Saturday, May 17, 2008

Grace & Lagniappe: It's All Right

I woke up in Lake Charles, Louisiana this morning for the first time in three years, one month, and 14 days. Yes; I've been counting. This is the first time I've been back since we left, and it wasn't an easy trip to make because leaving here was the most difficult thing I've done in my life. I knew I needed to get here, though, because coming here in the first place was probably the best thing I've done in my life.

Isn't it funny? Lake Charles isn't much of anything – just another podunk Louisiana town off Highway 10. It's got a crappy mall, a couple of oil refineries, some chemical plants, an estuary that's been designated a superfund site by the US government, and some fair-to-middlin' casinos that cater to tour buses filled with elderly Texans. From that description, no one in their right mind would actually WANT to live in Lake Charles, and when I first saw it, I was still in my right mind and I didn't want to live here either. Paradise it is not!

It was probably brain damage from the superfund site chemical poisons, but after living here for a couple of years, something started to change. In the beginning, it was small things, like being able to remember what I loved about my childhood in the South – things I had completely forgotten. And then, after living in Lake Charles for about three years, I woke up one day and realized that I had passed a milestone in life. For the first time, I had lived in the same place – in the same house – for more than three years. Once that had happened, like a puzzle lock clicking into place, I had a little epiphany. I was home. I don't mean that in the sense that Lake Charles, the place, was suddenly the home I never had, I mean I suddenly knew what it felt like to feel home. I knew what it meant when people said they were “home sick.”

I was very taken up with my thoughts about “home” for a few days after my new awareness that I’d lived longer in Lake Charles than anywhere else – I went from a sort of happy buzz about it to horror at the realization of what I’d done. Oh my God, I thought. Was I really that bad? And a review of the last 40+ years told me that I was. I was really that awful. What did I do? It was more what I didn’t do. I didn’t give a damn.

You see, I was born in Arkansas and I lived there until my father was transferred to Illinois when I was eleven. I finished school in the suburbs of Chicago. My grandparents had moved to Florida when I was about seven, and I spent summers with them until I was fifteen. So, other than brief trips to visit my other grandmother, who stayed in Arkansas, there was a period in which I didn’t get back there often, and I rarely even thought about the South at all. My parents always considered themselves Southern, and frequently talked about moving “home,” but I was teased about my accent when I moved to Illinois, and I managed to get rid of it within a few weeks. I changed schools two years after moving to Illinois and no one had the slightest idea that I had ever lived anywhere else, and it rarely occurred to me to mention it to them.

As time went by, I began to feel completely rootless, and the list below is why. I’ve lived in these towns (sometimes in different houses in the same town):

Tull, Arkansas
Arkadelphia, Arkansas
Mountain Home, Arkansas
Round Lake, Illinois
Palatine, Illinois
Barrington, Illinois
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Ronceverte, West Virginia
Muncie, Indiana
Lombard, Illinois
Bellevue, Washington,
Redmond, Washington,
Bellevue, Washington
West University Place, Texas
Houston, Texas
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Lake Jackson, Texas
Coupeville, Washington

Looking at that list now, I can see why, when someone would ask me where I was from, it was so easy for me to answer, “all over” or “everywhere,” rather than to say I was from Arkansas – it had been so long since I’d lived in Arkansas, or spent time anywhere near Arkansas that it didn’t even cross my mind to say it. The problem is that, of course, if you are not from somewhere, then you are from nowhere. If you are not something, then you are nothing. And what I had been doing until I woke up one day after living in Lake Charles, Louisiana for three years was to reduce the very essence of my history and my culture – of who I am – to nothing more than a collection of the strip malls I’ve been to in the suburbs I’ve lived in these various places across the US.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all nice places. They have nice strip malls. They have pretty houses. I’m sure they have their own cultures and I’m sure they are wonderful ones. But they’re not mine, and somewhere along the line, I came to the realization that I don’t want them to be!

And what has Lake Charles to do with all that? It’s not in Arkansas, after all. Well, the funny thing about Lake Charles is that, while it’s not Arkansas, I think I had my little epiphany there, not just because I lived there longer than anywhere else, but because the culture is so similar to the one I remember from Arkansas. We lived in the Ozarks for my dad’s job, but where I am from, my real home, is southern Arkansas, and that has far more in common with Louisiana than it does with northern Arkansas. And so, the time I spent in Lake Charles was like being offered a path. A path back to the girl I was when I moved to Illinois – when I moved onto the “traveled” road, which also happened to be the easy road.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

And so that is what Lake Charles gave me: the gift of myself. I lived there two more years, and during that time, I drank in the culture and I learned to take pride in my heritage again. I learned to code switch so that I can at least reclaim my Southern accent among those who also have one, although I can rarely do it with those who don’t (I try). I learned that places have very little to do with the strip malls or the houses, or even what the land looks like; it’s all about the people. The people of Louisiana, the people of Arkansas, heck, even the people of Texas – these people rock!

When we had to leave, I thought my heart would break. And then, of course, it did break when Hurricane Rita came in here and wrecked poor ugly little Lake Charles and hurt all the beautiful people who live here so badly. They, hardy souls that they are, have done a wonderful job of restoring the town, without a lot of help from the outside. Our old house, which received some heavy damage, looks marvelous now, like a brand new house – which is great as long as you like brand new houses. I’m mainly sad that the handmade door with the leaded glass is no longer. Oh well; such is life. It lives on in my mind’s eye, so that’s OK.

The best thing of all about my life in Lake Charles is that, even though I didn’t get to stay forever, I got to stay long enough. If I’d left before reconnecting to my past, then I’d have remained forever traveling the shallow easy road, with its pretty houses and its strip malls, and its interchangeable suburbs where little matters beyond the price of real estate and the scratch on the door of the BMW. If I’d left after becoming aware of what an idiot I’d been, but before coming to terms with it, then I’d have been left mired in guilt for not valuing important things, but not really understanding what I could do to make it right. But because I was able to stay long enough to absorb not just the guilt, but also the remedy, Lake Charles gave me the ultimate gift: it gave me grace. And I can take it with me; hence, the quote at the top of this blog.

I will never cease to be thankful for receiving the rare opportunity to move from the easy road to the one less traveled – in mid-stream. Not many people get that chance, but I did, and Lake Charles gave it to me. I call that Lagniappe!

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Anonymous said...

Give my love to Lake Charles, please. It has a big heart, that litle place.

Janna said...

I had a similar experience when I passed the 3.5 year mark in MD. Then we stayed even longer, nearly 6 years. I still say Arkansas is home, but MD feels like a second home. We're going to visit this weekend and I was just on the phone w/ a friend from there. It's so nice to pick up and have a real talk though I hadn't spoken to her in a few months.
I'm actually itching to move from TN now; we've passed the two year mark and I know the longer you stay the harder it is to leave. We really want to stay put though and give our kids a "home."
My younger brother has no clue what roots are and I can't explain it, it's something you have to experience to realize the value.