Down the bayou: Like a baptism

Students kayaking down the bayou for Richard Goodman’s MFA course. (Photo from: Down the Bayou website)

Editor’s Note:Amie M. Geistman took part in Richard Goodman’s Master of Fine Arts nonfiction writing workshop at the University of New Orleans, where the students take a kayak trip down a southeastern Louisiana bayou in order to observe the issues and conditions that make the bayous beautiful and precarious. Once they finish their full-day kayaking adventure, the students reflect and write, creating pieces that encapsulate their experience and give new awareness about the bayous. ViaNolaVie will be running these pieces as a continued series every week, and you can also read more student writing here and here. And now forAmie M. Geistman’s “Like a Baptism.”

Amie M. Geistman, writer. (Photo provided by: Amie M. Geistman)

I’ve never been good at letting go. I’ve spent my entire life becoming a collector of other peoples’ things: their stories, their traumas, their hurt; playing cards I’ve found abandoned in the street, every metal bauble I excavate from a dew dampened patch of grass, a rosary necklace that I carried in my hands for a week after I discovered it on the sidewalk in downtown Baton Rouge. I spent months wondering to whom it belonged and what hurt they prayed to go away and what they prayed thanks for while holding those beads that must have had so much significance to them, but to me were nothing more than pieces of plastic. But still, I find myself unable to just let go.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder — yet. With me it’s all organized chaos, everything stored away in little boxes, both figurative and literal. I’ve created a catalogue of answers that I’ll never know the questions to. I occasionally fall into these pits of mania late at night when I feel so alone and the weight of my collection is crushing me inside my own home and I feel compelled to throw away everything I own and start over as a minimalist, bare walls and empty drawers, a sense of peace and tranquility. But that just isn’t me. I’m still learning what needs to be let go of and what is worth holding on to.

I wonder when I’ll ever come to understand the difference.

On the first day of being an MFA student at the University of New Orleans, my Creative Nonfiction workshop professor, Richard, asked our class who would be interested in taking a kayaking trip down the Louisiana bayou to learn about the horrors of coastal erosion that are plaguing the place that has become my home over the past five years. I raised my hand with trepidation, as all my classmates seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of getting to explore this landscape firsthand. I had fear all the way to the bottom of my belly, but raised my hand still, not wanting a classroom full of virtual strangers to know how chickenshit I was about something as simple as a boating excursion.

The night before the trip I stayed up until 5 am, knowing I had to be awake by 7, reading about what to do in case of an alligator attack. If you’re wondering the proper order of operations if you find yourself in arms with an alligator it’s: fight the gator, smack his snout, and gouge at his eyes in the case that you are unable to run away from the creature. I felt prepared, but still found myself staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep for fear of the unknown.

The next morning I made my way to, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Bob Marshall’s home where we would sit for a lecture on the sinking of this city that has become my home, the city that will be gone in twenty-five to thirty years, even if we do everything we can to stop it right now. This brought a whole new level of fear, because as unable as I am to simply let go, this city has become something I consider worth holding onto. And also something that I do not know how to save. I found myself paralyzed by the fear that I cannot save this place my simply putting it into a box on my shelf.

After hearing the shocking statistics about how our home will be nothing more than another Atlantis in a few short decades, we separated ourselves into two groups to carpool to the site where our real adventure would begin. I made the journey with my classmates: Betsy, Jake, Nora, and Christine, behind the wheel, feeling like an intruder in this group of people who have come to know each other over their time spent at UNO’s Creative Writing Workshop. This brought the feelings of fear right back, knowing that I am always the outsider in a group, always the one who is unable to make simple conversation, always the one too scared to do the things that would make me feel included. It’s a viscous cycle.

We pulled up to the opening of Shell Bank Bayou and, after a few short minutes of kayaking how-to’s, we were off. I boarded a tandem kayak with my classmate Glennis, feeling comfort in the fact that I would not be alone during this expedition. We chatted absentmindedly and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at our surroundings, Glennis told me how this reminded her of the scenery in the movie The African Queen, but inside I was still a bundle of nerves — fear that I still didn’t fit in, fear of an alligator attack, and fear of the realization that the Louisiana bayou is the perfect place for a serial killer to hide out or dump a body – I watch too much true crime TV… I tried pushing these thoughts to the back of my mind, but was still plagued by this sense of unease that kept me from enjoying the beauty that was simply existing around me.

The only time my mind stopped was when we reached this particularly difficult impasse where Glennis and I had to come up with our own way of maneuvering the kayak through weeds taller than me and thicker than the oatmeal my Nanna would make me eat for breakfast as a child before church on Sunday mornings. The air was sticky, we were all being eaten alive by mosquitos, and as many times as our guides promised we were almost there it felt like there could be no end in sight to this specific form of suffering. I hated myself for being such a crab, but my arms were aching and it was beginning to make me cranky.

After what felt like hours we made it through the brush and I felt an inaudible sigh let out of the group. We paddled on, relishing the open and clear water, three feet of space feeling like an ocean after being trapped in the marsh grass for so long. Spirits were lifting with the feeling of anticipation blossoming inside my veins as we moved forward towards our destination. A few more strokes of the paddle and it was unlike anything I had ever seen in my short life.

The aquatic pathway opened up straight into the mouth of Lake Maurepas, the biggest expanse of water I had ever encountered in such a small vessel. Everything else ceased to exist. There was only me and the water and the wind in my hair.

The voices of my classmates brought me back to reality; everyone was more chipper than I had seen them all semester. It was awe inspiring to be so far into nature, so far away from cars and roads and shopping malls, such a part of something that was once so integral to our survival. Something that is so easy to feel removed from in this day and age.

We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while our rafts bobbed through the water and allowed ourselves to be carried by the movement of the waves. I laid back and closed my eyes, wondering why I had allowed myself to be so angry and afraid on our journey. I got no answer for that, but came to the conclusion that fear is a necessary part of growth and laughed at the irony of feeling fear when I realized I had to face the things that scared me in order to grow into who I am someday going to be.

After forty-five minutes of enjoying the views, Jake losing one half of his pair of Doc Marten boots, and Richard falling into the water and frying his cell phone; the sky began to darken. Rain was imminent. Normally this is a moment that irritates me to no end, knowing that in just mere moments I would go from being dry and comfortable to being wet and cranky. Somewhere along my 22-year way I lost the 3-year-old girl inside of me who loved sitting at the window and watching the rain fall on the front porch, who danced in the rain and splashed in the mud left behind in the pig pen after a particularly strong rain, wearing nothing but ruffled bloomers and red Roper cowgirl boots.

But this moment brought that little girl back to me, reunited us after so many years apart. There was nothing I could do to stop the rain, nowhere I could go to seek shelter, nothing I could do to change the swift approaching reality that we were all about to be soaking wet. So when the rain began to fall I threw my arms up in the air, let the water fall on my face and wash away all of my worries.

I forgot about the alligators, paid no mind to the flashes of true crime documentaries that had been playing and replaying in my mind on the first leg of our trip, and began to feel solace in this group of individuals that I had been allowed to have this particular experience with, these people who have been the most supportive and uplifting group of writers I have ever had the opportunity to grow alongside. I let myself feel free, let myself become a part of something again.

This trip changed something inside me. That isn’t to say it gave me all the answers I was searching for. I never learned how to save the coast and keep New Orleans from becoming a modern-day Atlantis, but I learned the difference between what is worth holding on to and what is simply holding me down and began a collection of my own memories, kept far away from a box on a shelf.

 

 

Amie M. Geistman is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. She studies and writes during the week and works as a line cook on the weekends. Her background degree is in Sociology from Louisiana State University and she hopes to incorporate that into her Nonfiction writing. Amie is from Houston, TX.

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