In the early days of spring 2014 a friend hinted, by way of a Facebook post, that she wanted to talk to me about an idea. When we eventually got together for breakfast in May, she told me of a project dear to her heart. Looking ahead to the Katrina ten-year anniversary, she was hoping to put together a group of women she saw as brave to tell their stories of the storm and its aftermath.
This was not the first time I had been invited to contribute a Katrina piece. I have to be honest – Katrina was good for my writing and my publishing. Starting with an article that appeared in Poets & Writers in early 2006, I had published about a dozen pieces, most of which were creative nonfiction, about long-term evacuation experiences and the early days of disaster recovery. My first book, about the marked and messaged refrigerators of the post-Katrina landscape, was published in 2010. I wrote about Katrina until 2011. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop; I just, simply, found other ideas crowding my brain.
But, even as I spoke with my friend, I wondered if I could deliver what she asked for – a narrative that was, at its core, purely memoir. Yes, while the essays I had written were about my experiences as a shell-shocked evacuee or as an exhausted exterior damage assessor, they were not about me, so to speak.
This is not about me, it’s about being lost. This is not about me, it’s about seeing a dead dog. This is not about me…
I simply could not find it in myself to write about myself and what I had been through. And though I certainly had told my Katrina story enough times – as we all did, as we all have done – I could not write it down as such. But a challenge always intrigues so I agreed to work on a piece, and thanked her for inviting me to do so, and sipped my coffee as our breakfast conversation moved on. Something would come to me. Something always did. All I had to do was wait.
One truth about writing is that one writes even as she is away from pen or keyboard. A question or an idea sits on the back burner bubbling like a pot of beans while she goes about her life, even as she writes other pieces. Suddenly, and often unexpectedly, the sentences will begin to appear in the air around her, bouncing and echoing inside her otherwise preoccupied mind, until finally, as the time for composition arrives, simply enough, her job is to capture these imaginings. For this reason, I don’t believe in Writer’s Block: if one can’t write, it’s because she hasn’t thought enough on the subject.
Lord knows I had thought long and often about what I had experienced during that collective disaster we label “Katrina,” and as I made my way back home that morning, billowing clouds crossing overhead, I was confident an idea would come to me. I just had to let the beans simmer.
A month passed, then another, but the pot was still cold. It dawned on me that, about two years back, I had stopped writing about Katrina (I had not noticed!) and had finally started to write pieces about other topics: an essay about discovering New Orleans English as an adolescent, another about a pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s home. A novella sculpted from short stories I had started in the 1990s. A slender volume about a three-story painting that featured a multi-racial Madonna and a hundred-fold choir of famous jazz musicians. Though my Katrina experiences had given me much to write about and had awarded me with a grant and publications, the likes of which I would not have known otherwise, I had moved on, clearly, as a writer and most certainly as a person. I had bought a house. I had achieved tenure at the university that had cut my position after the storm. I had experienced the death of my father, for chrissakes, and the hot-flash certainty of menopause in the years that had passed. There were other things to think about.
So on a Monday morning at the start of September, I found myself at the computer keyboard, typing a message to my friend:
hey… i'm going to have to back out of your project. i can't seem to get myself to write about my katrina experiences in that way, likely because i have written so much creative nonfiction about so much that i experienced.
I went on to say that I had other writing projects (I did) and was facing a deadline at the moment (I was), and that I was certain she could find another woman to tell her experience in my place. I felt guilty for not being able to write the piece I had agreed to, and badly for letting a friend down. But while I was certain that it sounded as if I were blowing her off, I knew I was being sincere. I immediately felt a sense of relief.
Looking back at that message, I see that it is dated September first. Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, September 1 is a date that stands out in my personal Katrina history, as it was on that day in 2005 that my mother woke me, jostling my air mattress gently with her foot. It was a Thursday, and the hotel room was bright with morning, and droning with sound from the television set, one voice after another after another, along with my mother’s “Kathy… Kathy…” added to the mix until I responded, looking up with bleary eyes.
“St. Bernard is no more.” She was not being dramatic. She was simply shocked to her core. St. Bernard, a parish next door to New Orleans, had been drowned by a storm surge so huge, so violent, that levees were destroyed, and the homes that were still standing held anywhere from five to twelve feet of water. This horror had occurred a couple of days earlier, but the news was just making its way to CNN, and as my mother heard it, her hand trembled, shaking the coffee in her cup.
I remember that this happened on September 1 because that day was my mother’s sixty-sixth birthday. It is a fact scribbled on the calendar of my 2005 Month-at-a-Glance. There was so much written on that day in September that the notations crowd each other past the confines of the printed box.
My friend Gina, turning 44 that day, was giving a poetry reading that evening.
I had a mammography scheduled at 8 a.m. that morning.
Lunch was scheduled with a colleague who had been assigned to be my mentor.
There is also a “BB” marked in the corner on that day, as it is marked on every Thursday of that fall semester; I’m not too sure what exactly that signifies. I also had noted that an early dismissal was scheduled at my kids’ school, and…
Ah, and in recalling what was not to be, I find myself writing about what most certainly was. There were the purposeful nods and forced "good mornings” shared with fellow evacuees as we helped ourselves to the grits, eggs, biscuits, and bacon, along with coffee and juice, the unchanging breakfast served in the hotel lobby each morning. There was the brutal morning sun on my shoulders as I left the hotel and walked to my car, countered by the unmitigated coolness of the small, sweet library where I and other evacuees signed up for snatches of computer time, each of us desperately trying to contact friends and colleagues and members of our families. There’s the loud pop and dings of the casino I would walk through on my way to the evening’s crowning achievement of a dinner buffet. Back at the hotel each night, glancing into the lobby as I passed, catching the oft-repeated images of my drowned city in a flash and then turning my head away.
This is not the essay I thought I would write when invited, yet again, to consider that time in my life or, rather, how life has changed, or hasn’t. In truth, I wondered if I would fail yet another challenge. I really was not sure if there were any beans left in the Katrina pot. There are a few, it seems, but ten years gone, I have to be willing, and able, to turn on the stove.
Katheryn Krotzer Laborde
Katheryn Krotzer Laborde is a writer of prose. Her work has appeared in Poets&Writers, Callaloo, Fresh Yarn, Southern Journal of Linguistics, CrossRoads, and other journals and websites. Her book, Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans (McFarland), explores an odd and stunningly visual chapter of the New Orleans recovery story.