This essay was initially broadcast on August 27th, on the NPR affiliate, WVPE Elkhart/South Bend.
Ten years ago on August 29th, the pounding winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina weakened and then collapsed the levees protecting New Orleans, and soon eighty percent of my beloved city was under water. Like many Americans, I watched incredulously the news of a city in distress, its houses inundated and citizens stranded, others drowned in the wake of flooding waters, survivors distraught and afraid. Their hopeless and dispirited faces drained me emotionally and spiritually. The destruction was unfathomable.
My own close relatives managed to leave before the levees broke, but as I watched Louisiana’s interminable bayous and waterways swallow the city, I feared for the safety of others left behind. Miraculously, I reached my undergraduate mentor by phone. He was unaware of the enormity of the storm’s damage in other parts of the city. He was low on critical medication and had no car; he needed to be evacuated. On his behalf, I tried but could not reach the Louisiana Coast Guard. In the chaos of those days I lost contact with him, but I learned later that a neighbor helped him evacuate.
Then we all became aware of the great and perhaps lasting exodus from the city. I feared the irretrievable loss of intimate, generations-old neighborhoods like Tremé and the Irish Channel, the tidy Creole cottages and shotgun houses shaded by massive live oaks and flowering magnolias. I feared that as residents scattered across America, much of the soul of New Orleans would never return. New Orleans is its people, and without them the enrichment and cross-fertilization, the gumbo of Creole, Cajun, and African cultures, would be forever altered.
In the ten years since Katrina, I’ve made many trips to New Orleans. With each visit I see progress. My mother who initially vowed never to return is happily settled into a new home not far from her former neighborhood. The ubiquitous blue tarps on rooftops are now gone. Homes have been rebuilt elevated above the ground as required by new building codes; in some neighborhoods the houses retain the façade of traditional Creole cottages. Other homes reflect an architectural style foreign to the region. In many areas streets with gaping potholes and bulging concrete suggest an underdeveloped country. Massive rebuilding of the drainage system is creating annoyances for motorists and pedestrians alike.
On the surface New Orleans today is a bustling city. Tourism is flourishing. In the French Quarter jazz blows hotly from street corners to Preservation Hall. Steamboats roll merrily along the Mississippi. Streetcars clatter down St. Charles Avenue. Everything seems normal. The mayor speaks of a stronger more resilient city since Katrina. He cites rapid business expansion with a retail and restaurant boom. He touts the academic achievement of the charter schools. He proclaims a city on the mend with a budget surplus, reduced murder rate, and reduced homelessness, and above all, racial reconciliation. a cornerstone of his administration. New Orleans, he says, is “unbowed and unbroken.”
The Big Easy is back, but deep wounds remain. Black on black violence is an almost daily news item. Many streets still show deep potholes and buckling concrete. The predominantly black lower ninth ward is pockmarked with concrete slabs where houses once stood; weeds overtake abandoned lots. Approximately one hundred fifty thousand displaced residents, disproportionately African-American, may never return. Latino workers who came to rebuild have stayed, doubling their population in the last decade. Other young and enterprising adventurers and opportunity seekers are establishing roots.
New Orleans fifty years from now will be different. Culturally, the new immigrants will add new spice to the Creole, Cajun and African cultures that already define the city. Regional accents and neighborhood dialects will change. New tastes in food and new forms of music will emerge. In time, New Orleans will once again be a thriving city at the mouth of the Mississippi; still laid-back, still charming. I trust, as progress continues, New Orleans will be a model of resilience and redemption.
Whenever I am stressed or needlessly fretting over an inconsequential thing, Melanie has always encouraged me to breathe in gratitude and breathe out acceptance. And miraculously like a balm that soothes and quiets my worries, I feel better and suddenly I see everything in a more positive way. I’ve called upon this resource recently to cope with sorrow.
This morning (August 19th) we learned of the death of a very dear friend, and a former colleague of mine, Elizabeth Scarborough. Cognizant of approaching death, she remained cheerful throughout, never losing her humor and sharp wit. Even as cancer slowly destroyed her body, her spirits were lofty. She had been preparing for death for the last two plus years and left this life full of vigor, active in her church and fully engaged in life. We last saw her a couple of days before we left town on July 26th. The way she faced death was a lesson in how to live. She never complained about her illness and the pain and discomfort she endured. She greeted everyone with a smile, rarely speaking of her suffering. She was more interested in a lively conversation with others or offering her thoughts about the current political debacles. We had many good conversations over the years about growing up in Louisiana, she from the Protestant north, and I from the Catholic south. We laughed about how those two disparate worlds intersected yet remained totally different, each in the same state, but culturally apart.
Until her death, she was an eager learner and a voracious reader. Besides talking about growing up in the South, we shared what each was reading. A die-hard Unitarian Universalist, she retained a keen interest in the world’s shared humanity. She read about and reflected sincerely on all religious faiths believing that each had truths upon which to base our lives. She and I had an amicable repartee about Protestantism and Catholicism. She read many books about dying. One of those books she shared with me, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. For those of us who shared the last few years with Elizabeth, we learned in the face of death how to live gracefully. And we all share in gratitude for having had her in our lives. She will be missed, no doubt, but she lives in the hearts of her fellow UU’s and friends.
As Elizabeth’s death is a transition, so is the recent wedding of my son, Paul, and new daughter-in-law, Katie, as they enter into a new and shared life together. But they too are facing sorrow as they accept the imminent death of a fellow MFA graduate, now in hospice care with a tumor in the brain. They share in gratitude the lovely person they’ve come to love and appreciate. Life will soon end for their friend, and theirs begin anew through their wedding vows by which they expressed gratitude for each other. As they begin that journey colored with joy and pain, their mutual love will be a constant source of comfort.
The older I become, the more conscious I am of life’s fragility. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Therefore, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the family and friends I cherish, and for them, I breathe in gratitude. I have a sister and a dear friend who suffer from multiple sclerosis. If I could, I would heal them at a snap of the fingers. But I can’t. But as I’ve watched this debilitating disease slowly sap their energy and limit their motor abilities, I’ve learned from them acceptance, humility and the power of positive thinking. Neither dwells on the limitations imposed by their illness. Rather each lives life happily and fully, using their talents as they are able. I am the beneficiary of the joy that they export, and for this I am grateful.
Melanie and I are grateful for our children and grandchildren. Our blessings extend particularly to Paul and Katie as they begin their new life together. And, of course, we are grateful for each other. We’ve been enjoying our extended seven week road trip out west, first to attend Paul’s and Katie’s wedding in the redwoods of Northern California. Before arriving in Portland, we spent a few days in redwood country, with friends in Crescent City and Eureka, where Melanie and I met during my time as provost and vice chancellor at Humboldt State University. Not much has changed since we left seventeen years ago; Humboldt County still retains that gritty, hippie-looking throwback to the sixties. Leaving Northern California, we stopped in Ashland to visit friends and watched the Oregon Shakespeare Theater’s production of Guys and Dolls. For the last two weeks we’ve been with two and a half year old Eliot who has boundless energy. We’ve been thrilled by his play antics, jumping from the sofa into a pile of pillows on the floor. As he says, “This is really very fun for me.”
Since retirement two years ago, I’ve welcomed the freedom to explore more of my inner self, to do the things that I enjoy and to contribute to my community in meaningful ways without the burden of formal employment. When I’m in town, I’m busy attending board meetings, working with the 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend, meeting with others in the community and doing other volunteer tasks. Carving out time for reading or spending more time in the garden gets squeezed into whatever free time I can muster. That my life in retirement is jammed with activity is a blessing for which I am grateful. And for the moment I accept that more leisure time is wanting.
Soon, we’ll begin our eastern trek home. On the way we’ll see friends in Victor, ID and Estes Park, CO. The final leg will be over Labor Day weekend with Tim and Pat Size attending plays by the American Theater Company. We’ll be home for a few days and then on the road again to Maine for a week-long celebration of Melanie’s and four of her high school girlfriends’ seventieth birthday. We’ll visit Amanda in Boston and Melanie’s brother and his wife in Cape Cod before going to New Orleans for my brother, Warmoth’s, wedding.
Yes, I’m beginning to feel like a rolling stone, a wayfarer traveling across America. And although, I’d welcome a respite at home, I am grateful for the family and friends I’ve seen on this journey. There is nothing wanting in my life. For this I breathe in gratitude and breathe out acceptance.