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In port again: A letter after landing

Oyster luggers, New Orleans (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Washington, D.C.)

How is it, being back?

That’s the question I keep getting. It’s a question I encouraged and wrote toward, in letters here and here, the first two in a trilogy.

Most of the times that I’m asked, I say, “It’s been good.” But truth contains nuance, and inquiring minds expect more. They recognize I’m holding out.

It would be dishonest, and too tidy by far, for me to answer: “Being back is bliss. I was a fool to ever leave New Orleans — a fool! — and I’m never leaving again.”

At the same time, I won’t downplay the joy I feel at bumping happenstance into a childhood friend at, say, Tipitina’s or the Maple Leaf. Nowhere but in New Orleans can that happen for me. Here I get to engage my oldest relationships.

Picture lunch at a downtown restaurant with one of those friends. She and I don’t have to force a conversation. We ask about each other’s families, for example, because we know each other’s families. And as we catch up, in the corner of my eye, our server makes her initial approach to our table. She is balancing two glasses of iced water on a tray, and — here comes the shock of recognition — I went to elementary school with her. We both did. The three of us met at age 6, and yet I haven’t seen her in a full 10 years.

When she spots us, her mouth falls open. She has to steady the tray.

Soon she is asking me, “Where have you been?”

I could ask her the same thing.

The passage of time is apparent enough. Driving around the city in the car I bought this summer, sometimes I lean on Google Maps for directions. Letting my parents’ black Lab out of their house, I find the old girl, graying around her muzzle, will hardly chase a tennis ball anymore; one fetch if I’m lucky, before she drops to the grass to sunbathe.

Living in New Orleans again, and indefinitely, shows me the extent to which I magnified memories while away. I relied on old impressions of this place and people in it because I wasn’t here to make new impressions, or because the old impressions were useful foils in my development. But in doing so, I set myself up to be surprised later.

As should be clear from these letters, I have long attributed much of my personal growth to having left town. By expanding my geography, I expanded my perspective, becoming more open-minded, less cynical, and more curious. So it has been a reality check, humbling but satisfying, to discover since moving back that while I was growing up elsewhere, classmates who remained in New Orleans were growing up as well.

Such rewards, however small, arrive almost daily. Sensory experiences that were rare or absent during the last decade give me immoderate thrills. Lately I’m more alert to the bells of the nearby Catholic church, to the smell of pecan-flavored coffee, to the appearance of an anole on the back stoop, to the saltiness of oysters.

This sensitivity to place runs deeper than the mere sensory. It feels critical in New Orleans, a city whose very existence depends on the surrounding wetlands. Reading about Louisiana’s efforts to save some of its coastline is more energizing to me inside the state than it was outside. And here, too, I’m more unnerved that those efforts will fail if we can’t also keep the rising oceans down.

Three oaks shade the park across the street from my apartment. During Hurricane Isaac, in August, the trees shed their weakest limbs, which came to rest under the swing sets and around a picnic table. When the storm passed, with less to do until electricity was restored, I joined a few neighbors to clear the brush.

Kids were raking twigs and leaves into piles. Two adults who have lived in the neighborhood for years wrestled the piles into trash bags. Someone had loaned a wheelbarrow, and I used it to ferry full trash bags to the curb for eventual pickup.

After I had made several trips there and back, one of the adults, a guardian of the neighborhood in all seasons, noticed I was sticking around.

With a smirk she said, “When you moved here, you didn’t know you were signing up for this, did you?”

I stopped the wheelbarrow beside her, for the next bag, and I wiped my face with one of my shirtsleeves. “I never forgot about hurricanes. They seem to come with the territory.”

“You got that right," she said. "Listen, I found an extra pair of work gloves when I was searching for these. They’re on that picnic table. See if they fit and you can wear them.”

If my childhood in New Orleans wasn’t my choice but my parents’, if spending my first 18 years here was little more than lucky birthright, then having left and decided to move back, I am working from a belief that this time counts more.

This time feels like citizenship.

Hicks Wogan submitted this article to NolaVie.