Nine years ago, people across our country asked whether or not New Orleans should be saved. They asked why we couldn’t all just move a little further up river? Why we couldn’t all just start over in another town? Somewhere cleaner and newer and shinier. A place that didn’t have crime and grit and Bourbon Street. A place that was like everywhere else.
And I suppose I should have understood why they might ask these questions. How do you explain to someone not from here that New Orleans isn’t where we live; New Orleans is who we are? How do you explain that without it, you feel lost. Like you cannot breathe deeply enough.
How do you tell them that you can’t imagine a world where you don’t eat red beans and rice on Mondays and attend your church’s fish fry on Fridays? How do you explain that you’ve never lived more than three miles from your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins? How do you describe the painful silence that exists in a world without the sound of a trumpet playing and a drum beating?
And how do you tell them that one day your two year old will wait an eternity to embrace her father as he parades down Royal Street with his Mardi Gras krewe. She will shout, “Daddy, I see Daddy!” And he will emerge from the ranks of marchers holding up the biggest, shiniest bead any two year old has ever seen. He will place that special prize around her neck and twirl her around in a display of love and joy and excitement the likes of which any parent dreams for. And you will think nothing of putting an overly teased, hot pink wig on her head as she smiles and says, “Look, Daddy. I look like Mommy. I ride in Muses.” How do you explain that the tears that spring to your eyes in this moment are because you know this could only happen in a place as special as New Orleans?
And how do you tell them that this is just one of those kinds of moments? That as New Orleanians our upbringings are filled with those just like it. There’s the look of amazement when, for the first time, your baby sees the elephant exhibit at the Audubon Zoo and their storybook world of animals and nature comes alive. There is, of course, the unbridled excitement of a toddler’s first streetcar ride. The windows are down and the breeze blows through their curls and you hold them a bit tighter because you know that it was just yesterday that it was you sitting there in your momma’s lap taking in the smell of jasmine and the sight of ancient oaks. There’s the first time they tried a snoball. It’s a hot summer day and they spill more than they taste and you swear to only order the yellow kind because the red kind is so messy but you know that you never will because the mess is a measure of the joy they are experiencing. And that’s the thing about New Orleans that is hard for outsiders to understand. It is a messy place. But, man is it filled with joy.
As the years have gone by, I find myself numbing to the tangible pain I felt as a result of Hurricane Katrina. I find myself forgiving those who questioned our worth. Maybe it is that time truly does heal old wounds. Or maybe it is that nine years later, I now realize that sometimes you can’t see just how special a place is unless you have been lucky enough to know that it is in you.