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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 2, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Diane Gordon
Robert Rotondo
Dan Stefik
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




The two words I’ve heard most often in the wake of Katrina are “devastation” and “God.”

On the night of the storm, listening to people call in to the one radio station that remained broadcasting -- some on cell phones in attics that were filling with water -- I heard constant pleas to God. "Please, God, help us." And in the aftermath of the storm, God’s name was invoked for strength, guidance, blessing. God dead? Hardly. Out of a natural disaster people’s thoughts turned heavenward. They spoke His name.

I returned to my apartment three days after the hurricane. When I got out of the car, eyeing the roof shingles that littered the grounds, a furtive motion caught my attention. There was a large bird on the walking path that wound around the manmade lake in the middle of the complex. When it saw me it strutted rapidly out of my line of sight. Why didn’t it fly off, I thought? Something about the bird being there struck me as odd, even unsettling (I had just driven through an ominous landscape, altered by destruction). Egrets normally patrolled the edge of the lake; but this was no egret, and I had never seen a bird use the concrete walking path. But I hadn’t the time to investigate. I hurried upstairs to check out the damage to my apartment.

There was none. My place had survived intact. Others in the complex were not so fortunate. In the next weeks carpeting, sheetrock, box springs, mattresses, couches, tables -- all manner of furniture -- accumulated near the overflowing garbage container. Yet I didn’t even have a water stain on my ceiling. Some claimed that the storm was punishment meted out on the sinful by God (another way His name was used); does it follow that those spared the experience of devastation are the virtuous?

The next afternoon I sat on my patio -- I live on the third and top floor. I was reading the collected stories of William Carlos Williams. For forty-two years the author had been a practicing physician in a town in New Jersey. Mostly he treated poor immigrants, and his stories were often about his patients. I mention this because perhaps my reading that particular book has meaning.

I looked up from its pages and saw the bird, again walking on the path around our scenic lake. I recognized it this time as a sea gull.

A sea gull, five miles from the sea? -- in this case Lake Pontchartrain, the lake which separates the small city I live in from New Orleans. I studied the bird intently, recognizing that something was amiss. It darted about, pecking at the concrete and the grassy verge of the walkway, searching for food, carrying on that basic necessity of survival. I waited for it to turn, so that I could view it from the other side. When it finally did, I saw that the right wing jutted out at an angle, clearly broken.

It was all there for the imagination to recreate. Snatched up by the wind, the gull was swept aloft, carried inland at a speed well over a hundred miles an hour; then, on a sudden downdraft, slammed onto the ground or into some structure, perhaps the wall of one of these apartments. Or it could have struggled to this little lake, for it could still fly, though only for short distances. I witnessed one floundering flight from the walkway to the water.

I watched the bird carry on its strutting search for food. It looked OK, active and alert, except for that wing. Its plucky vigor brought to my mind something a vet had told me years ago, in regard to my newly-stitched up cat. Injured animals will try to carry on as they normally would. Thus my cat, if she felt herself observed, would likely continue to jump up on things. In this world of claw and fang, instinct tells animals to appear fit and able, so that they are not spotted by the eye of the predator. I thought of how we humans are so coddled by kindness. We complain, seek help and sympathy even from strangers. Dumb animals suffer dumbly, alone.

There was nothing I could do for the bird. If I approached it on the walkway it would make that pitiable flight to the water. Anyway, there was no veterinary office open. The city was largely abandoned. I shrugged inwardly -- such is life -- and looked down at my book: Dr. Williams treating with tough compassion the sick and the dying and those giving birth.

After that day I would never see the bird again.

The next morning the phone rang, a surprise in itself, for service was rare; the man on the line knew my name. He informed me that he had just taken my mother to the emergency room. She had fallen and broken her arm. "It’s pretty bad," he said.

She had called out to the stranger as she stood in the doorway of her apartment. She held her right arm against her chest; it was the least painful position she could find. He had immediately driven her to the hospital. She spoke of him later as her "guardian angel."

The young doctor and nurses were also kind. Their most generous act may have been to give her a morphine drip. I watched her tense face relax; this smoothing out of her features happened in seconds, right before my eyes; the shoulders sagged in relief, a serenity took over her being. She sighed.
Morphine, I thought, for future reference.

But this is not a medical narrative, nor an examination of the personal dynamics between a mostly-helpless eighty-seven-year-old woman and her aging son. This, rather, is an inquiry into the supernatural.

Was the sea gull an omen, a prophetic sign?

I’ve been surprised by the many people I’ve known who have had experiences with the supernatural. One person, kneeling at Dostoevski’s grave, felt herself infused with a message from the Master. A friend vanished, disappearing from the palpable present into the body of the ancient Celtic ancestor. There are more mundane stories, mostly of omens and premonitions. Often these stories involve animals. A friend’s dog was found curled atop Granny’s quilt in the linen closet, a place he almost never went. The next morning a phone call gave them the news that Granny had passed away in the night.

And when I observe the world I see it teeming with belief in, or at least fascination with, the supernatural. We humans want, perhaps need, another dimension in which answers reside.

I have remained unremittingly earthbound. When I jump into the air I always return immediately to the ground. I’ve not even had a dream auguring the future. Just the quotidian. So how do I react to the stories friends tell me? Silently. But disbelief and, increasingly, anger lurk behind my nodding smile. It’s their complacency that bothers me -- why should they be granted the security of a universe that cares for them?

Of course, skepticism is a common response to the type of tale I’ve related. And it is socially acceptable to scoff at levitating swamis, tilting Ouija boards and pin-studded Voodoo dolls -- to the whole world of the occult. But there is one point to consider: the smallest belief you hold that is outside the rules of the natural world is a supernatural one. You have passed over a line, to the other side.

You are in a realm that is dominated by religion. God’s domain.

I read parts of the New Testament recently and was struck by how many miracles Jesus performed. If I lived back then and I was in one of those dusty, sun-baked villages and I witnessed Him--- as it is written by His disciples -- cure the sick, give sight to the blind, raise the dead, walk on water, I would have followed Him. I will follow Him now, tonight, if He will give me a sign: maybe a luminous cross on my bedroom wall. I only ask that I actually witness the miracle with my eyes, with my senses.

Or grant me any transgression of the natural laws; a passing, however small, over to the other side. At least I will be there.

Which caused me to contemplate the sea gull.

Was the bird’s plight meant to be an omen of my mother’s? Broken wing, broken arm? Was there supernatural meaning for me encoded in the events I’ve described?

I actually toyed with the idea. But -- no. The story I’ve related, unembellished, has no meaning beyond the natural events themselves. An odd coincidence occurred. A sea gull was injured in a storm; days later my mother tripped and fell. Her arm healed. And the gull, with its broken wing? As I said, I never saw it after that day on my patio. But there are feral cats in a wooded area not far from these apartments, and fish over three feet long have been caught in the lake --predators, capable of dragging down the vulnerable.

In me only a passive pity prevails. Life -- the natural world that holds sway over us -- is cruel. I give an inward shrug and return to my book.

But where does this lack of belief leave me? No place good. I understand that fact more clearly as I grow older. I am left with the bitter quotidian, which offers no answers, no solace. And which presents me, ultimately, with a handful of dust.

About a week after I returned to the area I drove the five miles to Lake Pontchartrain. The lake had been the source of the huge surge of water that had done most of the damage. As I got within three miles of its shore I began to truly understand the word "devastation."

At the end of the road, on the rocky bank of the lake, I got out of my car. Around me, like bones picked clean, were posts and studs, all that was left standing of waterfront homes. Perched on them were sea gulls. When I walked toward a clump of the birds they all lifted off on strong wings.


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