New Orleans is hot, I decide for the millionth time as the sun's rays beat down through a cloudless sky. Bluesy sounds of a saxophone echo through the streets, sounding sad and energized at the same time.
I inhale one breath. My nostrils meet Cajun food and fried batter and faint cigar smoke. I exhale, breathe in again, this time met with smells of sunscreen and garbage and exhaust.
New Orleans is hot, I repeat in my head. But it's so many other things, too.
A city for the senses.
New Orleans has seen some things--like that nasty nemesis Hurricane Katrina in 2005--but she's lived to tell the tales. She's unafraid of pushing anyone's limits or buttons or barriers.
New Orleans is who she is.
I'm in New Orleans as a volunteer on the media team for the National Youth Gathering. Over 25,000 people are here in this city for the same reasons, yet they are discovering new reasons why they're glad they came. There are service projects. Prayers. Studies about faith and God and identity in the midst of it all, scattered in one large convention center, then out and about in the city streets, then in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It's a lot to take in, to say the least.
I squint, then slide my cheap sunglasses closer towards my eyes, the plastic easily gliding over the bridge of my nose thanks to a sweaty sheen now coating my skin like a second layer. New Orleans in July means walking through the streets in a hazy fog. We're all wading in invisible bath water.
You get used to it. The heat. The humidity. You get used to a lot of things when you are busy walking, talking, doing. I didn't know if I'd get used to being around 25,000+ people for a national youth gathering. I didn't know if I'd get used to the spicier food and the days full of 30,000 steps, my new sneakers breaking in so my feet don't break down on me, blisters, be damned.
Yes, the weather is hot.
Yes, the days are long.
Yes, my comfort zone is stretching like Spandex, just when I think it cannot hold and move and flex any further.
Yes, I'm sweating like a beast.
But this is where the growth happens, I realize. In the midst of the sweat and the worry and the tasks and the to-dos and the NEW. So much new.
I mean, teachers tell us that all the time, right? Pinterest quotes echo the same message. Inspirational speakers and life coaches, too. "Life begins at the end of our comfort zone."
But it's one thing to say it and the other to experience it.
I had fallen in a rut and hadn't even known it. A Michigan girl with her Michigan life and her Michigan ways-rut. A rut of the same menu items, the same restaurants, the same TV shows. Comfort. Certainty. Safe.
I had forgotten how awesome it feels to push past my comfort zone. Fear clouds the awesome. New Orleans was my reminder.
Even when we get in an experience where we know the comfort zone is expanding, we try to control that growth, too. We can play and plot and plan and prepare. We can make lists and spreadsheets and sticky notes and to-dos. Though Excel offers many equations to create solutions in a cell, spreadsheets do not factor in one important aspect: life.
You can't plan for chaos. You don't know how a person will react. You don't know who you'll meet and who will impact you in a million different ways.
And that's where the growth happens. That's where the layers are peeled back. When flights are delayed across the nation, when hackers hack and hearts break and tears leak and talks take place while sitting on a carpeted floor, eating peanut butter M&Ms. We are pushed to our limits so we know where our limits stand, and in pushing our limits, our bonds form.
The comfort zone stretches.
Now I sit on a bench. I chip away at the chunks of ice that created my Sno-Ball, a menu item known in New Orleans, I've been told. I ordered the King Cake flavor, which has dyed the ice a deep purple that tastes sweeter than frosting. I had never tried this before, just like I had never tried alligator sausage or jambalaya or Nutella before this trip.
My feet ache. My eyes squint. My mind runs.
And I am grateful.
I'm grateful for the photographers I worked with, who showed me--through their eye, their perspective, their lens--that there is beauty in a row of empty chairs or a dilapidated building. I'm grateful for two friends who exhibited bravery and honesty and authenticity through the sharing of their stories on a stage in front of thousands of people. I'm grateful for the writers, the videographers, my fellow social media members, website moderators...all working together to tell a story, to tell share others' stories, to share their gifts and expand their comfort zones right alongside me as they pushed me to expand mine.
I'm also grateful for peanut butter M&Ms and trail mix--a loyal (albeit nutritionally weak) fixture during these long days.
[For the record, alligator sausage isn't that bad, beignets are AMAZING, and I missed ketchup more than I thought I would.]