Category Archives: New Orleans

Turning Toward Our Pain

 

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.

 

Angel of Grief

I have the good fortune to spend a few weeks in New Orleans this summer. This city feels like home to me, even though I have never lived there. I am drawn to New Orleans for the same reason I am drawn to “Hamlet.” The entire city is a living, breathing memento mori.

Also, there’s another reason. And here it is: My mother dreamed of visiting New Orleans. But she died before she had a chance to make the trip.

One of the reasons why my mother loved New Orleans is because she loved Anne Rice. She wanted to tour St. Louis Cemetery No. I, site of the Vampire Lestat’s empty tomb. She wanted to take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, the way the vampires did in the movie that came out when I was in middle school. She wanted to have her Tarot cards read in Jackson Square.

I moved to Louisiana two years after my mother died.

But I lived in the northern part of the state, a region populated by Baptists and Pentecostals. The fastest way to get to New Orleans was to drive through Mississippi, and even that was a four-hour drive.

Still, I went whenever I could. When I met Carl, he went with me. He keeps going back with me. If I wanted to, he would go every year.

We don’t do that. But each time we visit New Orleans, it feels like a new experience, like I am seeing the city for the first time. Like I am seeing it through my mother’s eyes.  I take none of this for granted. I know how much even one trip would have meant to her.

I keep going back because I can, and because she cannot.

_____

A few weeks ago, I started working on an essay about the iconography of grief. It’s a hard essay to write, one that forces me to confront truths I would prefer to ignore. It’s an essay where I need to reveal aspects of my life around which I feel tremendous shame. It’s an essay where I disclose something that embarrasses me deeply.

I have a draft of the essay completed. I know the essay’s bones. I know its themes and title. But there is too much exposition. Not enough scene. The ending does not work. No ending I have drafted works.

This is because I’m holding back. A part of the essay’s story terrifies me. And I am not as brave as I want to be.

Sometimes I think writing should be easier than it is. But writing is the hardest emotional work I have ever done. It demands honesty. If I am being dishonest, I know it. And the reader does to.  Right now, I’m not ready to be fully honest. So the essay is suffering.

When I get stuck in an essay like this one, I am full of negativity and self-doubt. I do not see all the progress I have made. I focus on what I have not yet done. I worry I will never finish.

Fortunately, research helps me get unstuck. New Orleans has become the focus of my research.  I know I will finish the essay there.

_____

Another idea that this essay engages is how grief can haunt our bodies.

My body is haunted by my mother’s illness and death. This haunting manifests in certain odd behaviors I enact with my body, as well as an autoimmune disease that binds me to her in a strange and familiar way.

In New Orleans, I feel at home because grief is inscribed on this city, on its body.

_____

After Hurricane Katrina, Day-Glo orange and yellow “X-codes” appeared on a majority of the city’s structures. The X-codes documented a FEMA crew’s search and rescue efforts. The number of people found alive or dead was written at the bottom of each X.

We saw the Xs when we drove down for the first Jazz Fest after the storm. I gasped when I saw them. For me, each X held an apocalyptic power. The symbol evidenced a biblical level of human suffering and endurance. Pain that could not be erased. Or so I thought.

Now many people have painted over their Xs. Or the houses that once bore them have been replaced.

Some artists and academics have documented the Xs and the stories they tell. A few Xs may even remain more than 10 years after the storm, a distant echo of its roar.

I plan to find them during my visit.

_____

I like to enter New Orleans from the west. Interstate 10 takes you past Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery (known as simply as Metairie Cemetery), and you can see its marble tombs and mausoleums rising alongside the road.

I’ve toured other cemeteries in New Orleans, but have never visited Metairie Cemetery. As part of my research, I will visit the cemetery this summer. I’m drawn to the Angel of Grief, also known as the Weeping Angel, located in Chapman Hyams’ monument.

Hyams was a prominent New Orleans businessman, and the statue he commissioned is a copy of the 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story, the same sculpture that marks Story’s grave in Rome. Copies of the statue exist throughout the world, but Hyams’ statue is the only one in New Orleans.

Although it is not an official tourist site, Metairie’s Angel of Grief attracts visitors each year, some of whom have documented their journeys online.

For me, the statue is a pilgrimage site, and I suspect other visitors may agree.

I am compelled by the angel’s body stooped in grief. One arm bends beneath her forehead, while the other one hangs down. I read desperation in her posture. Animal vulnerability. I read myself into her pose.

When I learned my mother had died, I fell to the ground.

Sometimes, I think I’m still there.

But that is a half-truth. After my mother died, I rebuilt my life in Louisiana. Each time I visit, I am farther removed from my mother. I am farther removed from the person I was when I lost her.

This does not mean I am okay with the loss, just as the city of New Orleans is not okay that Hurricane Katrina happened.

It means I’ve learned to live around the loss, or in spite of it. But there’s a part of me that will never be the same.

In New Orleans, I do not have to hide.

Galatoires 2012.jpg

Me at my favorite NOLA restaurant Galatoire’s in 2012. Don’t let the Bourbon Street address fool you, Galatoire’s is a classy joint.