It’s Labor Day weekend, and with most of my time spent in transit from one city to another, and moving from one relative’s house to another, I’ve been mostly successful in banishing CNN-replenished images of devastated New Orleans from my mind. I keep my eyes on the road, or on the gurgling smiles of my adorable nephew, or bury myself in the writing and editing that I have to finish up before my imminent vacation. But everything I do makes me feel guilty for all that I have and for all that I have not lost. I wonder about how best someone like me can actually help. I wonder whether FEMA or UJC or somewhere else entirely is the best conduit for my donations of cash or other items. I wonder what is truly needed, and why helicopters aren’t rescuing children from rooftops, leaving them instead to watch the rising waters and wonder how much longer it will be.
But in the internet age, information comes to you, whether you actively court it or not. I’ve been checking my email, CNN Breaking News, NY Times, my Google Alerts, my blog comments, etc. And when one email from Beliefnet featured an essay byRodger Kamenetz, author of Jew in the Lotus (among others), titled “I Am a Homeless Man,” I had to read on. I found the essay –all about the symbolic meaning of images–so heartbreaking, so moving, and so meaningful that I had to share. Here is just an excerpt from that essay:
Houses are fragile. Wind and water can take them down. And fire. And indifference and neglect, and racism and separation, the separateness we feel from others who don’t look like us, or live like us. The others for whom we are an us.
Today I know my house is dry, and so it is now the looters I fear. I fear them, but I don’t condemn them. Some are criminals going about their criminal business, but others, most of them, are just me. They are just me.
If I were there, I would be them. I would thirst as they thirst, and hunger as they hunger, and I would break any door, I would enter any store or home, I would steal, I would do whatever I needed to live and to make sure those I love would live. My wife, my children: Yes, for sure, for them, I would do what I needed to do.
And I feel the same way about my city. My beloved New Orleans, which is submerged right now, and which I hope one day will rise again.
An image is a pump. An image has the power to move energy from one realm to another, from the realm of reality to the realm of imagination, from the realm of imagination to the realm of reality–from the realm of dream to the realm of fact, and sometimes back again, recycling, pumping.
So we absorb televised images of people we don’t know, of people who are thirsty and sick and scared, people on rooftops who are lifted in the air by rescue helicopters and dangle there, the children too afraid to look up as their rescue basket ascends in the sky. Images of people who have lost husbands and wives, children and grandmothers. Images of men and women and children, abandoned by all of us–abandoned by “us” because they are not us: They are poor and we are not; they are black and we are not; or they are ill and we are well. They are old and we are young. Images of those abandoned because of indifference bred of separation. But images break through barriers, they flood us.