About a half decade ago, I spent part of my summer in New Orleans.

Already fortunate to receive a fellowship that allowed me to study and volunteer with one of America’s most alive cities, I walked away a woman much richer in lessons, in life — so rich, in fact, that I have a hard time singling them out even when I’m consciously thinking about them.

Six years later, during a particularly busy start to fall, I hadn’t been thinking about NOLA or its lessons in a while. Just the right time for a lesson to  sneak up on me.

Now, when I say “sneak up on,” I really mean that one of two things happens, because it’s not so much a “sneaking” as an unexpected, full-body-and-soul immersion of two sorts:

Sometimes a lesson will wash over me slowly and linger in a summer sort of way. It arrives, like a thick blanket of humidity, and completely arrests me. I have no choice but to acknowledge and respect it – live in it and breathe it in – meditating uninterrupted on the coming-to-being that happened slowly in that place. Eventually it passes and a quiet peace fills my soul.

Other times it’s like an endless wash of colors attached to feelings, sounds, memories. Each demands more attention than the last and my heart breaks that I can’t hold them all long enough, piece them together fast enough, to remember them the way I thought they were. This is a much more exhausting experience with lessons.

I try to remind myself to stop hoarding the fragments of memories and to let the image create itself naturally. When I’m successful (and that doesn’t always happen), I realize that in the endless wash, something beautiful was created without me, but that I was witness to it, and that is enough to inspire a peace of the not-quite-as-quiet variety.

Today, I came home after work like normal. I put my bags down like normal. I cooked dinner like normal. I sat down on the couch like normal. And then it happened – the wash of a lesson snuck up on me (See, now aren’t you glad I explained that?).

First, a color. Gold – warm, deep – and before I can think any longer on it, a feeling – fullness – as in fulfillment, not the absence of hunger – a taste – Chicory coffee – a sensation – blisters stinging on my hands in the 9th ward – another feeling – exhaustion as we trekked through our tour – a color combo – blue – relief – and green – engagement, a sense of purpose. In the moment, it’s hard to separate which of those feelings are original to the memories and which I am transposing onto them in retrospect. Only a minute or two has passed, but it feels like another six years and I’m overcome with emotion. It comes to a halt.

I’m still sitting on the couch. I let myself sit quietly, trying to remind myself to let the lesson develop like a polaroid. The edges develop at first and then the rest.

Turns out, sitting is what provoked this. Because, years before, my cohort and I had also been sitting, seminar-style at a table, to share what we learned from our time with New Orleans. And strangely enough, it had all come back to our homes.

The lesson had been so deeply ingrained in our experience that I had been blind to it until then. Going to New Orleans wasn’t really about New Orleans at all – it was about what New Orleans meant for the other places we separately called home, away from each other. At the end of it all, we were reminded: If you want to make a difference, start at home. And I thought I had come to New Orleans to make a difference there.

It was like my eyes were opened, that I could see for the first time. Sight.

Ryan Vale McGonigle

Comments on the Featured Image: For inquiring minds, the featured image comes from a painted building I once passed along Frenchman Street. I can’t take credit for the artwork, but oftentimes wish I could meet the person who can. 

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