Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Looking for ghosts

"Memories there are, enough and to spare, of the famous days of old, and of the not less famous men of our own time; but the ghosts have fled."
-- Real Ghost Stories by William T. Stead
The ghosts have all fled, and taken my words with them. This time a year ago, two years ago, the ghosts of the flood crowded around me and compelled me to write, to tell the story of New Orleans and the Federal Flood. At first the fear that my city was lost, then the atmosphere of living among survivors in a ruined city was a constant, palpable presence, leading me through entry after entry of the story of the post-deluvian city like an ectoplasmic visitor leading me around the house in search of the source of bumps in the night.

Lately the haunting presence is missing. The city seems brighter, busier, more the antedeluvian city of memory. Unless I steer myself into the empty quarters, it is possible to slip into a life where I can forget what these streets were like a year ago, two years ago, what some of them are still like today. And I am just too absorbed in life to seek out what I know is just down the Bayou: empty Gentilly. Perhaps it is not the ghosts have have abandoned me. Perhaps I have abandoned them.

The end results is the same. I am not driven as I was for much of the last two-and-a-half years to tell the city's story in honor of those ghosts, of the palpably suffering spirit of this place. This is not a relief. It has instead left a void I'm not sure how to fill. I have had other motivations to write here--anger, pain, sadness. These are difficult to sustain as a habit, and as likely to ultimately consume the person who invokes them as dark magic consumes the practicioner. Few do anger well, and I'll never be able to sustain it with the talent and humor of an Ashley Morris or a Greg Peters.

Some how, at this particular time of the year when the spirits are believed closest to our daylit world, I need to seek those lost spirits out, to reconnect with what best sustained what I do here. I have to do this because, in the end, writing this blog is probably all I am suited to do for my city. I have worked for politicians, but I make a poor one myself. I am a much better lieutenant than captain, and I am uncertain whom I might serve. I am not particularly suited in any way to help New Orleans beyond my commitment to live here. Perhaps that is enough, but part of the void at the center is the nagging sense that it is not. If I have any shred of talent it is what I do here in Wet Bank Guide, and I need to find a way to continue to be a voice in the chorus of and for New Orleans. I need to continue to be a witness, to remember.

Remember. Je me souviens. I need to continue because the story has really just begun. As I wrote only a few months ago, "[t]he scope and time line of our story is novelistic, not episodic in the fashion most suited to the corporatized media of the twenty first century. The big media could no more cover the story we collectively write [as bloggers] than they could serve up the serialized works of Dickens without being filleted and served to their stockholders." And of all of the motivations that kept me pounding away here the sense of a haunting presence, even if only as an internatlized metaphor for some sense of a spatial and temporal dislocation, a dark cousin to deja vu and much more persistant, that is the experience of life in a disaster zone. The ghosts of the flood and memory have been my most consistent themes.

I wrote this in July, 2006, and it sums up well why I have never changed the sub-head of this blog from Remembering Katrina even if I have not mentioned the storm in a year:
Many of us have seen the videos of the 2004 tsunami shot by tourists , have witnessed on a small screen the incredible power of a tidal wave of debris pushing through a crowded neighborhood. There is no such video of the Ninth Ward, nothing like the film shot by a fire department crew in Lakeview shortly after the levee there began to fail. . . I imagine the last images captured by the eyes of the people who lived on those streets, synthesizing my own memory of these neighborhoods with the videos of the tsunami, running a monstrous newsreel of my own imagining. It is as if the victims of the Federal Flood were reaching across and directing the camera, telling me: this is what it was like, what we saw, what they did to us. I can almost feel them crowd around me, the cliche of a haunting image made palpable, whispering as I type: Remember.
Je me souviens. Remember. No one who cares about New Orleans will ever forget, certainly none of those who lost everything, or those who stayed and struggled to survive, trapped in a televised nightmare plainly apparent to everyone except the people who commanded the relief trucks to stop because it might be too dangerous, those who left their dead behind in lawn chairs covered by newspaper or dirty blankets. They might rather not remember, but it will almost certainly haunt them to the end of their days.

I suffered none of that myself. I watched it unfold from a safe distance of decades and a thousand miles. Whatever vicarious pain I experienced was trivial, even if it was enough to upend my family's life and bring us home. I would take some of that burden on myself from the people of the city around me, would gladly be their Judas goat, their ghost eater If I can swallow some of that pain and turn it into words here that tell their story so the world will not forget, can use that dark energy to paint a picture of a city that was, and of a city trying to be again, then perhaps this is not all just some horrible exercise in self-pity. Oh, poor, sorry New Orleans. Look at us. How pitiful.

There are things that deserve to be remembered. Perhaps my ghosts are like the victims of Hiroshima, hiding their scars in shame. Or perhaps, as I suggested above, I have abandoned them, swept away by the currents of life from the places they inhabit. I want the suffering to be remembered, but also the beauty of a city rising out of its ruin like wildflowers from a fire swept landscape; the spirits not just remembered but transformed into something else, something like that oldest of stories, the wanderer's trial by monster and descent into hell on the long road home.

There are heroes here among the shades, and their stories are as inseparable as Odysseus' is from the shades of the heroes of the Iliad he encounters in the underworld. The heroism of the people of New Orleans (not my sorry self, but those who lost everything and came back again) is measured in part by the depths, the darkness from which they are rising up, by the ghosts they struggle to leave behind so that they can live something like the lives they had before. Only by remembering all of the horror and suffering and loss the ghosts of the flood represents can the true measure of their heroism be taken. This is what I must remember, why I must remember, why I must keep writing.

This is why the ghosts are important. That is why, after the candy is inspected and my teenage daughter recovered safely home, I will take a walk through my neighborhood and look for those reminders of the last two-plus years, for the signs of what happened. I will look for the ghosts I once felt hoovering while as far away as Fargo, N.D. or Portland, Ore., and renew the promise in what I wrote a year ago, to honor the ghosts of the flood so that they are not forgotten, but are transformed into an integral part of who and what and most importantly where we are.
We will do this to tell whoever is listening--Our Father, Oshun, Mother of God, ghosts of the Flood--we remember. We have suffered, and we will never forget the Flood and those who did not come through. We are the people who came through and came back. We remember the lost. We remember you.

When we accept and embrace this spirit, perhaps the haunting will end once and for all, will not be a permanent pall over the city, a fearful sound in the night like a howling in the wires, or an unpleasant knotting in the stomach as we pass an abandoned house. It will cease when it becomes instead like the glinting of the sun on white-washed stone above the neat green grass of the cemeteries, just another comfortable part of who we are.

Again, very well put.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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