The case for coming home
|The nationally known author explains how culture played a key role in his decision to return to Louisiana.|
In the autumn of 1987, I sat at my computer terminal in The Daily Reveille office in the basement of Hodges Hall on the LSU campus and punched out a bitter op-ed commentary about Louisiana state politics. I can't be sure, but I think it had to do with then-Gov. Edwin Edwards' campaign statement that if Louisiana's best and brightest wanted to leave the state, well, good riddance.
That might be what set the hotheaded undergraduate editorialist I was on fire. But truth to tell, as folks who lived through that dismal era of Louisiana politics can attest, it could have been any number of things. Whatever the catalyst, the point of the incendiary piece was to say goodbye to all that. The cynicism of our politics, the populist scorn for excellence, the economic storm and stress that Louisiana institutions seemed incapable of dealing with, and so on—all these things signaled to my generation of college students that we didn't have much of a future here at home.
Five years later, after the failed Roemer Revolution, and having had to vote for the Lizard to keep the Wizard from becoming governor, I fulfilled my own Daily Reveille prophecy. I quit my job at The Advocate, loaded up a U-Haul Gentle-Ride van, and lit out for the East Coast, never to return.
Or so I thought. A year and a half ago, I moved with my wife and children from Philadelphia back to St. Francisville, where I was born and raised. Today I don't have much more faith in Louisiana's functionality, political or otherwise, than I had nearly 30 years ago. But I have a lot more faith in Louisiana—so much so that I came back home to raise our own children. I did this with open eyes and a changed heart.
Here's what I see now that I didn't see back then.
I left Baton Rouge for a journalism job in Washington, D.C. My roommates were friends from LSU, and my social circle included a number of Southerners. Whenever we would get together at bars or parties, we would usually end up telling stories about back home. As much as we missed the Bayou State, returning home was out of the question. We all had good jobs and good lives in Washington. Besides, Louisiana was a mess, and always would be. “It's a great place to be from,” I used to say then, “but it's not such a great place to be.”
As the years went on, I moved up and down the Eastern seaboard, onward and upward with my career. All the while I was corresponding frequently with an email circle of friends. One, a Californian, once said to me, “Did you ever notice that your best writing is about Louisiana? That's when you really write with flair and passion.”
No, I had not noticed, but I conceded that she was right. Still, I told her, I can never forget the (perhaps apocryphal) words a New Orleans journalist told his newsroom at his farewell party before taking off for a job up North: It was more important to live in a city that valued libraries more than parades. That's the reality of Louisiana life, I told my friend. Romanticism and sentimentality obscure, but do not nullify, hard truths about the barriers life in Louisiana raises to professional advancement.
Which is what mattered to me more than anything. And why not? There's nothing wrong at all with wanting to advance in one's field and better provide for the needs, comforts and prospects of one's own children. As my family grew, my wife and I moved from New York City to Dallas, and then back east to Philadelphia; my career arc—and my salary—kept rising.
And then it happened.
In early 2010, my younger sister Ruthie Leming, a West Feliciana schoolteacher, went into Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center for exploratory surgery. Surgeons found stage IV lung cancer. Ruthie was 40 years old and had three children. She had never smoked. By the time her cancer was found, it was, barring a miracle, too late.
The news was devastating to all of us who loved her. Ruthie, typically, was a rock of faith, hope and serenity from the beginning. For my part, I was 1,300 miles away, powerless to do anything for my sister, her husband, their children, or my folks.
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As it turned out, I wasn't needed. Ruthie and her husband Mike, a Baton Rouge firefighter, had everything they could have asked for, and more. The West Feliciana community, as well as Mike's BRFD buddies, rallied to their side from the first day and held firm until Ruthie died at home, 19 months later.
There was nothing Ruthie and her family needed done that wasn't done—and even some things they didn't need friends provided anyway. Ruthie had good medical insurance, but the town still threw a fundraising concert and barn dance for her, to show her how much they loved her.
This didn't just happen. Ruthie had roots, and she tended them carefully. She accepted the limits of her small-town Louisiana life. To be sure, Ruthie did not do a cost-benefit analysis to decide her path. She did what she loved, and what she loved was being at home in Louisiana.
Back home for Ruthie's funeral in the fall of 2011, my wife Julie and I saw an astonishing outpouring of love and affection for my sister and our family. Yes, it was terribly sad, but there was so much hope and light amid the darkness of those days. Ruthie's friends gathered over beer in her Starhill kitchen, where she had cooked so many late-night meals for them, to talk about the good times. Mike said back then, “We're leanin', but we're leanin' on each other.”
Losing Ruthie compelled me to think in a new way about my responsibilities to my parents, to Mike and my nieces, and to my own kids. I asked my wife back then what would happen to our family if one of us woke up one morning with terminal cancer?
“We have friends who could help us,” she said. And it was true. But we had not been in Philly long enough to build the kind of deep and extensive relationships that Ruthie had from having spent all her life in one place.
There was more. In my emotional geography, Ruthie was a landmark, a mountain, a river, a fixed point around which I could orient myself. There was no horizon so far that I could not see Ruthie in the distance and know where I was and how to find my way home to Louisiana, no matter where in the world I lived.
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Now she was gone, and before long, my mother and father will be gone, too. What would my children know of Louisiana then? Does that matter? Should it matter?
It mattered. Julie and I decided that we wanted to be part of Louisiana life—tailgating at Tiger Stadium, Christmas Eve gumbo at our cousins' place in Starhill, po-boys at George's under the Perkins Road overpass, Mardi Gras parades, yes ma'am and yes sir, and all the little things that give life its texture and meaning more than career prestige and a paycheck.
True, by moving to Louisiana our children would have fewer “opportunities,” in the conventional sense. But what were the opportunity costs of staying away? I had believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world, chasing my own happiness.
But here's the thing. When you're young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a wife and mother and schoolteacher, in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn't just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?
The insurance company, if you're lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won't come sit with you and pray with you and tell you she loves you. It won't be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace—if it comes to that—by assuring you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.
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Only your family and your community can do that.
What our culture also doesn't tell young people is that a way of life that depends on moving from place to place, extracting whatever value you can before moving on again, leaves you spiritually impoverished. True, it is not given to every man and woman to remain in the place where they were born, and an absolute devotion to family and place can be destructive. I do not regret having left Louisiana as a young man. I needed to do that; I had important work to do elsewhere.
But the world looks different from the perspective of middle age. In her last 19 months of life, Ruthie showed me that I now had important work to do back home. Hers was a work of stewardship—of taking care of the land, the family, and the people in the community. By loving them all faithfully and tending them with steadfast care, Ruthie accomplished something countercultural, even revolutionary in our restless age.
You can't convince somebody by logical arguments why they should love someone or something. You can only show them, and hope the seed of affection falls in the heart's fertile soil. Through Ruthie's actions, and through the actions of everyone else in the town who held our family close, and held us up when we couldn't stand on our own two feet, I was able to see the power of Ruthie's love, given and returned. And I was able to see my own life in light of this love, and, finally, to feel for the first time in nearly 30 years, a profound affection for this place I had abandoned so long ago.
THE CULTURAL CASE
We moved back to Louisiana and have regretted it not one bit.
It's not that Louisiana has changed, or changed all that much. It hasn't. Parades still matter more than libraries here, and college football coaches' salaries are more important than college professors' paychecks. The political and economic problems are still with us. So, bless his heart, is Edwin.
Louisiana may not have changed, but I have. Parades—I speak metaphorically—are a lot more important than I used to think. That is, the small things about the life we were all given as south Louisiana natives can't easily be given a dollar value, or co-opted into an instrumentalist case for rising in the meritocracy. Having the chance to drive over to Breaux Bridge to the zydeco breakfast at Café des Amis, or to have Sunday dinner with the family every weekend, will not get your kids into Harvard, but it just might give them a better chance at having a life filled with grace and joy. Same goes for their parents.
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When we told our Philly friends that we were leaving the big city for a tiny south Louisiana river town, we expected that they would be both shocked and amused. That's not what happened. A startling number of them responded by saying, one way or another, how much they envied us. They wished they had a place like St. Francisville to go back to. Their parents made the decision to leave, and they themselves had been raised in rootless suburbia. This, it turns out, is one reason why they loved listening to my Louisiana stories: because I come from a real place, with particular traditions and a distinct culture.
Truth to tell, I was lucky that I had a good family back home, a beautiful town, and a job that I could do online. Not every Louisiana expat has these things, and that lack may keep them in exile, against their wishes. Nevertheless, many of us may come to realize that the limits we must accept by moving back to Louisiana make possible a richness of experience that we cannot have anywhere else. And it opens opportunities for us to take the good things we learned in exile and put them to work making our state a place that will be easier for our kids, whatever their calling, to choose as their home.
The cultural case for moving home to Louisiana, then, is fundamentally a countercultural one. The small life expats leave behind in search of grandeur in the world beyond Louisiana—a life whose limits are set only by our own desires and capabilities—may contain a profundity, even a greatness, that is hard to see when you judge it by contemporary American standards.
But how much sense do those standards make when judging a life? A Louisiana native who works in Washington politics said to me that folks back home know something about the good life that other people don't.
“It's OK to be average there,” he said. “To go to work each day, come home, have a beer, and love your family and friends. One thing that really sucks about D.C. is that everyone here very seriously carries the burden of having to Change the World.”
To be freed from the felt burden of having to Change the World, of having to get ahead, of having to think of your life in terms of achieve, achieve, achieve—it's an unusual thing. You can be only OK in Louisiana, or maybe even a basket case, and they'll love you anyway, as long as you can laugh at yourself and at life, and know how to sit on the front porch, so to speak, and pass a good time.
I didn't know how important all of this was until my sister Ruthie died. I didn't know that the things about Louisiana that used to hold me back turned out to be the things that held my Starhill family together in their time of great trial. There was a lot I didn't know as an ambitious LSU journalism undergraduate, and one truth is this: Life is too hard and too short to spend in the office trying to get ahead, while outside in the bright sunshine, the parade passes by.
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