Month: September 2006
Several years ago I was in Nuremberg, Germany — the city most Americans know as the site of the Nuremberg trials. And it is that. But it is something more. It is a city that was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing, then rebuilt, brick by brick, after the war, from photographs, civic documents, and every visual and documentary source possible.
While the old character and feel of the city was kept in the rebuilding, its aging infrastructure and utilities were made state of the art. Nuremberg stands, today, as a testimony to the legacy of old Germany and a showcase of the new.
It is a truly wonderful place — pedestrian-friendly, vibrant, environmentally innovative, and forward-looking. It does not shrink from its Nazi past, but neither does it dwell on it. But that is a subject for another time. What is important here is that the absolute devastation of the city — and Nuremberg was truly devastated by the Allied carpet-bombing — was not seen as a death sentence, but as an opportunity to re-imagine the city in a way that did honor to the past while incorporating all the best of modern technology and vision.
We have such a chance before us in the city of New Orleans. What occurred there is a tragedy that beggars the imagination. But it should also fire the imagination. Here is one of America’s great cities — perhaps America’s most unique city — and we have a chance to rebuild it in a way that does homage to its past and points the way for an America of the future.
This is a unique moment in time. We pray that other devastations by war or disaster will not befall us. But this one already has, and it will be the measure of our heart and American spirit how we respond to the challenge.
Consider — a Black city, full of an energy and creativity that is unlike any other in our country. A city that is surrounded by water, able to support a system of canals and waterways that not only would alleviate some of the flood peril, but would create a Venice or Amsterdam-like urban experience here on our shores. A chance to try out new technologies of waste treatment, water systems, utility delivery, construction techniques. A chance to do new town planning. An opportunity to provide jobs in reconstruction to people who are desperately underemployed in the best of times, and love their city with a passion that would make them the worthiest and proudest workers possible.
It could be a new grand experiment in everything from urban planning to race relations. It could be a laboratory of dreams.
Yet, where are the voices calling us to embrace this opportunity? Where are the visionaries, the dreamers, the people who truly want to see a nation of hope and possibility?
I do not understand how we can be so blind to this moment in time.
From the vision of the City on the Hill to the building of a trans-continental railroad, we were once a nation that saw ourselves as a beacon of possibility. And though history has taught us that our success as a nation came at the price of the destruction and enslavement of other people, we now are aware of those tragedies and could strive hard not to repeat them if we sought to move forward toward a future worthy of our dreams.
Is there not one national leader who will stand up and call us to seize the moment? Is there none who would see that saving that city and the areas around it is a national opportunity as well as a national obligation?
Are most of the displaced poor? Yes. Are most of them Black? Yes.
But does this not make the opportunity all the more exciting? If we believe in helping people to help themselves, let us, as a nation, call to those people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, put the hammers in their hands, bring the best and brightest minds in urban planning, transportation, and city design to help them. Enlist the historians, enlist the educators. Enlist anyone who can engage in the great discourse that would be required to turn this disaster into a testament to American ingenuity and dreams.
We could do it. We should do it. But we won’t do it until a voice, Republican or Democrat, is raised, saying that this should be our national vision.
It saddens me that the Republicans are so lacking in compassion and the Democrats so lacking in vision that no one from either party is standing up and calling us to embrace this great national opportunity. It, alone, is a vision worthy of who we wish to be as a people.
Right now, we are a house divided and wildly out of balance.
Katrina gave us a chance to heal that division and restore our balance; she gives us a chance, still. It may well be that history will judge us as a nation by our response to her, not by our response to some vague and shapeless threat of terror.
As of this moment, that judgment will be harsh.
Bittersweet peace. That, for me, is what autumn always brings. Winter begins to whisper in the distant corners of the mind, but the magical stillness and rich indolence of these sun-blessed days overwhelm those whispers with their peace.
This has been a good summer. My son, Nik, has been home and we were able to share a precious time out on Pine Ridge among the kind and generous Lakota people. We were able to do a sweat together; he was able to be part of a reservation Fourth of July; we drove, we talked, we built that bridge of memories that will be ours forever. Now he is back at school, several hundred miles from here, and it is only Louise and me and two cats and a new dog named Lucie. Life will soon settle into the quietude and rhythm of a house with no children.
It is such a change to have a childless house. The energy changes; the chaos of intermixing lives takes on a new and distant air. Nik is still in our lives, as are our other children — Louise’s two daughters, Stephanie and Alex, and her son, Creighton. They are children of a previous marriage, but I count them as mine as well. But they are even older than Nik, and each has moved on to an adult life that is only ours to enter as they see fit to invite us in.
All of them are taking wing in their own ways. We offer counsel and sanctuary and money when we can. But we are not central to their lives any more, nor should we be.
It is a strange balance. None of us wishes to fetter our children, either psychologically or physically. Yet we want to remain a part of their lives and want them to remain a part of ours. It is no easy task to find this balance — how much do they want us to be present; how much do they want to be free of our influence. Sometimes, perhaps, we intrude too much. Sometimes, perhaps, we are too distant when we should be alive to their needs and desires. Yet we do our best, as they do theirs. Together, we move forward in that endlessly creative, constantly changing mystery of being a family.
As parents, we must hope that we have done our jobs well; that we have raised honest and honorable children; that they see themselves as part of a larger whole for which they bear some responsibility; that they avoid violence in their lives, both by and against them; that the snares of alcohol or debilitating drugs do not entrap them; that they choose their partners and professions well; that they find a way to make a meaningful place for themselves in this increasingly complex and difficult world.
How will they buy homes? What will they confront as they try to raise children? How will this tinderbox of religious ideologies that is gripping the earth affect the lives they live? Will our cultural shortsightedness and pursuit of individual benefit give way to a longer view of responsibility to the seventh generation? Will our penchant for branding and commodifying everything kill our spirits?
These are the dark fears, from the practical to the abstract.
But, then, there is hope as well. Excesses, whether physical, psychological, or political, call forth their own correctives. At some point, the people of good heart will say, “enough,” and a balance will be reasserted. What and how is difficult to say. But it is a law of nature, and nature does not negotiate. Our children will be part of this rebalancing, because it is into this world out of balance that they are growing. They will find a world of mystery, frustration, and possibility that is different, but no less challenging than the world into which we, their parents, were born. And, somehow, they will make their peace with it and contribute to its growth and unfolding. Then they, too, will pass it on.
So I sit on my porch, watching the lake, petting the dog and cats, and thinking of this turning of the seasons. Yes, there are changes coming, for all of us, in all of our lives. Autumn, I find, is a good time to reflect on these changes in my life, and to do what I can to make them wholesome and helpful.
So, as the kids go back to school, the colors on the edges of the leaves change, the smell and feel of the air shifts, and the light takes a more muted cast, take a little time to give some thought to how you, in your own life, can cause this shift in seasons to be a shift of the heart.
Savor your friends, give love to your children, offer help and hope to those with whom you share a touch. It doesn’t take much, only mindful attentiveness to the everyday moments of life.
Then, perhaps, we can all be mirrors to the goodness around us Then, perhaps, we can reflect the beauty of this changing season in our lives, just as the lake outside my window is reflecting the autumn beauty of this haunted, northern land.