Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What it Means to Miss New Orleans

Written September 2005- Post Katrina

New Orleans is my home. I didn’t realize that until I moved away. When we moved, we were satisfied that we needed to leave and that we would not look back. We were tired of the poor school systems, persistent crime, listless economy, and dirty politics. We convinced our selves that the grass was definitely greener in Texas. I don’t regret our move, but I didn’t realize that missing New Orleans would be such an emotional event.
I lived in Slidell, a suburb across the lake from New Orleans. I graduated from High School there and returned after obtaining my degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. My husband spent his whole life in the area having grown up in Kenner and also attending Loyola. To us, New Orleans was normal. We grew up with Mardi Gras, gumbo, folklore, and other countless traditions and customs that are unique to this wonderfully historic city. We had no idea what a privilege it was to grow up in New Orleans. To see the grandeur of the river Mark Twain wrote about, and dress up in costumes and attend the parades that have rolled on the streets for a hundred years. To walk on the avenues that inspired Tennessee Williams and hear the music played by the countless jazz greats who call New Orleans home. To kneel in churches that have been standing for hundreds of years and to eat in the best restaurants in the world. To us, all this was normal. We assumed all cities had such culture and character. Now that we are gone, we realize how special New Orleans is and how we took it for granted.
We left because we were tired of the apathetic attitude which we thought held this great city back. New Orleans was a battered city laden with poverty, crime, and bad politics. I think that we wanted the city to be better and that is why we chose to be teachers. Through education, we thought we could make a difference and help the city’s children follow a new path to the American dream. Our idealistic attitudes changed as we struggled with cash strapped school systems in communities who did not pass the value of education to their children. We thought we could make a difference but then realized what a big problem it all was. We became overwhelmed and tired. We made the difficult decision to move because we wanted a better life for our family. We wanted to excel in our careers and we wanted our son to attend public schools that are able to educate and prepare the next generation for today’s world. Leaving New Orleans was supposed to be easy because the life awaiting us in Texas would be utopian compared to life in the crescent city. For the most part, life in Texas has been what we expected it to be. But leaving New Orleans was so much more difficult than we ever dreamed.
After we left, we understood why people won’t leave New Orleans. It is the biggest small town in America. The people in New Orleans are warm, friendly, generous and carefree. You can have a perfectly pleasant conversation with a stranger about anything while you are waiting in the line at the grocery. The people of New Orleans just have a way about them. They make me feel at home and comfortable with my self. They welcome me like family. I grew up with them and I naturally assumed that people are like this all over the country. I have come to discover that the people of New Orleans are as unique as the city itself.
We miss the history, music, traditions, and atmosphere, but most of all we miss the people. And that is why we are grieving over the disaster that has struck our city. Katrina has left a terrible hole in our hearts. When we lived in New Orleans, they always talked about “the big one”. They would mention it on the local news at the beginning of each hurricane season and it was a topic of conversation from politicians to environmentalists. They talked about the coastline, levees and flood control plans. But I don’t think anyone ever realized what would happen when the big one finally came. Talking about the big one was like talking about how California would fall off into the ocean. It just seemed unlikely. Unfortunately, Katrina would prove otherwise.
We are blessed that our family and friends from New Orleans are alive and safe. We know people who have only lost a few shingles and those who have lost their homes. I can not imagine what it is like to find your home and all of your possessions under 12 feet of water. What would we do? How would we begin to rebuild our lives? It is unfathomable. The people of New Orleans have a great task ahead of them. Katrina has left trauma that will take years to overcome. After the mess is cleaned up and the neighborhoods and businesses are rebuilt, the people will only have begun to heal. It breaks my heart to see them suffer.
Even in the wake of this devastation, I miss New Orleans more than ever. I feel blessed that God moved us to Texas. But I feel more blessed to have experienced New Orleans before this crisis. New Orleans will never be the same. Fortunately, many of its historical sites and areas were not flooded. However, the people of New Orleans are forever changed. They are scattered across the country wondering what lies ahead. They are waiting. Waiting for jobs, loved ones, meals and word about their great city’s future. I wonder too. What will it be like to walk down Canal Street or visit Audubon Park? Will I ever eat at the great restaurants in the West End, or party at Tipitina’s after so much death and destruction? Now, it almost seems like sacred land, land that should be respected and revered. What kind of scar will New Orleans bear? Is her innocence lost?
Missing New Orleans is particularly hard when I attend mass here in Texas. In college, I came to respect and admire the Catholic Church. After my confirmation in my sophomore year, my love and admiration for the Church continued to grow. My faith was nurtured in the walls of the great old churches scattered throughout the city. God spoke to me in these sacred places. From the smell of the hundred year old wood to the music of the pipe organ in an acoustically perfect house, the grand old churches bring peace and tranquility to my soul. I have not found such a place here in Texas. I am sure it exists and one day I may find it, but it will never be as special. My spirit will always be connected to New Orleans. When I kneel in her pews again, I will pray for her healing and for her people. May God have mercy on us.

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