Yesterday, Mardi Gras, I wore a feather headdress and rode my bike through all parts of New Orleans. I crashed a party in an elegant apartment on Jackson Square; I danced to Brazilian street beats in the Marigny; I talked to an entourage of South African Zulu dancers who came to perform because they were “very touched by the tragedy here, and wanted to help to the spirit.” There was great joy, relief, and beauty in the day. But Carnival means carnevale, goodbye to the flesh.
Today is Ash Wednesday, a holy day meant to remind us of the "transitory nature" of our time in this earthly realm. As if New Orleanians hadn’t already learned the lesson.
Today I woke up to the six-month marker—half a year has passed since Katrina, That also means every day after this brings us closer to the peak of the next hurricane season. One man in a brown suit and wig yesterday on Frenchman Street held this sign: “It’s not the Hell, it’s the Limbo.” Now that the floats have passed and the confetti is no longer flying, we New Orleanians have come back to our reality, which is limbo, suspended animation.
For weeks in my walks through the city, I have been noticing the PODS, as in “Portable On Demand” storage boxes. A few days later, a "For Rent" or "For Sale" sign often appears on the same lawns. That doesn’t mean decisions were made: PODS don’t convey the certainty of moving vans.
If you hire a Mayflower Truck, you know where you are going. POD people can’t decide. After great catastrophe, shared trauma, everybody tells his story. I know some of my neighbors are leaving for now with their spouses, who have found work elsewhere. Some are selling damaged shells and moving into smaller places, still in the city. Some are removing possessions from houses that need renovation, but they aren’t rebuilding yet. Some couples are separating over the strain, so half the household is going in the POD. Some are throwing off a satellite—an efficiency apartment, a camp on higher ground. In case--in case the levees aren’t fixed before the next biblical flood.
We Americans put store by self-determination: it is awful to have so much out of our hands. But we still wait: For news about the levees’ progress. For FEMA maps to tell us what elevations to raise our homes to. For the final “buy-out plan”–a scheme to use federal monies so homeowners with great losses can move on. For solutions for those still in the diaspora who need housing and help. For workers to return so businesses can stay open. For the mayoral election. Even for FEMA trailers, symbols of long-term indeterminacy.
There are emotional calculations—how much aggravation are we willing to put up with to remain in or to return to the city? We want to get a feel for the future: What kind of place is this "Re-New Orleans" going to be? Awful extremes have been posited: “Detroit South” or “Disneyworld on the Mississippi,” or “New Orleans National Park.”
But emotions are not steady. Being ungrounded makes us susceptible to big mood swings. We feel moments of elation—a while back, Wynton Marsalis played his trumpet and said we could save the city without destroying what was great about it. He played his music in the classic order of the jazz funeral—"The St. James Infirmary," the dirge, and "Over in the Glory Land," the rejoicing second line. People were weeping with joy. Or yesterday, when families were out in force for the Zulu and Rex parades, and it was clear the hearts in this city can take anything. But later, those highs seem like the last beautiful flares of a dying ember.
Images of the loss are ever-present. Not long ago in the Lower 9th Ward, a woman visiting from the diaspora showed me her kitchen clock still attached to its post—but that post was leaning in a pile of rubble. Her house had come off its piers and sailed across the road in the wind and flood. She was showing me the exact moment when the life she had known stopped. It has not begun again.
We feel as if it's hopeless when a U.S. senator asks victims in their ruined home why anyone would want to live "below sea level." And we are despondent when a comprehensive congressional bill meant to solve homeowners’ financial woes was denounced by the White House. Then, just as the depression has started to color everything, the doubting senator (Ted Stevens of Alaska) becomes our champion, the White House and the governor come up with a buy-out plan, and federal funding looks more certain. Everyone I know reads the paper from front to back each morning, just looking for signs. So they can find their own way out of the limbo.
I moved here because I wanted to raise my children in a diverse and non-suburban environment, where differences and creativity were celebrated. I loved the fact that the city respects it past, its rituals, its characters, its clubs, and most of all, its artists: writers, musicians, painters, chefs, dancers, artists of life itself.
The Big Easy is by no means easy, never was—that’s a pose the city concocted to handle the difficulties of life here. Racial strife, boom and bust economic cycles have always been part of the story. But the wild ride has never been wilder than it is now.
We are like sea creatures that have molted, floating over a mass of debris and ruin, waiting for our new shells to form. Like the original Pod People in the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” we are hoping to be re-embodied, reborn.
In all of this, though, I see some hope. I think it could be a glorious place, the city that these stripped-bare souls could inspire, once they get back and settle in. After this catastrophe, after all, we know what matters: we know how much we need racial cooperation, how much we need our neighbors, our institutions, our shopkeepers, our leaders, our faith, our music, our art, our celebrations.
I have never appreciated Carnival as much, or talked openly to so many kinds of people during the festivities. I have never felt more directly the meaning of its spiritual lesson: that physical life is transient, that the soul is what matters.
We have been shown that this post-Katrina rebirth cannot just be about real estate, or money, or ground, or water.
A city is a collective being, an aggregate of souls. Sometimes I get the feeling we have been through this hell so we will be ready to embrace a new kind of urbanity. Something inspiring, and communal, diverse, creative, and rich, embodying New Orleans’ highest potential. Given the anxiety we live with day to day, I ask myself: What would be the point of hanging on to breathe new life into anything less?