therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “New Orleans”

Letter to New Orleans

Jesus Mary Flag dpi1Dear New Orleans: you took me in. At a time when you were still so bruised, splintered, fractured, frayed, and I showed up with nothing to offer except my eyes, ears, a pen and a notebook—you pretended you could use me. Don’t hurry away, you said. Stay awhile.

I couldn’t stay a while; I had teenagers back home. But I could and did return six times. My husband had something more to offer: his camera. What I did was to try to help him tell, not the story, but A story, a small story we happened to stumble across, about what happened to New Orleans, ten years ago this week.

the churchOur small story was about the post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding of a church that is home to both New Orleans’ deaf Catholics and a Spanish-speaking congregation in a neighborhood layered with immigrant history. Creole, German and Italian-American carpenters, plumbers and skilled volunteers of every description showed up to help. Many of them had grown up down the block. Many had lost their own homes to Katrina. Volunteers from out of town, including a Seattle crew, were there too. Our small story became a documentary film called The Church on Dauphine Street. Dauphine_cover #1One of the first places it aired was on the New Orleans PBS station, WYES, whose studios had been badly damaged by Katrina. When we asked if the station wanted to air it again in honor of the tenth anniversary of the hurricane, they declined, saying people in New Orleans are trying hard to look forward right now, not back.

I get that. We made our first trip to New Orleans in April 2006, just a month after my mother died. My grief was still raw. One of the first things I wrote in my journal about New Orleans, which I had never before visited, was this: “Oh Mom, you would’ve loved New Orleans. Because it feels so much like another country.” My mother loved to travel. And I remember vividly the moment I stepped off the plane in Louisiana, the smell of cooking fires mixed with hot, humid air instantly reminded me of Haiti, where Mom and I had both been, two decades earlier, to visit my sister in the Peace Corps.

This is another world, I thought. And another world is what I need right now.

flood damage#1As we drove into the city, I shook off that swoon. This other world I had entered was a whole landscape of grief, gaping and gashed. Why did I smell cooking fires? How many homes were still without gas or electricity? It had been eight months since Katrina. Reminders of death and loss were everywhere—in the spray-painted numbers on empty houses; in makeshift memorials; in the eery silence of block after empty block.

By 2010, when I last visited, many—but certainly not all—of those destroyed blocks had been cleared away. But five years later, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is far from ready to pronounce his city fully healed. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Landrieu said, quote: “Communities have to find a way to get stronger, and Katrina showed us we’re not as resilient as we need to be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

I feel lucky to have witnessed one story of New Orleans getting stronger. And lucky to have been a part of it, at a time when I needed to get stronger.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Seattle: Saturday, August 29 at Seattle University. 

HBBfinalcoverJoin me on Tuesday, September 1 at 10:30 a.m. for “The Accidental Advocate,” a talk at Horizon House, 900 University Street, Seattle. Admission is free. 

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

 

 

Conned

 Seven years ago this month, much of New Orleans was under water. Hurricane Katrina remains the great before-and-after for that city and it is still making headlines. The latest big Katrina news: a lawsuit filed by homeowners against the Army Corps of Engineers and one of its contractors that is finally, after seven long years, getting its day in court. The suit asserts the Corps and the contractor were responsible for the levee failure that flooded thousands of homes.

I just finished Dave Eggers’ fine non-fiction book about what one Syrian-American family endured after Katrina. It’s called Zeitoun, named for the title character, a father and business owner who rescues and helps people in the days following Katrina, only to be imprisoned on a bogus burglary charge. I was going to recommend this book to you. Now I’m not so sure. Turns out Zeitoun is in jail again, this time charged with assaulting and then conspiring to kill his ex-wife. They divorced earlier this year. I couldn’t believe it when I read it: the hero, the family man, who endured wrongful imprisonment and tried so hard not to let it enrage or embitter him, in jail on a charge like this?

I felt so sad, stunned, angry.  And conned. I know that wasn’t the intention of Zeitoun or Eggers (who is channeling book profits into a foundation to help rebuild New Orleans), but I feel that way just the same: like I believed one thing about a person, only to find out he was someone else.

Just as I felt conned reading about Lance Armstrong, who has become so adept at not quite admitting anything. Armstrong says he, quote, “won’t fight” the doping charges against him anymore, even thought it may cost him all of his bicycling titles and trophies. I’ve heard arguments on both sides of his story, but either way, I feel conned, either by him or by his accusers, and either way, I don’t like it, any more than I like knowing I was moved by the story of a man who may turn out to be the sort of man who would try to get someone to kill his ex-wife.

I also did not like how I felt about Bill Clinton when he lied about Monica Lewinsky.

But what I really like, least of all? –is knowing how awful it feels to lie. Most of us learn early we can’t live with any lie we ever tell for very long. Which is why I’m so stunned by people who can sustain large lies for lengthy periods of time. Why they are willing to risk the trust of—in Armstrong or Clinton’s case—the millions of people who believe in them. Didn’t they feel awful, doing that to people? Don’t they get how much human beings hate to feel conned?

Seven years ago in New Orleans, the outrage was not about a hurricane. It was about the levees: All New Orleans felt conned by the Corps. And it was about FEMA, and the insurance companies, and all the other con artists people had to deal with in the weeks, months, years following Katrina.

It will take some time for this new, sorry chapter in the story of Zeitoun to unfold. It will take time for Lance Armstrong to start over. Maybe he’ll be as resilient as Bill Clinton, whose finest post-presidential hour just might be his stirring Democratic Convention speech nominating Barack Obama to a second term.

Meanwhile, bicycle fans and followers of Zeitoun’s remarkable story will nurse the bruises that come from feeling conned. We’ll be warier. And that’s too bad. As with Clinton, once we get to forgiveness, that’ll feel better. But it will take some time.

Still a few spots available in my “Intro to Memoir Writing” class, which starts next Wednesday night at Seattle Central!  Register here.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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