I’ve always had an affinity for New Orleans. Its history, its culture, its music, its food, its insistence that if we’d remember that life is for living, not just hard work, then maybe we’d all be enjoying the ride a bit more. For 20 years now, I’ve known that some day, I’d go there and immerse myself in it all. Laissez les bon temps rouler and I’d roll with it and be home.
These days, I am heartbroken.
I search out the news and get more and more angry and more and more sad. New Orleans, the city of my heart, is devastated. The Gulf Coast region is devastated. People are attempting to find meaning in the meaningless by blaming the victim: Katrina was god’s comment on the acceptance of gays or a cleansing of “sin city” and those stories make me angrier and sadder. Tales of divine vengeance don’t help in times like these, except to serve as a balm for our collective pain – if they brought it on themselves, I don’t have to feel so bad. I can wash my hands of it, I can pass the stranger in the ditch and do nothing, because after all, he deserves his life, his home, his family, his community destroyed.
The contrast between the words and images of horrible conditions and my life is jarring. My uncle is here for his annual visit, I’ve just had a birthday that’s still being celebrated, the weather is perfect late-summer – not too hot, not too cold yet - there are children growing in my sister’s belly and life is… better. Much better than it used to be and certainly better than the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been shattered. The emotional whiplash is constant, dizzying and makes my head and heart hurt. I am tempted to close my eyes, to make things more comfortable for myself.
Yet I watch and read the news compulsively, carrying the stories and images with me, my way of sharing the pain. I can do almost nothing, in a concrete way. I know of a family that just got larger when they took in displaced loved ones and I will send them a cheque. But it is such a small drop in such a large bucket and I feel utterly helpless.
I am aware that I am living through history and that future generations will read about these days and wonder what would have happened if the levee repair had been funded or if help had been ready when they knew it was coming and dispatched immediately when Katrina blew out. Just as we now judge governments around the world for ignoring the genocide in Rwanda, the future will judge us, for better or worse, for our response to this, to the tsunami, to Africa dying from AIDS.
How do you find a balance between lending your ear and heart to suffering, yet living your own life and not going ‘round the bend? The temptation to withdraw into the mundane details of the everyday nags at me. It asks me if I have to feel bad about this – I have things to do, a life to lead, deadlines to meet, people to love, groceries to buy. And I tell myself that I do. I do have to feel this bad. If I don’t, if we lucky ones don’t watch, ask questions, demand action and remember, indifference will make it disappear.
So I bear witness.
And I remember New Orleans and laissez les bon temps rouler and live my life, as well.