I believe in impermanence.
When I returned from the Peace Corps in 1992, everything I owned fit comfortably in a small backpack. I rented a studio apartment on Magazine Street in my hometown of New Orleans, took a teaching position, and went back to school. When friends would call, they said it sounded like I was in a tunnel – my place was just as empty as my wallet.
My first purchase back was, well, as my father astutely pointed out, “A bit impractical.” I bought a puppy that, I might add, preceded to eat the few things in my now mangled backpack. Next, my 102 year-old great aunt gave me a bronze camel bell she had bartered for on the Great Wall of China. I hung it on my doorknob to alert me of intruders. Instead, I should have posted a sign on the other side that simply read “Nothing to Steal!” After that, I bought a futon, my mom gave me a colonial santo from Guatemala, I found a bathtub in the Mississippi River that I converted into a backyard pool, I built a doghouse, and I got a bike, the first of four in five years – perhaps a more secure bike lock would have been a good investment?
When I moved in with my fiancé, she combined her things with mine. Then, when we got married, friends gave us all kinds of things couples “just had to have.” Eventually, we bought a house, a.k.a. a place to store accumulated stuff.
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, needless to say, we had lots and lots of accumulated stuff.
Like others, we watched and worried from afar as the storm decimated our city. First there was the wind and the water. Then came the fires and the looters. “Surely,” we thought, “everything we had was lost.”
As it turns out, we were lucky. Because we live along the relatively high “Sliver By the River,” which we now affectionately refer to as the “Isle of Denial,” our house miraculously survived. We ended up losing only two cars, a chimney, a fence, and a job. Others of course were not so fortunate. My father’s studio was torn in half and much of his artwork was swept away. My brother found a forty-foot sailboat sticking out of the side of his restaurant and my aunt’s house of thirty years took six feet of water. One friend lost 40 Harris hawks and her PhD dissertation. Another lost his business and then, overwhelmed by it all, took his own life.
Since the storm, my wife and I have begun to purge, getting rid of stuff we don’t really need, use, or want. We have also learned to let go of things emotionally. Katrina taught us something we should have already known: nothing lasts forever and some things are taken away far too soon.
They say New Orleans is still vulnerable – that we may have to evacuate again, possibly even forever. If and when we do, everything that really matters to us, photos and camel bells, should fit comfortably in a small backpack…
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