Was it Thoreau or Emerson who said the whole world exists in your own backyard? I can’t remember. I was thinking of this when I was sitting on the beach in Andalusia with the hills of Northern Africa not only visible across the ocean, but looking close enough to touch. And yet, some of my Spanish friends have never been. As crazy as that seems, when the 2005 Federal Flood hit New Orleans there were people who left the city who have never been outside of New Orleans in their life. I’m talking eighty years of never visiting another city, much less a different parish.
When the cab driver took us from Zahara back to Cadiz to catch the train to Madrid, he said that he had never been outside of Andalusia. As we were riding parallel to sand and sea and expansive blue sky, he said, “For what?” I thought of the line in Frank Ocean’s Grammy-winning song that asks, “Why see the world, when you’ve got the beach?”
On the plane from Madrid back to the U.S., a man sat to my left who carried on a nonstop conversation with the woman sitting next to him, a stranger before the flight took off, but worn out from his narrative by the end. He told her he went to a sushi restaurant for the first time just that last week. He said he thought the wasabi was guacamole and put a big swath in his mouth and how he had to drink copious amounts of beer to wash it down. The man had some years on him, a white beard and mane that made him look like Colonel Sanders. How is it possible that he was eating sushi for the first time?
So is it true that the whole world is in your backyard? The morning after getting Stella out of the pokey (read: kennel), we went for a long walk and as we walked out the front door, the young man who rides his daughter to school on the handlebars of his bike every morning passed by. He was also wearing his baby on his back in a pack; he zipped by with his dreadlocks flying through the air. It made me smile, to be home, to see this image of a Black man caring for his children while the rest of the country debates whether Michael Brown should have died for a pack of cigars.
Stella and I veered towards the bayou, my old neighborhood, and as we got closer to the water, the houses and landscaping changed dramatically and of course, so did everyone’s skin color. Gone were the Black and Brown faces who are my Spirit House neighbors; on the bayou, most everyone is white. There are two Black people that live on the bayou, and they live in a rented double, next door to each other, and I know both of them. Everything on Bayou St. John is picture perfect, the way I had tried to keep the LaLa, always agonizing over every detail or maintenance that might not pay homage to the architecture of the house, of the bayou, and the neighborhood.
Perhaps this is a white person’s dream, to live life in a picture-perfect magazine image of reality. Perhaps, when I left that neighborhood and that dream, I gave up some of my whiteness. I can only hope. And had I not not just walked a half mile door to door, I would not have believed that the Spirit House could be so close to the LaLa, AND yet be so far.
I miss the gloaming on the bayou, the warm dusk light reflected in the still pool of water that I would see as I began preparing our evening meal. Yet, my soul feels at home in the Spirit House, with the streetcar clanging nearby and Tin’s school going up next door. It’s home. We’re home.
I inherited wanderlust from my father – I grew into a wandering Jew, an explorer and a curious adventurer, but truly I’m a homebody in my bones. I come home weary and changed from travel, yearning for routine and rhythm in my life. Before I went to sleep after 15 hours of traveling, I pulled the weeds out of my garden as my otherwise lush garden had grown ever more lush and spilled out into the sidewalk.
I come from a long line of gardeners and want-to-be gardeners. My grandmother had a verdant green thumb. My aunt has the equivalent of a botanical garden in her large backyard. My mother was always going to plant a garden, and she attempted a few places and I planted some for her, but I’ve had to put down roots each time I’ve stopped – even though I know I am driven by something primitive and corporeal to root myself in each setting, I also feed this winged spirit of mine, which is always poised and ready for flight, never getting too comfortable anywhere.
When Stella and I were on the bayou, as we passed the LaLa, I remember I had told myself I would live in that house till I died. We also passed my neighbor’s house where she did die – too young – a few days after her 50th birthday this year. I felt choked and thick – a tree with rings of growth that has roots gnarled and tangled and leggy and long. Where’s my friend, my soul wondered, too hurt to think of her bright eyes closed, her body’s ashes scattered in so many places by now.
I’ve come to my own place – a respite – burdened by all that I know and all I still long to know.
And for this, I struggle – the desire for home vs. the desire to roam.
The Spirit House the day I bought it:
The Spirit House after I began planting myself:
The Spirit House after I began to blossom here: