The moonlight on the bayou
A Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom
And I’m wishin’ I was there.
“Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,”
As I look out over my friends’ backyard, the moon floats over the bayou.
The air feels heady.
And seemingly everyone I could’ve ever wished into existence is standing, right there, amidst the grass and the crawfish boil tables and the twinkling lights in front of me.
My heart full, lips and fingertips burning from boil residue, I clear my throat and yell some sort of nonsense about gratitude and community. I wave some markers around in the air and ask my friends to write down where their favorite spots are in New Orleans.
When I am done, I leave the markers on the steps, proceed to go through one, two, three batches of crawfish, hug friends, peel garlic cloves, and wash down the fire with cool Abita.
Slowly, people begin to leave, whisper-shouting “thanks” and “good luck” and “miss you already.” In return, I smile until my teeth rub into the sides of my cheeks. Smile until my vision goes blurry and forget to keep it all together.
By the end of the night, the moon is still out. I sit back down on the steps, wiping my fingers on the edges of my shirt, careful to keep crawfish guts away from my face.
“So, when d’you think you’re gonna come back?”
I gasp, spill my beer everywhere, smear boil spices into my hair in spastic shock.
My friend laughs, adjusts his hat, sits down on the stairs with me.
“Well at this rate, I’ll probably die from third-degree crawfish burns, no thanks to you…”
He laughs again.
I take a deep breath, look back up at the sky, out over the backyard.
“Y’know, I really will miss this, this magic. D’you think this happens anywhere else in the world?”
Another friend joins us, sloshing beer onto the steps, and responds: “Absolutely fucking not.”
I sigh, pick at my fingernails, “That’s what I thought.”
One year later, I find myself hum hum humming Louis Armstrong– sultry, brassy, trilling– in my tiny Chicago room. His voice blasts through my phone as I continue to throw things on my bed– I have spent the past two hours in peak procrastination mode. Cleaning.
Magnolias sound nice right about now, I think, looking down at the industrial ski gloves on my floor, then kicking them aside, I would trade frozen fingers for pollen and allergies any day.
Throwing things into piles, sorting through papers and receipts and tchotchkes, I eventually find, stuffed between shoved-aside tax documents and old ticket stubs, a bright yellow envelope. One of the very same I left at bridges and trailheads and concerts and festival grounds over the past year.
I pause, hover over my desk, face squinched in confusion, the envelope trembling between my hands. I find myself not knowing whether to sit or stand or shriek shrilly and jump up down or cry for a million years.
Eventually I sit. Open the envelope. Throw and shake its contents onto my bed and watch as six slips of paper tumble out, falling everywhere. I pick up the first piece–
Where is your place? Who are your people?
And under this, scribbled in blue marker:
“Crawfish mountain (latitude and longitude undetermined).”
I realize these are the very same slips of paper, on a hot New Orleans summer night, I handed out to friends amidst crawfish residue and a full bright moon.
I start laughing. Uncontrollably. Feel snot fly out of my nose, a deep rumble from the back of my throat, my belly skipping. I fall on top of the mountain of sweaty sports clothes languishing on my bed, laughter still rollicking my body. I laugh and laugh and laugh until I pick up the next slip of paper. And then begin to cry:
Where is your place? Who are your people?
In curling, lavender writing:
“Bayou St. John. Where the water flows in slowly from the lake, giving calm and centeredness to the city of New Orleans.”
This is exactly my place. The place where, when I close my eyes and click my heels and hum a little too loudly, I am transported — feel the wind from the cypresses and the scratchiness of the burnt grass and the smell of fermenting po’boy remnants and the too-strong sun on my face.
I can feel the sun pulsing at the edges of my skin, feel myself stretching and pulling and filling with an energy I haven’t felt in a long time. Or at least, not in the time I’ve spent skating over frozen sidewalks or cocooning wool scarves around my neck.
In this moment, I have one of those very human, very humbling a-ha!/duh moments:
Duh, you are not the only person in the universe who has found this spot.
Duh, you are not the only person in the universe who feels this way.
Aha! this letter-project-thing has gone beyond everything I ever thought possible.
One year, thousands of miles, and a trillion thoughts swirling and snapping and attempting to connect to one another later, I have one of those seemingly simple but somewhat life-altering realizations– all this time, I have been writing, in my weird, rambling, occasionally non-sensensical way, about people. About the people who have impacted me, the people who have celebrated alongside me, the people who I love.
All this time, people, not place, have been at the center of this Project.
I feel like there is some sort of celebration in order– a cinnamon roll from my favorite bakery, a spontaneous dance through my kitchen, a phone call to friends.
But instead, I lie on my bed for just a little bit longer, pieces and memories of New Orleans scattered around me. I close my eyes, click my heels, and imagine the moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air, magnolias in bloom. And all the people who have, throughout this year of the June Project, taught me so so so much.
Taught me that a place means people. And people make a place.