The 2016 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat: “Teacher as Writer, Writer as Teacher,” hosted by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, marked my seventh trip to New Orleans. It was the best one so far, since this time I finally fulfilled my dream of being in the city I love most with the love of my life. Of course it was also because of the amazing people of New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat who worked hard to make manifest this pinnacle of writing marathon energy, intention, and community for a third amazing year.
Since I’d had good success with a self-imposed writing assignment derived from one of Kim Stafford’s marathon launch talks at the 2014 retreat, I decided to give myself another loose prompt. It arose during another glorious round of turns at the Carousel Bar where my love and I chatted it up with an almost incomprehensible but very genial brother and sister from Scotland. The spinning old-school bar led me to a mediate on the notion of “tiny curled dimensions,” a phrase I culled from a discussion of string theory and which I set about to explore as a possible explanation for the dazzling density of magical people and places in New Orleans.
These meditations developed into a piece called “French Quarter Quantum Theory” which I composed over the course of the retreat in several marathon locations, including Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, Antieau Gallery, and Harry’s. A recording of me reading a draft of the piece at the Thursday night Open Mic is part of a KSLU radio show (with my piece starting at 17:10).
How can it be that each New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat is better than the last one? I have no idea. I can only be thankful that it is.
I am indebted to my wonderful marathon groups that merged and morphed over the week and for the muses who either journeyed with me or whose journeys crossed mine. Some were my fellow marathon writers: George, Masako, Ellen, Maurine , Ian, Janice, George, Allison, Jean, Mary, Vicki, Annabel, Rebecca, and more.
Others muses were the beautiful souls we encountered along the way who shared stories and co-wrote stories with us, people like Austin Winchester, our fabulously mustachioed waiter at Antoine’s; Ranger John Beebee who led the Down on Their Luck Orchestra at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park; Jacob the Host with the Most who brought us water and wine and the perfect writing table at Antieau Gallery; and the friendly dog parents who rolled their basenji named Foxy into Harry’s Corner in her very own dog stroller.
I am also, always, indebted to the retreat organizers, Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project Director Richard Louth and Co-Directors Tracy Cunningham and Michelle Russo, along with everyone else in the SLWP who made this event possible. Those of us who make the pilgrimage to the New Orleans retreat each summer have these folks to thank for making us all feel like we are always coming home.
As often happens, a special kind of poignant magic found me on the last day of the retreat. I was gathering last-minute souvenirs and was on the way back to the hotel when I ducked into Molly’s between downpours, only to find that our retreat writers had essentially taken over the pub. All of my oldest and dearest marathon friends seemed to be there at once, writing and celebrating and chatting away.
The joy and sense of belonging that flooded my heart at this serendipitous family reunion was the bit of salve I needed to finally heal the wound I’d been carrying since seeing my love drive away in a taxi on only the second day of the retreat. We’d shared 48 hours of romantic writer nerd bliss in the most romantic city I know, reveling in a kind of rare, extended date night, but on Tuesday at noon he had to head back home, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the marathon retreat as best I could on my own.
I waved at the taxi headed away down Chartres Street and then went back up to our hotel room—it would always be our room—and sobbed. Eventually, I dragged myself down to the Le Richelieu courtyard to rejoin my group, and I scrawled out a haiku:
I say to the cab,
“Take good care of my baby,”
And tears fog my shades.
Normally, I would have been in heaven with three more days of writing and exploring in the city that knows my soul more than any other, but instead I went into a funk. Because in that moment I began to I understand the downside of knowing what it feels like to be in New Orleans with the love of your life: knowing what it feels to be like in New Orleans without the love of your life.
Truth be told, I was a mopey writer cliché for most of the rest of the retreat, cherishing the marathon but missing my love so much that by evening each day it was all I could do to grab takeout at Coop’s or Verti Mart and then soak my aching heart back at the writing desk in my room at Le Richelieu. Each night, I consoled myself with a good, long linger on Le Richelieu’s glorious balcony and a good, long sigh into the humid night air. That hole in my soul was the crack that let the light in on this trip, the light that helped me find the words. I’m proud of the piece that emerged on this retreat (the one in the radio show in the above link), but I know that I couldn’t have written it if the heart of my heart hadn’t come to New Orleans and shared the writing marathon with me.
Though I missed him horribly the whole time after he left, by the end I felt sincere gratitude for the deeper awareness which the pain of loss and longing brought me. Fresh understandings like this are just some of the gifts the marathon gives, to those of us fortunate enough to have the time, resources, and energy to receive them.
Looking back at my notebook now, seven months later, I see that what I wrote on our very first official marathon stop—right before my love got into that cab—was meant to comfort me all along:
11:02 a.m., Café Envie on Decatur St.
Oh, thank you, Sweet Goddess Caffiena, for strong iced coffee!
Here with Ellen, Maurine, George, and Ian, we are the third cluster of writers in this little café, so we are crowded together along the wall with two tiny marble-topped tables.
A tiny bird hops by on the tile floor. (There are always birds in Envie.) The radio plays “Little Bit of Soul,” and I realize it’s exactly what I need. Actually, I’ll take a whole lotta soul, if you can spare it. Lots and lots of soul. Soul to fill my heart’s coming ache as my love prepares to leave my side.
Only for a while, though. Even back in Missouri, we will carry New Orleans in our blood now forever, that sweet synthesis we made here together—unique to all others–to be fortified each time we return, again and again.