Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Scars We Bear

Somewhere, there is a breach. And the breach must let. Water, blood, trust, security, it is let by the breach, and when the letting has been done, there will be a reminder marking its passage. The breach is a violence, and the memory of violence in some form or fashion is indelible. There is no way to avoid this truth of being. It stubbornly sticks to our skin, embeds itself in the soul, or gashes itself across the landscape.

Perhaps this is the truth of why we celebrate scars: they tell a story of violence, and better yet, of survival.

I do not like to be exposed. My own vulnerability makes me feel a little sick, and violently uneasy. This may be the reason why I have choosen to fight the battles of the vulnerable who lack the means to fight their own alone.

I heal myself by healing others. Perhaps I always have.

An endless vertical flickering of slender, pale trunks forms a pattern of the passing landscape. It is repeated on the insides of my eyelids, when they droop shut from exhaustion. We are on our way to the gulf coast. And I am afraid of what we will find.

The scars on the coast are brazen, ugly, and unhidden. Concrete pads that once held homes. People existed here. Bedclothes strung high in the branches of trees, forgotten and unretrievable. Ghosts of a community. Inflatable churches. The few oceanside buildings that remain look as though they have complied with the new codes: 12 foot pilings like slender legs, supporting a mass of building above. But it is an illusion, a scar left by subtraction rather than addition: the first floor swept away, support beams left doing what they were designed to do.

And that was the hopeful part.

New Orleans is a shadow. Oh, the French Quarter is fine, and so is the Garden District. But anyone who thinks that these slices of iconography are New Orleans never really knew her.

It has been well over 2 years, and little has taken place besides a mass exodus. Trailers litter the land like apologies. As I walk the Lower Ninth Ward, trying to hold back tears, I strike up a conversation with an older black man.

God did this to us,” says Albert Johnson, boozy breath reaching my nostrils. “For treating each other so bad, it’s our punishment.”

I look into his eyes, imploringly, “Will the community come back?” He chuckles the sort of chuckle that is a substitute for sobbing, and asks

“What community?”

The stench of decay rises from every direction, and the few homes left standing are spray-painted with pitiful pleas: “DO NOT DEMOLISH, TRYING TO REPAIR” or

The scars of poor governance rise up in unison, a siren song for reform...and no one heeds the call. Those left behind are wary, resilient, and marked with the indelible expressions of disappointment and despair. They have been abandoned, lied to, brutalized.

Some lost, little girl inside of me cringes, remembering all of the times she was felt she was left on her own, to fend for herself. It is, in an instant, fresh and raw and all-too-real. And it is happening now on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

The horizon is a levy, holding back the potential of the Mississippi. The land, scraped bare, wears the mark of her ire. The wrath of nature, coupled with a human lack of compassion, leaves a legacy deeper than the skin of this rotting neighborhood reveals. Lives unraveled here. People died here.

But I am supposed to be clinical about this, jotting notes, snapping photos. And so I stray from my peers, pretending to think when all I want to do is feel. I do a little soft dying on my own, before collecting myself up. Feelings must let, before thoughts bridge the breach.

And then I begin taking notes, sketching furiously, making a million little promises to serve these people, and people like them, through my work. I have ideas.

But the breaches are so varied, so multiple, so vast. And I am only one.

The injuries are deep, and the causes many and difficult to name. But the scars are reminders of having survived. They are a celebration in and of themselves.

These indelible marks lay scattered across the land, worming their way into the spirit of a people, turning some terrified, some hopeless, others angry, and yet others ambivalent. It is easy to close your eyes, easy to become an island.

Every action that closes a piece of the breach is a bridge. The marks remaining are a testament to our will to survive. I survive on the hope of the survival of human kind. Of human kindness.

And every stain, every scar left behind is a promise to remember what we are capable of doing, of feeling, and of recovering from.

Every memory of violence promises its prevention in the future. Through our scars, we remember.


amycue said...

I have said it before - you are a tremendously powerful writer. Thank you for your postings! Whatever you end up doing in life make sure writing is part of it - you have so much to say. It makes me sad to read about New Orleans - has it lost it's flavor?

Kathy Hernandez said...

No doubt Katrina and her aftermath will remain a blemish in our history. Though it speaks of survival, it screams of injustices, and has brought out the dark side of capitalism. Though it is infinitely easier to close our eyes and look the other way, it is imperative that we don't forget about this great American tragedy until every bridge has been mended.