Monday, October 19, 2009
NEGATIVITY PART 1: Katrina Revisited
Of late I have been thinking quite a bit about how to view, or interact with, or handle—negativity, suffering, cruelty, destructive stupidity, victimization, and crassness of every ilk. I want to write about it now, in bits and pieces, to try to find some coherence, some way to live positively without being blind and numb. I invite you to dialogue with me here or on Facebook, if you'd like, because this has got to be one of the most important issues we can tackle at this point in our transformation process.
What arises first is coming out of my reading The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke, one of my favorite mystery writers. Burke, whose Dave Robicheaux detective series takes place in the Louisiana bayou country, places this story right in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. And he describes the hurricane itself and its aftermath as only a writer sensitive to minute sensory detail can. Here is his description of the storm itself:
"A category 5 hurricane carries an explosive force several times greater than that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. But unlike a man-made weapon of mass destruction, a hurricane creates an environment that preempts our natural laws. Early on the air turns a chemical green and contains a density that you can hold in your palm. The lightning and the thunder arrive almost like predictable friends, then fade into the ether and seem to become little more than a summer squall. Rain rings chain the swells between the whitecaps and the wind smells of salt spray and hard-packed sand that has warmed under the sun. You wonder if all the preparedness and alarm hasn't been much ado about nothing.
"Then the tide seems to shrink from the land, as though a giant drainhole has formed in the center of the Gulf. Palm trees straighten in the stillness, their fronds suddenly lifeless. You swallow to stop the popping sound in your ears, with the same sense of impotence you might experience aboard a plane that is dramatically losing altitude. To the south, a long black hump begins to gather itself on the earth's rim, swelling out of the water like an enormous whale, extending itself all across the horizon. You cannot believe what you are watching. The black hump is now rushing toward the coastline, gaining momentum and size, increasing in velocity so rapidly that its own crest is absorbed by the wave before it can crash to the surface in front of it."
I was in Johannesburg, South Africa when Katrina hit, working there for 2 months. I saw the coverage through the more neutral eyes of the BBC and worldwide CNN, not from America's own media. I was numbed by what I saw, and yet I was so distant from it; it was like seeing tragedies in foreign countries from the comfort of my living room in California. Here I was viewing something in my own country as a foreigner might see it. And on top of that odd inside-outness, I was experiencing the true dangers of a real crime-ridden city, and the atrocities committed by and to the various black peoples who'd immigrated to J'burg — all the homes "protected" by high walls topped with rows of razor wire, being warned of men breaking car windows with spark plugs to carjack you; reeling over reports of break-ins where burglars raided refrigerators then murdered all the people in the house, having visited Soweto's shanties. I was in such overwhelm from the parallels between the gruesome realities. How much could I actually let in, and process? Burke goes on to describe some of the Katrina afternath:
"From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves. The sun was merciless in the sky, the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes. The linear structure of a neighborhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.
"The smell was like none I ever experienced. The water was chocolate-brown, the surface glistening with a blue-green sheen of oil and industrial chemicals. Raw feces and used toilet paper issued from broken sewer lines. The gray, throat-gagging odor of decomposition permeated not only the air but everything we touched. The bodies of dead animals, including deer, rolled in the wake of our rescue boats. And so did those of human beings, sometimes just a shoulder or an arm or the back of a head, suddenly surfacing, then sinking under the froth.
"They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.
"If by chance you hear a tape of the 911 cell phone calls from those attics, walk away from it as quickly as possible, unless you are willing to live with voices that will come aborning in your sleep for the rest of your life."
I am reading Burke's great detail of the horrendousness of the situation, because I want to feel more, but I also don't want to feel that much more. But I'm doing it, putting myself in other people's shoes. I am pondering: How does one help? How do I expand to allow these suffering-realities and not be dragged down by them, and not validate them too much, and not recoil from them too much, and maintain and evolve my compassion? I'm not quite sure yet, but I am going to keep writing and penetrating into these ideas. . . There surely is much more of this to come as we transform from old world to new — along with great positive openings, too, of course — but if we want to lead a path through suffering, we've got to be able to maintain a healthy center, an open heart.