Ode to New Orleans

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This is a personal essay. I do not pretend to speak for all the people of New Orleans, many of whom live lives very different from mine. I have visited New Orleans for long periods of time ever since I was a child, and I lived there from 1967 to 1977. Since I moved away I have come back to visit many times each year and owned a condominium 90 miles away in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which was flooded by the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina. Many people that I love live in New Orleans. My youngest son lives there, as does my oldest grandson and all three of my redheaded granddaughters. The fate of the city is part of my fate.

Most of my family left before the storm came, but they left at the last minute, taking nothing with them but a few clothes, although a farsighted daughter-in-law did spend an hour collecting portraits of her parents and grandparents. She is an only child and cherishes such things more than most of us do. Or else she was just more prescient.

For as long as I have been visiting or living in New Orleans, the natives, black and white, rich and poor, highly educated and barely educated, have refused to leave the city when there are hurricane warnings. They have drunken parties and fill bathtubs with water and meet at crowded grocery stores to buy flashlight batteries and canned food and talk about hurricanes they have “weathered” and where the mayor is “riding it out” and how much they hope the pumping stations will keep working, although no one I knew had ever been to see a pumping station or understood how they worked. Let the good times roll.

Cities are like families: The inhabitants have common ways of being. In New Orleans riding out hurricanes is how you tell the natives from the arrivistes from less cosmopolitan places like Alabama and Mississippi.

I am from Mississippi, so I always heeded the hurricane warnings. I would throw my children into my old Rambler station wagon and drive up to Jackson to visit my parents. “Tornadoes will follow you to Jackson,” everyone always yelled after me. “Nothing’s going to happen here. It never does.”

The Best and Worst of Times

No one—except weather forecasters and climatologists, whom New Orleanians are practiced at ignoring—ever dreamed a category 5 hurricane would actually come ashore and bring a flood in its wake. No one believed the canal levees would break and take back land New Orleanians jokingly brag about as being below sea level, as if they are above the laws of gravity and motion and such concerns as sea levels.

New Orleanians are Roman Catholics and Orthodox and Reform Jews. They are French and Spanish and have exotic names like Rafael and Gunther and Thibodaux and Rosaleigh. They are African and Voodoo and have built Protestant churches with choirs that rival the Mormon Tabernacle. They have survived yellow fever and malaria in the 1800s and found ways to kill the mosquitoes and control the Mississippi River with levees so high and wide you can drive cars on top of them.

“There are the levees and the pumping stations to protect us,” they used to tell me. “Hurricanes never hit New Orleans. (Well, there was Betsy.) They always turn back to the east before they make landfall. The city will be all right. Besides, we can’t leave. We have to stay and take care of the house, the pets, the store. Momma doesn’t want to leave.”

So when large numbers of men and women, most of whom are educated and can read and had working vehicles and could call someone to take them out of town, elected not to leave New Orleans after their mayor gave them a mandatory evacuation order, I was not surprised.

I know the place and the people.

What happened next was both dazzling and embarrassing. The dazzling part was the way thousands of men and women risked their own health and safety to come to the aid of the people who were stranded when the levees failed—the doctors and nurses of Tulane Medical Center and Charity Hospital who worked without electricity, food, or sleep to save patients; courageous individuals who brought in boats and launched personal rescue operations in fetid water; and my favorite student in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who took a three-week leave of absence to go to New Orleans with her helicopter rescue unit.

The embarrassing part was when people started blaming the disaster on hard-working people like Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Hurricanes are caused by weather patterns on the oceans. They might as well have blamed the oceans, or the coast of Africa where the storms began, or the islands in the Caribbean that didn’t take the blow before it swept into the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleanians suffered a great loss, and there is much remorse and guilt for not being prescient. But that is how it always is with the human race in times of disaster. The cerebral cortex is only a hundred thousand years old. We aren’t yet smart enough to heed warnings and stop blaming other people when, really, we are mad at ourselves.

I hope the next time there is a mandatory evacuation order more people will leave the city, but if there are several false alarms, this laudable behavior will wear thin. The climate in New Orleans is not good for sustained logical thinking. The early mornings are tropical and fragrant, full of promise, the best coffee in the world, and beautiful people wearing soft white clothing and sandals. No wonder everyone wants to return.

A New New Orleans

Late in May of 2006, I visited the city for five days and found myself caught up in the fun and beauty of the place. Only nine months after that terrible disaster and already people were starting to bloom like the azaleas and cape jasmine and honeysuckle that perfume the air. There is much talk everywhere about Katrina cottages and lawsuits against insurance companies and being in limbo about whether to rebuild.

The tools needed to build a new New Orleans are patience, discipline, gratefulness, concentration, dedication, and imagination. The same tools we learn in yoga. Anger, fear, and greed are the enemies of getting anything done. Of course all the goodwill and work in the world won’t help if another huge storm hits the city before the levees are rebuilt. A stalled storm front would cause worse flooding than Katrina did. So much depends on the weather, but this is life on planet Earth. We have always been subject to the will of the heavens, although some of us have been lucky to live in a time and a place where we could forget that for a while.

I’ve decided that the best thing to do about New Orleans with its hurricanes and floods and improbability is to sit in zazen and be glad the place is there and that I have been privileged to know it. I’m going to hang new prayer flags in my cherry trees in honor of the city of New Orleans and the courage and the beauty of its many-colored people.

If I go back to worrying about the always-uncertain future and the precariousness of human life, I will read The Storm, by Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. Van Heerden says if we don’t get to work and construct state-of-the-art levees and wetlands protection, water will eventually take back all the land to Interstate 10, which would be the end of New Orleans as we know it.

When I get through meditating and putting up prayer flags, I’d better start writing and calling my congressmen and remind them they have work to do.

Critically acclaimed author Ellen Gilchrist won the National Book Award in 1984 for Victory over Japan: A Book of Stories. She currently teaches creative writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Arkansas. Gilchrist took her first yoga class in New Orleans more than 30 years ago.

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