Wednesday, January 08, 2014

You should go

Bob Mann has written a thought-provoking article: “Louisiana's young people are asking, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’

Mann’s personal story reads like so many others: Eager to find “opportunities, vision and tolerance,” he left Louisiana, only to return a few years later when he discovered what was really important in life. And we’re all better for it, because few writers better balance what’s great about Louisiana with honest and reasoned criticism. Perhaps because of his experience living in Washington, D.C., Mann broadcasts a genuine love for the state without being emotionally territorial about it. He understands the thinking behind both answers to his question, arriving at this conclusion:

Atlanta, New York or Los Angeles might provide you a better job, but Louisiana needs you more. You want to save the world? Well, you can do that here. Sure, there are hungry children to be rescued in Africa and India, but your hometown has plenty of them, too.

You're frustrated with the intolerance of this state? Will your leaving - taking your broadmindedness with you - make Louisiana any more tolerant?

Stay here, find like-minded people, organize them, expand your influence, demand change, but don't give up on this amazing, beautiful place. Its good people - flawed as we might be - are worth your efforts.

There may be no place in America that needs you more. We have so many resources, so much latent opportunity, and you have the minds to discover it and the talents to unleash it.

My generation has failed you, so I understand if you must leave. But if you do go, don't lose touch. Live, learn, explore and some day bring back what you've learned and put it to work making our government and other institutions worthy of the decency and goodness of their people.

My personal answer to Mann’s question, at least as far as unattached people whose best options are elsewhere, is: YOU SHOULD GO!

Even if you know coming back is in the cards, you should go. Especially if, I should say.

Mann’s advice about forging a group to make life better in-state is a good one, but it shouldn’t guilt anyone who wants to leave out of going. For too many young Louisianans, the price they pay for loyalty is underemployment or straight-up unemployment.

I should know. In the 49 months I lived in Louisiana after college between May 2005 and July 2013, I had a full-time job for a grand total of 11 (and that was split between two jobs, only one of which was professional). That dismal statistic wasn’t from lack of trying, either. Upon returning to Louisiana from Missouri in 2011, I looked for jobs in-state, because I wanted to be near family, friends, fun and football (alliteration accidental). But it became harder and harder to see the allure of the important things in life when other important things like financial independence and a sense of purpose were nonexistent.

It’s times like that when the bad aspects of the state become especially apparent to you. The dis-emphasis of education. The lack of economic diversity. Retrograde social mores. The bigotry. The poverty. The humidity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape that, is there? That’s not a referendum on the culture or the other excellent aspects of Louisiana.

When I was 18 and about to start college, I wrote this down:

I am a lifelong resident of Louisiana, I love everything about it, and never intend to leave for more than a week at a time.

At the time, I meant it. I had zero wanderlust. My goal in life was to buy a house near my elementary school in Lafayette (in what I considered a posh neighborhood) and saunter into the scheduled 2008 time-capsule reunion bragging, “I walked here!” (Around the time I thought that, The Simpsons joked about Homer winning an award for “Least distance traveled to reunion.” I missed that episode.)

At my high school’s college fair, I went straight up to the then-USL booth, grabbed the liberal arts booklet and spent the rest of the time sitting and reading it (a picture of me doing this made it into the yearbook). Sure, many of my classmates were hellbent on leaving Lafayette and Louisiana, but mostly for Texas and Mississippi. To me, that’s what traveling meant, and I wasn’t keen on either state. Also, those kids tended to have money and connections, and sometimes the attitude to match.

I was perfectly happy staying at home, going to USL/UL (which was closer to my house than my high school) and eventually landing a job in town, possibly at the local newspaper that was even closer to home. I didn’t think twice about it.

But over the next few years, I did something I had done only intermittently before — traveled. I left the South for the first time. I visited California, Arizona and New Mexico, seeing the most breathtaking mountain and desert landscapes I didn't even know I'd love so much. I trod bike paths in Utah, where I also sat on a hill on July 4 and watched fireworks displays from seven different cities. I had conversations with total strangers who openly said things I’d heard only in whispers among friends in Lafayette. Later, in Missouri, I’d find a local university that changed its name to Missouri State University with no strings, because entrenched politics didn’t dictate otherwise. For the first time in my life, people didn’t ask me where I was from, or insist I go back there.

I’ve cycled through every emotion on the Louisiana issue: never wanting to leave, open to leaving, dying to leave, feeling homesick, returning, open to leaving again, dying to leave again, leaving again. As of now, I’m not sure I’ll ever be back. But you never know. Those of you on life’s road-fork shouldn’t let anyone tell you there’s only one acceptable way to feel; it’s up to you. Community is important, but ultimately, it’s your life.

There might be a time when Louisiana decides to be a better place to live in terms of politics and environmental and social conscience. That time, sadly, is not now. But sometime in the future, it could be. That will require people to make it happen who understand that the way Louisiana operates is not the only way anything operates. That’s a lesson best learned by hitting the road and seeing how others define reality. Traveling opened my eyes, even after I thought they were already open.

Moving is not for everyone; some get it right without leaving and others leave and get it wrong (like Bobby Jindal). But if you have an opportunity to ponder Mann's question, then go. At least for now.

Louisiana’s future depends on it.

No comments: