Sunday, March 19, 2006

Spring break and my sense of place

The Spirit of Home

The constant pounding of hammers and crowbars reverberates against the naked concrete floor, finally creating a sense of near-deafness in my ears. Opening closets shut up for seven months, avalanches of unrecognizable belongings still saturated with sea water tumble out, smearing our protective white suits with the same black mold that covers everything in the abandoned residences. Gutting houses from floor to ceiling, giving our time to enable the natives of New Orleans to return to the hurricane-ravaged city to reconstruct their homes and their lives.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last August, I was amazed to learn of the number of people who actually remained in the area to face the storm. Even more astonishing, however, are the hordes of people who are eager to return, after months as refugees, to their rubble piles and their ghost towns. Why not just leave? Start anew, somewhere else—Texas, Arizona, even upstate Louisiana—but don’t come back and rebuild, right on the very spot that was flattened by an unstoppable force that makes its return every year. Don’t start again here, only to live in fear until the next storm comes and wipes you out again. To me, it seemed like common sense.

Until my week in the New Orleans area. Until seeing the FEMA trailers erected in the front yards of recently returned residents. Until seeing the spray-painted messages reading “We’ll be back, New Orleans” scrawled on the brick walls of abandoned homes and businesses. Until speaking with the homeowners, filled with gratitude that a group of college students would travel down during spring break to help them come home. Only now do I understand—something more than houses and possessions and jobs ties these people to their Gulf Coast habitat. Something irreplaceable and indestructible, something they would never find anyplace else.

Hurricanes were never a major threat in Savannah when I was young. Savannah is in a blessed location, with the Gulf Stream only miles off its concave coastline, and always seems to evade the hurricanes that threaten it. Twice in my lifetime my family and I evacuated our home in anticipation of a hurricane, and twice we returned to a city spared from all but mild wind damage.

But Savannah meant more to me than just my house and my school. Savannah meant boating on warm summer mornings, sitting on the bow of Dad’s seventeen-foot skiff with the wind whipping at my salty hair. It meant long, carefree summer evenings, complete with clouds of sand gnats at dusk, bloodthirsty deer flies after dark, and cricket symphonies throughout the night. It meant standing on a windy beach and watching the Atlantic Ocean roll predictably back and forth, as I imagined that I could see the faint glimmer of the African coastline on the horizon. With all the joys and experiences came also the few tiny evils, like cottonmouths and eastern diamondbacks and even occasional alligators, and the threat of floods and hurricanes. It was all what made Savannah home; and while my family was fortunate enough to never have had to leave, I don’t believe that we would have ever left it behind us for good.

When I moved to Athens, doors to new experiences suddenly gaped open before me. The firmly packed red hills at the very foot of the breathtaking Smoky Mountains, the crisp hardwood forests and the lovely colors of the piedmont autumn, all became part of my framework of belonging, alongside my coastal childhood. I was ready for a change in my natural and social environment, and I appreciate it still—though, admittedly, there are times when I miss the smell of the muddy banks of the Ogeechee coming in on the morning breeze. You can never escape the places you once called home, even if you leave them physically behind you. They always serve as reference points for each new experience. I am the coastal plain, the Georgia piedmont—they have formed me. When I finish school and move on, some new piece of the world will likely become a part of my formation as well, changing me again in a continuing process.

Many of the people of New Orleans, I realize this week, were not ready for that change. Their beloved city, situated on the Gulf Coast right at the mouth of the Mississippi, was all they knew—and when change came, uninvited, one August day, their natural reaction was to stand up against it, wielding their fierce attachment to home as their only weapon against loss and destruction. Standing on a junk heap of sheetrock and memories I let pieces of their lives sift through my hands onto the ground, a treasured toy here, a priceless snapshot there, all unsalvageable. But these are only material things. As I listen to the stories of their lives, growing up here and going to school, Daddy teaching them how to play the piano, as I stand and eat shrimp and crawfish with them and hear their joyful plans for coming home—now I see the spirit that draws them back. They are New Orleans. How could they not return?

As we leave we pray for them and wish them well, and immediately my tears begin coming. After four short days, I believe New Orleans has become a part of me too.

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