Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Cheerful Survival

This post was nixed because it is sad and I'm tired of bummer posts. It is resurrected as more news from the Gulf Coast comes in.

I'm standing at an oyster bar in New Orleans with a dripping empty shell in one hand, beer in the other when it occurs to me - misery changes not only how we see the world but also what we are capable of seeing in the world.
Now I was not miserable at that moment as I had my own friendly fireman in tow in case the Tabasco got out of hand, and I was eating in New Orleans - how bad can life be? There was the looming possibility that we would never eat indigenous oysters in that city again, but this was the third fine establishment of the evening so the threat of of environmental annihilation had been pleasantly and intentionally dulled by hops, barley, andouille and other gifts of the land of Saints.
By my second oyster I had already started a friendship with our shucker who asked what brought us to the city. We explained that we had finished another volunteer week of Katrina rebuilding in Mississippi and were observing the sabbath in that unique NOLA fashion of eating and drinking too much. And the Shucker said in complete seriousness...

"NAW! Mississippi got hit by Katrina, too?"

I then proceeded to break the very bad (and very old) news that his childhood summer playground had been wiped out. He was shocked. It was surreal. I listed off the cities in which we have worked: Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland... he knew them well, but was hit particularly hard by the news that Bay St. Louis had been heavily damaged. At first I thought, how could he not know? Now I think, why would he know?

In times of difficulty we shield ourselves whether intentionally or instinctively because we cannot bear to be wounded again. Why would someone who was trying to get through the devastation of his home, the jewel of the South, take an inventory of other devastation? Where would the TV be that he would watch the coverage on? And who would begrudge him if once he had the luxury of turning one on he chose to change the channel instead of watching more bad news?

Optimism is powerful taken straight but a chaser of willful ignorance can be just the boost one needs in the face of the unfaceable.

I've thought a great deal about this cheerful man since I left NOLA assuming I'd eaten my last real all Louisiana gumbo and oysters. I used to be an optimist. It was one of my finest qualities. Then I got a series of life beat downs that I found it hard to stand up after. I have not become a pessimist but I do always have a plan B, a packed suitcase under the bed, a few lines prepared should I need to deliver a eulogy. I can't embrace life with both arms any more because one is always guarding my gut from the inevitable sucker punch. I do endeavor to give life a mighty high five, though.

When asked about the oil spill the Shucker firmly and cheerfully told us that it was not going to be a problem for New Orleans. (To his credit, this was only a week after the spill when the news was still ridiculously low key.) His exact words were: "We gonna' be alright." This one was going to pass them by. Good point of view for a professional shucker to hold onto, in my opinion. And even if he no longer shucks, I do believe that he will be alright. He had that mindset and air about him: the cheerful survivor.

I then started to wonder where I could get some of that. I want to be a cheerful survivor. I'm very good at gallows humor, gutting it through, and empathy but I want to work on my cheerful survivor chops. I want to have the chutzpah to relax into the turbulence instead of thrashing determinedly.

This is becoming more important to me now that the life of a survivor of suicide loss is less of a postcard I look at wondering who on earth would have mistakenly sent it to me and more of a package I unwillingly carry around because I don't know where to put it. I found myself thinking the other night that through a strange series of connections, addictions, and errors, my aunt's death is one of the late casualties of the Vietnam war. "If there were no such thing as agent orange then..." This is fruitless thinking. It heals me not a jot. (And ain't auspicious!)

I follow a similar fruitless line of thinking on my grandmother's sadness. "If her mother had not died so young..." I think, and then I imagine this line of history threading from the 1930's to today where everything would have been different. This is regret, not optimism. This line of thinking fails to take into account the innumerable blessings in the lives of we, her descendants, that come from that flawed line which connects the young mother who died suddenly in rural Virginia to my giggling children running about acting like Bengal tigers 80 years later.

If there's any lesson from my grandmother's travails, or my aunt's suicide, it is the Shucker's lesson. We are going to be alright. We may need to put some blinders on to the woes of the world for awhile, but we will survive.

Today when I am overcome by the empty awful feeling of no going back that comes with grief; today when I heard my aunt's beloved Jackson Browne haunting me through the radio; today as more bad news comes about the Shucker's homeland I try on the weight of the cheerful survivor. If misery changes the world I see, I can have some control on how blurry or defined the picture is, can't I?

1 comment:

Ira C said...

You wield an awsome pen my dear and treasured friend. This is stuff worthy of a pulitzer! My heart skips a beat or two when you hint at pending health proglems. But, I very selfishly take comfort in the knowledge that the pen will not likely become silent for my remaining days.