Three years can pass in the blink of an eye or it can feel like an eternity. And sometimes it can feel like both at the same time, although that doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been a little over three years since our daughter got married. Three years of a basically empty nest. Three years without as much to show for it as I might have hoped yet still feeling as though it’s been jam-packed. I turned 46 this week and find myself wondering where the time has gone.
And then today…August 29th…the third anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and left a wake of destruction unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in this country. Three years already? Only three years? It feels like both. I can’t really explain that but I’ll wager that the folks whose lives were personally impacted by this disaster will understand exactly what I mean.
David and I have returned to our beloved city six times since the storm and have additional trips already planned for October and again next April. Obviously our love for the city has not been dampened (no pun intended). If anything, we’ve come to love New Orleans even more. Perhaps it’s simply because we came so close to losing it. A new-found appreciation for something or someone you think you might never see again is a common human reaction. But I think it may be something more…something deeper.
Our first trip back after the hurricane was in April 2006, a little over seven months after the nation sat glued to their televisions watching in horror as bowl-shaped New Orleans filled up with water. I remember being eager to return while at the same time, worried that “our” city would be so changed that we wouldn’t recognize it. What we found both saddened and cheered us. And it’s been the same each time we’ve returned.
Why, in God’s name, is it taking so damn long to repair certain areas? Why are there people still living in FEMA trailers? You know, the trailers so contaminated with formaldehyde that they are making the inhabitants ill? Why did it take over two and a half years to get all the street car routes operational? Why are there still vast swaths of neighborhoods which look, for all the world, like a war zone?
And yet…still…despite and in the midst of and maybe even as a result of all this despair and tragedy and what should be hopelessness, the people of New Orleans still have an indefinable spark. A certain je ne sais quois that permeates the very air of this city (along with the smells of some of the best food in the world). From the moment we exit our plane and enter the airport, David and I both feel it. There’s a vibrating, pulsating energy which is discernible even in that heavy, languid humidity. As we walk through the airport we look at each other and smile. Yep, it’s still there and it fills me with delight each and every time I experience it.
I am currently listening to the audiobook, “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert and she relates a conversation she had with someone in Rome. She’s trying to explain why, while she adores Rome, it can’t ever really be *her* city…why she doesn’t feel that she belongs there permanently. In the course of this conversation, her Italian companion shares his theory that every major city has a word that defines it and identifes most of the people who live there. If you could read people’s minds as they passed you would find most were thinking the same thought. He says the word for Rome is “sex”. Everyone is “thinking about it, dressing for it, seeking it, considering it, refusing it, making a sport and a game out of it; that’s all anybody is doing.” They decide that the word for New York City is “achieve”; the word for Los Angeles is “succeed”; and Stockholm’s word is “conform”. If your personal word lines up with that of a city you will feel at home there. If not, no matter how much you might like a certain place, it will never be your home. I’ve never been to Stockholm and while I’m sure it’s a nice enough place, I seriously doubt it could ever be *my* city, although I would like to give Rome a try.
I began to ponder what the word for New Orleans might be. I thought of several words – joy, music, food, dance – but none really seem to capture the entire essence of a city as complex as New Orleans. David and I talked about this over dinner the other night. He threw out the word, “Life” and that’s an intriguing idea. Despite the death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed, life still goes on in New Orleans. It was feeble for awhile, with an erratic heartbeat. But gradually its strength is returning and its heart now beats with a steady rhythm.
Rhythm. That’s another possibility for New Orleans’s word. As the birthplace or at least incubator of jazz and other music forms, rhythm is certainly a huge part of this city. But it’s more than the music that lends a sense of rhythm to New Orleans. There’s a sort of rhythm in the currents of the Mississippi River which curves protectively (or menacingly, depending on your view) around the city. Daily life has a rhythm in most places but it seems more pronounced in a city which wakes slowly and rather late, gradually picks up a little momentum, only to slow again in the heat of a humid afternoon, gathers its energy and then virtually explodes into a near-frenzy after the sun goes down. And we can’t forget the annual rhythm of complacency, preparation, anxiety, and then (if all goes well) gratitude which coincides with hurricane season.
I’m not completely satisfied with any of these words for New Orleans but then it’s not my job to define a city in which I don’t even live. Maybe there isn’t just one word for New Orleans. Or perhaps this whole concept, while interesting, doesn’t really have any merit at all. I don’t know, but I do think there is something to the idea that one can only feel truly at home in a place where the general vibe meshes in harmony with your own.
The past few years have been a time of self-discovery for me. I’m working on getting past my intense need to be what others want me to be or think I am. I’m peeling away the layers of expectations and pretense while searching for my real and true essence. Because I feel so completely and utterly at home in New Orleans I’ve begun to think about why that is and what it says about me and who I truly am. As I contemplate what it is about New Orleans that resonates with my very soul, I pick up clues about myself. I’m a long way from figuring it all out. I doubt I ever will understand it completely and that’s okay. But I am getting glimpses here and there. Sometimes these revelations make me go, “yes, I think I already knew that”, while others simply blow me away and challenge everything I thought I knew or understood.
Today the people of New Orleans and those who love her remember what happened three years ago. We grieve for what was lost and rejoice in what remains. New Orleans was dealt a terrible blow three years today…a blow that brought her to her knees but couldn’t knock her out. As I write this, Hurricane Gustav is heading toward the Gulf Coast where residents are collectively holding their breath, hoping and praying they will not experience a repeat of what happened almost exactly three years ago. I trust that they know there are others in this country who are hoping and praying right along with them.