I believe that place can be as powerful as education, or love, or religion in shaping a person’s priorities.
In 1999, a year before I turned 30 and six years before Hurricane Katrina, I followed my husband, Matt, down to New Orleans so that he could pursue a medical degree. During that time, the city showed me what mattered. We ate red beans and rice every Monday and seafood gumbo on Fridays, especially during Lent. Once a year at Mardi Gras we danced and ate and laughed in the streets with our neighbors. There was an instrument for every child; there was moving and clapping during Sunday Mass; there were parades that redirected traffic without notice. There were bright colors splashed on houses that struggle to stand. There was a street called Harmony and a bowling alley concert hall. We had an unspoken agreement always to address one another with a “How ya doin’?” or a “Where y’at,” when passing on the sidewalk.
During those six years, New Orleans showed me what mattered to me, too: sharing a table, nurturing a culture, noticing your neighbor, believing in fun.
It’s possible that maturity and marriage are responsible for the contentment that grew inside me during those years; it’s possible that another place would have felt just as perfect because I was ready to settle down. An individual life is not a research experiment, and I have no control group against which to compare mine.
What I do know is that my final, good pre-Katrina memory in New Orleans is of a devastatingly hot night. Matt and I were out with friends, in a neighborhood bar with cool cement floors upon which dogs are allowed to lounge one night a week. We had organized the outing to catch up before saying goodbye, because many of us had planned end-of-summer vacations. August is a good month to escape New Orleans, because of the heat and the hurricanes. We all assumed we would re-group in September.
I remember looking around the room that night–at my friends, neighbors I’d never met, and their dogs–and being hyper-aware of my good fortune. I knew absolutely that I never wanted to live anyplace else.
Some people honor only their birthplaces with the title home, because that’s where they feel most themselves. While Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, is where I’m from, New Orleans will always be my heart’s home, because it’s where I discovered the person I want to be, the ideals by which I intend to lead my life.
I believe that place is not limited to where; it can also be a why and a how.