Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ordinary Time

This AP story Katrina's Nameless Dead on efforts to identify the remaining unclaimed victims of the Federal Flood brings back an old newspaper memory, a shipping accident on the Mississippi River front in the early 1980s in the days before right Xmas that claimed several lives.

Back then I had wanted to write an editorial quoting the old hymn dedicated to those in peril on the sea. Back in those pre-Google days, the words to lyric that were not easily come by late of an afternoon in a small newsroom. Something came up in news and the column was never written. The failure to write that has always stuck with me as one of those small regrets that linger in our memory, perhaps because I recall it each year about this time and pause to think of those in peril when the rest of us sit down with family and friends to celebrate.

In the past year, in one fashion or another I have written a great deal about those whose peril is past, those I called the ghosts of the flood. A year ago, I tended to write about the lost, the thousands of missing I feared would prove to be among the ultimate toll, and referred to them routinely as the dead. I resurrected a post from fall of 2006--Citites of the Dead--this past October for All Saints Day that attempts to explain, after a fashion, this compulsion. We all go on about the problems of the living--which is certainly the right thing to do--that I sometimes think we will forget the lost.

There is some comfort that the list of the missing, and now that of the unidentified dead at St. Gabriel, grows so short. Reading this long story of the naming of the brother's Kiestutis and Peter Pranckunas brings stirs not the anger of my early posts about the lost or the unidentified dead; none of the strong words pounding like drums of alarm, a sound like that of the riding of the wild host. Instead the feeling is more one of melancholic communion, a certain quiet sadness that seems appropriate in the latter part of the darkening days.

While I still feel the flashes of anger that kept this blog alive for the last year and a half, my mood of late has been frantic activity of a very personal sort relieved by quiet reflection. It has not been the spirit of the Wet Bank Guide of the past, and so posting here has fallen off. So has the work I thought I came here to do, to be a warrior in the last battle of New Orleans. Instead, I miss a string of Mid-City and UNOP meetings to drive my young warrior to endless Tae Kwon Do classes to prepare to test for the next level of Cho Dan Bo, his junior black belt, and I don't feel particularly guilty. A warrior is impeccable, I remind myself as I search out the words of Don Juan for a friend struggling with the people the Indian sage (through Carlos Casteneda) called petty tyrants. Given the choice of my son's preparation or arguing over the dribble of recovery dollars, I think I know which is the choice of the impeccable warrior.

So I missed a month of meetings, and found myself on the short end of the elections for my neighborhood association. It's just as well, I remind myself. My new job at a local bank precludes leading any effort to create a Community Recovery Corporation. One of the other two people bumped off the list of nominees comes up to a group of us at the annual meeting/social and is clearly angry at what she sees as the high handedness of the group. I shrug and wave my empty Abita at the bartender and listen to a friend tell me of his own struggles with the idea of a new job. We discuss the cities we would pick if things don't work out here, and agree that Memphis seems a better choice that most.

I don't really look that far ahead lately. I can't see myself in Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or even Memphis, and I'm far from giving up on New Orleans. As I've said before, I'm all in on the river card for this city. I listen to my friend talk and tell him of one vision of the future of New Orleans that has come to me lately, a city that is the new Mandeville, a quaint place to live while we all commute to businesses relocated across the lake to the dry I-12 corridor, and I don't find that the worst of all possible worlds. My wife talks of where we might retire, and I imagine myself leaving the place I've struggled for the last year and a half to reach an imagine myself sitting on the on rock by the sea, admiring a piece of driftwood while the sea thunders and my ears and I think: perhaps.

For now I am here, and I have work to do. It may or may not be keeping up Wet Bank Guide, or the struggles of the rebuilding process. It will take every ounce of political acumen I can muster to suceed in my new job, and I wonder how much of that energy I can invest in the continuing battles over reconstruction. I've stolen immense amounts of time from my family and work and reasonable sleep to keep up the earlier pace of the blog, time that I can't afford to keep up indefinitely. So many stories in the last month to write about--the insanity of the LRA and UNOP, the generation's work it will take to rebuild the levees: the headlines lie folded up on the porch swing. Heading out to an office for my new job, I no longer have the leisure to read the paper for my morning break. So much I could say, but it seems I never have the time.

A friend sends me an article asking "have you seen this?", and I have to confess I had stopped reading Google News of New Orleans, was missing the articles that often spawned the postings on this blog. Partially from a sense of guilt, I click for the first time in weeks on a Yahoo link to stories tagged Hurricane Katrina, and I find there the story of the brothers Pranckunas. The ghosts of the flood, it seems, will not let me be, are the one story I can't escape.

When I write about the ghosts, about Vera Smith, the question that keeps returning is: how do I best honor them? It seems in little bits of syncronicity that they answered my query, come truly crowding about me to see if I have an answer. For now, I'm not sure. Is it virtual pamphleteering, or battling in the streets block by block to save the city like the defenders of Stalingrad? Or will I become one of the mumbling men who once haunted places like Canal Street and still do the boulevards in other big cities, handing out smeary flyers laced with rage?

As things close inward at the dark of the year, it seems a good time to slow down and figure that out. A large part of me thinks increasingly that just living a life here in New Orleans may be enough, may be the medicine for myself, for my city, and for the ghosts of the flood. I'm not as young or as fit as some bloggers out their demolishing houses or as free as others to dedicate myself to nearly full-time, on-line journalism. What I most need to do, what so many of us need to do is to find a way just to make as normal a life here as possible, and to find the time to taste all that which makes the city the place we wish to save. I read Dangerblonde's extraordinary record of the common place and I think: this is what Kiestutis and Peter Pranckunas, what Vera Smith would have wanted.

Here at the cusp of the year, at the high season of the ecclesiastical calendar, I find myself called to live in ordinary time. While I'm mostly severed from that circular calendar of purple, green and gold, I recognize that real faith isn't that of those who show up at Christmas and Easter, so much like the fans who drape themselves in black-and-gold only while the Saints win. It is the faith of ordinary time that is the most profound because it is the hardest to achieve and sustain. It requires that which has kept me from being profoundly religious all of my life: a willingness to surrender.

I think I need to surrender to New Orleans, to pay attention to living here comfortably because I think that is what will make my family more comfortable here. It means remebering that funny kind of hope I once wrote about, it means being more hopeful than angry or despairing. This little bit of surrender doesn't mean I won't find my way back here to rail against our bumbling politicians . I sat down to write inteinding a piece about the bright and hopeful mayor of Newark Cory Booker and contrasting him with You Know Who. Listen to to this NPR piece. It says it all about how ill served we are here.

What I really took away from that story--besides the tale the young man who died in his arms after a shooting at the housing project where he lives by choice--was his anecdote about the tenant council leader in his highrise project. She asked him what he saw in the neighborhood and he listed the crackhouse and the drug deladers. She told him, "the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you. If you only see problems and darkness that's all there's ever going to be. But if you're one of those people who see lightness and hope, then you can make change."

So, instead of holding our mayor to up in detailed comparison to Booker and complaining, I think what I'm going to go do is open a beer, plug in the holiday lights to drive back the darkness a bit, and listen to Bayou Christmas while I wrap a few presents for the people who mean more to me than all the rest of this city. I need to work on my faith in the simplest ways possible at a time when it's the natural thing to do, and relish the perfectly Orleanian ease of it, so I'll be ready for the challenge of keeping up the faith in ordinary time.

No need to beat yourself up, good buddy. Your previous post (obviously written before this past Sunday) singled out the Saints as examples of New Orleans warriors. Well, no Saint plays every single down. Some play offense, some play defense, others play on special teams. So just sit on the bench resplendent in your black and gold, take a swig from the water bottle, and cheer on the players on the field as we enter the fray. (Waving a sign for the TV camera reading "Hi Mom!" is optional.)

And as to the Community Development Corporation, Mid-City already has one, does it not? So see, there wasn't a need to create that, either. (I am still interested in doing one in my own adopted neighborhood nearby; the fact that I have no experience in finance whatsoever shouldn't count against me any more than Nagin's lack of experience in... oh, never mind.)

I hope to see lots of New Orleanians leading what passes for normal lives down there while I visit in a couple of weeks (less than two now!), and maybe even share in them for a time. I have no intention of spending the entire week and a half doing "warrior stuff", either!
Reading your post this morning affected me more than I can tell you. I think about the innocent lost often too. I think the itsy bitsy steps we've taken in the last 15 months toward our normal lives are a tribute to the innocent lost. I think of them often too and feel the guilt for not doing more. I'm thinking of something a friend sent me once when I was in a funk about everything...going to look for it when I get home and send it to ya.
Oh, I almost forgot: "the new Mandeville" is an intricate little turn of phrase. Remember, the name "Mandeville" connotes not only the North Shore town, but the mental institution located there that once was home to Earl K. Long.

"The new Mandeville", indeed!

Plus ca change: I distinctly recall sitting around a growing forest of empty Dixie longneck bottles and discussing where we all were going to go once we left. This was in 1991. All that has changed, it would appear, is that Memphis has entered the mix alongside Atlanta, Houston, etc.; FedEx was in its infancy then, and so Memphis wasn't that much better off, economically speaking, than we were. So in its own weird way, even that conversation is a sign that things really are getting back to normal...
Take care of yourself and your loved ones first, Mark. You cannot do much if all is not well in your heart and home.

Love your writing.
Mark...chop wood, carry water...Regards, al_bedo
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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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