The walls of our home are down. This is not a unique sight in and around New Orleans. Since the cruel touch of Katrina’s waters buckled our doors, stained our sheetrock, destroyed our keepsakes, and left a trail of black mold as a memento of its visit, we have been in a state of disoriented confusion. But three months later we are moving past Katrina. Despite the exposed timbers in our houses and the smell of bleach everywhere an odd peace is ours this Thanksgiving. Though we are still fighting insurance companies, squabbling with bewildered FEMA representatives, and in exile from our beloved city, there is much to be thankful for.
Most of us along the Gulf Coast escaped the hurricanes with the heart of our homes in tact, if not the homes themselves. Where our furniture and cherished photos fell victim to the filthy waters, our children and wives did not. We have been allowed to hold onto the stuff that truly matters: the lives we have been given and the lives left in our care. Even if the touchstones of yesterday’s memories will never be seen again, we have a chance to fashion new ones today and tomorrow. For this I am thankful.
When my wife and I moved back to New Orleans five years ago, so the children could be closer to their grand parents and great grandparents a friend offered this cautionary welcome: “We have termites, the ground is sinking, the crime is horrible, and a good sized hurricane could wash us away at any moment,” she said laughingly. “Ain’t it grand? This is truly the life of abandonment, honey! We are in God’s hands here.” And so we were.
What Katrina has taught me–and others I suspect–is that no matter where we live, beyond the illusion of our importance and our power, our influence and our many comforts–we all live the life of abandonment. We only delude ourselves believing otherwise. At any moment a happening quite beyond our control, be it a natural disaster, a health crisis, or a terrorist attack could sweep in and take everything away. This awareness should not provoke fright as much as it should awaken within us a deep sense of gratitude. Despite our constant vulnerability, we are cared for. We are truly in God’s hands. And for that I am most grateful.
When Katrina evicted us from our home, Mother Angelica, the subject of my latest book and the nun who founded the huge media empire, EWTN provided my family with shelter. For years Mother had urged people to “live in the present moment.” Though I admired the thought, I never practiced it in my own life. The nature of journalism is such that looking ahead, planning for the future, focusing on the next thing, the next event is crucial. Who has time for the present moment? Still Mother Angelica often reminded people to slow down and reflect on what they were being called to in the present moment. “Not yesterday or today, but right now,” she would say. “The will of God is manifested to us in the duties and responsibilities of the present moment. We have only to accept them and try to do good in them.” Freed by Katrina from most of my effects, and deprived of the easy rhythm that was ours in New Orleans, I have now discovered the present moment. I soak in each conversation, each second as if it were the last. I find myself these days looking deeply into the faces of children and old people. There a are moments where I catch myself standing in a driveway staring in wonder at burnt leaves escaping their branches in the wind. The smell of coffee, the kindness of friends–I savor each present moment now and wait on the next. Detached from the stuff that can make us numb to the beauty of the world and our purpose in it, I have found true joy on the far side of this tragedy. My walls have come down too.
This week as we share turkey at a table not our own, I will see my sons, my daughter, my wife, and parents for the gifts they truly are. This appreciative vision, this renewed perspective would not have been possible without Katrina. So to her, with deeply mixed feelings, I offer thanksgiving in this present moment.
–Raymond Arroyo is the author of the New York Times-bestselling biography, Mother Angelica The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles.