Guest post by KENNETH W. BICKFORD
Exactly ten years ago tonight, my family and I were enjoying an unscheduled visit to Houston, Texas, where we wined and dined with old friends. For a very long time, New Orleanians have planned their hurri-cations with nearly the same off-hand and casual demeanor one would use to plan a dinner party. One simply goes through the checklist — are the groceries bought? Is the tank full of gas? Do we have batteries? Are the suitcases packed? Check. Threats to recalcitrant children? Check. Strong language for wives who over-pack — for crying out loud, woman, we’ll only be gone for three days! Check.
You’d pardon me for being rather blasé about the “big one,” but you see, in those days the world seemed to operate like a well-oiled machine. True, there were some nasty surprises here and there — but FedEx got my packages to me overnight, State Farm insured my car, Chubb insured my house, the FDIC guaranteed my checking account, and the liquor store guaranteed my prescription was ready for pick-up. What else could the 21st century man — the man of 2005 — want? We’re self-reliant, lift-ourselves-by-our-own-bootstrap Americans! We have everything we need — we’ve got FEMA!
Six weeks later, I drove down a desolate St. Charles Avenue.
The sky was utterly blue while the city was utterly dead. I shared the Avenue with no other living soul. Katrina had even killed the birds. An impenetrable cocoon of silence had blanketed the city — the kind of silence that one only finds deep in a dark and evil wilderness, or sees portrayed in movies where a virus has wiped out the species.
It is a sobering thought to imagine a city — your city — so full of life one day, and laughter, and criminal activity, and good deeds, and hail-fellows-well-met, and pretty girls, and gnarled old women, and quarrelsome children running headlong just to see what’s around the next corner — to see your hometown in all of its run-of-the-mill ordinariness and then . . . to wake up one morning and suddenly know that you’ll never step into that river again — that it is all gone for good.
I had come to town from Baton Rouge (where the family and I had relocated to an old family home) for the purpose of checking out our house and retrieving a few things. Nothing too serious, mind you. I only needed a few pots to cook in, extra undergarments, silly little things that most people live without, really. But the woman of the (relocated) house had to have her things. “And clean out the refrigerator and freezer while you’re there,” she had intoned.
And what did I do? Well Sir, I cleaned out the refrigerator and freezer.
For those of you who don’t know, the only difference between August and September in New Orleans is the spelling. After six weeks in the September warmth, that durable good had acquired an odor that was powerful but not entertaining. I daubed some Vick’s vapor rub into my nostrils, dipped a bandana into a bottle of Dr. Tichenor’s antiseptic and tied it around my face — and the combination of those two items came closer to killing me than anything the freezer had to offer.
Of this much I am certain: When the next storm comes, the meat comes with me.
About other certainties, however, I am more circumspect.
You see, I had come to rely upon certainty in a foolish way. Certainty was my eternal friend. “I’ll meet you tomorrow at noon,” I’d say. And what did I do? Why I met you at noon, of course. If I decided to buy potatoes at the grocery store, guess what I did? I bought potatoes at the grocery store! Can you guess what happened if I put the garbage can on the curb on Thursday night? I’ll tell you what happened: The sanitation truck came by on Friday morning and whisked the contents of it away.
If I dropped by a friend’s house for a glass of bourbon on a Tuesday afternoon, we had — of all things — a glass of bourbon. If I went to bed at night, no one barged through the door and threw me in jail on a trumped up charge. If I opened the refrigerator door, the light came on. If the dog went too long between walks, he could be utterly depended upon to soil a small and valuable Aubusson rug while ignoring the wooden floors that covered the whole of the house. If a politician opened his mouth, I knew with a dead certainty that a lie was beginning to form.
Your life may be one of confusion and bewilderment, Sir—but there was practically no end to the certainties in my life.
Certainty about tomorrow had become my narcotic, one that had thoroughly replaced the virtue without which none of my ancestors could have lived: Christian Hope.
They occupied a world that was “red in tooth and claw,” covered in woods filled with the wild things, and cities where the enemy lay in wait — blackhearted men in alleys, or unforeseen accidents, or diseases hidden in the crevices and cracks of their own homes. For them, certainty was an infrequent visitor, one that could not be depended upon to stay the night.
They needed something to get by the wolves — and it was Hope that got them home.
Certainty, as fine as it is, and as much as we enjoy his delightful company, cannot live with Hope. With Certainty, Hope is just another psychological mouth to feed — and an unnecessary one at that. How could I have known — and how could you have known — that when Certainty is king, despair is his hollow-cheeked and emaciated queen? How could we know that all is well, and all will be well only when Certainty sits upon his throne — but that the moment he steps away to inspect the kingdom, or run off to a Crusade, or buy a castle for his mistress, that his very absence brings upon us the hopeless, deathly rule of despair?
Upon the perished Avenue . . . in the expired city . . . on that October morning in 2005, all Certainty abandoned me — I became the starving servant of despair.
What had become of our friends? I did not know. Where would we live? I did not know. Where would the children go to school? I did not know. Would we ever see home again? Again, I did not know.
And then I remembered something. In the middle of my despair and grief, I had quite forgotten it, but then I remembered it:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
What I suddenly remembered was that I was supposed to be on my way somewhere — a lifelong pilgrimage to an eternal destiny. Before, I had lived as if I had already arrived — as if I had nowhere else to go. And indeed, when you have already arrived, things can only get worse.
For me and my fellow New Orleanians, things got worse. We had mistakenly lived as if we had arrived when we should have lived as pilgrims “on the way.” We had put away our Hope in exchange for Certainty, and for a very long time Certainty had kept the lights on, the faucets running, the dinner hot, and the chalice full. Until it didn’t.
I remember moving back to the City in November, and of how when the garbage truck rolled by once in a fortnight, we felt gratitude and even cheered for the men as they passed. I remember how if the grocery store was out of bread, we felt grateful to buy their undersized eggs. I remember how happy we were when the drugstore stayed open for eight whole hours.
And I remember drinking bourbon on the porch with an old friend who’d been through enough hell to burn Satan’s dinner — and of deep gratitude that I could sit on porches again with old friends.
I particularly remember saying grace with my family for the first time upon our arrival back home — and of how good it felt to hold my wife and daughters’ hands as we prayed, and thinking how lucky we were that God had given us to one another.
As difficult as these ten years have been — and make no mistake about it, New Orleans ain’t out of the woods yet — I feel that perhaps the storm has left us New Orleanians with an improved perspective on things. True enough, many have begun to slip back into the old customs and habits — acting as if they’ve arrived and no longer needing Hope.
Certainty is sitting on his throne again, reassuring us — reassuring you, too, I bet — that tomorrow is vouchsafed and you can take it easy, and that even if something tragic happens, you’ve still got your friends — you’ve still got your family. Ten years ago tonight, I would have agreed with you.
The trouble is that Certainty is a fly-by-night, and when — not if — he leaves you, you’ll need something better than despair to see you through. More than a few folks committed suicide in the aftermath of Katrina — the name despair goes by in these parts. They were fine people and I miss them. But they were hopeless. How I wish that they could have seen the value in Hope, and understood that while we live on this earth, we are meant to be pilgrims, always on the move, traveling towards a destiny not of this world, and that the worst thing that could possibly happen to us is to arrive.
Maybe you’ve arrived. Maybe you know with infallible certitude what tomorrow brings. Maybe you know something I don’t know. Maybe not.
It has been said that “nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool.” I was once talented in that regard.
Now I’m beginning to wonder.