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Death and rebirth

Death and rebirth


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.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Christopher Rice