My family house was in New Orleans

They all got out OK. What will they find when they go back?

Published September 7, 2005 7:23PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 13th-generation New Orleans Creole of French, Spanish and German extraction. My mother and siblings and pets evacuated to the north and are alive, thank God, but I am scared about what they will find if they are ever allowed back. We live off Esplanade, near City Park. I am several hundred miles away. My mom lives (lived?) in the same house I grew up in. I think that it is all gone. My husband and I are starting to collect canned goods for the relief effort, but I still feel helpless. Any advice?


Dear Kate,

What I would do, if I were you: I would go be with your family. But with your family or not, you will still have the problem, in a sense, of not being able to do anything. It will still be mainly a question of how to bear what has happened.

There are times when you can do something and times when you can't. It's the times when you can't that interest me the most -- the times when your radio gets only one channel, when the only thing you can get is the broadcast of your own heartbeat. Those insipid little tunes your head plays when you're not looking -- What's for lunch, did I pay the car insurance, when's my vacation, did I feed the dogs today? -- they interest me too, but mainly for the way that, if you sit still long enough, they seem to crackle and die out. What's left, eventually, as we sit and think about our loved ones far away, imagining the house that may or may not still be standing, is the quality of individual consciousness in moments of crisis and impotent fear. Speechless before the big winds of historic weather, at first we find the music frantic and grating. It's a little ditty that goes something like this: Where is my family, are they OK, what will they find when they return, what will they find, what will they find, will we be OK, will we be OK?

And then if you continue thinking about it, it tends to slow down and go something more like this: OK, I am here, I seem to be safe, my family is safe, there will come a time soon when I will see them all, if we have to rebuild we can rebuild.

And then you can take a long, long walk, swinging your arms freely at your sides, getting in tune with the walking. And then you can look around you for signs of the world as it still exists, willed into existence in some places, willed out of existence in others, as though there were holes where things leak out, and other holes where things leak in. As though the world were like our houses, porous in places, temporary at best, but filled with music and memories.

Forgive the silliness of the metaphor, but you're like a little music box. It's the quality of the music you make that makes the difference. I'm not saying there's nothing you can do. But it's the cans themselves you're collecting that make the music. As you collect the cans, pay attention to them. Don't throw them all in a frantic jumble into a random paper bag; pay attention. This is food. This is you doing the essential thing. Essential things quiet the heart. So pay attention to the music of the cans of food. Pay attention to your own little minuets -- you dig?

Of course there are many other practical things you can actually do to help. But I am no expert in all that. There are many better places to learn about that -- Web sites and television and radio, the newspaper and magazines: By now the whole world is focused on what to do. I'm just one small voice focused on the other stuff -- how to do nothing as effectively as possible, so you get through whatever it is without going crazy.

I'm just focused on how to tune in to that great fulfilling station that plays all your favorites. All you have to do is become an antenna. Sit on your own rooftop and be still, knowing that you, at least, do not need to be rescued. You're already home.

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