The night before Hurricane Katrina happened, I journaled in Carl’s bedroom with the door closed. He sat in the other room, likely watching “West Wing” or some other show we were into at the time.
Earlier in the day, I’d seen news of the storm broadcast on television. Images of people lined up outside the Superdome haunted me. People of color filled those lines. Although I had witnessed some racism in the South, I had never before seen such a powerful symbol of inequity. I know I sound naïve right now. But the 24-year-old I was knew little of the systems that supported and perpetuated racism. These images nauseated me. I wrote to relieve myself. I wrote in a fever.
I turned off the lights. I lit a candle because I had a sense that this moment was a liminal one. I needed to ritualize it. This was one of the few times in my life that I’ve written without being aware of myself writing. My hand moved a pen across paper. Words came. I have no memory of conceptualizing them.
I wrote about a scale of destruction rarely seen in modern memory. I wrote about an unimaginable loss of life. I wrote about the evisceration of land. When I finished writing, sobs rolled through me. I opened the door and walked into the room where Carl sat watching TV, and I wept.
I am not psychic. But that night I opened a space inside myself where I could touch my own grief. I was writing about other people, and my worst fears. I was also writing about myself. I was writing about a place I had been.
After my mother died, I lost the only homes I ever knew. I lost my first home, my mother.
I lost the home where she raised me.
Touching my own grief made it possible for me to touch the grief that was coming, the grief I knew countless people would soon experience. I could no longer deny my sorrow or theirs. I had to see sorrow as an unavoidable, necessary condition of our humanity.
When Katrina happened, I worked as a religion reporter in northern Louisiana, in a city whose homes, churches, and shelters quickly filled with evacuees. It felt like every reporter at the newspaper worked overtime after Katrina.
I visited multiple shelters, including a makeshift one in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I visited a hospital, where two women who went into labor during the evacuation gave birth. One woman, white, told me her house hadn’t flooded and that her family was fortunate. They would be okay, she said, noting the safety nets of her own race and education privilege.
The other, a woman of color, lost everything, including all the gifts she had received for a baby shower the week before. She looked dazed. Like she had just landed on another planet.
Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita happened. I worked during the hurricane, which could be felt in northern Louisiana.
As the storm made landfall, I drove limb-strewn roads to visit a church full of bikers who’d evacuated. I wrote about them. I did my best to stay dry.
August and September 2005 were the most traumatic months of my career. But I can remember little about that time, just as I can remember little about the immediate weeks following my mother’s death.
Sometimes I want to remember. Sometimes I want to forget.
The Presbytère in New Orleans has an exhibit right now called “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.” I visited last week.
If you are in New Orleans right now, or are going to be in the near future, you must visit this exhibit. It is among the most powerful museum experiences I have ever had, on par with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but on a much smaller scale.
As I walked the exhibit’s rooms, watched footage of the storm surge, felt wind from fans blowing on my face, and looked at a mud-caked Teddy bear retrieved from a flooded home, tears welled. There was so much I did not remember. By retrieving and documenting collective memory, the museum brought me back to the emotional state I had worked so hard to forget.
By witnessing the pain of others, I returned to my own.
The story culture tells about grief often ends with redemption. A life restored. A city rebuilt on a pile of ashes.
I like to pretend I rebuilt my life after my mother died. I even used that word –– rebuilt –– in my last post.
The truth is that this story erases pain by creating a false narrative that goes like this: something lost, something gained. This story implies a gain cancels out a loss.
The truth is that I have lived two different lives. I have the life with a mother. I have the life without her. The after life does not replace the before life. It is not a substitute. It is a life I am grateful for and one I would trade in heartbeat if she could sit here next to me.
The New Orleans of 2017 is not the New Orleans of 2005. Yes, real estate prices have soared in the city. Yes, there are more restaurants now. Yes, people are vacationing there. I’m living proof of that phenomenon.
But the poverty is extreme, and we were panhandled more on this trip than we’ve ever been in all our time in New Orleans.
I gave $10 to a woman on the street even though every inch of my body suspected she would use that money for drugs. When she looked into my eyes and told me she was starving, I could not say “no.” I did something I almost never do. I opened my purse, then my wallet, and I handled her my crumpled bills. This seemed like the most honest thing I could do, to choose not to turn away.
Sometimes I can still be naive as the 24-year-old who moved to the Louisiana delta with two suitcases and a used Toyota. I can also be wiser than her, more self aware.
I know now that when I turn toward another’s pain, I am turning toward myself. I am recovering something of what I’ve lost.