Thursday, October 27, 2005

the next two weeks

I'm a person who has to drop out of the action of living every so often and reflect on it, to get perspective. I do that by writing in my journal. But in mid August, with the beginning of the 2005 school year, everything started moving too fast, boom boom boom, and I didn't get to write much and I didn't get perspective and suddenly I found myself, two weeks after the hurricane, trying to get a grip and feel my life. During the first two weeks there was FEMA to think about, and emails that I couldn't access except every so often, at PJ's, with the rest of the refugees. My brakes got ruined during the drive from New Orleans that Sunday so I had to have a brake job done (the man at the Texaco, Darryl, reattached my rearview mirror without even charging me for it). There were the neighbors, Patsy and her refugees and Ryan and his, and Kathy downstairs and the dog Greta who disappeared for a while after the hurricane, and all the drinking and partying on the stairs, and the Crescent Bar opening, even without electricity, so people could get booze, and waiting for the Mexican restaurant, La Carreta's, to open, like it was some kind of magic event, like when that happened somehow everything would be okay. And about how meanwhile, during this day to day attempt at normalcy and the human unfolding, New Orleans was desperate. The Superdome, the Convention Center, filled with people who'd not gotten out, and the desperation, the lack of food and water, lack of toilets, for days, and the talk of looting in the city and the burning of SAKS Fifth Avenue, and the talk of thugs with guns attempting to take the city over, commandeering vehicles. And the news was just trickling in and it was all dark, every day darker, and hearing about the city flooding and none of us knowing what was happening to our homes. And the low grade crying all the time. And having no clothes and driving to Dillards and telling the ladies what I needed and where I was from, and the sadness and compassion in their eyes, and the woman in the lingerie department fitting me for a brassiere (I hadn't brought one), which was the first time that had ever happened for me in my 52 years (and learning the little trick about leaning forward and holding the brassiere by the top edge and shaking to get the, um, flesh, in there right). And me trying to be a girl in the midst of all this, trying to live somehow normal in that sweet little town, knowing that the city was in chaos. It's like I was in two places at one time, the most tender and serious part of me in New Orleans, the survivor me in Hammond, trying to be fine.

This is from my journal:
It's the day after Labor Day. I signed up for unemployment insurance and must now look into food stamps and social security. But the main thing is I SPOKE TO TIM AND BONNIE! Tim said, "What are you going to do?" And finally, nine days after leaving New Orleans, I hear the question. And it blows my mind. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Tim made this great point that if ever there was a time for my book about Douglass High School it's now. He made the point that all those people at the Superdome and Convention Center were from the 9th ward. And that I taught in the 9th ward at Douglass in what will probably turn out to be its last year. And I wrote a book about the experience. I wish I could find a way to get on the blog site so I can update it. I know there will be people who are concerned. Another thing is that people are talking about racism, that those people on the roofs, waiting for days to be rescued, were black, from the 9th ward, from poverty, probably almost all of them, and that they were left for days on roofs. Why were they left behind? I think maybe there's something in the story of Douglass that may help explain that, the disregard these children are treated with.
It's stunning how the hurricane called everything to a halt. Where's Tanya and Ms. Simmons and Julie and Monique and Whitney? Where's Raymond? Did he get out? Did Katrina disable him? Is he trying to take care of his mother? Where's Ms. Holliday? Where is Douglass? It's like this is a cleansing for New Orleans. The murder, the crime, the poverty, the ignorance, the destitution, the way the city let the black population slip. The disregard it had for protocol, much less propriety. Plain human protocol, just following a few of the rules that keep us decent, we did not do that in New Orleans. Our laissez faire attitude, our celebration of the playful and the outlandish and the extreme, our acceptance of, hell, everything.
I have to start smiling more. I think in the recent past I'd gotten way too serious and heavy. It's probably because of that job. Which I do not have anymore. I half jokingly said, aloud even, that I halfway hoped I'd get fired in the massive layoff frenzy that was occurring before the hurricane. And now I have been, but by a hurricane. And I don't want to jump into a teaching job outside of New Orleans.
I feel like a big drop of mercury that hits the surface and scatters. Or more, like a big drop of water that hits a hot sidewalk and sizzles. I feel like the world has popped open, like a shell, and I'm an emerging bird. Oh, and I heard that there are 45,000 national guard troops in New Orleans and that a new hurricane is in the gulf. Ophelia. I hope some of my students from last year will remember who Ophelia was in the Shakespeare we read.

There's a train, open car after open car, fifty maybe, more maybe, hauling nothing but chunks of concrete, heading east toward New Orleans, the sound of it over the gaps in the track like old men harumphing, a high explosive expression of a tone, a clearing of the throat as it were, landing an octave down in a kind of resolution, a being finished with the moment. It's that sound all the way down the tracks, yard after block after mile of the journey.

Listening to the radio. On Monday it looks like some people, uptown and in the quarter, will be allowed home. I guess we can't stay, but we can at least see. I fell asleep reading The Odyssey, which David brought me yesterday. I know there's a big perspective to gain. In the near distance I hear a church playing a fake bell rendition of Rock of Ages. There's of course nothing intrinsically wrong with the music but I don't like the fact that churches try to act like those are bells, like from the old world. The woman who sold me my cellphone today was angry and adamant about the New Orleans people here, talking about how they are different, crankier, more impatient, and that a lot of them "hang around doorways." I'd been thinking of how New Orleans people would change Hammond because of our differentness but wasn't thinking about the negative things. I guess that'll happen, yes. The influx of us. Things will be different everywhere New Orleanians have settled.

Looking at the fish in the bottle on Dave's table. The Tetra. It’s a gorgeous dark red billowy thing with big fins and a spectacular tail, but it sits or floats or lies or whatever it is fish do all day alone in a clear glass bottle about the shape and size of a vase that could hold a dozen roses, with a plant growing out of it and blue glass disks layered in the bottom. It has for its companions the blue glass at the bottom, the roots from the plant, the rope around the bottle, and its little surface of air which it sips sporadically. I think it’s the height of arrogance for humans to keep fish and birds in such cages, to keep such creatures in check like that. Why does it even occur to us to keep animals bound for our pleasure? Why is it a pleasure at all? I’m sure it could be said that, at least as far as the fish go, we bred them for it. I mean, does the Siamese Fighting Fish occur in the wild? The terrible idea of lovebirds kept caged for us. Why? Why do we need to witness the spectacle of love caged? Why does anyone find that attractive? It’s some perversity in us. I’m sitting here watching the creature react to various stimulants I touch onto the glass and I think he’s full of fear and bravado. But then I remember he’s a fish and I don’t think fish have either. The thing is, it’s not a cruelty toward the fish or the bird so much as it’s a cruelty in us towards ourselves, that we could derive pleasure or satisfaction from the manipulation of an animal. That’s the terrible thing. It’s how it harms us. It’s how we show ourselves feeding a mean streak in us, perhaps us trying to reconcile ourselves with how caged we are. If we were not in this society as we are, with rules and cages of our own, would we be able to derive any kind of pleasure from seeing others in that position? Maybe that’s it, it’s a way we can come to terms with being tamed as we are by taming other creatures. Maybe it’s a way we rationalize our own lives. This makes me question whether we were ever wild. Have we ever been the sort that succumbed to allowing ourselves to be tamed? Or were we born to be tamed? Organized? Forward thinking? Rational? It seems to me more like a curse than a gift. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be thoughtless and blind, so to speak, and to follow instincts through the world, follow the messages from a designer, follow the design without question? But it seems we weren’t made like that. It seems we were made to strive, to think, to reach, to attempt to rise. It seems we could never, can never, will never really rest, that we’re born to move toward understanding, that we have to question everything, that it’s only in the rising that we’re really alive. That’s probably one of the serious issues for the kids I used to teach. They’re as filled with the human need for movement as anyone else is, but the portals out and up are closed to them. How did that happen? Do we not all share in the same human need and desire, and therefore feel compassion for our brethren? It seems we don’t. Otherwise, why would we let the things happen that we let happen? Why would we allow the kids at Douglass, for example, to remain exempt from the wider world? Is the world not big enough? Is that what we fear?
When I get back into my world I'm going to understand something I didn't understand before. I don't know what. Which adds to the wonder of it all.

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