Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Raincoats

     I needed to choose a raincoat to wear to an outdoor event I attended last night. I have two different ones: a Tulane raincoat and a UNC raincoat. I pulled on leggings, rain boots, and a shirt without second thought. But when it came time to pick which raincoat to wear, I felt my heart being dragged in so many different directions. I took each of them on and off at least five times. I stared at myself in the mirror. Why was this decision so hard? And why couldn't I just pick a raincoat?

     I finally settled on the UNC raincoat, justifying my decision by admitting to myself that it was a better match for my light blue rain boots. But all night, I felt like an imposter. Like I was wearing something that was not really mine. Like a fake Carolina student. I saw other people wearing UNC gear and many of them smiled at me in a friendly Tar Heel manner, but I missed the immediate high-fives and toothy smiles that come when someone with connections to New Orleans realizes that I go to Tulane. I experienced a brief moment of panic when we were paired up with strangers at the event, fearing that my partner might ask me about college. Should I only mention Tulane? Should I only mention UNC? Should I mention both? Do people even care that I spent a fourth of my undergraduate education in New Orleans? I certainly care. Thankfully, the man paired up with me did not ask. I was spared a pinch of heartache.

      Upon noticing that I was transferring from Tulane, an academic adviser at UNC admitted, "I went down to visit once, and I almost didn't come back." Me either, I thought, wishing that I was still tiptoeing around stinging caterpillars in a magical land full of jazzy second lines and majestic oak trees.

      Don't get me wrong; North Carolina is lovely. One of my teaching assistants during the spring semester, who spent a lot of her educational experience at UNC, was thrilled that I was going to spend the next three years of undergrad at such a wonderful place. "There is something in the water there," she said, beaming with a love for Chapel Hill that must have been coursing through Carolina blue blood.

Photo of Audubon Park from www.experienceneworleans.com
     Don't over-romanticize New Orleans, I kept telling myself at the event, tugging on the sleeves of a jacket that felt like the wrong color. The truth is, there is no way to over-romanticize such an incredible city. It is as mysterious and fun and beautiful as everyone says. The reality of it exceeds expectations of it, and the expectations of it are already very high. One of my friends recently commented, "You come to New Orleans expecting that it won't actually be like 'The Princess and the Frog.' But then you get here and it is exactly like that."

      What I do fear that I may be romanticizing is my own experience over the past year in New Orleans. If all of my positive memories, the ones that are constantly replaying in my head as I agonize over leaving a place I love, represented my reality, then I would have never left. But I spent more time in the Student Health Center than I did in all of the gorgeous crevices of the city, and my desire to sit and read under those giant oak trees was completely obliterated by the inability of my lungs to handle their pollen. I was so sick that I was only able to attend one Mardi Gras parade, and some of my professors expressed surprise that I could even finish the spring semester. Despite all of the good things, it has been a year marked by sickness and pain, and I have to remind myself of that in order to feel even the slightest bit okay about my decision to leave.

One of my favorite places to walk
through at Loyola University
     Since coming home, I have dealt with varying degrees of almost constant nausea, which has been enormously frustrating. The first weekend that I was home, I became very sick and had to cancel all of my plans with friends. While I was able to reschedule with almost everyone, I was disappointed that my body was forcing me to spend such a difficult weekend in isolation. Things improved throughout the week, but I am still overwhelmed by the unpredictability of my illnesses. On Saturday night I was only able to eat a single orange slice before throwing up. I spend a good part of each day feeling defeated. Fatigue has been a very real challenge for me over the past several months, and I am disappointed that it is still an issue now that I am home, although I know I need to give myself adequate time to rest, recover, and improve. I did have an encouraging appointment with a surgeon who applauded my decision to transfer and told me that a potential upcoming procedure could be greatly delayed or even completely cancelled thanks to that decision. It was an affirming medical appointment, and considering that these rarely exist and that I am struggling so much with switching schools it was well-timed and desperately needed.

     You know how after you don't see someone for a long time it becomes more difficult to picture their face in your mind? I am afraid of having that happen to me with New Orleans, Tulane University, and my college friends. I am afraid of beginning to forget such an important year of my life. I am afraid of watching the details fade into the background of my mind. I may have worn the UNC raincoat tonight, but I will not be throwing out the Tulane raincoat or shoving it in the back of my closet to wither away. At the end of the day, the rain will come no matter what color I choose to wear. Both are valid. Both are good. Both are worthy. I am learning how to love both.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Streetcar Saint

     Since I will not be returning to Tulane in the fall, I am trying to explore New Orleans as much as possible, do all of my favorite things, and cram in time with friends before I leave. On Friday night, my lovely roommate Allison organized a little going away dinner for me with several of my Tulane friends, and it was such a treat to have so many people that I love all at the same table. I am lucky to have such a fantastic roommate, and I am grateful to have so many generous friends.

      Only a few days after I decided to enroll at Carolina, I went home briefly for Easter break. I was glad to go home and visit with family and friends, but overall it was an incredibly difficult period of time. I was struggling with my UNC registration and struggling to see myself there. I kept walking around campus, trying to feel at home, when all I really wanted to do was run back to the Tulane bead tree and watch the colorful blur of shotgun houses out the window of a university shuttle. I was doing my very best to get excited about all the opportunities Carolina has in store for me and I did not want anyone around me to have to deal with anything but optimism, so I raved about the positive aspects of UNC and was careful to follow up every one of my own complaints about transferring with "but I'm sure it will be fine once I get here."

      My parents were as sweet as could be. They picked me up from the airport around midnight when my plane reached North Carolina, and before I even went upstairs to go to bed I broke down and sobbed about the whole thing. When I finally went upstairs to my room, I saw a perfectly made bed with a brand new Carolina pillow neatly situated across it, along with a paper UNC pharmacy bag filled with prescriptions, and it just felt so appropriate given my situation. We went out to a celebratory dinner the next night, because I am still determined to make this sad occasion into a joyous one, and they very generously gave me another little gift bag filled with UNC items. That night, I found myself actually excited to start something new, but I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that the feeling was fleeting.

       I think one of the reasons that Easter break was so hard on me was that it finally occurred to me that even though I have friends at Carolina, I have missed an entire year of memories and laughter and learning with them. I barely understand how to access my university portal, so to say that I am behind would be quite the understatement. Lingo and inside jokes were casually tossed around and I missed the comfort of my own university, where I am "in the know" about these things (for the most part, at least). I feel like I could spend an entire year trying to catch up and still not get there. It seems like everyone has grown closer together while I have put down roots elsewhere, but now I am being freshly uprooted and I do not really belong anywhere anymore. How do you recover a lost year? And what do you do when you really want to be 850 miles away?

      I know the next few days will be full of heartache and, quite honestly, full of regret. Friends I should have spent more time with. Places I should have visited more often. People I should have loved more fully and more gently. A city I should have explored more thoroughly. I am hoping to become consistently excited about Carolina over the summer. Hopefully I can create some positive memories on campus and make some friends before the school year starts. Hopefully it will feel like home by August.

      Today I had the opportunity to go to my New Orleans church one final Sunday, and, as always, it was such a wonderful place to be. I am going to miss the rector, the sweet couple that takes me there, and the congregation, but I feel lucky to have met such amazing people and to be loved in two churches in two different cities. I learned so much in my New Orleans church and participated in so many joyous songs and prayers. What more could a girl ask for than to be widely loved and to be able to love widely?

     Yesterday, I decided to spend some time traipsing around the French Quarter, stopping to listen to every street performer and making an effort to be as gracious as possible to everyone around me. I want to leave this city with as much love as it has given me, and though I know it is impossible, I figure that I might as well try. Over the past week I told myself that I was handling the whole transferring thing well, given the circumstances. But as I walked into the St. Louis Cathedral just to see it one last time, I found a tear or two welling up in my eyes. I sat in a wooden pew, ignored all of the tourists around me, and found myself wondering why in the world my own body is forcing me to leave a place I have fallen so madly in love with. I did not receive any clarity or answers, but I am glad that there was a quiet place to sit with my sorrow for a minute before I reentered the lively streets of New Orleans.

      After shopping around a bit, watching a movie about Hurricane Katrina, and buying a NOLA snowball (which I ended up mostly throwing away because I just always feel like the flavor to ice ratio is way too heavy on the flavor), I boarded the streetcar again to head to an arts market a few miles away. The streetcar is always packed coming back from the French Quarter, especially on the weekends and when the weather is nice, and because I am a tiny human it is essentially guaranteed that someone will join me on whichever little bench I choose.

      A woman only a four or five years my senior sat down next to me right as the streetcar began to move. My eyes were locked on Canal Street as I vowed to remember the scene and smell and magic feeling in the air that makes New Orleans the mysterious city that it is. I did not intend on conversing with this woman, but we were wearing the same ring, so she struck up a conversation with me. Assuming that I was a tourist because of some New Orleans apparel I had purchased that day and was carrying with me, she asked me where I was from. I explained that I was a Tulane student from North Carolina, but that I was returning home soon. "Why?" she asked, frowning. She was a brave soul to venture into this territory.

     "I was really sick this year, and I need to be closer to home. But I wanted to get some things to remember New Orleans by and spend one last day in the French Quarter. I really love it here." Despite the absence of details, I was surprised at how forthcoming I was about the whole thing. I am usually pretty good at providing extremely vague answers whenever a stranger asks me anything that might relate to my health, so this was at least an improvement, even if it was still a bit ambiguous. She seemed to understand and went on to tell me all about her travels, as a student from Spain who studied abroad in Canada and has seen many corners of the earth. I was impressed by how outgoing she was and I quickly became engrossed in both her stories of underground malls in Toronto and fascination with daiquiris.

Photo from www.neworleanscondos.net

     A few blocks before her stop, she looked me straight in the eye and said, "I hope your health improves. Remember, there are always more degrees. There is only one of you." With that, we said goodbye, and unfortunately I do not expect to ever be able to see her again. It was a strangely encouraging encounter. There was something so powerful about being able to share such a delicate situation with someone who did not even know my name.
 
     Perhaps it is na├»ve of me, but I think I will always remember the saint I encountered on the streetcar yesterday. Plenty of people have said plenty of nice things to me regarding my decision to transfer, but she just seemed so at ease with the whole thing. There was no awkward scramble for words or fear of sounding condescending. It was one of the most authentically human moments I have experienced in a long time. I did not find clarity or peace in the cathedral yesterday. But maybe God can use streetcars as churches. After all, even saints use public transportation.