The past exists only because we can’t help remembering it. Today we can’t help remembering what happened two years ago along the Gulf Coast. I was in the city when Katrina hit, and I remember it vividly.
People were in a panic. Cars were loaded up and crammed on the highways and there was gridlock and it took forever to move a few miles. I tried leaving, but gave up and came back to town. Uptown it was eerie; the birds were all gone and so were the dogs and cats. Some strange presence was moving in and taking over, and you could actually feel it.
The wind gusts picked up as night fell. The television in my dad’s condo was on and the pundits
kept saying there was little hope for those who had stayed behind.
After midnight the strong winds knocked out the power. There was
nothing to do. So I sat on the floor and I tried to take stock of the
situation. I knew that change was coming, and I knew that it would be
massive. But I didn’t know much else, and so I fired off a blog post and waited for the demons to arrive.
Throughout the night as strange howling sounds surrounded the
building I was in, I wondered what was happening to the world around
me. My mind was stuck between two clear choices: I could allow my
fears of the unknown to overtake me, or I could focus on breathing. I
opted for choice #2. The more violent the noises outside became, the
more easily I was able to concentrate on my breathing. And I became
very calm. It was a calmness unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,
and to say it was extremely enjoyable would be a farcical
Eventually, the world outside became calm too. Becky and I went outside and found the area around the zoo littered with branches and debris.
The streets were impassable by car. The levees had started to fail,
but we had no idea about this problem or anything else. Everything
around us was about to undergo radical change.
That’s what I remember about August 29, 2005. It’s hard to remember
all of the things that happened after that. We left town and the city
was closed for repairs for weeks. Another storm appeared in the Gulf threatened to destroy
the fragile remainder of the city. But somehow the storm missed and
the possibility of returning was made real. Friends and neighbors came back and we all hugged and laughed and talked about our adventures in other places. We lived like early settlers
waiting for supplies from the mainland, but we had hope and we were
glad to be back in our familiar place. But, despite that intoxicating
initial surge of hope, in the past two years many friends and neighbors
have moved away. Two days ago my friends Charlie and Lisa Hebert moved
to Dallas. They were the first friends I saw when I came back to New
Orleans. I understand why they left, and I’m happy for them. They had
an opportunity to have a better life and it was time to take advantage
of that opportunity.
New Orleans is not a place of opportunity for most people. And for
many people New Orleans is not a place of hope. I’m a lot more
realistic today about what Katrina changed, and about what it didn’t
change. People don’t like change, and they’ll resist it with every
fiber of their being. They’ll resist even if doing so drains all their
vitality. I’ve tried not to resist change, but I’ve not been
successful. I have the same human tendencies as everyone else. Still,
I try to make use of what I learned two years ago.
So every day I wake up, move slowly away from my bed and try to find
the right frame of mind. Some days I catch the wave just right, and
everything is pretty good. Some days I have trouble getting any kind
of balance. But every day I try to start out by breathing slowly and
peacefully. You’d think that, by now, it’d be easy but it’s not. It’s
hard and it’s boring and I hate it because my mind wanders and I can’t
keep my focus no matter how hard I try.
Why is it that on "ordinary days" achieving inner calm is so
painfully elusive, yet on one epic day two years ago it was so easy?
Maybe everything is completely the opposite of
what we think it is. Maybe hard is good and easy is bad. Maybe change
is natural, and good. Maybe death (the greatest change of all) is like
the eye of the storm, filled with complete calmness and peace. Maybe
we’re less afraid of death than we are of what comes before it.
And maybe, just maybe, God speaks to us in bumper stickers…