The New Jersey town where I live is beautiful in winter, a season that, because I grew up in New Orleans, still surprises me. This week, the streets are scattered with glittering snow and neighborhoods look serene under the bright blue sky. I imagine all the families warm and safe inside.
Underneath this surface, the financial crisis looms—so many lost jobs and foreclosures. The signs of this are not visible if you scan the neighborhood quickly, but those losses are very real and they are there.
And yet when my husband and I take my daughters out to play on our street, I still imagine our suburban street disappearing. What would happen I think, as I watch my girls, if the houses on my street were swallowed by water, wrenched off their foundations, nothing left but the front steps? If in front of every missing home stood piles of trash, furniture, duct-taped refrigerators? I would suggest that everyone spend time imagining their home, their household, their church, their school eradicated. Everyone should ride down Highway 90 – “Hurricane Alley” -- through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans to witness the devastation: the tangles of dead trees, the leveled buildings, whole neighborhoods erased.
Everyone should spend time in New Orleans—where before the storm the poverty level was 23%, nearly double that of the nation. Where, three and a half years after the hurricane, houses are gutted, molded, gone and neighborhoods have disappeared.
I don’t say all this to be callous or mean spirited, but I worry that we feel more comfortable believing in the easy narratives of rebuilding, recovery and that all-American favorite, closure.
And so instead I turn to poetry because what it offers is the opposite of an easy narrative. As poet Jane Kenyon writes in her poem “Otherwise”: “[I] planned another day / just like this day. / But one day, I know / it will be otherwise.”
And why shouldn’t it be?
I think of Kenyon’s words, as she reminds us of the alternatives to the lives we lead. And so even in the midst of the terrible financial crisis, we must not forget the people of the Gulf Coast who have suffered and continue to suffer so much – who could be us, who are us.