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On Earth As It Is In Heaven
There is a small town nestled in the mountains of Tennessee where the people are kind and the crime rate is low. This place is a university town, filled with students and teachers and townspeople whose families have lived there since the founding and who will probably never leave. On each porch sit rocking chairs where relatives drink iced tea and watch the sunset together.
Not far away is a coffee shop called The Blue Chair. The woman who owns it also runs a battered women’s shelter, and those women bake each and every pastry sold at the shop, or so I am told. When they feel ready, they may work at The Blue Chair as a transition back into the world. Nearby is Shenanigans, a restaurant with many posters of concerts that have come and gone. The people on those posters are gone, too, but you wouldn’t think so by the way they stand proudly over the customers’ heads. Down the road is The Lemon Fair where teenagers buy silly bands and older folk purchase coins promising the protection of Sewanee angels. As we get older, angels become more of a comfort, I guess.
What I’m trying to say is that things move slowly here. This place is ripe with a particularly Southern charm and is full of legends and mysteries and adventures to be had. This place housed me for what felt like both a brief moment and a lifetime, and what felt too long and too short altogether.
In this place is a church and in the church is a chair and this chair was made by slaves on the plantation of the school’s founder. He was a bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Louisiana and a general in the Confederate Army. Leonidas Polk was an officer, a gentleman, and a holy man, and his slaves built a chair to sit in the chapel of his new school’s cathedral. The chair is elegant and imposing, like the throne of a medieval king, and is made of fine Louisiana cypress.
I imagine the slaves with their quiet force, never resigned or complacent, carving that chair from a tree with as much strength as they. They stand together singing hymns even when shackled, knowing, somewhere in their hearts, that this chair is holy and their masters would sit in it, and their master’s children would see it for generations to come, and perhaps God himself would look down upon it and see the fruits of their labor and ease their suffering. They hold hands and form words to pray for their children, and for the future of this country founded on freedom, where no one is truly free. Somewhere in Louisiana, or perhaps in a church far away from there, the chained are crying for salvation.
Not far from this plantation is the town of St. Martinsville, Louisiana, and in this town, too, is a plantation. Many years ago, the lady of the house found a wandering young girl in tatters begging for food at her door. The girl was Cajun and had probably come from the nearby bayou. She spoke with a strange but lilting accent and the woman stood intrigued by this odd little girl. She took her in and called her Emmeline Labiche and made her a daughter.
This little girl grew into a beautiful woman with dark black hair and sad black eyes, and she met a man named Louis Arceneaux, who promised to marry her. Louis went to fight for the great cause of the South, as many young men did, and Emmeline became anxious. She had not heard from him in a long while and believed him to be ill or dying or lost to her forever, but she could not be sure until she saw him with her own eyes, so she became a nurse. Emmeline worked and traveled with the Confederates for many months, which turned into a year and a half, which became the end of the war, but she never found Louis. She was determined, though, and roamed the entire United States, as they were once again referred to, looking for her lost love.
Emmeline found Louis one day in her hometown of St. Martinville while shopping for white silk scraps to repair her sister’s wedding dress. Overjoyed, she asked him to meet her under a great oak tree right on the outskirts of town, and he consented eagerly. All that evening, Emmeline fixed her hair into perfectly formed curls, put on her prettiest dress, and pinched her cheeks until they glowed. At the hour of their meeting, her heart was bursting at the thought of a future with her beloved. He had arrived and it seemed as if nothing more would stand in the way of her happiness.
Then, as he reached for her cheek, she saw his finger, and she hoped to God that he had simply placed an heirloom ring on the wrong hand. Of course, he had not forgotten which hand that was, he was never absent-minded, and he carefully told her he had married. He had not found her after the war, and had given up searching. He thought she had found happiness somewhere else with someone else, and he wanted to find happiness, too. At the news, Emmeline fainted and Louis left her at the oak, cold on the ground. She had searched and searched for this man, who had given up on her as quickly as he began searching. Worst of all she loved him.
She saw Louis and his wife in St. Martinsville the next day, and she knew she would never be able to banish the image from her memory. Emmeline went mad with the knowledge that she would never be free of him, that wherever she went, his face would follow her. As time passed, he had a child, then two, and Emmeline stopped eating and drinking and retreated to the bayou in misguided shame. She soon died and Louis did not attend her funeral. From her grave grows a single magnolia, but there is no one in the earth beneath it.
No one knows where Emmeline is, and perhaps no one ever will. Maybe that is how the tale must end. Many years later, a young writer named Longfellow learned Emmeline’s story and recorded it. He called her Evangeline and she was immortalized in his words. Thousands heard this poem and the Cajuns of St. Martinsville cheered for their patron saint. Evangeline, they called her, but her name was Emmeline. They tell her story in St. Martinsville. They say that young girls should not wander the way she did, all that way past the Mississippi. But growing up I was taught something different. “Not all who wander are lost,” they used to tell me, “as long as they have something to search for.”
But all of that was very long ago. Today, the university displays fireworks as bright as gemstones cascading down a black velvet sky, little girls meddle with ghosts and spirits in its old dormitories, and the students have all but abandoned the formal traditions required of them so many years ago.
There is an old playground at this school, and, as I swing there, I believe myself to be very old. My 17-year-old self fits into the flimsy cloth swing, but I am not meant to be there. These places are meant for children, and I am no longer a child. Still the fireflies dance and the cicadas sing, and I begin to believe in magic. I do believe in magic. I think of how funny life is; how my roommate is an old friend’s cousin. My friend isn’t old, and our friendship isn’t old, but he is old in my heart. I find many things aged in my heart, and suddenly I feel as old as the school housing me. I wish I could go home to tell my brothers not to grow up. I wish I could tell them to enjoy the time they have before life kicks in. I wish I could tell them to get up and go out and run under the sun while it still shines. I wish I could tell them that time is not kind and waits for no one, not even children, but I doubt they will understand. For them, the future lays out for miles ahead, like a country road, its twists and turns uncertain but its length stretching on forever. They know nothing of ending, which I hope is akin to being swept up gently towards starts as bright and twinkling as Southern fireflies. For them all is forever, and time does not move quickly. I wish I could stop time. Time seems to be stopped here.
Long, long ago, there was a school where gentility met intelligence and people smiled and waved and said “Hello” and truly saw one another. Sometimes, in the moonlight, the moderately modernized school appears unchanged: men tip their hats to women who hide a giggle and curtsy, young lovers meet in the park far from prying eyes, and old and new friends read tarot cards in the cemetery and are arrested by bored police officers. There isn’t much crime here. The people are kind. The place is terrifying and enchanting, a reminder of what someone hoped life ought to be like: gentle and slow and winding as a forest trail to a sparkling swimming hole. I hope to return here someday, but then I hope I don’t, believing that any semblance of new experience may ruin my memories of this Eden of beauty and horror.
But it’s no matter now. Perhaps, one day, I will float southward down that river called the Mississippi and find all this unchanged and untouched. But for now I am on a plane. The music in my ears chants, “Home. Let me come home. Home is wherever I’m with you.” The woman sitting next to me is a lawyer who graduated from Stanford many years ago. Now, she travels often and has no children. She is happy. I am happy that she is happy. She tells me that this is the best time in my life, when everything is spread ahead of me. I hope what she says is true. I need it to be true.
And as I fly over that vast desert that claims to be California, a land of plenty, a paradise amongst mundane landscapes, a landlocked island of lost and found dreams, I believe life is still long, the world is still wide, and that somewhere in the far future there will be a bright blue ocean clear enough to dive into. But I can think of it tomorrow, or on another day that holds just as many possibilities. I believe in magic.