6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
GreenZap online payments – Send and receive money online to or from anyone
Search For Blogs, Submit Blogs, The Ultimate Blog Directory Subscribe with Bloglines Subscribe with myFeedster
Web Unburned Pieces of the Mind

Listen to this blog on your phone


Apples in September – A Prayer of Hope and Redemption

If there be more, more woeful, hold it in,
For I am almost ready to dissolve,
Hearing of this.
--William Shakespeare, King Lear (Albany at V,iii)

For the second time in as many as thirty days we have had to contend with another monster that arose from the sea, threatening to swallow more of the Gulf coast in its angry jaws. Although the news being reported on Rita is that the damage--though significant in some parts of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana--did not rival what Katrina had done. A collective sigh of relief I'm sure, as we still haven't had time to overcome the devastation that rendered the coasts of Mississippi into a nightmare of broken dreams. New Orleans, though, did not fare as well, and found itself to be the lost Atlantis again as the waters from Lake Pontchartrain began pouring in.

It is not easy sometimes to understand the significance of an event, nor is it always apparent whether we have become participants of something far greater then what is immediately evidenced, but I am convinced more than ever that this time we live in today will be shown years later as a time when people were truly tested. When the year 2000 rolled on in, I felt a sense of excitement for the future--and I still do--but with the event of 9/11, the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated the coasts of Sri Lanka, Thailand and the island of Indonesia with the loss of over 175,000 people, and the unbelievable amount of destruction we've experienced with Katrina, and Rita, one cannot help thinking that perhaps God is part of the equation here. And if He is, I am not even going to try and suppose what the answer to that might be except that we may be living in an age where prayer and hope actually did come to mean something.

Today I had been seriously preoccupied after reading a gripping, heartfelt essay that Liz Strauss of Letting Me Be rendered from an email she had received from her sister-in-law in which she gives a first hand accounting of what it is like to be among people who have lost everything:

We observed and shared the despair of losing the everyday stuff of life,clean underwear, your toothbrush, and the despair of less obvious loss: your neighborhood and your best friend across the street, your favorite grocer, your church, your coffee ladies/men, your photos of your children as babies and your deceased parents, the necklace your grandmother gave you, your doctor, that house you spent a lifetime making a home, control over what food you eat, the rooms where you celebrated your family's milestones, the security you feel when you tuck in the kids . . . --(It's Not at All about ME) Reflections from Louisiana

In spite of such destruction and despair, however, the human spirit proves again to be so indelible. As she says:

They were thankful to be alive. -- ibid

One of the great enigmas of life is that of human suffering. Another of course is our purpose in life. And yet another is death. In our normal day-to-day lives where we are given to the hustle and bustle of work, family and recreation, it would seem that we purposely distract ourselves to no end to avoid thinking about such questions. Instead, we resign ourselves as if anesthetized to the bump and grind of making money, paying bills, and having lots of fun on the weekends with baseball, football, Nascar, mall shopping, eating out, anything for that matter, as long as it keeps us preoccupied and passes the time. We become so enveloped in our lives and in the lives of those around us that we lose sight sometimes of what really matters. We begin to think we're our jobs, our money, the titles we acquire, and the things we buy: large houses, big SUV's, and home theater for weekend cocooning. It's not about keeping up with the Jones's anymore; it's about being the biggest bad asses in the neighborhood. And it seems all well and good until a 9/11, or a tsunami, or a Katrina comes along, and in a horrifying instance of destruction, our lives are in peril and everything we worked so hard for is gone. But in the face of such tragedy when we have lost what we have worked so hard for, when we find ourselves completely stripped of our possessions, an amazing thing begins to happen. We find ourselves again, and in doing so, we realize that we are not just about ourselves, that life is indeed much more than that. We realize that what we're really about is people. And in realizing that, we begin to pull back to the things that matter most: family, friends and community.

After getting off from work today, I decide not to take the usual route home. I'd been watching the news on Rita and Katrina and had become too self-absorbed with how extensive the damage has been. I knew that if I went right home from work, I would find it hard to resist turning on the TV to catch up on the latest reports. And so I drive until I come to an apple orchard in Brooks. There is something endearing about apples in September, memories that go back to childhood when my mother would gather my three brothers and me up in the car and take us out to Bartlett's Orchard in Richmond, Mass for Macs and cider. After deciding on a bag of Cortlands and a gallon of just-pressed-that-day cider, I make my purchase and return to the car.

Driving off, I follow Route 7 back to Belfast. If ever there were a quintessential New England road replete with rolling hills thick in deep green, woods, and dairy farms with cows standing idyllic in the fields as they graze, this is it. My consciousness absorbs the resplendent scenery, and as I look beyond the hills, I begin to feel an easy sense of contentment. For the first time, I understand why I chose to come to this place to live. I reach for an apple from the bag I placed behind the front passenger seat. In the angst of doubt and incessant questioning these past few years, I had forgotten why I needed this place. But as the sun begins its slow decent behind me, I sense what my life has been about. I still think central California might be nice, but for now I am where I need to be. Looking up through the windshield at the wisps of clouds sailing by on a pastel blue sky, I whisper, "Amen."

By S. L. Cunningham


Blogging - A Paradigm Shift of How We Disseminate and Communicate

Six months ago during a phone conversation with my son, he suggested I create a “blog” after I had told him I had gone back to writing to help pass up the time since he had left home. “Blog?” I inquired. After getting his usual “Gees, Dad,” he spent the next week guiding me through the process of creating my own web log, or "blog," which Brad L. Graham is credited with coining several years back. When I first began posting my writing, I had a sense of what I wanted to “blog” about, but I didn’t have an overall sense of what I wanted to accomplish, or what purpose it might serve other than giving me a healthy distraction to keep myself from going stir crazy. After being an active parent for 18 years, and then finding yourself with an empty nest when your child moves out, it takes a while to adjust to the new pace. It’s like I took the off ramp from the freeway, and decelerated from seventy to zero within seconds. When you come to a full stop like that, it’s hard to figure out whether to go left or right.

In the process of “blogging,” I began reading other bloggers to get a sense of what other people were doing with what seems to be a very unique cultural phenomenon that makes the exchange of ideas, services and products more fluent and accessible. Of the numerous blogs that exist on the net, and are created each day, I am convinced more than ever that we are indeed “language” animals. Blogging also has become unique in that we can choose how we represent ourselves to the world. Even with standard templates, people tinker with them until they get the right format, font, and background that say, “Hello, it's me and this is my blog. Come on in." And with a simple click, the door opens to their small havens of political views, stories, anecdotes, essays, information on a variety of topics, and virtual flea markets where you can buy all kinds of products from books to vitamins.

That others are writing each day by posting to their blogs, regardless of their ability or education, is simply amazing. For hundreds of years, print media served as our conduit for the exchange and discussion of ideas. Blogging, though, makes that exchange both immediate and curiously intimate. Want to know what people are thinking about a specific topic? Easy enough, since all one need do is a Google search on “blog politics," for example, and wham, an unbelievable amount of sources becomes instantly available. From there you can whittle down to a particular topic of interest.

But as with writing for publications, it does take a while to develop an audience. During my first few months of posting, my readership was marginal at best. I hardly had any visits or comments during my first month, and my counter showed only twenty-six people had visited. But even then I was pretty excited. Out of that twenty-six, seven took the time to respond by commenting. In the process of exploring different blogs represented by sites like blogexplosion , Blogcritics and others, I began responding to blogs I liked, and in turn would sometimes receive reciprocal comments as well. By the end of the second month my hit counter started to become real busy, and was up to 3200 visitors, certainly more than I had ever expected. My postings were also generating more comments, which gave me the opportunity to visit more blogs in return. This last month and half, though, has been a watershed, not in terms of my writing, per se, but in terms of the incredible people I have met and corresponded with by blogging. It would seem that blogging has made the world smaller, and has made it possible to become part of a community joined together by common interests and the Internet.

Three bloggers (writers) I have begun to develop a sense of camaraderie with have their own unique perspective on personal issues that matter to them, but instead of trivializing their view points by ranting to no end, or breaking down into silly diatribes that say much about nothing, they breathe life into the ideas they present, and show obvious care about what they think and say.

Phil Dillon, for instance, blogs Another Man’s Meat, which he describes as being a blog that represents “my world and my times through the prism of the Kansas Flint Hills.” As you read his posts, there is no mistaking that here is a writer who has a keen sense of the art of invention and style. When Phil gets his hands on a political issue, he starts to tear it apart like a mechanic tearing into an engine. He does not ride on easy assumptions, but instead tests each one until he gets at the crux of the problem. This from an essay in response to those who took offence to his analysis of Nazi propaganda as similar in tone and reasoning of the anti-war movement that began to flair up in earnest when Cindy Sheehan served as the catalyst for certain groups that seem to have an obvious self-serving political agenda:

I understand the rhetoric is supercharged right now. But I can honestly say that it is not politics, but principle that guides my thinking. You may not agree with those principles, but try as you will, they can not be marginalized, nor will I abandon them. - Dillon, Offensive Enough?

When you read Phil, turn the TV off and pull up your chair with a cup of coffee. He’s a slow read, but well worth the time.

Another blog I began to take an interest in is Clive Allen’s Gone Away. Clive offers a unique British perspective on American culture and politics as a travels around the United States. His descriptions of our people, how we are similar and how we differ from the Brits, remind me of a modern day Walt Whitman:

It was their honesty and optimism that attracted me to them. All my life I had been surrounded by people who would go to great lengths to avoid calling a spade a spade, but here was a nation who saw nothing wrong in going straight to the point. They seemed so open and willing to learn about the world around them, almost innocent in their enjoyment of life. - Allen, “American Experience" p. 9

As I started to become well acquainted with these two writers, I discovered another blogger whose writing I have come to admire. Letting me be by Liz Strauss offers a compilation of writings that focus on a variety of topics specific to her life and to the process of writing. She writes with a deft touch that makes you feel welcomed to be in the company of her words. In terms of style, "The Turkey in the Trunk" exemplifies Liz at her best:

“The drive home took about two hours. It was me, music, and the empty Illinois cornfields. My thoughts were busy with the day to come, seeing my brother would convince everyone to cause diversions while he ate my lunch for me, and how my cousin Joe and I would sneak down to the basement when we were 'peopled out' to get space and catch up on things.”

Especially wonderful and informative are her non-fiction articles from “The 65th Crayon,” which she describes as “. . . a rainbow of news and insights about colorful people, places, and things.” “Scribbles: Snow White Never Kissed,” is an example of her reflections on fascinating tidbits of information. Though more than that, she offers astonishing personal insight and reflection on day-to-day events, but especially impressive is her output. Compared to her I am a definitely a turtle-paced poster. Hmmm, try to say that three times fast.

Anyway--all kidding aside and certainly no offence to Liz--what I have come to appreciate most about blogging these past few months is the sense of friendship and community that seems to have developed not just with them, but with those who also read my blog, and with those whose blogs I read as well. There's JC of Further Ironies; Patry Francis of The Marvelous Garden; EuroYank: An American Alien in Europe ; and many others I am getting to know and enjoy. But I am especially indebted and grateful to Phil and Liz for posting a review of my writing on their blogs, and to Clive for recognizing a need for a forum where serious writers representing a variety of views can link together by joining Writers Blog Alliance.

It used to be that if you wanted to have an exchange of ideas, or stories, you would have to make a considerable effort to belong to a specific community of people who shared common interests and goals. It is easy to do that when you live in a large city. It is even easier to do that when you attend or teach college classes. But in a small community isolated from a larger metropolitan area, it is very difficult to find a similar community. Those that do exist, as I have found, can be painfully provincial. Thanks to the Internet, the world has become smaller by becoming broader in ways that almost seem incomprehensible. Instead of hopping in my car to drive across town to meet with a friend to discuss our writing or a book, I can connect with him or her online. The only drawback, though, is not being able to be in their presence physically. But then, who knows. Because of the camaraderie we develop with our fellow bloggers, especially those who we consider to be in our immediate circle, and the alliances we form with them, we may decide that getting together for a day of discussion might be an entirely plausible proposition. And so here’s to that cup of coffee, virtual or otherwise, that we may someday drink in the spirit and wisdom of friendship, and commune with each other in a lengthy discussion on writing and literature.

By S. L. Cunningham


Making Haste, But Slowly

Tonight I’m sitting in bed reacquainting myself with Robert Frost while listening to The Great Guitar Concertos played by John Williams. My cat has snuggled itself between my legs as I go about flipping pages and taking notes. It’s been sometime since I’ve last read his poems, but as I do so, I am struck by how his words say more to me now than they did when I first read them in my early days of college:

And dreaming as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
Perhaps this is the essence of getting older, the simple realization that truths about life are more easily recognizable because of the many days of living we have put behind us. In our youth, such truths about the human condition have to be analyzed and mulled about, but even then we still don’t always get it. I know I didn’t, but when you have so many days in front of you, what’s there to get? In our youth we are busy conjuring forth, shaping and living our dreams. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes because of those mysterious invariables that get tossed in, as Frost so eloquently describes, we become conflicted in our sense of purpose and are compelled to make a choice between two separate paths:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood . . .

Before I met my ex-wife, I was one traveler going down one road. I was a poet. And even though I had modest success with my writing published in several small press magazines--and with numerous readings in bookstores and libraries--I struggled with my words. I struggled hard because often times I’d stumble into areas I had little experience with. I learned that without experience of a day fully lived, you cannot create context, and without context, even though your words may be wrapped in a sheath of metaphor and rhyme, your words are void of compassion. When I look back on my earlier writings, I see that I wrote plenty about people. Frost, however, did not write about people. Instead he created people who lived their lives and told their stories:

Over back where they speak of life as staying
(“You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t”)
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Earlier this evening my son had called. Tomorrow morning he will be on a flight from Houston, Texas to Fort Benning, Georgia to begin his boot camp training in the Army. I could tell he’s excited, but I also sensed a bit of melancholy in his voice. As we were talking, we started to reminisce about his childhood days--the bike rides and hikes we used to take, the time spent just hanging out with each other in his room while he worked on his computer or played his guitar—when suddenly we both stopped talking. The two of us became lost in a long pause. After a few minutes, we found our words back to the present moment and wished each other well. “I’ll write you and give you my address as soon as I get settled in,” he said. “Don’t worry. I know the training won’t be easy, but I’ve been preparing myself for what to expect, and I know I’ll do well.” And with that we said goodbye. While talking with him, I found myself amused by his sense of hurriedness to get going with his future, to put his dreams into play. It reminded me of how I felt when I was his age, of how impatient I could be when “now” felt like forever. Today, though, my new motto in life seems to be festina lente. “Make haste, but slowly.”

It is good to listen to Williams play Vivaldi while reading Frost, to feel as if you are in their company, their music and words soothing and cajoling as they enliven you with their spirit. My cat wakes from its nap and then steps up into a long stretch, topped with a cavernous yawn. I give it a pat on the head and pick up my books from the bed. The moon is bright through my window, and so I leave the shade up. I once heard it said that life is just a continuous 365-day journey around the sun. What matters is how you enjoy the trip. So far, in spite of the delays and backtracking, I seem to be enjoying mine just fine.

By S. L. Cunningham


Calling The Elephants

Tonight as I stand in front of my mirror, brushing my teeth, I notice with concern that I’m really beginning to look old. Looking closer, I can tell my face has definitely lost its chiseled Tarzan features, and now looks more like a marshmallow with penned in eyes, nose and mouth.

Pondering over my transformation that seems to have come too suddenly, I remember what someone once said to me: “Getting old sucks!” At thirty-two, I responded indifferently, but now at fifty-one, I’m surprised by how easily I can relate to that. In spite of my best intentions to stay in shape by being active and watching my diet, it seems something has gone awry.

Certainly it has been a long stretch since the days of my youth. When I was nine years old, I loved watching Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan. He was my hero. Period. I’d spend hours in the woods playing out my Tarzan dreams. The house I lived in Pittsfield, Mass. was close by the Housatonic River. I set up a rope swing in a tree on a branch that reached across the water.

Using a branch just above as a platform, I’d push against the trunk of the tree with my feet, and swing clear across the river and back. The intent was not to swing out and drop down into the water. The Housatonic was not the kind of river you would want to swim in as it was heavily polluted with chemical waste from the factories that emptied into it. No, the intent was to play out my adventure of being in the jungle, swinging through the trees, and calling the elephants with my mighty oh-wa-oh-wa-ohoooooo-waohwahoah.

My first attempt with the rope wasn’t very impressive. As I propelled myself from the branch, I swung twenty feet out over the water. On my return, though, I smacked the tree face first. Somehow my feet found the branch, and I was able to pull myself up, bloody nose and all, without falling to the ground.

After a few more attempts—and close calls—I became an expert at it, just like Tarzan. With my made-from-a-stick hunting knife between my teeth, I’d swing out to take care of the crocodile that had been menacing the villagers across the river.

One day, though, as I swung out across the water, the branch I had tied the rope to cracked and snapped off the tree. Just like that, I landed in the river. It turned out I didn’t have to worry about the “pollution” getting me. When I swam to and crawled up the bank, I discovered I was covered head to foot with leaches. What’s funny, though, is that I don’t remember how I rid myself of them, or who may have helped me, but one thing I know for sure is that I didn’t go home to my mother. Her reaction to certain things could be unpredictable, and it was one of those times when I clearly did not want to test what her response would be.

I didn’t set the rope swing back up, but for the rest of that summer in 1963 I continued with living my life in the jungle. Lions, rhinos, wildebeests, no matter, I could handle them with ease.

I managed to make a lean-to from sticks and leaves that served as my tree house. And in its shade that protected me from the hot African sun, I would read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. Between the book and the movies—my imagination filled with vivid scenes of elephants and hyenas—I dreamed I would one day live a life like that. I dreamed of having my own tree house high off the ground with a view of the lush green jungle valley and the misty mountains beyond. I dreamed of finding a woman like Jane and starting a family. I dreamed of living my days enjoying the simple pleasures of gathering bananas for breakfast and spearing fish for dinner. Un-Gaw-Wah.

“Tarzan . . . Jane.” What a simple declaration of love and fidelity. It’s been quite a few years since those boyhood dreams. I never did become a man of the loincloth, but I’ve certainly worn a lot of different hats in my lifetime, none of which I had envisioned as a child: Marine, machine operator, college student, liquor story manager, pizza delivery driver, tour guide on the Queen Mary, teacher of English, car salesman, social worker, manager, and adolescent counselor. And in the middle of being a teacher and a manager, I found the time to be a husband and a father. The husband part didn’t work out but the part of being a father certainly has been my best experience in life thus far.

Even though my crazy childhood Tarzan dreams didn’t pan out, I have two of the best kids that a parent could ever hope for. My son starts boot camp in the Army next week and will be entering as an E-3. He received his first promotion for the college credits he earned for his first year of college and his second for passing their physical fitness test. My daughter will be starting classes at UC Davis in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure what dream or dreams they’ll remember most from their childhood days, but the life they have in front of them is certainly one of hope and promise.

As I look into the mirror, I see the young boy I once was looking back at me. It’s been a long time since those days of swinging on the rope, letting out a Tarzan call for all the neighbors to hear. Rinsing out my toothbrush, I recall Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous lines:

'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'

By S. L. Cunningham


In A Hurricane Eye

Today marks the four-year anniversary of 9/11, the day the World Trade Center towers collapsed after two jet planes--commandeered by al-Qaeda terrorists--crashed into them. Like that morning, it’s a perfect sunny day, low seventies, with few clouds. With the news that’s been non-stop coverage of our recent catastrophe suffered from Hurricane Katrina, I decide it’s not a good thing to be watching TV all day. With the leaves on a few of the trees starting to show a few splotches of red and orange, summer is finally beginning to lose its grip to fall.

I fill a bottle with water, grab my daypack, and head out the door. A hike up Blue Hill makes a much healthier distraction than sitting inside all day with the TV blaring away. Upon reaching the summit, I am disappointed to see that the fire tower has finally been dismantled and removed. It’s still a good view, though, but from inside the fire tower sixty feet up, you had a 360-degree view of the entire area from Blue Hill to Mount Desert, from Mount Desert to Eggemoggin Reach, from Eggemoggin Reach to the Camden Hills and Belfast. Without the tower, the only view afforded now is that of Blue Hill Bay, but still well worth the hike.

The verdant expanse of green trees punctuated by the blue of ocean and ponds, the village of Blue Hill with its white clapboard houses, and the boats in the harbor is beauty incomparable to freeways, malls, and high-rise structures. The breeze is stiff and cool. I button up my shirt and take a sit on a rock. It is good to be here on a day like today, away from the confusion and uncertainty brought on by unexpected events that seem to create a collective anxiety that we participate in by relentlessly watching the news. But there are only so many times you can watch towers burn and collapse, levees break, people rescued, towns and cities swept away by the surge, before you begin to feel insignificant and helpless, too. Motivated by our compassion and sense of duty, we donate our time and money to organizations, the Red Cross, the United Way and many others; we volunteer to open our homes to take in the people that have been displaced, something, anything, to help in any way we can.

The breeze begins to pick up. Something there is about the smell of lichens, bilberry, and moss that covers and grows on and among the granite rocks. The fragrance lingers in the air and puts my mind at ease. My daily life seems so uncertain, so insubstantial. The job I have today may not be the job I have tomorrow. Where I live today may not be where I’m living a year from now. Inevitably just when we think things are good, the proverbial refrigerator falls from the fifth story window. When it lands on top of us, our lives our changed immeasurably with a sickening thud that leaves us uncertain and confused as to what we need to do next. Our spouse files for divorce. We get laid off from our work. Or as in the event of Katrina, we wake up to find ourselves surrounded by water. We return to our homes only to find that our houses have been swept away. Regardless of our lot in life, whether we’re happy or not, we are leery of change, and are especially frightened when change comes so suddenly like a pernicious thief in the night. However, the only real constant in our lives is change. Change is how we become, how we create the lives we live, how we pick back up and create anew when everything we know or have has been literally whisked out from under us.

After coming down from the summit, I walk back to my car and head out to the Country View Drive-in. Ordering a clam-basket, I sit down at one of the outside tables overlooking the pasture of a nearby dairy farm. While eating, I fine myself amused by the antics of a red squirrel that’s busily digging down in the trashcan looking for tidbits to eat. It finally emerges with a styrofoam container clenched between its teeth. Dropping it to the cement pad, it jumps to the rim of the garbage can, and then leaps to the table next to the can. The squirrel notices me and freezes.

Deciding I’m not an immediate threat, it hops down to the cement pad to retrieve its prize. It takes a few minutes of gnawing, nose poking, and prying with its paws before finally popping the cover. Inside is a couple of bites left from a hamburger and a few fries. The squirrel then clutches the container between its teeth and runs off with it, dropping it and then picking it up again before it finally disappears into the woods. When it comes to survival, like animals I suppose, we do what we must in order to live. But more than that, we also live our lives just beyond the horizon; for it is there that we find our raison d’etre, our reason for picking back up, of starting over and rebuilding our lives nail by nail, brick by brick—houses, businesses, and community—until we coalesce again as a town or city.

I leave a couple of clams and fries in the container, and place it by the trashcan. The sun is just beginning to set behind the trees. It’s a good hour’s drive back to Belfast. I turn the radio on and catch the ending of a song by Paul Simon:

So here's how the story goes
There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe
She was baking a cinnamon pie
She fell asleep in a washing machine
Woke up in a hurricane eye.

Turning the radio off, I say a silent prayer for those who have lost their lives to Katrina’s wrath, and for the people whose lives will be immeasurably changed because of it. As with 9/11, Katrina will serve as a continual reminder of how precious—but very tenuous—our lives really are.

By S. L. Cunningham


Baton Rouge - The New, New Orleans

On September 7, 1900, Galveston, Texas, was a bustling, prominent seaport with a growing population of 40,000 people. The next day when the historic hurricane blew in, Galveston was reduced to a pile of rubble, and over 6000 people had lost their lives. In spite of promises to build bigger and better than ever, Galveston never fully recovered. Today it serves as a seaside tourist destination with a population of 56,000 people. Its seaport and commerce moved inland and became the cosmopolitan city of Houston, Texas, which is now the fourth largest city in the United States today. There has not been a deadlier natural disaster since then, that is, until Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the damage and loss of lives that occurred on the Gulf Coast, and the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans, this storm might be remembered not just as America’s deadliest natural disaster, but its costliest as well.

As the breech in the levee is repaired and the water is slowly pumped out, there are cries that New Orleans will be rebuilt bigger and better than ever. As bare ground begins to reappear, local, state and federal agencies are harping each other in the blame game, and ultimately pointing a nasty finger toward President Bush. Such as it is when people experience strong emotions. Rational and calm thought in the face of such complete devastation becomes a rare commodity. Listen to any TV station, be it CNN, FOX, NBC or others, or any radio show, Imus or otherwise, and what you hear are pundits opining on who is to blame for the slow response to the flood that overwhelmed eighty percent of the city, sinking it into what will be remembered most certainly as an example of failed leadership. But as to who failed, or why, should not be the focus of attention, at least not right now. Right now, we need to finish the job of making sure that the remaining residents have been evacuated safely, and that we as a nation welcome and absorb the residents of New Orleans who have been displaced by the flood.

Without question we will experience the effects—economically, psychologically and spiritually--of this disaster for years to come. Cities in our country have been destroyed and rebuilt before. Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco in 1906 come to mind, but it is hard to imagine how New Orleans could ever be rebuilt. Hundreds of buildings sitting under ten to twenty feet of fetid water simply do not dry out as if nothing happened. They do not burn or crumple into dust but instead stand as erect boxes of mush. With the exception of a few sections of the city that received little water damage, and a good section of the French Quarter that remained unscathed, there really isn’t much in New Orleans that will be salvageable. When the waters are finally pumped out, the shock of just how thorough and insidious the damage has been will become unbearably evident.

We can continue to argue over who’s at fault for New Orleans’ calamity and the social inequity that the flood seems to have exposed, but until the last drop of water is pumped out of the city, the real focus needs to be on, “What now?” How do we help the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been so incomprehensibly disrupted? How do we provide the jobs, housing and schools that they will need? How do we help them become acculturated with their new communities? For those who insist New Orleans be rebuilt as the cosmopolitan city it had been will see a process that will take years? Such an endeavor, though, would not seem very prudent, as it doesn’t make sense to rebuild a city that will still sit ten feet below sea level. After all, is it realistic to make that kind of financial investment when another hurricane of equal or greater force could easily breech the levees again?

And so, perhaps New Orleans should be relegated to become what Galveston, Texas became after 1900: a small, tourist city. Certainly preserving the French Quarter would lend to that. As to the port that that area will still need and the commerce it will generate, can anyone say, “Baton Rouge, the new, New Orleans?” Some might consider that to be a far stretch, but considering that Texas succeeded in building a port inland that’s protected from the Gulf, then what’s to stop Louisiana from applying the same level of ingenuity in finding a more permanent solution. The question is whether there will be the visionaries who can argue convincingly the necessity of practicality over nostalgia, for unless that is done, a rebuilt New Orleans will only stand as a glaring example of hubris, misallocated resources, and the potential for another cataclysmic, human tragedy.

By S. L. Cunningham


Goodnight, America, How Are You? - On The Aftermath of The Flood of New Orleans

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Halfway home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
–Steve Goodman,
“The City of New Orleans”

Unbelievable. Incomprehensible. Disheartening. Surreal. As you watch the news reports of the devastation that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, words cannot adequately describe the transformation that has taken place on the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. But what is particularly heart wrenching and sobering is the loss of New Orleans, and the surrounding metropolitan area. One million and a half people rendered homeless, and untold numbers of bodies floating in a sickening soup of debris, chemical waste, and sewage. When the levees were breached and the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain began pouring in, the unthinkable became reality.

Most of New Orleans’ citizens evacuated ahead of the storm, but the 100,000 people who remained behind were faced with what can only be described as an apocalyptic calamity. No one was prepared when the waters rushed in. With most of the city under ten to twenty feet of water, New Orleans has ceased to function. No water to drink, bathe or flush. No electricity for lights, cooking, electronics or air conditioning. No job to go to. No means of transportation. Without infrastructure or any semblance of order, the city has begun to rapidly deteriorate into a state of anarchy. The French Quarter has been taken over by mob-crazed looters who are not only cleaning out stores of food and drink items, but just about anything they can get their hands on. TV’s, jewelry, and furniture are hauled out of stores, and police seem limited as to what their response should be. It has been reported that the National Guard is on their way to help secure the city, but it seems to me that this should have been put into place days ago. By the time the cavalry finally does arrive, it may be too late. In the absence of shelter and food, people are beginning to gather in a desperate frenzy of hopelessness, and are beginning to turn on each other. Let someone see that you have a loaf of bread, and you may be killed for it.

The sight of people emerging from the water as they join the hundreds of people already gathered on the overpasses with the last of whatever possessions they have managed to salvage, burn indelibly into our memory--images that will never be forgotten. A family huddles against a mattress. All they have left that they can call their own is a small lamp table, a couple of folding chairs and a pile of wet clothes. In the arms of the mother is a young child that is in obvious distress from hunger and dehydration. She and her son are among the many who need immediate help but must wait until someone is able to assist them. So many, many people in need, and yet they must wait and hope that someone will get to them in time. For the unfortunate, the sick and elderly, hope becomes eternal as their bodies are left where they died. Only a few have been shown any dignity by someone who has shown one last act of human kindness by covering them with a blanket, a black plastic trash bag or whatever else may have been available.

In our country, I do not recall any recent event where we have had such a complete disaster that rendered a large population of people into refugees. But refugees are what the citizens of New Orleans have become. 25,000 people bused to the Astrodome in Houston, TX, and another 20,000 are to be bused to San Antonio. Others have been taken in by Baton Rouge and other cities. City officials of New Orleans estimate it may take four to six months to get the city back up and running. Even if such optimism proves to be true, and the city comes back to life within that time, what are the million and a half people who have been displaced supposed to do in the meantime? Is it realistic to expect that you can have 25,000 people living in the Astrodome for that amount of time? And what happens if New Orleans cannot be reclaimed? That we would have lost an entire metropolitan area because of the damage wrought by a hurricane is unimaginable, but each day that goes by, and more is learned about how thorough and complete the damage is, it would seem that nature indeed is the final arbiter, and that it is unlikely New Orleans will ever be revived.

As a nation, I wonder just what our response should be? How shall we help the people and families not just of New Orleans, but also of all the communities that have been destroyed by the storm? How do we absorb the millions, who have been displaced by the destruction and loss of their homes and livelihood? It is incumbent upon all of us, then, to consider what small contribution we might make to help those who are in need. Make a donation to the Red Cross, the United Way, or if you live in or close by to any of the cities that have taken in people, volunteer your services to help in any way that you can.

By S. L. Cunningham