I have been thinking about this for two days now. Bloggers writing about why We Are Not OK here in New Orleans. Some really beautiful writing. Reading Traveling Mermaid's response to the theme We Are Not Ok I Feel Like a Fraud, wherein she related that she felt herself to be a fraud for not having yet visited the most devastated areas of the City, really made me think that she was the one among us who was most honest and personal. While the rest of us talked about things that are, without a doubt, important--things like levees and schools and mayoral elections--we just grazed our emotional response, like a nick sustained while shaving. It's there, it hurts a lot, we can't ignore it but we just put a piece of tissue paper on it to staunch the bleeding and remove the tissue before we walk out of the house so we're not embarrassed by it.
We talk issues, not emotions, because we're afraid, of so many things, but afraid for sure that if we really start opening up about our emotional state it will be like a levee breaking in our soul.
There is no doubt that we all want to be here. We all want to contribute to the rebirth of the City. We all want to keep the information flowing. We know we're living in an historic time and that our contributions or lack thereof, will be forever a part of the future memory landscape of New Orleans, even if those future citizens never know our names. Most of us don't expect to go down in history books, and I seriously doubt that that would even be a glimmer of a goal for most of us.
In just about every interview, the Beatles were asked, "Did you know you were making musical history?" Their answers, after many asides and quips, usually were something along the lines of, "No, man, we were just making music."
When the movie Saving Private Ryan was released, there was a glut of interviews of veterans of D-Day asking the same question: "Did you know you were involved in an historic campaign." Mostly their answers were, "We knew it was something big, but no, sir, we were just trying to stay alive as we crossed that beach."
New Orleanians have made a lot of history. There are books about the chronology of Yellow Jack and its eradication, books about the Battle of New Orleans or the City's response to the Civil War. Books about murders and ghosts, harlots and entrepreneurs, musical geniuses and the birth of a culture. For a history geek like me, these books are a treasure. But often I'm left wondering "how did these people really FEEL about . . . . . . " fill in the blank.
I'm going to tell you how I feel, like it or not, and very often I'd be in the latter category.
My moods swing faster than an old tire tied to a tree on the topic of New Orleans. I sob over the latest body found. I feel like an alien in my own country, and even in my own family, sometimes. During those times I flounder helplessly between disbelief (They can't be serious!), anger (We cannot let this happen! It's outrageous!), dismissal (Screw 'em. They're not here, they don't get it.), and complete confusion (Have I been living some sort of delusional life? I thought citizenship actually mattered in America. I must be naive. Is no one reading the paper? What the hell is going on here?). An article written in the vein of "why should we rebuild" can drop me to my knees, wanting to scream HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE INVOLVED HERE! Sometimes it's all so disheartening that I just go emotionally fetal, cover my ears and sing La La La deliriously til I can pull myself back together.
I go about my daily operations, walking the dog, taking a shower, paying the bills, all the little things that everyone all over America does. Then I try to figure out how to catch up on everything. No not the news, the real stuff.
How many photos can I fit in the freezer and still have room for the Richard's frozen gumbo, stocked for those nights when neither of us can decide what to eat? Hmmm, this tupperware is full of little statues my daughter used to collect. They're dry now. The newspaper they were packed in is now like mummy wrappings that need to be soaked off in the bathtub, then peeled bit by bit with archaeological precision so as not to damage the piece. Anxiety and resentment hover over these tasks. Will they be okay? Why do I have to DO this? I have other things I'd much rather be doing. Maybe I should just chuck all this crap and be done with it. Is any of this really worth. . . . .oh, look----tears welling up before I can stop them----she saw this in Chinatown when we lived in San Francisco. . . .she was two and her eyes sparkled when she saw it. . . . . .I have to save it. . . . .This is stupid, she probably won't care anyway and it's just a thing, a little THING. . . .Guilt, guilt. . . .other people lost their lives, their houses, their families, everything. I put the little item into the sink to soak and hate the water that did this to us and hate the people who did nothing for all these years knowing that this kind of levee failure and flooding would be inevitable some day. Then I reach in the box and take out another piece and start the cycle again. Anxiety, resentment, nostalgia, guilt, hatred.
The panic portion of the post-Katrina menu is a real feast for the emotional gourmet. Will we ever get caught up after losing a month's worth of paychecks? Am I really getting early onset Alzheimer's? (It's the only explanation for not knowing what day it is most of the time. I am comforted by the fact that so many others I know are having the same problem. "It's like September never existed," they say. They're right. We got thrown off track and we can't get back on track without constant vigilance and the occasional surreptitious glance at the face of the cell phone--oh yeah, it is the 4th not the 5th---and I really need to pay that bill.) Will we have money to evacuate if we decide we need to? Do we want to? Will there be a job to come back to? Will we live in a limbo of non-security for------get that paper bag please, I'm about to hyperventilate-----years?
Ah, but I saved the very best for last. That lethal emotional combination cocktail---grief and fear. The grief is self-explanatory. The City I knew is gone along with so many people, all the things that the We Are Not OK gang talked about previously.
The fear is a fear that Traveling Mermaid bravely mentioned, the fear of being seen as obsessed whiners. That's why we don't talk about how we feel. They'll call us whiners. Hey, they've already called us opportunistic, thieving, and corrupt. Some have even called us stupid for living here before and, certainly, after the storm. Why on earth would we give them fodder and let them add whiners to the list of New Orleanians' faults?
So we hike up our pants, belly up to the bar, order a double, and surrounded by others whose pants are hiked up to the point of being wedgies, we rant some more about levees and the Corps of Engineers. We crack jokes about the Mayor or the Governor. We rail against the President, FEMA, the idiocy of the Stafford Act. We focus on issues, clearly important ones, and we write about them. With a screen between the writer and the reader being a very convenient blind.
And the interviewer says,"Did you know you were living in an historic time?" Giggle, giggle, sniffle, snort. "Well, um, yeah, we did know, but we were just trying to get by every day. We wanted to make music and live through the next hurricane."
Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane Katrina FEMA levee Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK