“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

How We Went Wandering, Missed the Promised Land, and Lost our Tribe.

New Orleans truly is the Big Easy in more ways that are apparent to those whose acquaintance is based on Mardis Gras visits, or bachelor parties on Bourbon Street.   Yes, on the surface, it seems self-evident how the appellation arose; the free flow of drink, of sex, of food and music.  The ‘Lassaiz les bon temps roulez” mentality of the place seem so obvious, that I don’t think you ever really understand the depth of the nickname unless you live there.   It’s a whole lot more than that.

If you have the great fortune of living in New Orleans, what you will find is an openness of society, a life lived in public and with your neighbors that is unique to Southern Louisiana society.   There is a congenial acceptance, even of relative newcomers, provided that you respond with the same open warmth reciprocal to the hospitality offered.  In New Orleans, if you haven’t made friends, you really had to work at it.  After five years, our keyrings bourgeoned with the keys of other’s houses.  We were conditioned not to do a double take to come into our kitchen and find a friend heading shrimp in the sink (there was a good deal at the docks), or borrowing the sewing machine.  We knew where the iced tea and glasses were kept, and why bother the hostess about it?  It is a spontaneously genuine kind of place, the kind of place that you will miss out on entirely if you focus on the artifice of the Mardis Gras floats or the adult fantasyland of Bourbon St.   That was my New Orleans, the New Orleans that sticks in my heart, like the lump in my throat when I don’t turn my thoughts away fast enough.

Now, If you ever have the great misfortune of losing a house, in New Orleans or not,  you will very quickly find that it isn’t really the structure, or even 90% of the contents that you miss.  It’s the delineation of space.   The point that we, at least the American subspecies, are almost pathologically territorial gets driven home in spades.  We have an almost desperate need to define our borders and plant our flag and defend against all comers.  Remove that defined space, and we really don’t know what to do with ourselves.    Pre-Katrina, I never could wrap my brain around the number of homeless that would rather live in a highway underpass than seek out a shelter.

Now I get it.  Completely.

I count ourselves amongst the lucky.  Post-Katrina, we were never homeless in the “sign by the side of the road” sense of the word.  We had an abundant network of friends and family that opened their guest rooms and spare bathrooms to us.  Not once did we materially suffer.  Not once did we go unclothed or unfed.  We had the things that keep the body together

The soul is a different matter.

No matter how well cared-for you are, the instinct to plant your flag and the need for your social network war with each other for primacy.  We were lucky enough to be with friends who didn’t think twice about the fact you were sitting cross legged in your pajamas in the middle of their living room floor nursing the baby, or letting you raid their pantries for lunch.  We were comfortable with these people.  We were easy.  They were our Tribe.

But it was difficult to get beyond the feeling that this home was not OUR home.  This bed was not OUR bed.  The dictates of even the most casual society recognize the supremacy of ownership.  We were with our Tribe, but the flag flying outside was not our flag.  Obligation struggled with the innate need to control our own surroundings, fulfill our needs for ourselves, in our way.   We didn’t feel comfortable imposing ourselves on any one house for more than two weeks at a time.  Ultimately, it sent us wandering into our own wilderness, house to house to bleak hotel room, until the government sent us north and far away.

The decision not to return was one that was logically a no-brainer.   My job in New Orleans was essentially over.   There was no possiblity that my center was going to be rebuilt in time for me to complete my postdoctoral work, and with every university and research facility in the New Orleans area laying off hundreds, there were no prospects.  Southern Louisiana simply could not absorb that number of out-of-work professionals.  Kris’s job alone wouldn’t cover the cost of the reconstruction and the skyrocketing insurance.  The propect of raising a child, an infant, in a FEMA trailer in the dark ruins of New Orleans with only the rudiments of power, water and security was simply unthinkable.  The only alternative, living with friends for a completely undefined period of time was not any better.  Rental houses were either non-existant or astronomically expensive in the post-Katrina scramble to put roofs over the heads of the displaced masses, and most simply couldn’t find the realistic means of coming home.  There was so few choices that were livable by any standard we were accustomed to.

But the head and the heart don’t often want the same things.  In finding our piece of land, we lost the Tribe.

For a person who has moved from city to city on an average of every 4 years for almost thirty years, this should be something I am used to.  I have had to reinvent myself so many times that I have it almost down to routine.  But not this time.  This time was different.  This time the feeling of isolation and disconnect was so powerful, it permeated our lives.  We were a new family, with a new baby, living in a house that never quite managed to feel like our home.  It’s not that people didn’t reach out to us up here.  It’s that we lacked the emotional energy to reciprocate and were almost overwhelmed with a feeling of being perpetually “outside,” even within our own four walls.

Katrina’s storm surge had picked us up, and tumbled us in its undertow and just as abruptly receded, a party of three in the great New Orleans diaspora – far from home, and outside the Tribe.

Next:  Part 2 – This is not my beautiful house…

July 22nd, 2009 at 10:19 am
4 Responses to “Dismantling of a Life, Part 1 – Wandering”
  1. 1
    jodifur Says:

    As someone who is selling her house that she hated for 8 years, and is moving into the house she she hopes can finally be home, with far less trauma, I get it.

    and Jesus, I just want to hug you.

    I still hope this isn’t going where I think this is going. And it is killing me not to email you and JUST ASK.

  2. 2
    Deirdre Says:


  3. 3
    Moira Says:

    *cry* The Military brat understands.

  4. 4
    Pinkpelican Says:

    You’re really helping me understand the emotional personal toll the storm took. In making these insights attainable, I want to hug you even tighter. I wish I could “poor baby” it away for you.