Sunday, October 30, 2005
The shadow of the elephant
I read your recent column on The Elephant Men--about the struggle to deal with living after Katrina--and felt I had to write to you to tell you this:
The shadow of the elephant is long and dark.
I no longer live in New Orleans. I left in 1987, and have only returned for periodic visits ever since. I can’t know the pain you and the rest of your crew felt as you stayed and covered the storm. I won’t feel the anguish of seeing my only home post-Katrina for the first time, or seeing the somber brown landscape where the brackish lake water has killed every green thing.
But every waking moment—and too many of my sleeping ones—are spent in the shadow of the elephant.
I talk to enough family and friends to know how difficult your life is right now. But I envy you. I have no stoop, and no one to share it with. The elephant sits on my chest at night as I try to get to sleep, after hours of reading or writing, and I toss and turn as if I were trying to dislodge the cat from my side of the bed.
I used to care about a lot of things. I cared about politics, and followed every turn in Washington as only a fierce partisan and veteran of those wars can. Last night, my wife had to drag me away from NOLA.com to watch the fallout of the Fitzgerald investigation.
I can barely keep track of the day of the week, and have to constantly ask my family if it’s our turn to drive the kids somewhere. I haven’t put my boat away for the winter. I skim through the newspaper, and toss it aside. Any wire stories I care about—those about New Orleans or the Gulf Coast—I’ve read hours or even days ago online.
Up here in Fargo, N.D., no one really understands the deep psychic connection people from NOLA have to their home. Fargo is the sort of place where I can hear seed and fertilizer ads on the radio, where many people are at most a generation off the land. People have stayed for a century through the most miserable winters you can imagine, out of their love of the where they live. You would think the people here would be as conscious of the power of place as any imaginary denizen of Yoknapatawpha County, would understand the powerful hold of one’s native place upon a person, but they don’t. I tell people I hope to move back home—to New Orleans--as soon as we can find work and a place to live.
They look at me as if I have just suggested I will move to West Virginia to join the Hare Krishnas. They don’t understand the profound connection, like that of their fore bearers to the old country, people from New Orleans have for their home.
My wife understands enough that, when I suggested move home, she assented almost immediately. We were already talking about relocating, for a lot of reasons. But when I suggested New Orleans one evening last month, I expected her to spit wine all over herself in convulsive laughter. Instead, she said OK, how do we do that? I think she has always understood, even when she chided me for it, when I talked about emigrating to the U.S. from New Orleans, understood why I wanted to put Acadian on census forms, or suggested I should fill in United States-Minor Outlying Islands as my country of origin.
For now she tolerates the dozens of hours spent every week for the last two months at the computer, reading every scrap of news and gossip and blog chatter out of the city and the region, and then digesting it into this blog, my own record of anger and anguish. She understands that this is what keeps me from just climbing into my car with the clothes on my back and driving away to New Orleans wild eyed in the night, to find us a place to live.
At some level, she understands about the elephant.
So for now, I read and post to my blog, and we both scan the on-line ads for any indication of jobs in Louisiana. I look at the real estate ads, and remind myself that the New Orleans housing prices were always ridiculous compared to wages. I try not to think about what large swaths of the city will look like a year or five or ten from now, imagining Lakeview and Gentilly as a city on stilts, or about whether the city will become more like Miami than Port au Prince.
I can’t escape the elephant. I can only try to slay it. I can’t do that from Fargo, N.D., even as I flail away at it online. The only sure way to slay it is to find a way to be a part again of the city, and to have my say and do everything I can to make sure it is something like the city of our memories and dreams.
I hope some day to run into you, and introduce myself. (We’ve actually met a long time ago, at some press club function or other, back when I toiled in the ‘burbs for Guide Newspapers). I hope to buy you a beer, and hear about what it was like in the days and weeks after; to compare where we’ve eaten or drunk famously in the past, and when or if those places have will have returned; to talk about failures of the Saints’ or the anticipation of Mardi Gras or the comical venality of the city fathers.
Homecoming is what will slay the elephant, a reunion of hundreds of thousands of strangers—all of whom know at least one person you went to high school with—who share a bond that the casual malignity of nature or the incompetence of government or the endless miles of the diaspora can never erase.
(De La Salle ’75)
It is called Love. New Orleans becomes part of your soul. I wrote a very similar letter to Mr. Rose. I am luckier than you because I live in Hammond, LA. I finally got to return to New Orleans last Friday. It is devastated but the raw materials for the city to become itself again are present. Next weekend I am going back to help in the clean up of City Park. I feel like I have to do SOMETHING. It sounds like you feel the same way. Come home. Your city needs you.
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