BEFORE AUGUST 29, 2005, New Orleans was humming along like any other major, if dysfunctional, American city. If your refrigerator stopped working, for example, you could open the Yellow Pages and choose from a dozen names. After a

 Courtesy of Debbie Fleming Cafferty and Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA
Courtesy of Debbie Fleming Cafferty and Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA

 

On our third day home, I was sweeping broken glass in the hallway when I saw our cordless phone sitting on top of the Yellow Pages. The phone was dead, the city still without power, gas, or water. We were living like pioneers in our own home. I picked up the musty directory and turned the pages with a kind of awe. I knew that, from A to Z, every single listing represented a person or business that was no longer there—thousands of people’s blood, sweat, and dreams, all gone. The buildings were boarded up, their interiors covered with dry muck, the streets deserted for more square miles than you could imagine. It was a visceral realization: Even civilization is impermanent. Not in the future, but now. Its impermanence is now.

Again and again, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I found my conceptual models bumping up against a reality that would not support them. We tell ourselves stories about who we are and what life is, but they are inherently fictions. They restrict our attention to a narrow band of consciousness within the vastness of awareness, turning reality into a kind of two-dimensional backdrop, a mere stage on which to enact our lives. How shocking it is, then, when the stage declares that it, too, is alive, and proceeds to burn and flood and disappear beneath a field of weeds.

For a month, my wife, Shannon, and I heated water outside on a propane burner and lugged steaming pots of water through the house to bathe and cook. It was time-consuming, but not a problem. The work provided clarity. It communicated to our bodies all the ways the vast infrastructure of civilization normally supports our lives, usually as invisible to us as the workings of our own cardiovascular system, until something goes wrong. We came to appreciate that water is not minted at the tap. I remember, after our gas service had finally been restored, the first time hot water poured into the bathroom sink. Let me tell you, I was awake for that moment. I did not take it for granted. I was aware of the pipe that delivered the water from the heater in the basement, and of the freshly lit flame under the tank, and of the natural gas that ran through a pipe to the valve outside. I was aware of the society beyond our walls, too, now lurching back into existence, that had finally managed to deliver this blessing, hot water on demand. And I recognized that all of this information is available every time I turn the handle; I’m just too engrossed in my own story to notice. My story keeps me narrowly focused here on the ground floor, while all along the water heater is blazing in the basement and birds are wheeling in the sky above.

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