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The River Spoke My Name

I can’t remember exactly what prompted the ritual of spending many of my Saturdays during my youth in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I know it was on those trips that I began to meet myself--learning what troubled me, what inspired me and where my passions resided. I also began assembling my dreams in small chunks; the decision not to go large may have been because part of me worried that about being

too ambitious. I was, after all, a little colored girl from a working-class family.

Those weekends of exploration began after I finished my household chores--cleaning up my room, helping with the laundry; those were the usual tasks that children often were given back then designed, I suppose, to teach them about family obligations, hygiene and care of one’s personal environment. I found none of that disagreeable. I loved cleaning; I credit my Aunt Loweska for introducing me to the Zen of dusting, vacuuming, and washing dishes by hand. So, while my siblings dreaded our assignments, I relished in them. I brought zeal to furniture polishing--even the bedposts filled with crevices and grooves. I completed the work in short order, leaving time for any pastime I chose.

In the summer, I’d put on my best shorts or pants outfit, pack a sandwich and drink in a bag and head off for that day’s adventure. I’d catch the bus at the corner from the house where I lived with my great grandmother, grandmother, grandfather, my mother and three siblings; we were the typical multigenerational crew that marked Black households back then. I transferred from that bus at Broad Street and rode to Canal Street where I would take the Streetcar, clanking its way to the edge of the Mississippi River. My stop was always Royal Street, however. It was my entrance into the French Quarter.

Rue Royale was its name when the French had control of the city. For a time, Spain owned the territory. Then, it was known as Calle Real. A girl from a French-patois-speaking family, it was always Rue Royale or Royal Street.

The name suited its grandeur. I traversed its fine arts galleries, marveling at the paintings--portraitures and abstracts—paying close attention to the use of acrylics vs. water-based paints. I had no interest in being a painter, but I created stories from the images and bold colors.

I placed myself inside the art, imagining how elegant and powerful it would be to live in a mansion adorned with such creativity. As I visited gallery after gallery and the many antique jewelry stores, I privately wondered whether it was possible for someone like me to attain such wealth to be immersed in a rich cultural environment daily.

I carefully carried those dreams with me as I walked to the St. Louis Cathedral, stopped inside, sprinkling holy water on my forehead, lighting a candle, kneeling to say a silent prayer, then walking through Jackson Square, crossing Chartres Street to find a seat at the Mississippi River. It may have been dark and dirty, as it is now, but it’s waves and currents--seen and unseen--beaconed me. While I could not swim, I envisioned myself on some ship traveling to another city, another country. My desire to see the world beyond New Orleans began on those bright summer Saturday afternoons. The river spoke my name, urging me to make my dreams real.

Some might accuse me of being engaged in a form of escape and creative visualization, although at the time I did not know or use the latter term. The need to get away was fuel partially by the fact that my siblings made it no secret that they considered me the Black Sheep of the family—my skin was too dark; my nose too wide; my musical taste sometimes too black and at other times too eclectic; and unlike them, I loved--absolutely loved--books.

In the Quarter, I had room to embrace my otherness; the only person who would interfere with that experience was me. Did I really want to be so different from my sisters, brother and other family members that I underscored their perception of me as not within the tribe? Equally important, in the back of my mind, I wondered whether I even had the right to have artistic and cultural tastes that did not fully conform with the boundaries established for me by mainstream America.

Those memories of the French Quarter returned to me recently as I prepared with a group of colleagues to present several workshops including, Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? Unraveling the Mystery ( May 14 from 11:30 to 1pm-est-Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC) and The National Reconciliation Week (June 6-10 from 12-1:30pm-est-Daily on the Zoom platform and Facebook Live). I pondered when had I begun to become consciously aware of my identity as unique from others? I wondered, too, whether others had similar experiences.

Do we recognize who we are all at once, like an epiphany? Does the knowing come in spurts--small, seemingly insignificant moments?

I knew the answers to those questions, but the pending workshops allowed me the opportunity to query myself. Did I still believe what I thought I believed?

As my life unfolded, I came to know that those trips to the New Orleans French Quarter had greater impact on me than I realized. My youth and growing up without the presence and active engagement of my father in my life brought its own trials and tribulations. However, each time I have explored the quintessential question that confronts us all “Who am I?” and attempted to piece together my own personal, psychological, emotional, spiritual and creative profile and map, I returned to Rue Royale.

Rituals, whether traditional or personally constructed, carry us home as certain as the breadcrumbs took Hansel and Gretel back to their father. Without small nuggets, stored in our pocket, distributed along life’s paths, we can get lost, just as they did when they realized on a subsequent abandonment in the forest that their crumbs had been consumed by some birds or swept away by someone who did not want them to return home.

We don’t necessarily always return to a physical place to find home or to understand and appreciate ourselves. Rather, it’s more emotional-- an interior landscape that is dotted with signposts and stories that remind us of our dreams—some which may have been cast aside as we lost our faith in them or as we allowed them to be buried by some unresolved trauma. Rue Royale represented an innocent, unimpeded journey, the vision of me and a life that was unfiltered through others perception of me. I have to admit that there were times when I adopted the narrative others had written about me.

Fortunately, whenever I went back to New Orleans, I returned to Rue Royal. Other times, however, using creative visualization, I could invoke Rue Royal. Still other occasions where I permitted myself the opportunity to create new rituals that helped me embrace myself anew--all grown up but still uniquely me, excited to hear the river, the forces of life calling my name, understanding that with it came my personal magic, my personal power.

Even as I struggled with the trauma of father absence, I was able to persevere, to develop resilience because of the rituals I crafted that provided opportunities for self-reflection, for self-evaluation, for self-care and for moments of meditation that didn’t comport with the traditional version but nevertheless helped me calm and manage my emotions while focusing intently on the portrait of myself I painted decades ago inside those French Quarter galleries.

The ceremonies and rituals we create and practice alone or with another, often help propel us forward, allowing us to level up, to reach the next rung of the ladder that permit us to achieve our goals and aspirations. Those rituals need not be elaborate. Certainly, taking the bus to the French Quarter was a simple act of independence for a 13-year-old Black girl.

Many families have holiday or Sunday dinners. Some couples have date nights. Many platonic friends take annual trips together.

What rituals do you afford yourself with yourself? Do they help you rediscover the person you are? If you don’t have a specific activity you save just for you, create one and don’t let anything prevent you from engaging in it. Your emotional, mental, and spiritual health depends on it.

Rituals remind of us of the importance of self-love; it presents the chance to celebrate it. And, of course, we all know you can’t possibly love anyone else if you don’t love yourself.


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