And rising from his vision, he cried: "I am not there among the cities. I have sought down a million streets, until the goat-cry died within my throat, and I have found no city where I was, no door where I had entered, no place where I had stood."
– Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe
Today I went for my usual morning jog. Well, actually, it wasn’t my usual morning jog because for the past year my usual morning jog was among the Oak trees that lined Audubon Park in New Orleans. As I ran around the one mile circuit in Mill Creek Park I saw what looked like the familiar face of Steve Kupperman, an attorney in New Orleans whom I frequently saw walking his dog. But then I realized that I was in Kansas City, not New Orleans.
Our minds are funny. We’re so used to seeing familiar things that when we are displaced to a new location we start to create familiarity out of unfamiliar things. I feel like that’s happening to me now.
Last week, Katrina blasted into New Orleans and brought widespread flooding, followed by massive societal change. People who daily rubbed past each other in a familiar world were swiftly scattered around in a wisp, like human wheat chaffe. In the days that followed the rest of the nation watched horrendous images on TV. But the former residents of New Orleans barely had time to watch gruesome videos; they had to make swift decisions about where they would live in the next few months or years.
The human mind really can’t process this sort of thing very easily, and the evidence of this shows up in the little moments, the ones that typically don’t seem monumental.
In the days after the hurricane my cellphone stopped working reliably, even though I had moved to an area that actually had a communications infrastructure. So I called Sprint to see if they could get me a number in a new area code outside New Orleans so that I could make and receive calls. "Sure," said the cheerful representative, "what’s your new address?" The question was delivered in a monotonous matter-of-fact kind of way. Still, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety. I hadn’t given any thought at all about where my new address would be.
An address is just a place where you receive mail. So I could have given the nice Sprint representative a friend’s address. But somehow her routine administrative inquiry caused me to confront a bigger question: where will I build my next familiar world and how long will it take?
Perhaps it will be built in my mind, patched together out of old memories and new impressions. One thing is certain, though. It won’t be built quickly.