Death and rebirth

By Christopher Rice

Originally published on Advocate.com September 26 2005 12:00 AM ET

I was brought to
New Orleans against my will. When I was 10 years old my
parents packed up our Castro District Victorian in San
Francisco and moved us to the city my mother had been
forced to leave against her will when she was 14. They
assured me that we would only be spending a summer
there. Before I knew it summer had come and gone, and I was
being enrolled in an elite Episcopal prep school
several blocks from our first home in the city, which
stood on “the wrong side” of Magazine Street.

The first boy I
met at the school’s orientation party would become my
closest friend for the next four years before taking his own
life at the age of 16, a death that sent shock waves
through the Garden District community we both grew up
in. His grave sits on the opposite side of Interstate
10 from where my family’s mausoleum holds the bodies
of my father and my sister.

I write these
statements in the present tense even though I don’t
know the condition of these final resting places in
the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s strike against
the city. I am haunted by images of my father’s
coffin being released to the floodwaters. Mourning an entire
city feels impossible. Yet mourning a grave feels
selfish when New Orleans residents who were too
impoverished to evacuate have drowned inside their attics.

Ironically, the
cemeteries are also where I’ve found the seeds of
hope for the city’s emotional recovery. While
the physical recovery from this disaster will be
enormous, there is no other city in the nation that is
as spiritually equipped to deal with mass death on this
scale. New Orleanians bury their dead above ground
because they have to; the water table, before Katrina,
was too high to accommodate basements and below-ground
graves. The city rose to this challenge, not with banks of
sterile oven-slot tombs but with dazzlingly elaborate
mausoleums. Not only are they temples to the world
that may exist beyond this one, they are testaments to
the spiritual possibilities that can arise in response
to nature’s constraints.

Contrast this
attitude with the dumb outrage expressed by Malibu, Calif.,
residents every time a wildfire races through their
multimillion-dollar acreages, and New Orleans is
revealed to be a city with a deep and meaningful
acceptance of nature’s cruel realities.

Ever since
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I have spent my
evenings pausing and rewinding news footage of my hometown
in search of some intersection or landmark so that I
might winnow down the enormous and numbing sense of
loss I feel. I came close with a clip of a burning
mansion in the Garden District, the neighborhood I grew up
in, but the clip was too brief and the camera spun
wildly away from the house and up to the military
helicopter hovering overhead. There was also the battered
Clearview Mall on Veterans Boulevard, which sits next to the
interstate on-ramp I would take to go home after
visiting friends in areas of Jefferson Parish that now
lie underwater. But the wide shots, the helicopter
views that pan ceaselessly over a newly formed swamp of
homes, businesses, and lost lives, turn my city into
something incomprehensible. Impossible.

After several
days of continuous news coverage CNN finally brought me the
proper word for what I was witnessing:
“appalling.” It came out of the mouth of
a musician named Jack Fine who had weathered both the storm
and the first few days of its aftermath. For the first
time, a native had articulated the combined sense of
powerlessness and anger I was feeling by describing
the events that had befallen my hometown as a kind of
spiritual assault.

If there is
anything specific and unique about the pain New Orleanians
have felt in the wake of this tragedy, it comes from the
fact that to live there is to drink in the raw
materials of the place in a way that is neither
possible nor expected in other parts of the country. The
city bombards your senses without discretion or
gentility, and when you leave it you are branded by
its purple sunsets. To have lived there for an
extended period of time is to enter into a strange contract
with it—an agreement to become part of a place
with a cultural identity so big and genuine that it
will always eclipse your own, to become someone who is
willing to articulate the city’s mythos to the
wide-eyed traveler who has never been there.

As the water
drains and the full scope of the disaster is revealed, those
of us who are sworn to make sense of this strange city to
the rest of the country will discover whether or not
we have been charged with giving the city’s
eulogy.