The Big Easy

December 31, 2006 at 8:43 am | Posted in ethics, love, personal, travel | 8 Comments

In the weeks leading up to my family’s Christmas trip to New Orleans, there was one question I had to answer more often than any other: “Are you going there to do charity work?”. The answer was an uncomfortable no; we were really just going there to eat, drink, and be merry. Often I would point out that merely by doing so, we would be pumping valuable dollars into the local economy — but this always seemed a bit flimsy; if we were going all the way there, why weren’t we going to swing over to the Lower Ninth Ward and pick up some debris?

To visit New Orleans these days is to be confronted with an intensified version of the ethical dilemma we first-worlders face every second of every day: with so much suffering in the world, why am I not doing anything to stop it right now? Any answer to this question makes us queasy: “I do what I can,” “I vote with my dollars,” “am I ethically required to sacrifice comfort?” In New Orleans you are faced with this problem immediately: on your way to the relatively immaculate French Quarter, you must pass by neighborhoods that are still a shambles — roofs caved in, boats on top of houses, doors boarded up and still bearing the spray-painted body counts of the initial rescue operations.

But in many neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, the damage is much more subtle. A cracked window here, some missing shingles there, and you begin to notice with discomfort your temptation to read all the decrepitude you see as evidence of the hurricane. But this can’t be right — surely there were always poor neighborhoods in this city; surely there were abandoned buildings before the disaster struck.

The locals make it easier on you by being extremely friendly. No matter where in the world you go, you always feel a little gauche when you’re a tourist — but the people you meet in New Orleans go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome and are aware of how much they appreciate having you visit. My family wandered into a cemetery we happened to pass by, and wound up being given a guided tour by a toothless old caretaker who was just thrilled to have us in his city. He offered to let us climb into an open, empty tomb for a photo opportunity. “There are no human remains inside!” We declined.

In the courtyard of a bar on Bourbon Street one night, my family was startled out of quiet conversation by a man getting down on his knees and declaring, loudly, his love for his wife. We laughed and applauded, and then talked to the couple: they had met in the Superdome during the hurricane. Now they lived in the neighboring town to which they had both been relocated by the government; they refused to move back to New Orleans because they trusted the fate that had brought them together via their uprooting.

Tonight, back home, while I was waiting for my friend Jeff to change his clothes so we could go out for the evening, I saw a scene of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away that moved me deeply. The protagonist, a young girl, is riding on the back of a dragon that is soaring through the sky when suddenly she recovers a memory. She leans over and whispers in the dragon’s ear something along these lines: “When I was a young girl, I lost a shoe in the Kohaku River. When I tried to get it out, I fell in, and I almost drowned. But something pulled me into shallow water. Your real name is ‘Kohaku River.’ You were a river spirit then, and you saved me.” At this revelation, the dragon turns back into a human boy and the two of them begin plummeting through the sky. The boy is overjoyed at being reminded of his true name, and the girl is crying tears that, because the two of them are falling so fast, drop upwards into the sky, leaving a trail from the heavens back to the earth.

This moment of recognition is every moment of recognition. Sometimes you meet a person and you love them immediately, and you don’t know why. You wish there were a story like this: you were a river spirit then, and you saved me. You wish you could cry tears up to the heavens.

I have been home, visiting my parents, for about two weeks now. Ever since I arrived, my mother has been hounding me to read a particular essay by Barbara Kingsolver called “Small Wonder.” I liked The Poisonwood Bible very much when I read it a few years ago, so this morning I finally made time for it. It’s a post-9/11 essay about how to deal with tragedies that are not your own, though they are kind of your own by virtue of being anybody’s at all. Her solution is beautiful: “It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”

Probably your newest love is not the river spirit who saved you. The river spirits do not seem to save many people these days. Back home in New Jersey, the D has fallen off the “CARBORUNDUM” sign, and Amboy Cinemas has been closed and abandoned for years. There is no hurricane to blame. But love? Love is everywhere.



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  1. that bit on the miyazaki was beautiful. thankyou.

  2. I always wondered how Spirited Away ends. Thanx UC. ; >)

  3. Gosh I wish I could find that river spirit of mine… I guess when tears turn into rain, everything is not lost. Thanks for this beautiful post!

    And may you have a great year.

  4. Yeah, sorry about that, Pat. I’d seen the movie years ago, and the night I wrote this I’d caught only that one scene and had no memory of how it fit in with the rest of the plot.

  5. content has arrived at the internet.

  6. As I mentioned to you, one thing I love about this entry is your ability to describe something I’d missed when I watched Spirited Away: the demonstration of a reciprocity which is outside the bounds of expectation, and thus assumes the quality of a mutual gift.

    As others have said, bravo. This is gorgeous writing and infused with your deep understanding of care.

  7. Ah, the Kohaku river.

    Have you seen My Neighbor Totoro?

  8. I have not; the only other Miyazake I’ve seen is Princess Mononoke.

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