The Cultural Case For Coming Home To Louisiana
I make it here. Excerpts:
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 my sister Ruthie back in St. Francisville got sick with cancer, and died. I write about how that changed my whole way of seeing life — and my whole way of seeing Louisiana. As you know, we moved to the Bayou State:
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.
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.
Read the whole thing here. Maybe it’ll speak to your heart — or to the heart of someone who lives far from home, and needs to think about coming on back (so send it to them!).
And, if this essay matters to you, please think about buying my book, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming.
I’m rounding the final bend of the book tour. I’ll be at the Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, on Thursday; at the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans on Friday; and at the Perkins Rowe Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge on Saturday afternoon at 2. Details on times and locations here.