New Orleans: Memories of a Summer Lost

Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.

So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.

Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.

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New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.

I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.

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And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.

And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.

You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.

The Love Stories of a Miniaturist

Father had always taught me to look at the bigger picture.

I would come from school, the itch of my dried-up tears begging to be scratched out of existence, my mangy hair disheveled from the hours spent in fighting my bullies.

Father would say, “One day, these memories will drown, and you will only remember its littlest fragments.”

Of course I refused to believe him then, stubborn little wild child that I used to be.

Now I only remember the strands of brown in her black hair, her raging beady black eyes, and the scratch of her nails in my arm, the scars long gone.

I was a miniaturist long before I discovered love.

I was searching for memories long before I lost myself in remembrance.

The little lane behind the assembly hall of my school, the one that witnessed me devouring the words of a hundred stories,

The golden intaglio of a hardcover’s title, its touch still sheltering the first moments of a childish smile that would often bloom in between my lips,

The taste of the first fruit in summer, its yellow-orange pulp finding little corners to hide in between my still-milk teeth,

I realize I have been collecting pictures long before I knew how to capture them.

So when he strode in between sixteen and seventeen, his towering frame overshadowing my little self effortlessly, I remembered the warmth of his embrace, his ever-encompassing arms still etched into my skin.

The love has long departed from my home, only its dwindling memory sometimes knocks at my doorstep, unwelcome yet unrelenting.

Yet Love never failed to thrash upon me after,

Sometimes, it was the lingering smile of a beloved,

In another, it was the lilt of his voice when he called me Red.

Time, my enemy in each story, has robbed me off the fervor,

Choosing only to leave a heart-shaped box of memories in his wake.

But the faraway caress of a past lover,

The kisses shared in the lovelorn lonesome evenings of an age-old staircase,

The softness of a lover’s wrist, wrapped in a hairband, the one never used to tie her crimson curls,

They have remained.

So when you arrived today,

My new guest, my newest curse, my new reason to crumble once again,

You asked me, “Why do you say you shall be gone?”

And I wished to offer you a thousand words,

I wished to tell you that I will remember the rebellious brown that glimmered underneath a golden street lamp in your black beard,

I wished to tell you I will remember the hapless smiles you would often offer me in between my chaotic words,

I wished to tell you I will remember you in the million similarities you found in me and the phantom memories of women you once knew,

I wished to tell you I remember the sound of Red, the color of her raging mane, the warmth in his arms, the image of her bare feet upon grass still covered in morning dew,

I wished to tell you that I have long since loved pieces of you,

Yet, I could only say, “A miniaturist’s curse, my friend. You shall be another memory I once knew.”

Sunshine and Loss: A Review of Summerlost

 

“The night was shadows and wind and the smell of a storm on the way, for crying until the tears were gone but the ache was left. A night for imagining that you could step out onto the windowsill and say hello to the dark, say I am sad and have the wind say I know. You could say I am alive and the trees would sigh back We are too. You could whisper I am alone and everything ends and the stars in the sky would answer We understand. Or maybe it’s ghosts telling you all these things, saying. We know, we’re alone too, we understand everything and nothing ends.”

Summerlost, Ally Condie

 

Somewhere in between the childlike innocence of a twelve-year-old’s narrative of loss and belonging, Ally Condie uses the voice of Cedar Lee to speak the above monologue, of storms and shadows and winds and stars in the night befriending you, holding you, and although the sense of loss is never truly gone, it is shared.

 

I started reading Summerlost last night, and soon, there was this bludgeoning ache inside of me to finish it by today. And even if the novel is set in the beautiful summer haze of Utah, far away from the hustles of overpopulated cities, when I closed the book after the last words, I couldn’t help but say hello to the gray gloom that it leaves behind, as if even in the mist of melancholy, loss can be perceived as something beautiful, tangible and bearable.

 

Summerlost is about a child’s journey to deal with loss, the absence of family, death and newly found friendship; it is about the hollowing gap that only the loss of a loved one can leave behind and the repercussions of the same.

 

The story begins when Cedar, along with her mother and younger brother Miles as they settle in the small town of Iron Creek, after the deaths of her father and youngest brother Ben, in the summer months at a new house while the Shakespearean Summerlost festival commences. Befriending the quirky “nerd-on-a-bike” Leo Bishop, the two friends start working in the concession stand, selling candies and programs to the visitors of the festival before the plays begin every evening.

 

Alongside, bonding over loss and silence, Cedar comes closer to her brother Miles, as the shadow of Ben looms overhead, while her borderline neurotic mother concocts newer schemes of revamping the house to deal with the loss of a child and her husband.

 

Ally Condie merges past with present like beads on a string as the novel pushes forward, using the fictional memory of the life and times of an actress who made it big in Hollywood before dying under mysterious circumstances. Initially used only as a recurring symbol of memory overlapping time lines, Lisette Chamberlain, the actress, slowly merges into the plot itself, as if her growth traced in the story is a mirror image to Cedar’s own character alignment throughout the events of the novel.

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But what outshines every other factor in the novel is Condie’s lucidity in using everything, from trees to bad soap operas to turkey vultures and little things left on Cedar’s windowsill, as an imagery of loss and new beginnings. The juxtaposition of every symbol over the underlying sense of loss is not fleeting either, it persists across pages, sometimes only found as the most thwarting of one-liners and in others as a monologue that rises and dwindles rhythmically to the beat of its words, making Summerlost a book which is better left perceived rather than read word by word.

 

Another brilliant use of language is the characterization of Ben, the late youngest brother of Cedar, who throughout the book has been described with suffering from symptoms of autism, without actually mentioning the term itself. Contemporary young adult novels have used mental illness as an ongoing plot motif throughout the scale of the story, sometimes going in for page by page descriptions of the illness in depth. Yet, Condie uses the innocence of Cedar’s childlike narrative to describe an almost inscrutable disease in the simplest of terms. That itself is quite an achievement.

 

The only spot in the sun is the climactic end of the story, perhaps considered anti-climactic by many. However, I feel I must defend that too, because a novel like Summerlost doesn’t necessarily need a bombastic climax to weave together its plot as a whole. It should beat, drift and dwindle by her own terms, leaving only a promise to return after.

 

I enjoyed Summerlost thoroughly, and one might say it is one of the best books I have read this fall. It was a speedy read, yet also touched with the weight of soulful realizations and melancholic half-smiles in the flow of its words, leaving only an aftertaste of the memory of loss and future promises behind.

 

Of Stray Leaves and Crumpled Pages

I should say your name.

But then again, what’s in a name? Right? Wrong.

When all is said and done, the sound of a name, the stray odour of a forgotten love story, the quiver in a pair of lips as the past thwarts in between, the littlest things begin to matter. You become a miniaturist.

So, hello Old Love,

I have come to your doorstep. I have some words to say. And perhaps I shouldn’t call you ‘love’, when the story I started was left unfinished. For a minute there, I want to take my pen, draw a line in between a page, make a border between you and me, and write the reasons why we remained unfinished.

For a minute, I want to do the ordinary thing. Because ordinariness is safe. Because predictability is home.

But when you a have a stark-white page that peers into your soul, sometimes, just sometimes, you want to do something extraordinary.

And so you scribble. You cut, you write, you bleed, you melt, and then, you become words. There is no red pen in the corner of my page anymore. I won’t correct my words. I won’t look back and see the mistakes I have made. After all, I never did that for you.

So let the words hold flaws. For even love, as beautiful as it often is, is flawed. I used to see that beauty. Now, I just remind myself to smile again.

There are the nights though, deep into the bosom of darkness, when I let myself fall a little more than I would let myself in the transparency of daytime.

When I would curl up in my bed, my pillow in my arms, and I would close my eyes. And I would see you. I would see us. Perhaps you and I would smile. Do the most ordinary things, sit for a breakfast, or I would throw a stray piece of paper at you, with its undiscovered trove of words inside. In my fantasies, there is always daylight. And maybe that is enough to make me remember that I have drifted a little further off from reality.

I would bleed tears after, or words instead. I have come to love the words more now. You see, when dawn cracks into the night, light filtering into my room, I like to be reminded it was never a dream.

Seasons change me the most, though.

Summer colours, the yellows and the oranges, the purple hues in the dying hearts of sunsets at riversides, and the slows kisses in winter, azure and purple playing with one another, until the sky itself becomes a confused infinity of grey. It is beautiful, oh so, beautiful, that it almost breaks my heart.

I lose my track often, as I do now. I write to you, and instead I lose myself in the montages of unmade memories. It is a new habit I have developed, to love things that are incomplete, unmade, forgotten, abandoned. Fallen leaves, crushed flowers, crumpled papers, broken quill nibs, I find a strange love for them, growing each day inside of me.

And in loving them, I, too, fall into pieces, brokenness and halfhearted remembrance lingering as effigies.

 

There should be an end here. According to the laws of words, I should scribble lies with ‘yours lovingly’ or ‘yours forever’. But I am mine, only mine. I collect all these fallen pieces of me, stick them with glue and watch them break away again. But there are still all mine.

So until I find some of me to share with you, in fantasy or in reality,

Farewell.