Dear New Orleans,
My love affair was not love at first sight, which happens to so many. It was that kind of love that sneaks up on you, that becomes apart of you, that becomes a passion. That kind of love that grows slowly without noticing.
I arrived in Louisiana from California the same night as Hurricane Rita with the Red Cross. I was brought to an old Armory building outside of Baton Rouge. I arrived after lights out and so they showed me to my bunk with a flashlight I was sharing a room with over 200 others. Rita was due to arrive within the hour. I could hear her coming for the Armory was made of tin. The sound was indescribable. Here I am in a new land wondering, what am I doing? Why was I so called to do this?
My very first time in New Orleans was Halloween day 2005. It was my first day off and we borrowed a car to go down to New Orleans. Even at its absolute worst, the city was beautiful. She was hurt and in pain but still beautiful. There were refrigerators up and down the streets, some sealed with duct tape, some not. The smell in some areas worse than others. The kind of smell that makes you immediately cover your nose and your gut wrenches. The French Quarter had no make up on. The ferns and flowers that fall from balconies like waterfalls were gone. Signs from building and streets were either gone or falling and replaced with handmade signs. Every building was labeled with a code that, once understood, was like a knife to the heart. Yet New Orleans was still hauntingly beautiful and mystical. I still saw her beauty. I felt her beauty. Her inhabitants were welcoming and excited for visitors. Yes, they looked beat down and tired, just like the city they lived in, but they had the most sincere, sweet smiles. They were so gracious and thankful at a time when they did not need to be. Her strength and resilience still shined brightly. She had survived again and made it clear she always would.
I left in November after I finished my time with the Red Cross and didn’t think I would ever be back. Upon my return to California, I dropped myself back into my old life like I never left. It wasn’t working – how does one get a slap in the face reminder to live every day with passion and joy and not move in that direction? I was confused, depressed after my return, not sure what to do next. I couldn’t describe it to people back home – I was able to tell short stories as I remembered them. It was like looking at snapshots from a dream that didn’t seem real, my minds way of dealing with what I saw, heard and smelled. The things that attacked the senses were beyond comprehension. The suffering that occurred in the city was beyond comprehension. To be present in that situation I often needed to shut off, disconnect, so that I could help in the moment.
New Orleans is like that love you didn’t even know existed until it is gone. Like that friend you didn’t realize meant so much until that absence is felt. Looking back now I see that was the beginning of the path back to New Orleans.
I woke up one day in late February, 2009 and I knew I had to go back. It was an immediate need. That same day I went into work and I gave my notice. I got my things together and boarded a plane with the idea that this was what was suppose to be.
I don’t think I realized until a year and half later what it is about New Orleans that grabs one’s soul. It is her passion, her passion to survive, her inhabitants’ passion for life. One summer day there was this elderly woman that got on the bus with her walker. It was covered in beads, Saints paraphernalia, twinkle lights. She was wearing a hat in the shape of a football. That was the moment I knew what it is about New Orleans that drew me back so strongly. It is the passion.
Chef Lisa White submitted her love letter to New Orleans as part of the Love, Write, Light campaign, a project of Evacuteer.org and Dear World, in commemoration of the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The Love, Write, Light campaign is currently working to raise awareness and funds to light to the 17 “Evacuspots” around New Orleans, the locations where those without transportation can access a free and safe ride out of the city before the next major hurricane. You can submit your own love letter to New Orleans and help light the Evacuspots at lovewritelight.org.
Chef Lisa opens Willa Jean, a bakery and cafe, along with Chef Kelly Fields in late Summer 2015. Chef Lisa White can be reached at email@example.com.