I didn’t think I’d end up back here in New Orleans, this hot, soupy city where I was born and raised.
In college in New York City, whenever someone tried to guess where I was from, they would look me up and down and say with certainty, “California!”
I had long blonde highlights. I loved to surf, rock climb and run. People envisioned west coast sunshine when the encountered my off-the-wall energy, and for a moment, I thought perhaps the west coast was my destiny.
Through many twists and turns of life, I returned to New Orleans in my mid-twenties.
Things didn’t go as planned.
There were no waves to surf and no rocks to climb, just miles of humid swamp rapidly eroding into the sea. I had relinquished my party-girl lifestyle for an alcohol-free existence and there seemed to be nothing to do on weekends but booze and eat. Violence in my neighborhood had reached a terrifying crescendo and people were getting shot and dying and my heart was aching.
On weekends, I would sit in my 100-year old house with tall ceilings, marble mantels and history all around me and think, I hate this city.
Friends from college would email about passing through New Orleans, and I didn’t know what to do with them other than get drunk and eat, and I would think, I hate this city.
As I started to hate New Orleans, my home, something else happened, too.
I started to hate myself.
Then on one of those perfect New Orleans afternoons when the sun is warm and generous and a second line rumbled\s in the distance, I broke down in sobs.
Here I was, sitting on my porch drenched in sun and music and beauty and all I was capable of was hate.
What had I become?
I reached back, far back, for that moment I left New Orleans for New York City at eighteen, and how I missed my city, craved it.
One night, on a date at a swanky New York City jazz club, I was dancing in a sea of focused heads. My date looked at me perplexed and grumbled. “I don’t understand how you can dance to music like this.”
Every single year when carnival was near, I flew to New Orleans from New York and I invited anyone to come – open house, bring yourself and yo friends – only to encounter confused stares. “But we would have to miss a class.”
And then Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, and that night my city flooded and people died and everything changed forever, I sat in a bar in Manhattan listening to the table behind me toast New Orleans for higher gas prices.
And what had I wanted in New York City all those years?
All I wanted was to date a guy who could dance, not well, but just like himself with that reckless abandon that I was used to at home.
I wanted friends who would skip classes rarely, but without question if a trip to Mardi Gras was on the agenda.
And in the wake of Katrina, as my city began that long and tireless process of rebuilding, I ached to be alongside them in the September heat, cleaning out refrigerators, razing houses, standing for all that was beautiful and right and true.
These things that I had ached for when I was far away all those years ago were right there, at home.
And now, years later, here I was at home. With all of these things.
Funny how that works.
There in the spring sunshine I made a promise to my city, and it was this:
I’m here to stay, NOLA. I’m committed to you and the beautiful mess that made me, and to thank you I’m going to make you the best city yet, a safe city, a healthy city, a city where every life is valued.
And you know what? I’m going to love you, every inch of you, your swampy air and beautiful second lines and lack of surfable waves and violence too, I’m going to love that because the only way through hate is love, and I’m a love machine, that’s my promise to you.
I’m committed to everything that makes you great and everything that makes you horrible, and nestled in the center is a commitment of transformation, a commitment to making you flourish.
I was home.