The ringing bells at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary fill the sky this morning. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the storm, and we will spend it drenched in a gentle rain. Both a reminder and a reprieve.
I know this is sacrilege to say, but I am impatient with a lot of the Katrinaversary events. There is a vague, forced jollity to many of them. We are in an awfully big hurry to get to the brass band booming “When The Saints Come Marching In.” Then we cheer for ourselves. As though everyone is a little too uncomfortable with the actual dreadful facts of the thing, and so rush to the happy ending part of the story. All the parades, the performances, the speeches, people looking at themselves as identified with Katrina, as opposed to being and living that part . . . it feels too self-conscious at times. I have been looking for the thread that feels alive, perhaps artful and self-conscious because that is unavoidable, yet somehow still jolting with the current of Katrina’s electricity.
Everyone has to mark the day in a manner that seems authentic, which must vary according to each person’s history with the storm. Some prefer not to recognize the day at all. Emily marks it this way:
#639, c. 1862
My Portion is Defeat — today —
A paler luck that Victory —
Less Paeans — fewer Bells —
The Drums don’t follow Me — with tunes —
Defeat — a somewhat slower — means —
More Arduous than Balls —
‘Tis populous with Bone and stain —
And Men too straight to stoop again,
And Piles of solid Moan —
And Chips of Blank — in Boyish Eyes —
And scraps of Prayer —
And Death’s surprise,
Stamped visible — in Stone —
There’s somewhat prouder, over there —
The Trumpets tell it to the Air —
How different Victory
To Him who has it — and the One
Who to have had it, would have been
Contenteder — to die —
Here is what I have been doing around this anniversary. A couple of days ago, I hitched a ride on an errand with Geoff and his brother. They are working on the house they inherited from their father who died at home during Hurricane Katrina. The house, which was not in great shape before the storm, had been damaged. It’s close to the river Uptown, so the flood didn’t get to it, just a bad wind. Immediately following the storm, they made the house structurally sound and closed in the roof. The finer renovation details that make a house a home, have been long in coming. Our errand was to visit an architectural salvage warehouse in my neighborhood to buy some old floor boards. New floorboards don’t fit in old houses like their father’s, which was built in the late 19th century. So the only option is to search for remnants that were cherry-picked out of old (Katrina-ruined) houses before they were demolished.
It’s a treasure hunt to sort through the piles of dusty wood, which don’t seem like much to me. They are grimy and spiraled with ghostly water marks. Some are decorated with sheets of paper, letters, documents, the print now blurry and unreadable, glued and stuck there by the flood and baking heat that came after, detritus signifying the house’s former life and death. The floorboards possess their own archeology and offer a weird intimacy, displaying evidence of the humans who walked on them in the past.
Although it looks like garbage, Geoff assures me this is the best stuff in the world—dense with ancient pitch that gives it a fine, tensile strength that new milled boards from young trees would never have. The houses made from extinct old-growth wood have survived storm after storm after storm. With some sanding, these pine floorboards would be beautiful once again.
They are shopping for floorboards for a couple of reasons. Portions of the old floor in their father’s house are missing. In addition, they have decided to cut out the floorboards where their father had fallen and died. So that’s a hole that needs to be filled too.
Geoff doesn’t know for sure how his father died. The cause has never been clear because FEMA, who was in charge of body collection, allowed his remains to lie in the house for more than two weeks after Geoff reported his death. By the time FEMA arrived in early fall, the man had been dead for nearly a month, and there was no solid matter left to autopsy. The coroner wrote “drowning” on the death certificate, a bureaucratic gesture to fill a blank. Geoff requested a new certificate with this inaccuracy removed.
Five years later, the two brothers are going back to that place in the house to finish taking care of their father. The floor where his body had lain decomposing in the heat for weeks is permanently stained with an oily residue. The inescapable brute evidence of human life was left behind, after FEMA did its part, because it had soaked through the fibers of the wood. Geoff says he can still smell the odor of putrefaction in the floors. They can’t wash it out, and they can’t live with it. So they will cut it out and replace it with the new/old floorboards.
I asked Geoff what he was going to do with the floorboards they remove, since these do still contain traces of his father’s body. He said he wasn’t sure. Burial didn’t seem like the right idea. For now, he plans to burn the wood.
On Friday I went to the St. Bernard Funeral Home. Someone had the idea of arranging an open casket in one of the viewing rooms so that anyone who felt moved could visit. The purpose was for us to write notes to describe our feelings about the storm and then place these in the casket, to be buried along with Hurricane Katrina. Of course, it was meant to be symbolic—only a ritual after all. But then there is this funny thing that happens in rituals, when the symbolic is concretized in time and space. The purpose of a ritual is to draw a boundary around certain actions and objects to invest those with meaning that would otherwise be invisible. The action we take in ritual reifies what we may not see with the eyeballs in our skull. It brings non-physical reality into physical manifestation. These are never empty gestures but freighted with authentic power. When a priest celebrates the Transubstantiation of the Flesh, it is an article of faith that he transforms that bread into the flesh of Christ, as real as the flesh on your own arm. Not a metaphor but true matter. If some of the Eucharist remains after mass, the priest will inter that in the graveyard because it is literal human flesh at that point, not flour mixed with water. Don’t ever say: “only a ritual” or “merely symbolic”. These are as real as spit on a hot sidewalk.
In any case, they had the funeral yesterday at Our Lady of Prompt Succor where they closed the casket on Hurricane Katrina. Someone called it a “mock funeral”. Nothing mock about it, I thought. I heard it was a blast with a band and everything. All the same, I’m glad I went to the viewing the day before because no one else was there in the funeral home, and it was quiet. I could collect my thoughts and feelings in private.
The day started with the same sheeting gray rain we’re having now. I drove out to St. Bernard and found the funeral home, which is on Virtue Street. (Does everything in New Orleans have to be drenched in metaphor all the time?) When I walked into the viewing room, I heard crackling from a TV screen that showed a continuous loop of old news coverage of the storm, mostly images of St. Bernard police officers. Overhead was the incongruous piped-in music of Mick Jagger singing: “Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Another woman was already there, an admirer of Drew Brees, wearing his number 9 jersey. She placed a sealed envelope into the white quilted interior of the casket and then walked the length of it, bending to smooth her hands over the silver shiny surface, as if admiring the construction. Odd. Was this a sort of professional curiosity? People do the strangest things at funerals. Then she left.
The casket was decorated with a black parasol that sported a gold fringe and fleur-de-lis and “Farewell Katrina” in sparkly gold writing. (Saints colors everywhere.) Inside the open lid was the message: “Goodbye Hurricane Katrina. May Our Future be Bright,” accompanied by the swirling eye symbol for deadly hurricane force winds. There were also some pretty white camellias.
Again, I know I am trespassing on sacred ground here, but I had to read some of the messages people had left. I was thrilled to see there was a member of my tribe—an Emily Dickinson fan—among the visitors, who had left a card inscribed with the poem: “Hope is the thing with Feathers/That perches in the Soul.”
Most of the messages were angry, frightened and sad: “Katrina, you ruined my retirement.” “The monster under my bed was real. Her name was Katrina.” “You forced my family to live apart. You took my wedding photos. It’s just not right!”
Some were ballsy: “I am stronger than you!” “Katrina RIP . . . NOT.”
I sat down and began writing my own message, a simple thing, and entirely theoretical. This task took about a minute. I dropped it into the casket and walked out. As I was driving back down Virtue Street, I had to stop and pull over. Shit. I hate when this happens. I sat in the car, turned off the windshield wipers and let the gray rain curtain the world from my sight. Then I turned the car around and drove back to the funeral home. I was not finished. I returned to the viewing room and sat down at the little table and filled up about four more pages, front and back, with a dense black script of my frustrations and anger. I had no idea how much I still resented . . . not sure who . . . but that time. A lot of verbal vomit came onto the pages, incoherent disgust and rage. I’ll spare you the sordid details. None of it was so eloquent or succinct as the other notes in the casket. Then I folded the pages into a tight square and hid them beneath the clean pale violet envelope that the woman who admired Drew Brees had placed there.
Before I left for good, I read one more note that someone else—clearly a poet—had written to Hurricane Katrina: “Hope I never see you again. You change my life.” I copied it into my notebook and then double-checked it. Yes, the poet had written “change” in the present tense, not “changed” in the past tense. The ear expects a past tense verb; that is the traditional story-telling voice. But when I turned the line over a few times in my head, the present tense verb struck me as the perfect choice. Okay, it was probably just a mistake, but what a felicitous typographical error. Emily would approve. She is always wreaking havoc with our expectations in her verb tenses.
You change my life, the poet wrote to the storm. The present tense verb renders life as a state of continual change. Whether into decay or new growth, we are forever becoming. We tend to forget that to our sorrow. The storm forced the poet and me and you into an awareness of the constancy of change. This gentle disruption in the verb tense is there to remind us of the greater shock: Whatever you have or think you have, don’t hold too tightly, because change will take it from you.