First, there is the thump of the road underneath the wheels of our Monte Carlo. Or rather, with each break in the pavement of I-10, two thumps: a heartbeat. I am small enough to fit in the space between the front seat and the back, to put my ear to the ground and listen to the bridge's metallic whine as we cross Lake Pontchartrain. I crawl around unrestrained, crane my neck into the rear windshield and look up and out at the expanse of blue sky, and then look for the line where sky becomes lake. I watch, as we ascend the high rise that crosses some port of New Orleans, the other cars stretching for miles behind, then turn quick at the apex to see the skyline emerge. This is my first memory of the city.
I can't bear to read another "What It's Like to Miss New Orleans..." montage of the city's famed eccentricities. And I certainly don't want to write one. In fact, I've no right to claim the place. I grew up in a suburb on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. But all my earliest memories are of New Orleans—the twin-spans of I-10 stretched out over the lake like two legs, carrying us to my grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. When I think back as far as I can, peeling back layer after layer to get at my first impressions of the world, I end up there, on I-10, on the same ramps that became home to thousands of refugees seeking higher ground after the levee broke. They always said it would. We thought it was just another urban legend.
Where I come from, we ate po-boys from gas stations—where you could also buy a rosary—and nightlife was bingo in the school cafeteria.
This is the land where my mother was born and buried, and for me, it's sacred ground.
I cried as I watched the city disappear on network news, thinking my daughter, still swimming safely in my womb for now, might never know the place that is literally the place of my dreams, the place that formed my imagination and my faith.
New Orleans made me a Catholic, or at least it made me the kind of Catholic I am. Its sins are famously great, for it is painfully human—has a city ever seemed so corporeal? Especially now, when we seem to be watching it die? But every place has sin. What distinguished New Orleans was that it seemed to have body and soul—the sacred and the profane locked in constant embrace. I think of an image I heard described just this morning in a news story—Archbishop Hughes holding the singer Charmaine Neville as she wept during the rescue efforts. "I'm convinced God is going to purify us through this," he said. Not too much, I hope.
In New Orleans, even the smallest actions are infused with a sacramental quality, and the traditions of the city—Carnival, king cakes, St. Joseph's Altars—are so wrapped up in the liturgical year and Catholic tradition that they constitute a lived catechesis. When I moved north as an adult, I worried that my faith had been improperly formed, that it was merely cultural, intuitive, not intellectual enough. Now, I wonder if growing up in New Orleans wasn't the best way to absorb the mysteries of faith. Baptized or not, when you live there, you take in Catholicism with the wet, heavy air you're forced to breathe. We were taught by example the importance of ritual, symbol and paradox. We lived in a parish, not a county. I'd never heard the words secular culture. It's a beautiful thing—now that I'm 1,000 miles away, when I get homesick, I go to church.
Its sins are famously great, for it is painfully human—has a city ever seemed so corporeal?
I don't pine for restaurants and jazz clubs or even Mardi Gras. To me, these are only the most obvious and superficial manifestations of the city's charm. All can and will be rebuilt, and anyway, I've never been to Galatoire's—hadn't even heard of it until I got my first job in Baton Rouge after college. Where I come from, we ate po-boys from gas stations—where you could also buy a rosary—and nightlife was bingo in the school cafeteria. What I miss most is the reliable sacredness of the everyday, now disrupted, indefinitely. Archbishop Hughes said that last Sunday might have been the first time since 1725 that no parish masses were celebrated in the city.
Each time I have visited since moving away, it has felt more like a pilgrimage. I wander the streets of the city, splashing myself with holy water in St. Louis Cathedral and drinking beer at Molly's, like any good tourist, but I am motivated by a sense of obligation that I can only describe as religious—an urge to venerate, remember, practice. Not just for my sake, but so I can pass it down. At the end of the day, I drive across the twin spans of I-10.
Now, I wonder if growing up in New Orleans wasn’t the best way to absorb the mysteries of faith.
My bridges, too, were destroyed by the storm surge, lost to the water like everything else. But I can still hear the thumping heartbeat of the road under my wheels, the continuous rhythmic pulse of the womb where I was fashioned.