Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ship of Fools

"Ship of fools
on a cruel sea
Ship of fools
sail away from me"
-- Robert Hunter,
"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

Are we crazy to be here, or crazy because we're here? For everyone who is struggling with their insurer, their contractors, their family and their very sanity, should we all be taking Robert Hunter's advice and not raise out flag upon a ship of fools?

That's the advice that a commenter named Jill gives to Metroblogger Craig Giesecke on his post I've got to get a-waaaaay.... ", in which he candidly discusses his own struggles with life here and his wife's depression. In spite of his troubles Giesecke quickly responds that they have no plans to leave the support network of friend and family that offers their best hope.

As someone who is all in on the river card, I desperately wanted to jump into the fray, to say: no, don't go, that's not the answer. I did not. I was not here before the flood, not for 20 years. I didn't suffer the losses people like Craig and his wife suffered, and I am not plagued by the demons haunting the people who staid or returned quickly, and found all of their worldly possessions in ruins. Anything I might say is probably just rationalization of my own decision to come. I kept silent.

Then I read a reply post by Jack Ware Humanity, you never had it to begin with. about his own struggles and how he handles them, mostly by keeping busy on working on the home he has purchased. But he also spoke about his own relationship to people in the last year, about how difficult we have all become. I thought there was a common thread to the entire discussion that was being glossed over in the stay-or-go debate, and the discussion of the state of people in post-flood depression that don't have Chris Rose's insurance plan. I began a reply, partly to Ware and party to Giesecke (both of whom I know only through their writings), which became so long I decided to finish it here.

Ware says at one point:

In philosophy there's something called Phenomenology and Phenomenology leads to Ontology where there are all kinds of things, including identity (if you like math) and (my favorite lately) the Ship of Theseus. New Orleans is essentially a contemporary Ship of Theseus. And most of the people I know that are having a particularly hard time living here now are wrestling with this metaphysical question (identity vs. the Ship of Theseus) whether they realize it or not. Framing the question in this way made things much easier on me...

The Ship of Theseus (if you didn't follow the link) was a venerated icon of ancient Greece that was kept by constantly repaired until not a stick of the original remained. The question the Greeks philosophers could not help asking: was what remained truly the Ship of Theseus? The answer for New Orleans is yes. The city I left in 1986 was not the city of my childhood. The city I returned to last Spring was neither the city of my childhood nor that of 1986. All are recognizably New Orleans.

While the city is a product of its landscape as much as any other place, New Orleans is only partially about place in a geographical or architectural sense. What really makes it the city we love is the people of the place and how we live together (or fail to live together). Where or what we eat or drink together is not as important as that we do. The musician and the club we hear them in is not as important as the music, and that we are all there hearing it together.

The flood uprooted the shared social space that is New Orleans, the complex set of personal connections that truly make up the city of Orleanians (as opposed to the stage set by the river). Almost everyone was forced out of their home and into a new one. Those who were not saw their sliver neighborhoods transformed by a influx of new comers. The displaced who returned found most friends and neighbors somewhere other than where they have left them, some far away with no immediate prospect to return. In the midst of all of this confusion, some who stayed or returned have decided to leave. The city has undergone a displacement of people not seen in the developed world since post-WWII Europe.

All those who remain suffer not from the loss of a favorite restaurant, or the one-way flight of a favorite musician. They suffer because that social web, the very few degrees of separation and a common sense of ourselves as Orleanians, the very fabric of the place is torn and frayed by the flood. That damage to our social environment is why Ware finds solace in the solitude of working on his house.

Giesecke's reply to Jill, that he and his wife will not choose to leave for fear of losing their support network of friends and family, however disrupted it may be, says it all. I said I would stay out of their problem, but I can't resist suggesting that is a good choice. You cannot heal the profound psychic wound so many have by leaving, any more than you could save a severed finger by going to the emergency room but leaving the finger behind.

The backdrop of our lives, the homes still bearing the rescue marks with little sign of work, the continually sprouting debris piles, the businesses not returned that we all relied upon: all of these will be bearable until we can make them whole again (or as whole as our aging city ever was) if we can heal the real damage to ourselves as a community. It can all be borne if enough of us return and stay, to support each other, if enough of us willingly accept our new neighbors like the old, and recognize that they are one of us: the self-elect who have chosen to come home.

Evacuating to the community of exiles in some distant city, however clean and efficient, will not heal the loss. Expatriation would be a purgatory of longing and of guilt. I know that place of longing. I lived their for most of two decades. And I know the new torture of guilt, the profoundly empathic survivor's guilt that possessed me after August 29 of 2005. It is in large part why I am home. If you are contemplating throwing in the towel, consider this: no matter how wonderful the place you land, it will never quite be home. The places I spent the last decade were wonderful places to live and raise a family, but I connected closely to no one. There was something missing about the people and the way they lived, something that led me to speak of emigrating from New Orleans to the United States.

It might be easier for someone to leave now, to find a community of like exiles in Austin or inside the Houston beltway, people from home to whom it would be easy to connect. I don't believe such an evacuation would cure anyone of the profound depression and despair they feel. I think it would at first mask it, but in the long term compound it. Every gathering of the exiles would start happily with drinks and food, but I know the sort of people we are. Soon we would talk of the last meal in New Orleans, someone would say 'remember when' of some party at home. Everyone would look around at their new comrades, and think of the people who were not there, of those scattered or left behind. Its hard to imagine any such parting ending in anything but sadness, even if masked by desperately drunken gaiety.

I understand the temptation to give up. New Orleans was never an easy place to live. Simple things people take for granted elsewhere were always dicey or difficult here (as my wife will likely never stop reminding me). The flood has compounded that many times over. Still, if we all slowly trickle away in despair then the chance of a future homecoming, the prospect that kept me going through my years away, will diminish with every one who leaves. Our Ship of Theseus will become a collection of planks and not the artifact of our collective imaginations, of our will to be the people we believe ourselves to be. There will be no coming home.

Perhaps we are a ship of fools, but it took a certain amount of foolishness to choose to live here before the flood, a foolishness that paraded through poverty and now through rubble, that celebrates the transformation of death in the same way we celebrate all the other miletones of life, a foolishness like that of the tarot card figure the Fool that is nothing like that of the dunce cap.

I have come home, rejecting Robert Hunter's caution, and boarded the ship of fools. I did so because I think this the sanest place in America, one of the few where there is some balance between the demands of Moloch and the need to be human, both as an individual and as a part of a true community. The real ship of fools is the rest of the country, drifting into cultural civil war and an economic death spiral of greed. As I've said before, if we can't save New Orleans, then I have little hope for saving America, and I'd just assume spend the twilight years of America here, among friends.

My text for today is not Hunter's Ship of Fools, but Box of Rain. It is not a New Orleans song, but it is the one that cues up in my head whenever it all gets to0 hard or too weird, because the image of a box of rain is such a perfect New Orleans image. And it speaks to me of why I'm here, why I think we're all Here.

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams to another land
Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted with words
half spoken and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through?
A a box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through.

Just a box of rain -wind and water -
Believe it if you need it,
if you don't just pass it on
Sun and shower -Wind and rain -
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

Nola needs more posts like this one. (Although no one says it like you!) You have a way of putting into words what I feel and cannot articulate. THIS is the kind of writing that persuades, encourages and unites. All the ranting and raving and finger-shaking posts just divide.
Thank you for a wonderfully poignant post, brutha!
Thanks, Mark for flagging these posts. I don't read the Metblogs regularly anymore and would've probly missed these fine posts.

Luckily, I do read you regularly-- and for good reason. You incorporate two fine posts into a great one of your own.

Like Craig says to Jack in the comments, "we need to get a beer". Absolutely!
Excellent post, Mark. But for myself, I can't call out anyone who decides to call it quits. It's just too hard, I can see that, and I'm not even living there now.
Wonderful piece! A insightful look at the un-realities all of us face here, and the solutions that some must chose.

You eloquently put your finger on the heart of New Orleans, as usual. Thank you.
Six years away and I still haven't made a connection with anyone like I have with my friends in New Orleans. We have shared so many common experiences (which are part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans and which are designed for that purpose) that it is hard to be away. Nola, despite all its scabs and wounds and decay, had the concept of community. Yeah, we're all different during the day but on some special days we are all equal. We are together. That's why Mardi Gras works there and no where else in America. We understand. It's a party for us. If we screw it up, we all lose. So we work for the common good and keep an eye out for each other. Not so much every where else.
This post tears me up. I have been trying to convince my wife to move back with me, but she won't have it. At least not yet.
Keep up the good work.
Excellent post.
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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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