New Orleans was brief, and freezing. The first night we wandered around for hours, clutching paper mugs filled with hot black tea and whiskey; ducking into little cafes and restaurants just to get away from the cold. Not wanting to turn down onto Bourbon Street, which already looked as though it was swaying and sodden with booze, we darted sharply right, climbing up a small set of stairs off a cobblestone street and into a tiny used bookstore with narrow, labyrinthine stacks of books. This New Orleans was beautiful, with the lights of the homes and restaurants glowing warm and gold against the freezing wind, but it was the New Orleans of the next day that has tucked itself somewhere in my bones.
St. Roch is the patron saint of good health (and dogs, and bachelors, and people falsely accused of a crime, and tile-makers), and so his shrine is a site for those seeking healing. Inside the sanctuary the offerings to him come in the form of prosthetic legs, crutches, casts, leg braces, false teeth, and other medical ephemera. Some have left coins, letters, papers, books. It is impossibly quiet, in the lonely way of all cemetery chapels, with the offerings behind a rusty iron gate in the corner off the altar.
Yet the loneliness of the chapel in all its shapeless longing couldn’t be felt in the cemetery yard itself, with its bright blue and white walls — the exact shade of the sharp winter sky — and the shocks of bright plastic flowers adorning every stone, scattered over the ground in endless gold and crimson.
Cemeteries in New Orleans are called Cities of the Dead, with the departed interred above ground in stone vaults as a natural correction for the fact of building a city below sea-level, on swamp-land. And they are like cities: the dead built firmly into stone, the neon of plastic flora, the glow of votive candles — lively, almost. No pun intended. These cemeteries are part of the world of the living — there are no illusions of separation here.
Louisiana has always held a certain magic for me — a nameless, shapeless pull southward — but I have only stepped onto her soil once in my life, for this single, freezing trip. And so I cannot claim to know New Orleans, and New Orleans did not try to know me.
I’m not convinced there is a way to ever truly know a place, nor a way to ever fully feel known by a place — not on a conscious level, at least. There are no illusions in New Orleans in that way, either. It doesn’t pretend to know you. It is its own. Wandering the streets and cemeteries there made me feel small — rather in the same way the hills and mountains of Big Bend in West Texas or the pitch-darkness of the subways in New York City make me feel small. It’s the feeling of being inside of something vast that you cannot and will not ever truly know.
That’s comforting to me, at least. It used to frighten me, but these days it feels honest. More than that, it feels safe. Cities are their own ecosystems, just like desert and valley and coastline. They are intricate and connected — we are all just wildlife. It feels safe just to live within something.
So these days, I find myself glad to be wildlife. I am glad to live inside of an ecosystem, and to know that I am beholden to place more than modern life would allow me to believe. It’s a relief to relinquish that control. Our trip to New Orleans was almost two years ago and I am still learning the lessons from it. It’s funny how small seeds can lie dormant and forgotten before suddenly opening, all green and fire.
I went to Louisiana to find something — a quick fix to a vast pain, an easy answer, some form of the bright and shining clarity we are all so sure exists when we are young. I didn’t find it there. I was never meant to. Even so, I tucked my small offering to St. Roch through the iron bars of the shrine. A prayer, of sorts, to no one in particular. A seed.
I think that was the answer.