New Orleans is going through an incredible period of transition -- from a battling city to an embattled one, from a fairly large city to a pretty small one, from a city of bottomless history to one facing an uncertain future. We seem to feel that, in order to move forward, we need all hands on deck. There's so much work to do, and we want all of our friends and family to join us in the struggle.
Ihat desire to unite and marshal our forces to begin this struggle, many of us cannot believe that there are those among us who will not be there with us -- for us -- in the fight. There's a palpable sense of desertion at play here. Abandonment. With that comes an understandable feeling of resentment over the idea that some of those closest to us don't have the stomach for this. But as Michael Tisserand's chronicling of his own journey (captured in his "Submerged" journal) shows, the decision whether to stay or go is an incredibly complicated one.
A few weeks ago, a very close friend of mine returned to New Orleans after months in exile. He'd evacuated to Mississippi, then to Georgia, and then out West. When he came home for a whirlwind weekend of surveying the situation, packing and leaving, we went to a party and a bar. I watched as his friends needled him, using the word "quitter" as a punchline. Outwardly, he took it all in stride. Privately, he showed the same wounds others are displaying while making the decision to move on with their lives.
Frankly, a couple months ago, both of us were in exactly the same situation. We'd accomplished some things with our jobs, had experienced varying levels of professional and personal frustrations with the city, and we both wondered if Hurricane Katrina had given us an opportunity to start our lives over -- somewhere else.
Within a matter of days, our attitudes diverged. Still uncertain about my own status, I decided to return, figuring things would somehow work out, and that to leave would be denying myself the opportunity to be a part of something historical, something special, in the city. I told prospective employers in California and Arizona thatmy greatest fear would be to wake up one morning three months hence, walk into their office and say I needed to go home. My friend weighed those same emotions, but he saw his opportunity to be a part of something special, outside of New Orleans.
As he set out for his cross-country trek, he phoned me from his car, staring at a 20-hour journey and openly questioning whether he was indeed abandoning New Orleans. I cradled the phone in my hand, in my cramped temporary "office," and shot back, "You need to get that thought out of your head right now. You're not abandoning anything. You're moving on."
I knew that my friend -- one of too many friends I've had to say goodbye to in recent weeks -- would always be a part of New Orleans, whether in person or in spirit. Better still, I took comfort in the notion that, as New Orleans has always been known for exporting its culture, we could now export New Orleanians in record numbers -- to many places at once. In that sense, all of those who leave, for however long, will take New Orleans with them. They will take that sense of independence, that sense of creativity, that sense of history, culture and uniqueness, that sense of live and let live, to a nation that ponders why New Orleans is so important, and salvageable. They will be our goodwill ambassadors. They will be our interpreters.
And, come Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, they will be crashing on our couches and in our guest rooms, bringing back a little something from the outside world, helping to make us whole again.
I've often thought about how, because of New Orleans' sometimes provincial nature -- where natives are polite but sometimes leery of transplants -- non-natives have to qualify for special pins to mark the time they've put in here. You know, like Alcoholics Anonymous members. Now, I fear another caste system is already developing. Those who stayed through the storms will be the proudest, followed by those who returned within days, then within weeks, and then months. And we will all revel in our pride for being the brave frontier folk who stayed to fight the good fight, to rebuild the city. And then, when our friends return, when the city is in better shape -- when the stink blows away, the debris clears up, the services return to normal, even homes become inhabitable -- we'll resent them.
If we can't learn how to say goodbye to our friends and family now, we will only make it more difficult on ourselves if we ever get the chance to welcome them back. It's too painful to think that they won't come back. But if they don't, we also have to learn to let go. It's the only way for the city, and its citizens, to move on with our lives.