Sunday, February 21, 2010

Guest Post: Roots

I have so little time to write these days that even this gift languished for days in my inbox. If you can read it and wonder why I married the author, then you haven't been reading the blog long enough to understand me yet. Enjoy. Doc
Today, a friend of mine sent me a letter about a conversation she had with a taxi cab driver. He had asked her about her country of origin and she had proudly replied, “I am from Haiti.” His surprising response to this, in light of recent news about the earthquake, was not one of compassion. Instead, he berated Haiti for its social and political difficulties. He asked her why the poverty level was so high and why Haitians were lazy. She said he was haughty and disdainful in his ignorance. My friend is a highly educated, extremely accomplished woman. She said she found herself without words for this man, who was in fact, not of American birth either. He was Indian, coming from a country with a reputation for severe poverty itself. I can understand her frustration, her shock, and her impulse to defend her homeland. She wrote to my family and I because we are from New Orleans. My parents survived Katrina, but their home did not. I was lucky enough to have moved years prior to the storm, but we are all still rebuilding emotionally.

My husband, who hosts this blog today, commented on William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom as a parallel to the concept of others not understanding why we live where we do, why we are who we are. He discussed Shreve, a character not of southern descent, who says to Mississippi-born Quentin, “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Quentin’s response is that one has to be from there in order to understand it fully, but I think it is like breathing—being from a place is like breathing. It comes so naturally, how could I ever explain it to someone that cannot? And why is it that others enjoy ridiculing and finding fault with each gardenia-infused breath?

Below is my response to my friend’s letter today, with only minor details tweaked:

I will never forget when New Orleans flooded-- the impact on its people who lived there and elsewhere. I was at the gym one day and the television was running footage of the city and newsmen were discussing the looting and crime that was taking place. Two men behind me said to each other that New Orleans was as worthless as Sodom Gomorrah and that this was a deserved punishment. They commented that God was "cleaning out the trash" or something like that. I was so upset, I couldn't speak. Even to this day, here in Virginia, only an hour and a half from the Atlantic Ocean, I am asked why New Orleanians choose to live so close to the water in a flood zone. I have been asked for years why race and poverty is the way it is there.

Haiti is home for you the way New Orleans is home for me. I do not live there physically any more, and my accent is gone, but psychologically, I am as much a New Orleanian as ever. I think that way, eat that way, live that way. For those of us who grew up in this unique city, we know the jewel that our hometown makes us-- we are aware of our contribution to American culture. We were New Orleanians before we were Americans, and I think in many respects, still are.

New Orleans is riddled with crime, terrible poverty, prostitution, and corrupt politics. The men who rise to lead us are often trapped in a cycle of deceit, bribery, and selfishness. Were politicians not friends with the policemen who shut blind eyes to crime in certain districts, the city would be a different place. We are sadly accustomed to crime and poverty. We enable it by tolerating it. That cycle continues.

Why do people stay there? Like Haiti for you, it's home. It's where Mama is, where your first steps were taken, where the neighbors brought you wine when you bought your first house. It's where life is celebrated in parades and festivals year round. It's where you can find the best food and coffee in the world. It's where the air smells of salt and humidity and flowers and spice-- sometimes in parts, sometimes all at once. Louisiana is the cradle for New Orleans. It's where my father's family settled generations ago. His grandmother was born there after her European parents quit the Jenny Lind orchestra to marry. Dad's paternal grandfather's family had been there before that. I have cousins affiliated with the original families that settled the city. And I attended a school established by Ursuline nuns, who ministered to the original families and emigrated with them from France.

Leaving home was hard. Choosing not to live there after my divorce was hard. Staying away is hard. Going back, New Orleans is the missing piece of the puzzle inside me, but life has sent me elsewhere.

I hate when people make rash judgments about our home. You would never hear me ask a New Yorker why he chooses to remain in an urban jungle, why someone from Montana chooses to stay living on his hundred acre tract of "poverty with a view" (as a rancher once told me), or why someone from even the Appalachians chooses to remain remotely located in a mountain shanty. We know who we are.

My hope for Haiti is that it is resurrected as a stronger country. Tragedy draws attention to need-- perhaps that is the strangely divine purpose in this horror and loss. Haiti will need years of rebuilding, like New Orleans. And I hope it finds good, strong souls to lead the way.

Best wishes to you, readers, in wherever you choose to call home. May compassion be yours in your own time of trouble there, and may your own sense of place be as natural as breathing.

Laura V. Bonner