New Orleans has been in the news a lot in the last five years since Hurricane Katrina blew through town, bringing massive flooding and devastation in its wake. Recently, the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana added many more daunting challenges to the post-Katrina recovery process. So, why, I asked myself, was I loading my Suburban with all my worldly possessions and moving to this shell-shocked city of hard-partying parade-lovers on the Gulf of Mexico, especially given the fact that I am basically a teetotaling Midwesterner at heart whose idea of a good time involves large doses of peace and quiet, preferably in a quaint cottage on the shore of a secluded lake! Clearly, the move to New Orleans did not seem like a logical next step for me, yet something bigger was wrapping its arms around me and pulling me along, as if against my conscious will.
I visited New Orleans for the first time in early May of this year when I spent a week helping my twin sister relocate here from the Midwest to be near her son and his family. The temperature was in the 90s the entire week and I remember making a bee-line back to my motel room after each sweat-soaked outing in search of air-conditioned relief. The skeletal structures of hundreds of condemned houses dotted the urban landscape like dead bodies that had rotted where they lay and never been properly put to rest. I fantasized about hijacking a bull dozer from one of the many neighborhoods under construction and razing all the dead houses to the ground.
Now, here I am back in New Orleans in mid-October, having just moved here myself, and I’m still having fantasies about hijacking that bull dozer and demolishing all the condemned houses. But, then, who am I to decide when someone else’s deceased loved ones are best laid to rest? My sister and I have moved into a beautiful, new apartment complex in what, pre-Katrina, was the St. Bernard Housing Project neighborhood, just a few blocks east of the Bayou St. John and City Park and a couple of miles south of Lake Pontchartrain. The weather has been perfect since the day I got here: not a cloud in the sky, in the 70s and low 80s with a gentle breeze, and I feel my body slowly relaxing into the warmth of this place.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, though. I’ve been exposed, at least secondhand, to some of the ugliness and violence of New Orleans, including gang warfare that erupted at a neighborhood parade the day after I arrived, resulting in the death of a two year-old boy. But there’s been a lot of beauty and goodness, too. The thing that moves me the most, to the point of falling in love with this place, is the outrageous creativity that seems to ooze from every nook and cranny. In fact, it may be safe to say there are more artists in New Orleans per capita than any other place on Earth, not necessarily in the formal sense of the word, though there certainly are a lot of very talented people and even world-class artists here. More to the point, though, I’m talking about creativity in the bigger sense: in the sheer exuberance and audacity of the way people live their lives. In the face of life’s many adversities, the typical response is to have a parade, for example. As the flood waters recede, have a parade! When your neighbor dies, have a parade! In fact, when your dog dies, have a parade! And as you’re boogying down the street in some wildly extravagant costume, dance up on your neighbor’s porch and maybe steal a kiss or two.
In the short time I’ve been here, it has become increasingly clear to me that this city is also one of those Ground Zero places on the planet in the evolutionary scheme of things and, furthermore, that its natives are the canaries in the mines of broad evolutionary patterns that are occurring worldwide. If Barbara Hand Clow is right in her assertion that a catastrophe of global proportions occurred about 11,000 years ago (see her book, Catastrophobia), causing a massive flood that wiped out most of the human species and thoroughly traumatized the rest of us down through successive generations to the present, then Hurricane Katrina may well have restimulated unconscious memories of that cataclysmic event for those who survived the flooding here.
Hand Clow theorizes that the primary thing holding us back from awakening into our full potential as a species in these next couple of years as we approach 2012 may well be unprocessed, unconscious trauma from that global catastrophe 11,000 years ago. From this perspective, the apocalypse already happened all those millennia ago. It doesn’t have to happen again, certainly not at a magnitude that wipes out the entire human species. We don’t have to recreate it in the present. According to Hand Clow, to the extent we can feel the past, we can heal the past. The catch is we have to fully face it and feel it and that’s a big catch, indeed.
The people of New Orleans have experienced their own mini-apocalypse in recent years in the form of Hurricane Katrina, followed by the BP oil spill. Feelings of loss are still very raw and intense here. It seems possible to me that the collective wound of the event that almost caused our extinction 11,000 years ago may have opened up here and that the citizens of New Orleans have been peering into the gaping abyss of it for a number of years now. Perhaps we can learn something about how best to heal from such a catastrophe by examining the best that is occurring here in terms of rebirth and renewal.
(On that note, to be continued…)