Recently, a former student of mine reached out and invited me to attend a walking tour of the French Quarter that she was filming for promotional purposes. I love my city and playing tourist in it, so I was delighted to do so.
I walked to the tour's meeting site behind St. Louis Cathedral deep in memories. It's a place I've walked around as so many versions of myself. As a child. As an adult. As a student. As part of a family. As part of a group. As part of a couple. Alone. Joyous and celebratory. Lonely and longing. Do you ever think about the places you've been in one incarnation of yourself, and how you come to return in different forms?
It's a famous saying: you can't go home again. Sometime in the fall of 1937, author Thomas Wolfe met American activist and writer Ella Winter at a dinner, and in the midst of his storytelling about his past experiences, she commented, "Don't you know you can't go home again?" Struck by that comment—the notion that there are countless ways in which we can never return "home" as we change and our external surroundings change—he asked permission to use that phrase as a book title. And now we say it all the time.
I've been writing a novel set in the greater New Orleans area that plays a little with this notion that you can't go home again—or that if you can recapture who you were and where you were and the people you chose who chose you in return, it's only in the brief space of a dream. My protagonist is grieving her missing sister, as well as her identity within an intact family—that younger, more innocent self. She "goes home" in these dreams—but only temporarily, until she finds her way back to being present in the waking life. Every day—every second—is a new home, really.
Reminding myself that every day makes the new possibility for home—one I won't be able to return to but can enjoy for what it is when it is—is good for me. After all, one of my lifelong struggles is being in the present moment. I am aware that (for me, at least—your mileage may vary) it takes personal mindfulness to stay keyed into the right here, right now. I work on not worrying about yesterday and tomorrow with varying degrees of success. And I recognize that even by acknowledging the past and how I've changed and what I'm letting go, I do still have a foot in the past. I think also there's always a fine balance to tread—there is a danger in forgetting or suppressing the past, just as there is danger in living too much in it.
I loved my tour. After it was over, I paid for two more hours of parking and kept wandering solo. I was thinking about all the past selves I've been walking these streets with different people seeking different things, but not so much that I was lost in the past. Just enough to note the changes. To find the satisfaction in being newly thirty-eight and looking for a dress for my best friend's upcoming wedding and see lush vegetation in bloom and feel good things all around me.
It was a beautiful day—one of those balanced days where it was just breezy and just cloudy enough to mute the June heat a little while not having to worry too much that it would rain. At times it would cloud up a little more, but mostly the vibrant blue sky remained. The annual creole tomato festival was underway at the French Market. The people looked vibrant, decked out in their Pride colors or in casual summer outfits, lined up for beignets or strolling.
The Joan of Arc statue in Place de France before the French Market brings me back to the idea of not being able to go home again—and endurance. Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orléans, left her home village of Domrémy around of the age of sixteen to fight for the French monarch and never returned before her execution by the English three years later. In a literal sense, she never went home. In a figurative sense, she would never be the same girl again. During her lifetime, she went from simple girl to revered figurehead to disgraced prisoner. From dresses to armor to chains. Even if she had gone back to Domrémy, she wouldn't look upon it with the same eyes that had left. Nothing could ever be the same, not after what she'd seen and who she'd become. Jeanne didn't stop undergoing shifts even after her death; she was exonerated twenty-five years after her execution and canonized as a saint nearly five hundred years later.
As for the golden statue, she knows about the ways we can't go back, too. She lived for many decades in storage warehouses, seeking a home—first in France around 1899-1900 after she was cast, then decades later, when she came over the ocean to New Orleans. Though she arrived in New Orleans to find a home, she languished unseen in storage again from 1958 until she was installed in the Central Business District in 1972. In 1999, construction of Harrah's Casino forced her to move to the French Quarter where she resides today.
She has lost her luster and been restored. She has lost her flag and been given a new one. She has seen the city lashed by hurricanes and floods and the pandemic.
When I visited this month, someone had written "beloved" on chalk above the carved inscription on her plinth. Or maybe it's "be loved"— I love the ambiguity that we get to decide. Maybe it's both.
Do I think it's more likely that the mystery chalker wrote "beloved" since it's right above Joan of Arc's name? Yes.
That being said, I adore the idea of the imperative order to the unspoken "you" who reads it to "be loved"—whether you are aware of it or not. Whether ready or not. Love has already found you.
You will never be the version of yourself that you were yesterday. In every form you come, in every new you that you are, in every home you find in each new day: be loved.