I’d like to apologize to the world for my attitude. I feel conflicted this week — I want to be angry, but I cannot. And I wanted to tell you why. Unfortunately, I cannot find the right expression — so I made it into a long, rambling story, of sorts.
No, I do not want to celebrate the Katrina anniversary with you — I want to walk to my grandmother’s house. No, I don’t want to second line with you at 3PM on Friday — I want to smell the freshly cut grass my dad used to cut every 4 days. Those are the things I want to do today. And since when do people formally schedule a second line? How do you plan impromptu? That’s absurd.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to see the newly integrated second lines. It’s a bunch of folks having fun , regardless of race— how can that be wrong? I think the new interest in areas downriver is a great thing. My side of town needed a touch-up, that’s for sure. The caribbean colors are fun looking. Who knew Home Depot had so many shades of orange?!?
But, that’s not my New Orleans. 33 years living here before Katrina and I don’t know about Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, or a jazz funeral. Those were traditions reserved for the black neighborhoods. Mardi Gras Indians are what stopped traffic on your way out of the 9th ward. They were a beautiful inconvenience in my New Orleans.
My New Orleans was Univision on the television at a volume that would allow Jesus himself to hear it in heaven. My New Orleans was the hum of the window unit A/C — my face strategically placed in front of the vent after coming in from the heat. My New Orleans was ordering a damn drink, paying for it, and drinking it, all within 2 minutes — none of this waiting for a guy with gelled hair to stir my drink with a celery stick, while blowing pepper into it, and then rubbing the rim with an orange peel. Como que orange zest?!?!?! Estas loco!!!
My New Orleans was never saying Po’boy. That’s right. I may have said Po-boy 6 times in my life before Katrina. In my New Orleans, it was a shrimp on french, dressed — hold the tomato. In my New Orleans, we didn’t really have too many chain restaurants or stores. Now we have a Havana Outpost coming, a Mellow Mushroom, a Whole Foods on Broad, and more Ross’ Dress for Less than hookers on Tulane Avenue — all gifts from the United States of Generica and the cultural hearth of Louisiana, Baton Rouge.
My New Orleans isn’t NOLA. It’s just New Orleans — pronounced in any combination of ways, other than New Orleeeeens. NOLA is new…likely another gift from Generica — like SoBou, Nouveau Marigny, South Market District. Although, I do have to admit…it’s much easier to write my address with NOLA.
My New Orleans was every Saturday night at TwiRoPa, dancing to merengue, salsa, bachata and especially rock en espanol in a giant space that knew the importance of keeping the A/C on high, and at the coldest setting. My New Orleans was Mosaico at House of Blues every week.
Please understand, it’s not that I don’t like your new New Orleans — I do. It’s just that I never got a chance to say goodbye to my New Orleans. I didn’t leave my New Orleans, it left me…most of it during 4 hours on August 29, 2005…the rest of it, slowly over the next 10 years. I never got to walk back to my grandparents’ house ever again. My grandmother gave up on life 3 years after the storm, living in a trailer in Mississippi. You can’t rebuild that part of my New Orleans.
My dad lasted 5 years after the storm, as did many men in their 50's — likely years ahead of time because of the stress of being homeless, seeing your mother’s open tomb, losing your friends, losing your dog, losing your neighbors, losing your family, losing money to a contractor, not getting reimbursed from FEMA for finding a cheap trailer, etc, etc. How do I celebrate the anniversary of the thing that killed him….slowly….over 5 years….form, by form, by form….meeting, by meeting, by meeting….dollar, by dollar, by dollar…
There are so many more comparisons to make and so many more reasons to be angry, but none of the things I mentioned above are causing my grief this week. Nor can I blame it on any of the new mixologists found at the new bars — with their annoying haircuts, smug attitudes, and inability to multi-task.
I am angry with God (the universe), but for a reason you may not understand. You see, 10 years ago today, as I left my home — my New Orleans — for what would be the last time, God (the universe) started unwrapping a gift for me and I’ve been struggling to accept it. It’s not a new gift, but it’s enormous. God (the universe) has gifted this many, many times to other people before God (the universe) ever decided to give it to me.
My gift — the gift of gratitude. A gift that would protect me from the rage, hatred, anger, cold, dark, lonely place that my mind longs for
In the years just before and following Katrina, the universe has been moving me along a conveyor belt of acquaintances and situations that are associated with loss. These situations, people, places, and stories would be my armor against my only personal loss.
In Mexico, my graduate school studies were derailed when someone told me in spanish “Here we go. Another gringo coming to Mexico to tell us how to live more safely. Gringo, in Mexico, we live for today, not tomorrow. And we are happy.” It changed my perspective on disaster planning.
Just before Katrina, I met a friend from Lebanon who introduced me to her family — a very large, tight family that has endured 30+ years of displacement by war and have been scattered across the planet — yet, they are all still tightly connected are somehow are always together.
I was then assigned to Darfur following Katrina, where I mapped villages that were being destroyed by the Sudanese Janjaweed. As the people ran for their lives out of the villages, the government would drop fuel on the people and light them on fire. They were all scattered to the wind, with no security or promise of the future.
Fast-forward a few years and I was helping photograph homes to be demolished by FEMA in the 6th ward of New Orleans. At one point, an old man came out and talked to me. He told me he floated his wife out of the front door on a mattress because she was handicapped. She later died while they were waiting to get rescued.
A few years later, my dad died suddenly of a heart-attack. I felt anger pouring into my soul. I was in a dark place. Why did I deserve all of this sadness?! It was the darkest point in my life and I coincidentally happened to be on my way to the darkest place on the planet — Afghanistan. While there, several doctors were killed by the Taliban and the US wanted to find the bad guys. I met someone, a friend, who survived the attack and helped him map out his story, but to do that, I had to look at crime scene pictures of women holding each other with their brains blown out; of doctors with their heads beat in. Of dead bodies running away from the scene, cold, alone, and dead in a river valley in Afghanistan, far from their families. I had to look at the pictures with my new friend and watch and listen as he shook with fear and sobbed over the loss of his travel companions and friends. He described how he watched each one of them die.
And one last lesson happened while I was in Lebanon a few years ago, waiting in a holding area with a room full of Syrian refugees seeking asylum and work in Lebanon to escape the war in Syria. At some point I ended up alone, in a building with no electricity, no money, no internet, barely any water, and tanks rolling down the street. I was scared.
These are all AWFUL situations; sad stories of loss and grief. And each are part of my gift from the universe. Each story — each lesson — that was taught to me was matched with love and compassion. My hurricane, my flood, my inconvenience, my disaster was matched 10 fold by horrific stories of loss, and then those stories were matched with 20 fold with powerful acts of kindness and compassion. My hurricane was soothed with a giftbox of towels snacks, and cash from friends across the country — teaching me that people remembered me and were thinking of me. When the National Holocaust Museum used my work to create an online presentation of atrocities in Darfur — I was taught that those that went through grief years ago knew the pain and were the best sources of comfort. In Afghanistan, I was alone, dusty, sad, confused…it was the lowest point in my life. I met some young guys from Kabul who spoke to me in spanish, having learned from the spanish troops on base. They were in college and wanted to one day move to the United States so they could study engineering — they taught me about hope.
In Lebanon, I needed the internet. I walked down a dark street with no one around except for a few military guys. I found an open bar with the power going on and off and men screaming at each other. (It was an argument about being open.) I ordered a drink, asked for the internet and then realized I didn’t have any money. He looked at me and said, “Hey! I’m from Detroit! Are you from the States, too? Don’t worry about it. But, you should probably go straight home tonight. Lots of problems.” He taught me that things are never as dark as they seem and you’re really never alone.
How could God (the universe) give me such an enormous gift? I want to be angry. I want to cry, to scream, to grieve. But I cannot. I want to be joyful and to celebrate, but I cannot. There is no name for what I want to do right now. I have no way of teaching you how to be grateful — hell, I still don’t know what do with it. It’s something that the universe must gift you, but it only comes from loss.
I realize this is turning into a ramble, so I’ll end this with something Stephen Colbert recently said in an interview. Unbeknownst to most, Stephen Colbert’s father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was younger. In the interview, he says, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” He goes on to quote Tolkien, “What punishments of God are not gifts?”
My Katrina has given me friends across the planet. My Katrina gave me a group of friends with the patience of steel to listen to me whine and cry about my loss. They took me in as part of their families when I needed it most. My Katrina sent me to FEMA where I got to help tear down the homes of all of my family and friends. My Katrina sent me to Afghanistan to see how great my country is — you don’t get FEMA trailers in Kabul! My Katrina taught me what it’s like to lose the things you never thought were special; things you think will always be there. My Katrina sent me to Hawaii for the first time. My Katrina gave my parents a new home — regardless of the means, the price, and the construction errors. My Katrina gave me a trip to New York with my sister…eventhough I paid for it. My Katrina taught me just how important Krewe du Vieux and carnival was to me and the city…as we started rolling as the first Mardi Gras krewe that season, crying, hugging, screaming — it was beautiful.
My Katrina took away my New Orleans physically — and in doing so, my Katrina taught me about life. Life is delicate, temporary, and is full of more good than evil. Thank you, Katrina, for my teaching me how important friends are. Thank you for showing me just how safe and secure I am here in the United States. Thank you for teaching me about how beautiful a green lawn can be. Thank you for teaching me how important my family is to me. Thank you for teaching about neighbors, and reunions, and Rocky and Carlo’s on a Friday night! Thank you for all of the new people I’ve met here over the last 10 years. Well…maybe not the mixologists. They’re just annoying; along with the St. Roch Food Court — that shit isn’t funny at all. And what the hell were you thinking with transforming Bywater into fauxbourg Bywater? I’m not thanking you for that!
I wish I could pass on this gift. It would make my gratitude for the gift known. But, I cannot. And that makes me angry. The best I can do is to tell all of you reading this, and especially the new New Orleans, to stop and look around. Today is here. Tomorrow it’ll be yesterday. Enjoy your friends and family. Enjoy the music and the dancing. Resilience doesn’t have to mean preparing for tomorrow, it can also mean being satisfied with today. My Katrina may be better or worse than your Katrina, just as my New Orleans may be better or worse than yours. But, it’s mine. …my gift from God (the universe).