Saturday, August 29, 2009

Katrina Plus Four

For me, the day before Katrina is the anniversary that always brings a moment’s silent remembrance and reassessment. It was on Sunday that we finished boarding up our house, packed our cars, and drove away from a neighborhood, a city, a life that would never be the same again. It was on Sunday when, trapped in traffic as the feeder bands of the hurricane rolled over us, I looked out over a vista of tens of thousands fleeing for their lives and realized three things with sudden, painful clarity: that I was part of an event that was both frightening and powerfully historic, that my world was about to be turned upside down and inside out, and that I was one of the lucky ones because I was getting out with my family.

It sounds like a selfish focus, concentrated on my own pain, my own experience rather than on the 1,800+ who died. It is not.

I actually started this blog on an earlier Katrina anniversary, when—like the parents of a newborn child—we were still counting the passage of time by months. Curious about how far I’ve come since that day, I went back and reread my first posting, written in my gutted office when we were still working so hard to get back into our house. Here it is…

Saturday was an anniversary of sorts. Eight months ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina took off the roof of our New Orleans-area house while the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain came sluicing through the ground floor. Sometimes I still lay awake at night and torture myself with conjured images of water lapping at my bookcases…swirling around my daughter’s lovely old iron frame piano…leaching the color from the polished wood of ancient chests. The images are always without sound, like glimpses into the eerie, flooded world of Atlantis or the Titanic. And then I think, No, not my house. Reality tilts and never quite rights itself.

Eight months. For eight months we’ve lived the life of refugees, shuttling from one shelter to the next. The possessions Katrina left us are boxed and scattered—at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge and two storage units in two different cities, at my mother’s house and the now-empty house of an aged aunt for whom the horrors of Katrina proved simply too much to bear. My mind is scattered, too. I look at the antique roses in my garden, survivors whose carefully lettered copper labels were carried away by the waters into oblivion. Once, I could have named every bush, told you its heritage and characteristics. Not now. That was another life, another reality.

Imagine a house shattered by wind and water. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of houses standing broken and empty. That is New Orleans. Imagine the army of laborers and carpenters, electricians and plumbers and roofers required to make it all right again. They’re not here. (Where would they live?) And so we either wait, or we take up tools and get to work. With hammer and wrecking bar, we attack sodden walls and mold-covered doorframes. We choke back tears as we drag beloved memories, the pieces of our lives, out to the curb and abandon them there to the sun and the rain. We learn to hang and float Sheetrock, to stomp ceilings, to cut trim and plumb sinks. There is a sense of pride, a strength that comes from rebuilding our own house. I think of my ancestors braving the terrors of immigrant ships to build log cabins in the dark forests of Virginia and Tennessee. Or my other great-grandparents, the ones who belonged to the Clan of the Wolf and lived in tune with the seasons and the pulses of the earth. I wonder if they would be ashamed of me, see me as weak. Crushed and disoriented by one little hurricane. Okay, one big hurricane.

Will we ever be the same again? No. Is that a good thing, or bad? Perhaps it is both. In all these months, I have written little. The people in New York have been understanding, in their way. I put the manuscript for my next book, When Gods Die, in the mail a week before Katrina hit. My editor didn’t bother me with the revisions until January. Perhaps she realized I couldn’t handle it until then. I’m still amazed I did manage to do the revisions. I am now committed to write the next book in the series, Why Mermaids Sing. Once, I was excited about this book. I’m still excited about this book. But doubts crowd in on me. My husband says, You’ve always been like this when you start a book.

Yes, I was. But my books come from my soul, and my soul has shifted.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: What Remains of Heaven
Dear Candice, I am now re-reading Where Serpents Sleep in preparation for the new book. But I must ask you, and I have read four of these books feeling uncomfortable about this: How does one pronounce St. Cyr? Sans Sir: Saint Sear? I am at a loss, since California schools emphasized Spanish, and I know nothing of French. Please help.
Diane, Vancouver, WA

3:13 PM  
Blogger Steve Malley said...

Those really were hard, dark days. I love the way you wrote yourself through them.

And Diane, being a Brit and all-- the good folks who pronounce Ruthven as 'Rivven' and St. John as 'SinJin'-- St. Cyr'd likely be mangled into 'Sincere' or even something like 'Sizzer'.

How'd I do, Candy? :)

5:44 PM  
Blogger Faith said...

I think one of the reasons I enjoy your mystery novels is because they can get so dark and noir-ish. Maybe I'm not alone. But if Katrina shifted your soul and that helped shift the direction of the novels... I could never say that it was a good thing but experience makes us who we are, right?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

The soul has shifted. That is certain. I don't always see in myself the changes that occurred then, but when I take time to think I sense them.

10:25 AM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Diane, the name is originally French. The French say "St. See-rr" (the "saint" of course is pronounced the same way as in the name Yves St. Laurent). I say "Saint SEER" because that's the way the people I've known with that name pronounce it (even Cajuns who can do some strange things to French words).

But as Steve notes, the Brits are famous for doing really, really strange things to French names. I remember having a horrid time trying to buy a train ticket to "Beauvoir castle" until I realized they pronounce it "Buu-lee". Thus I've seen it very authoritatively stated that St. Cyr is pronounced Sancher or even Saint Sire. There was a famous stripper in Hollywood in the 40's who pronounced it "Sincere."

I've decided Sebastian calls himself "Saint SEER." But the bottom line is, you can pronounce it any way you want!

12:25 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Faith, I'm always surprised whenever reviewers and readers say my books are "dark" because I don't think of them that way--although I know they're not exactly light and fluffy! You're right, our experiences make us who we are. Katrina shattered so many of my comfortable assumptions and ways of thinking that I'm still trying to process it all.

Charles, I'm not sure I could articulate the ways I've changed. It might make for an interesting group discussion.

12:33 PM  
Blogger orannia said...

Thank you so much for sharing your first post Candy...and I do hope that you can look back and see how far you've all come :) Because (IMHO) it's not the falling off but the picking yourself up and dusting yourself off that counts and trying again :)

Did you ever manage to work out what your roses were called BTW?

5:45 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Orannia, it was indeed instructive to look back and see how far we've come.

I have been able to identify many of my roses. I'd written down where I planted many (but not all, unfortunately) of the ones I had in the ground, and after we moved back in the house and unpacked i found my gardening notebook. But I had a lot of the roses in big pots that tipped over and rolled around in the floodwaters, so that they were hopelessly jumbled. Some are distinctive enough that I've been able to figure them out. But some are so similar--I like white roses--that they will forever remain mysteries.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Lainey said...

That's a high impact, straight-to-the-gut visual you used at the top of this blog.

We in Houston felt the ripples from Katrina due to family/business ties. There were so many Houston homes bursting at the seams from sheltering members of their New Orleans families - 80-something nuns to infants.

6:49 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Lainey, the photo came from our local newspaper and gave me chills, too.

That was one of the most incredible things about Katrina, the way people opened their homes to family, friends, and even strangers.

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