As usual, a cigarette is dangling from our friend Smokey’s lips as she pulls up in front of our house with a load of spare plywood. “Be Nice or Leave,” it says on the rear window of her weathered old pickup truck, and “New Orleans, proud to crawl home.” It’s early Sunday morning, August 28, and clouds are moving quickly across the sky. Overnight, Hurricane Katrina powered up to a Category 5, and our neighborhood is alive with last-minute preparations. Smokey helps unload the plywood, gives me an evacuation map and a kiss, then hurries home to pick up her hip boots; she knows there’s going to be water. Lots and lots of water. Then she drives to Tulane Hospital, where she will spend the next four days preparing meals around the clock for dozens of doctors, nurses, patients, policemen, and firemen.
As Katrina draws near, on our block and throughout the city, neighbors are helping neighbors. Brothers Mark and Mike take time from their own preparations to help Din and Carolyn cover up their windows. Din and Carolyn drove through the night to pick up their cats; now they’re too tired to evacuate, so Todd and Dann, our neighbors on the south, offer them shelter, cats and all. It’s wonderful to observe so many acts of kindness in the teeth of an impending disaster.
My focus is on our beloved twelve-year-old dog, Daisy, who cannot move. She had spinal surgery five days ago and was recuperating at the vet’s when we retrieved her late last night. We couldn’t bear the thought of going through this, whatever is to come, without her near. Forty-eight hours from now we’ll realize this was the smartest decision we’ve ever made.
My wife, Shannon, and I run around the house, frantically doing what should have been done yesterday, fueled by a kind of nervous, giddy exhilaration. It’s as if the fabric of our lives is being ripped to confront us with the great unknown that always lurks underneath. I feel like I’m seeing the fragile contingency of life; how, at any minute, it can turn on a dime. But I’m not really. Not yet.
Even though Daisy is still heavily sedated, showing whites where her brown eyes should be, our disjointed preparations are making her anxious. She won’t stop yelping. It’s awful; her voice is strange and hoarse. It’s not until I carry her down the stairs and slide her into the back seat of our car that she finally settles down. We say our good-byes to our wonderful friends on the street. No tears. We all think we’ll be seeing each other in a day or two.
One block from our house, at the corner of Esplanade and Rampart, we pass a black family waiting for the bus to take them to the Superdome. Mom, dad, grandma, and two kids carrying blankets, several bags of food, and an ice chest. The bus pulls up and our destinies diverge.
We join the slowest-moving line of traffic you’ve ever seen on the I-10 headed east, toward Mississippi and places north. Everyone behaves remarkably well, but still, we’re going so slow that some people who started out with full tanks of gas are running out and stopping on the side. Under normal conditions I might get mad or impatient—the westbound lanes are empty, the Mississippi governor has sealed his state’s border, there’s no sign of planning anywhere—but every time I look in the backseat and see Daisy’s head resting in Shannon’s lap, sleeping contentedly at last, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. It might seem strange, but for the fourteen hours it takes to get to Birmingham, Alabama, I could not be happier.
Day two finds us taking refuge in Smokey’s sister Martha’s small apartment. What with the dog not walking and our cat climbing on the furniture, it’s kind of like the circus has come to town. What’s more, Martha and Dave have taken in a whole host of their Louisiana and Mississippi relatives. Nevertheless, for a few hours, everybody’s happy. We’re watching CNN, and it looks like New Orleans has dodged another bullet. But then, in the evening, Smokey calls. The policemen coming back to her hospital are badly shaken, she says; the levies are breaking; they’re pulling bodies from the water in St. Bernard Parish.
Tuesday morning confirms it. The nightmare is real and just beginning. No word from our friends who stayed in the city. The lines are all down, and the government is absent. We try to comfort Jean, Smokey’s partner, who is worried sick.
I keep thinking about the black family waiting for the bus. They’re stuck in hell while we’re safe with friends. I hear them in my head: “You left us. You drove right by in your white bubble. What is wrong with you?” But we only had room for one, I think, sick with remorse and anger. I don’t want this to be about race. Let it be about poor planning or mismanagement or class; it’s just too sickening that our city and our country could let this happen because of race. What is wrong with us?
I keep thinking about those empty westbound lanes and the fleet of school buses submerged under water: with proper planning they could’ve saved people, could’ve run shuttles out the I-10 West all day. I’m furious at our leaders, city, state, and national. But I don’t just blame Bush. I blame our country. His policies—tax cuts for the rich, the war in Iraq—express the preference of a majority of Americans, and they had a direct impact on the condition of our levies. But it’s not just that. A paroxysm of caring and support is sweeping the nation, but what about the suffering in Iraq? Horrific bombings get fifteen seconds on the nightly news, then we go blithely about our business, ignoring the country that we pitched into hell. What about the hundreds of millions of hungry, desperate people who subsist on under a dollar a day? Why is our caring so selective, so media-driven? What is wrong with us?
On Day Five We head north to Brooklyn, at the generous invitation of Maureen, my stepson’s mother-in-law. Everybody in our little New Orleans circle has been accounted for: Smokey is reunited with Jean; the others are spreading out across the country. Only Bob stayed behind to keep an eye on the houses, which received a minimum of flooding.
Driving through beautiful Tennessee, it hits me: oh, I’m not just okay. I’m happy. Shouldn’t I be depressed or worried? Our house could still be looted or burned down. What about survivor’s guilt? The images on television have been too sad and awful for words. The answer comes back: to feel bad would be to ignore the evidence of my senses, a lovely day, rolling green hills, Shannon safe by my side. For sixteen years of meditation I’ve trained my mind to dwell in the present, and this is the consequence. I’m here and everything is okay.
“I keep thinking about Ed,” I say to Shannon, referring to our late Zen teacher, Dr. Edward Wortz. “Me, too,” she says. In fact, we’re thinking the same thought, and have been since the beginning of this crisis. Given these circumstances, we know exactly what Ed would say: “Don’t add to the suffering mass.”
The “suffering mass” could be thought of as the aggregate of suffering of all beings on our planet, an unimaginable quantity of suffering. It’s a perspective that most of us, fortunately, will never experience. But it is real. And it’s from this perspective that an enlightened person like Ed would say: we have a responsibility to both ourselves and others to avoid needless suffering.
But what about New Orleans? What about compassion? Well, I know I’m not the last word on the subject, but this I’m sure of: compassion is not watching CNN and feeling bad. It’s getting out your checkbook, or being considerate on the road, or helping a teacher at your kid’s school. It’s never painful. It’s not guilt. If there’s a feeling/emotion in compassion, it’s the sweetness of doing something kind for another being. How could that ever feel bad?
The example Ed often cited was Mother Teresa, who, even while surrounded by unspeakable misery, seemed to maintain her equanimity and humor. Imagine if she’d felt obliged to mirror the suffering of every person she touched: dear God, she’d have been a quivering mass of jelly in the corner, no good to anybody.
So much emphasis is placed in Buddhism on “cultivating compassion” that it can seem like an esoteric practice, reserved for lofty beings or advanced stages of our development. It’s not. In fact it’s been right here all along, like the Tin Man’s heart, in the smallest and simplest acts of our daily lives: a smile, a hug, an expression of sympathy or interest. Of course it’s in the bigger acts, too-helping friends board up their windows, looking for survivors on rooftops, taking refugees into your home.
We’re in Brooklyn now. I’d love to report a heroic act of my own since this began, but none so far. Over the last two weeks, instead, Shannon and I have been the recipients of many other people’s kindness—friends, family, and strangers. I’ve learned a lot from them about compassion. It’s in the act; it feels good; and it will mean more to the other person than you’ll ever know.
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