In the end, I'm left thinking quite a bit about the significance of my travels, partly because after all the time, effort, and money that goes into making it from a point of origin to a destination, whether geographically, epistemologically or academically speaking, you kinda have to validate it all in your mind. Verify that you got something out of the journey. Make sure you've "returned" to your life at least a bit altered from your experiences.
Being on a tight budget these days, I was concerned about making the trip to New Orleans. In the past, I've generally tended to veer away from these kinds of things - I never studied abroad, never went on a wild Spring Break, avoided road trips and air travel because for some reason I felt guilty about making a gouge in my or my parents' bank accounts and therefore afraid of the idea that I deserved - even needed - to have those experiences. In recent years, I've been consciously weaning myself from this mindset, the turning point being when I drove by myself to the University of Virginia to deliver my first academic paper.
It was my first time in a hotel room by myself. It was also the most invigorating trip I've ever taken; miraculously, I spoke intelligently on a topic I was enthusiastic about to a group of listeners equally interested in what I had to say. After a semester of self-doubt and excruciating depression over whether I'd made the right choice in even going to grad school, that road trip back to Washington, DC was one I won't soon forget for the fact that it was defined by an overall feeling that I'd finally done something right. I finally felt like I belonged at The George Washington University.
A couple of years have passed since that trip and I've expanded my list of destinations. I put my academic hat back on in Las Vegas at a conference unlike any I'd ever attended before: Lumos2006. This time, I was talking Psychoanalytic Literary Theory to Potterfans, conflating my double-life in one trip, my academic self and my fandom self. It was my first communion with fandom friends, and became the origin point for many future fandom meet-ups in New York, in DC, in Germany, and most recently, in New Orleans.
In the weeks approaching my flight to Louisiana, I kept noticing the ubiquitous presence of "Travel" in my day to day life - it's a theme thats now sort of following me around. I'm a temp, as you know, so travel is part of the job; I go from place to place, meet new people all the time, make a new "first impression" every week or so. But I stumbled on something rather interesting that sort of thrust all those mundane experiences into a new light that laid the foundation for the attitude I took with me to New Orleans. I was reading my Yoga journal when I came across this delightful snippet of wisdom:
Mantra for a Spiritual Journey
Om Sarva Charine Namaha
(Aum Sahr-vah Chah-ree-ney Nah-mah-hah)
"Salutations to Him who is the source of the urge to wander, travel, or follow."
In one mythic Hindu drama, Parvati (wife of Lord Shiva, the destroyer) takes her own life. Shiva, disconsolate, carries his wife's corpse over his shoulder as he wanders everywhere. Vishnu, the Preserver, intercedes by cutting away Parvati's body piece by piece, so that Shiva will leave his grief behind. Parvati eventually reappears, saying that she needed to seed the world with her feminine glory. This Shiva mantra salutes our consciousness as the wanderer with the capacity to see divinity everywhere. As we travel, we should see the Divine all around us. - Thomas Ashley-Farrand
I've learned not to question the timing of certain things. This mantra fell into my lap at the perfect moment, just as I was about to embark on a trip to one of the most tragedy-stricken areas of the United States.
I won't go into detail about the events that occurred while I was in New Orleans... yet. I'll save the play-by-play for the big picspam. However, I think there are some broad observations worth noting that don't quite fit with the typical travelogue format I use around this LJ.
First of all is the city. New Orleans is called "the most European city in the United States" and I can see why. Walking around the French Quarter is like taking a trip to another land, and oddly enough, this city has a kinetic power that defies (or perhaps is personified by) the vibrations of the jazz horns and drum sets that emanate from every other hall on Bourbon Street. What I found so interesting during my time there, was how New Orleans functioned as a catalyst for so many of the things that I experienced. It quite literally put a spell on us - or worked its voodoo magic!
From the moment I looked out of the window on the plane to see the very levees that could not hold back the hurricane, to the moment I arrived in the baggage claim to meet Ray, Mary Beth, Stephanie, and Amy, I felt as though something was already at work. I can't exactly say it felt good or bad. Whatever residual karma hung around this place was one of heat, of change, of energy. It was as if Katrina was still there, as if the only winds left behind in the wake of the storm were winds of change spiraling at a breakneck 175 MPH through the feeble hearts of its tourists. Maybe I was the only one who felt it. But judging by some of the things I saw while I was there, I have`a feeling that if I was the only one, it was because another kind of Hurricane (the alcoholic kind) did a fair amount to mask the effect for others.
Again, I don't say that this... this presence was positively or negatively charged. It simply stirred things up. It was Shiva, the Destroyer, and Vishnu, the Preserver, all in one. We came to discuss Harry Potter at Phoenix Rising in a city that was literally rising from the ashes and taking us with it through its volatile yet beautiful transformation. Here's what I mean.
In one four-day trip, I wrote a song with a friend who traveled here from the other side of the world, with plans to record it long distance if need be. I hugged, ate with, sang with, screamed with, danced with people who had only existed to me in LJ posts. I playacted with SpellCasters and SpinnersCasters, toured the Quarter with native New Orleans Harry Potter fans, ate Jambalaya with a Courdon Bleu chef. I was blessed by the generosity of others, receiving gifts I didn't ask for but will nonetheless cherish for being the beautiful incarnations and tokens of friendship. Of course, conversely, I gave a bit of myself as well in attempts to safeguard friends who had had a few too many on Bourbon Street on my last night. They don't call New Orleans the Garden of Good and Evil for nothing.
By the time I had to go, I was sort of disillusioned and confused, not necessarily because my last day there was stressful, but because I was leaving too soon. The previous four days had left my head spinning, and there was no time to process things upon my return to DC. I had departed from the hotel at 4 AM for my 6 AM flight, slept restlessly through both plane rides and arrived back at home in time to clean up and drag some cover-up under my eyes so I didn't look like I'd had a sleepless night. My parents arrived only hours after I did.
And then, (to quote Chazz Michael Michaels) Boom! Graduation Day! I was finally wearing the regalia that I'd disdainfully watched my other classmates strut around Pentagon Row in last year when I had made the choice to stay an extra semester. None of them would be at this ceremony with me. Standing next to a lone History PhD graduate, I followed the procession onto the National Mall beside the Capitol Building, and bid farewell to George Washington University under fickle weather conditions and the sound of our symphonic band playing the score from Pirates of the Caribbean. My fellow graduates and I laughed at the irony of this musical selection as we envisioned Jack Sparrow navigating his sinking ship into Port Royal.
We took more pictures. We went out for lunch. And just like that, my travels were done.
Three days later, I am remembering the mantra I read before my trip, finally able to solidify my opinion on the highs and lows of Phoenix Rising and Commencement, and I can sum it up in one moment.
I was departing for my plane back home at 4 in the morning, and Josh Ridgeway of SpellCast who had traveled from Australia woke to see me off. We rode down the elevator in relative silence that was broken when, in spite of the stress of that night, we agreed how awful it was that I had to leave so soon. Barefoot and still wearing his dress slacks from Storyville, he hugged me, stayed nearby as I checked out of the hotel, and escorted me to the taxi. I blew him a kiss out the window, waving back as the van pulled away from the curb. We turned the corner... and I lost sight of Josh. And suddenly, realizing I couldn't hope to see him again for a very long time, I started to cry.
I choose this moment as the keystone of my journeys because of its bittersweetness. What is being a student if not being a wanderer like Shiva, traversing the line between the familiar and the strange with the acute knowledge that you will encounter danger, joy, freedom, and especially, longing: to let your feet rest in one place for a while beside those you wish could stay near you for always. In the end we must be satisfied in committing those people and experiences to memory, and if we're lucky, we let them sink in and become a part of who we are, so that even when a four-day friend leaves your side to return to their corner of the world, they are still with you - at home - wherever you are.
My travels aren't over, and I no longer think it is a symptom of instability that I want to keep traveling. I've "walked" as a Master of Arts, but I am still a student. Hoards of us flew to New Orleans to a conference where the theme of the hour was "How will it end?" and as I scroll through my photographs and smile at the girl in the "I Left My Heart in Spinner's End" shirt, popping another olive in my mouth to the memory of my first muffaletta, I can answer with all certainty...
*Touches wand to her temple, draws out a silvery strand, and watches it fall into the glowing basin*