When someone dies in my life, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing them letters. It’s a way to keep the relationship going: to say my piece, to work out unfinished business, to keep them up on current events. The letter provides a type of closure for me and a type of opening. It’s an acknowledgement my relationship with the person is forever changed, but not gone.
Last Friday was move day from New Orleans back to Seattle via a month-long, self-guided Civil Rights tour which I hope to document here. Before I get back to the topic of letter writing, a brief aside to catch you up on why we’re leaving New Orleans.
We had fallen in love with New Orleans, so much so, that we had put an offer on a 100-year old, remodeled, creole-style duplex in the 7th Ward. Our dream was to live most of the year here and spend summers in Seattle. We loved our lifestyle. The slower pace, the celebration, the music, the high society mixed with down-home humility, the color, the heat, the charm, the southern hospitality, and God, the food! The lower cost of living and rental income that could flow from the tenant-side of the duplex, would have allowed me to focus on more entrepreneurial pursuits without pressure to bring in stable income for a bit. I had planned to focus on my writing, completing additional requirements towards my healthcare chaplaincy certification, and explore starting a corporate chaplaincy business.
On May 25, we spent our 12th anniversary experiencing restaurant dining post-COVID for the first time since quarantine and welcomed a local musician into our large open living room for a private, physically distant house concert while neighbors babysat our son—a rare treat, on multiple levels, during those early days of COVID. It felt special, uniquely New Orleans. As we listened to the music, we sat marveling at our good fortune, oblivious to the fact that, on the same night, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was suffocating under the knee of a callous police officer.
As protest over George Floyd’s death erupted across the country, my husband felt a strong tug on his heart to go back home. During our many years in the northwest, he had been working alongside communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and to suddenly be so far away from the people in the movement he held dear soon became untenable.
One night he announced that he had a proposition that would “Fuck up our plan.”
Radical shifts to our plan are not uncommon in our household. We are the couple, who, after losing our parents, quit our jobs, sold our house, and traveled the world for 18-months. He announced that he felt called to go back to Seattle and be with his people in this unprecedented moment in history. From my perspective, there was work to do all over the country, not least of which was right under our noses in New Orleans. From my experience, building relationships and getting involved was open and available—at least in comparison to Seattle. But I understood what he meant. As an outsider, one should let the insiders lead. We were not insiders here. The problem was, saying yes to going home to Seattle, would mean saying no to our New Orleans dream for the time being.
Because my husband uprooted his life to make my dream of clinical pastoral education possible, returning the favor was a no brainer, but it was not without cost.
After many days of late-night deliberation and intentional discernment, we backed out of the offer on the house, I rescinded my application for the fall CPE unit at the hospital, I cancelled carefully researched kindergarten applications for my son, I scrambled to apply to other CPE programs in Seattle (they’re all full), and I started saying goodbye to new friends. Even in a short nine months, I had grown roots.
While I believe that going back to Seattle is the right decision for our family, leaving New Orleans is another loss that needs to be acknowledged. I moped around the city for weeks. Initially, leaving felt like a sandcastle washed away by an unexpectedly large swell or like an early miscarriage when you had just started to get excited about the possibility of a baby. When you’re already grieving, everything can look like death.
The fact is that New Orleans is alive and well, not dead in the least. It’ll be here even if I’m not. And, all the ways I changed and grew during my season here will be gifts that keep on giving.
So, here’s my letter to my temporary home to which my relationship has changed but is not gone.
Dear New Orleans,
Thank you for holding such nourishing space for me and my family over the last nine months. From the moment we drove in, you swept us up in a parade of celebration. Over cocktails and jambalaya at The Spotted Cat, we spent our first late October evening toasting the realization of a long-held dream to live within your boundaries. My son wanted to be the “Star Wars Family” for Halloween, so the next day we headed to the French Quarter to get properly outfitted as “Mom Vader,” “Dad Sidious,” and “Kid Trooper.” After filling up on candy and getting a good scare by the local hunted fire station on Magazine Street, we got a good laugh from “bone-a-fide” satire at The Skeleton House on State Street.
For a city that is no stranger to death, we continued the celebration by contributing the names of the deceased loved ones who brought us here—Tim, Dad, Nugget, Mom, Thad, Helga—to the Dia de Los Muertos altars around town. In fact, I spent a lot of time at your many cemeteries contemplating whether the thing I was presently worried about would matter so much at some future point when I would take my place there.
We swung and swayed with official Second Lines on Sundays. Frequently, Zavi would bolt down the hall to the kitchen where I was cooking dinner, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Mom parade! There’s a parade outside!” as an umbrella-clad wedding party, group of students from the local high school band, or gaggle of musical friends were marching by in front of our first house on Burgundy. We danced to Zydeco music at festivals, attended our first ever Bayou Classic weekend, and caught enough beads to last us a lifetime (and that was before Mardi Gras!).
Your magic brought us an unconventional school for Zavi that challenged us to live more deeply into our values and gave us an instant community of kids and parents. You granted us a beautiful Uptown rental, whose sunlit, breezy, screened front porch provided us sanctuary before and during COVID. Zavi turned 5, lost both his front teeth, learned to ride a bike without training wheels, and can now flip front and backward in the pool and dive down deep to retrieve items. He spent eight weeks at sports camp this summer where he’s more of a sports fanatic now than ever. We flew to Panama from your airport and came home to New Orleans by air for the first time. We sampled King Cake and learned to give into excess at Mardi Gras!
When we moved here, we knew that we were going to have fun, but our spirituality also deepened planted in this fertile soil. I moved here to see whether I was indeed called to be a chaplain. It was an experiment of sorts, expecting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer at the end. Instead, after six days of orientation, I was given a badge that said “chaplain,” and in a public ceremony, commissioned as a minister whether I saw myself that way or not. I would grow into the title. Over the next five months, I would companion hundreds of patients at Ochsner Medical Center and attend many deaths. I would unpack and repack my relationship to faith over and over again; I would define what type of minister I was and wanted to become; I would come to appreciate the unitary lessons that come through pain; I would learn to pray again; and I would solidify my new career direction even if I’m not yet sure what the destination is.
I started writing too. I had wanted to blog about grief and all our travels up to now, but it took the slower pace of NOLA and the nudge of Tara Mohr’s Playing Big course to help me to leap. I learned to sit still in the Big Easy. I got really healthy too. Thank you for the community at Free to Be Power Yoga, excellent chiropractic care from Dr. Rueben Carter, and a gifted Jungian therapist who helped me to see myself more clearly.
I will miss the long bike rides around town, dodging potholes, and the familiar call of “Hey baby” from friendly locals sitting on their stoops. I will miss picnics at Crescent Park and watching tugboats guide barges along the Mississippi River. I will miss hearing neighbors, Hugo and Sadie, call me “Miss Angeline” when over to play with Zavi. I’ll miss long talks about womanhood, vocation, parenting, marriage, travel, and current events with the King’s. I’ll miss my Dinner Party Table and the brave space we created to process the people we lost.
No, New Orleans you aren’t perfect. In many ways, your scars are on the surface: poverty, segregation, failing schools, lack of infrastructure, hurricanes, humidity, bugs etc. But I loved you just the same. Maybe it was just the honeymoon stage, maybe not. Your charm got under my skin.
It was a beautiful season, even if it wasn’t at all as we had planned. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I hope it’s soon and I hope it’s for more than just a visit.