Yesterday I set my alarm so we could get up and watch the Men's Final at Wimbledon. Federer managed to pull of a win over Nadal, and I was happy for that. Federer is a lovely winner. He cries. Like a baby. So in spite of his whoring himself out to Nike (this year he wore not only a corny off-white blazer, but also matching trousers), I still cheered his win. I really wanted him to match Borg's record of five Wimbledons in a row. Plus, Nadal is a young tiger and has plenty of game left in him. Also, Nadal hates tomatoes. That's right--I'm anti-Nadal because he's anti-tomato. I learned this from reading his blog. Truthfully, I love a blogger, so tomato-hatin' or no, I say Go Nadal.
Yesterday afternoon I went with my friend J__ to eat Vietnamese food on the Westbank. J__ is taking a new anti-depressant, and I could tell she was having a hard time adjusting to it. J__ had a very harrowing experience after staying in New Orleans after the storm, and ever since then she has struggled with depression. Her roommate is no help; she also suffers from depression. J__ described it as living with someone who is "Always trying to out-sad me." I could empathize. We talked about how hard it is to process Katrina-grief when you didn't technically "lose" anything.
We are both glad to have our things, but in some ways, those who lost things have had a way to focus and channel their grief. You mourn your favorite recliner, your wedding albums, your 45-collection, and then (I imagine) you take some comfort in knowing that here you are, still intact, still okay, even without those things.
For us, there's the survivor's guilt, which is obvious and an unpopular subject. (Get over yourself, right?)
Then there's the very burdensome, amoebic grief.
It's like when someone dies, you lose them, you remember them, and then time (and time and time) lessens that grief.
But what about when it's survivor's guilt? And a whole city? Had we lost everything, no one would have faulted us for picking up and moving on, but to do so when we didn't "lose" anything would be like abandonment. How ungrateful would we be? How lucky and ungrateful.
I've been reading a book that's brought a lot of these feelings to the surface for me. Heart Like Water, by Joshua Clark, is a memoir of his experience staying in the French Quarter during and after the storm. The first 150 pages went quickly, in spite of the overwrought writing, seen here in the book's first lines:
"... and America returns whispering this time.
A tic, air-conditioning, falling, soft, a tock, the ceiling fan beginning to turn stirring it in, a closet light suddenly spilling an absurd yellow line past its open door, across this bed, my eyes, pulling the plug on some dream."
One of the many jacket-blurbs praises Clark's style as "written in surrealistic bursts of purple and crimson and goth black, as vivid as the storm itself and as uncompromising as the survivors of New Orleans" (Curtis Wilkie). Below that, Clark's author's photo shows him young and blond. He looks like Marty Stauffer, the former host of the PBS program Nature. I imagine that Clark would like to BE a bit like Marty, too: an observer, a lover of the world. Non-threatening. A wholly trustworthy, wise character.
He's no Marty Stuaffer, though, and to call him a "survivor" is a bit of an overstatement. He chose to stay. What the blurber calls "surrealistic" I call affected. I mean, dude's a survivor like I'm a survivor. Well--so he survived something different--but he chose to stay, and his reousces and privilege made it more like freaky camp than the hell you've all heard about. (Incidentally, the book's subtitle: "Life in the Disaster Zone" illustrates the publisher's awareness of What Readers Want... The French Quarter--"the disaster zone"? Puh-lease.)
I have been trying to articulate my "problem" with this book to Simon. I read the first 150 pages yesterday. It's absorbing, and I know very well many of the locations he writes about. I shopped at Robert's grocer store. I've been a regular at Molly's on Decatur Street. I sang in the band he mentions on page 5. Like Clark, I survived the storm without any real tangible loss.
And I struggle with that.
What bothers me about his book, I think, is that he's shameless. Even as he criticizes a father of six for not-evacuating with his children, he tromps around the Quarter in swimtrunks and Aqua Socks, recording whoever will have it on a Radio Shack tape recorder. When he hears of neighborhoods underwater, he goes--not to help so much as to document the loss. He chronicles evening fetes by the pool in "The Compound," where he and a bevy of friends passed the time with bottles of wine looted from Roberts, but without any acknowledgment or concern for those on the other side of the Industrial Canal. He has no guilt. None.
It's not that I believe that one could be shameless about staying and even enjoying it--it's that by god I'd think you should acknowledge your comparative privilege. Not to do so is, well, rude. Rude isn't the right word. It's something., though, and it's something bad.
I feel like those of us who have lost so much and yet so little do feel that our stories have been devalued. I was just telling some friends of our not getting covered by This Old House, and I said, "I guess no one wants to see a gentrification story. I know I wouldn't." No one with an appropriate sense of shame wants to hear about reveling in the Quarter while Katrina was happening.
There's something really unsettling about the de-valuing of politically-unpopular survival stories. We are supposed to be suffering more. We are supposed to be having a harder time. And if not, well we are at the very least supposed to be feeling Really F-ing Bad about it.
Clark doesn't. And I envy him that. How nice it must be to write your story with no guilt, no sense of shame, no disclaimers. I can't do it. (A fact you can see in nearly every shame-laden post on this guilty-as-hell blog.)
But I realized as I was reading that Clark has done something that I have not been able to do: he has told his story. Appropriate sense of shame or no, dude got it down.
I haven't been able to. My guilt paralyzes me. I know my own post-K story is not nearly devastating enough, nor is it interesting to those wanting to hear about exploding buildings, rooftop rescues, or Quarter clean-up.
I've been reading over the early posts on this blog, and I realize that when I first began posting, I felt my story might be interesting. We were all interesting back then--we Katrina survivors.
And to see how the value of my story has changed as my positioning in the survivor's "diaspora" has changed makes me a little sad. It says something about what we value. It says we value tragedy and loss and redemption, but not We're doing fine, thank you--and certainly not guilt and shame.
I feel as if listening to my story is like reading the sappy blog of a young volunteer. He gives up his summer break to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. He has a Katrina awakening and hands over his loaded Ipod to a pathetic teenaged returnee. He is proud of himself and urges his readers to give, to volunteer, too.
I want him to shut up because it's mildly embarrassing, his thinking that he's been somehow transformed.
I want him to shut up because these personal stories of redemption give the rest of the world the idea that one, or two, or even a church group of do-gooders can fix this place.
I want him to shut up because I've not been transformed, and so I don't want to hear his story of hope.
So the truth is, I've been majorly disappointed--not redeemed. The truth is, I am simply working at liking survival enough to to actually survive.