Tomorrow the President will visit New Orleans. He is scheduled to appear at a reopened school and participate in a town hall meeting-style event. (We ought not confuse these ersatz occasions with the substantive sessions of selectmen and citizens celebrated by Thoreau.)
In August, for Katrina’s anniversary, I started research for what I expected to be a sad post. What I found was complicated, but far from sad. Out of the midst of true tragedy emerges a redemptive tale of human creativity. (Read the prior post.)
There is plenty of bad news in the Big Easy. There is also continued cause to worry about a direct hit. Certain realities remain. But the good news should not be denied nor obscured.
The President’s visit is causing a fuss. Some say he has waited too long to come and others complain he is not staying long enough. He will leave mid-afternoon for California.
Every President is a sort of palimpsest. No matter how valuable the original text, we are busy scraping away what is there and replacing it with what we want, even — perhaps especially — if we want an adversary.
Presidents become projections of our hopes and fears, rather than human vessels with particular gifts and frailties. We may make him into hero or villain, but in either case we try to loot his humanity for our own purpose.
In his recently released epic of New Orleans, poet Dave Brinks, opens with,
everwhich at everwhat
this slender hour comes forward
barefoot to the sun
if only I had gray green
black brown yellow eyes
or a door I could see
through terribly clearly
slowly the answer
becomes an epitaph
a flip of the coin
Everything comes down to juggling or the flip of a coin. We never see clearly enough. No matter how careful and complete our thinking and plans, we may be blithely, randomly upended.
Besides, my thinking is seldom careful. Are your plans ever complete?
Palimpsests are manuscripts on which more than one text shares the same face of parchment. A more recent text is typically imposed on the “ghost” of a prior text or texts. In the example at the head of this post you see 6th Century Armenian homilies underwritten 10th Century Syriac prayers. Several classical treasures have been recovered from such underwriting. (See the Archimedes Palimpsest.)
New Orleans is another sort of palimpsest. The character of layer built upon layer, with prior reality never fully erased, is what makes the French Quarter and other neighborhoods popular tourist destinations. Venice, Rome, London, New York in it’s own way, are similarly deep-rooted, multi-layered intricate realities. So are Santa Fe, Boston and Annapolis, Lexington, Kentucky and Mineral Point, Wisconsin. So are most places where a stranger may immediately feel at home.
This layering helps explain why the city’s recovery has exceeded most expectations. New Orleans — for all its many faults — is a place of intimate relationships: between past and present, natural with modern, and among a wide array of diverse peoples and cultures. This layered intimacy is a strength that can withstand a great deal, evidently both a Category 3 Hurricane and systemic human failure.
Resilience is not a concept du jour. Resilience is what happens — what has always happened — when humans live together in a community characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions. (See Resilience and the Commons, from Monday.)
These resilient layers are formed gradually, requiring time and incremental reinforcement. They need ongoing and thoughtful investment. The costs, especially in conversation and experimentation, can be substantial. But the outcomes enhance current happiness, even while our ability to rebound from disaster is strengthened.
OCTOBER 16 UPDATE:
Obama greeted by feisty crowd (Boston Globe)
Mistakes after Katrina won’t be repeated (Bloomberg)