing, parenting is as much about revision as it is creating. And like writing, I can’t control how others, such as my daughter, are going to understand or receive me. But home is where it all comes out, like or not, and we sort it, stretch it out later. Order it. Place it. Remember it.