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July 1, 2008
It is at this moment commencement season, these words being written in the narrow slot of time that exists in academia between the conclusion of final exams and the rites and rituals of graduation.
It’s a great time to check craigslist for bikes, televisions, weights, golf clubs, inflatable kayaks, Ikea chairs and other stuff being unloaded by students whose four years are up and who are ending their stay in the city.
And if you pay careful attention, the bittersweet buzz on the streets surrounding the campus persists with a singular message: Wow, who knew four years would pass so quickly?
The neighborhood is already beginning to slip into its snoozy summertime mode due to the departure of underclassmen, and you have to think that the graduating seniors are already beginning to feel dislocated from the world they have built around themselves these last four years.
They wander familiar streets, but now it’s with their parents and younger siblings who have just arrived for the big ceremony.
The days just before commencement can be like time spent in an airport waiting for a connecting flight. You’re neither here nor there, but rather, somewhere in between.
Doesn’t Katrina seem like a lifetime ago? Doesn’t it seem like it was yesterday? Yes and yes. Time goes all funny on you in airports. That’s what being in transit does to you. The lack of a solid sense of place leaves you more exposed to time’s tricky influences. Four years can be experienced as an eternity but remembered as a blink.
Truth is, we don’t relate to time very well.
Time is God’s business and the hobby of physicists. The rest of us just want the clock to keep ticking.
Place is a different matter. We inhabit places. We love them, hate them, leave them, return to them, contribute parts of who we are to them. We imagine ourselves in places and shape places with our imagination.
For the last 10 years (wow, has it already been a decade?), Tulane graduates have been presented a gift at commencement in the form of a song. Each year, toward the end of the ceremony Wanda Rouzan, a talented and personable New Orleans singer, delivers a sweet rendition of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” a song written in the 1940s and recorded by a jillion artists over the years. The lyrics longingly dwell on the icons of place as they invoke moss covered vines, moonlit bayous, blooming magnolias and whatnot.
But what does it mean to “miss” something?
In English, when we say we miss a place we’re acknowledging with regret that that place has become somehow absent (missing) from our lives. In Spanish, however, this can be expressed by the verb faltar, which literally means to lack something. The French use the verb manquer (to be lacking) in the same way.
In English, the verb “lack” goes beyond “miss” to add a sense of deficiency, the sense of not having enough of something.
What if Rouzan, who lost her home during Katrina and was displaced from this city for months following the storm, slipped during her performance and sang, “Do you know what it means to lack New Orleans?” What, indeed, would it mean to lack New Orleans? Where on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should we list life in the Big Easy? At the bottom, along with breathing and eating? Somewhere at the top, alongside creativity and spontaneity? Or somewhere in between?
Rouzan recalls being unable to sing for weeks after the storm. “My heart was broken,” she said in an interview two years ago. “I don’t know how to explain it. Every time I opened my mouth, I cried.”
We believe there are reasons for things, even mysterious things that we can’t explain. We make hierarchies and diagrams and lists and put our fingerprints all over existence.
Yet you can walk a familiar street and it will suddenly seem different, even alien. Or you can sit in an airport, waiting for the next flight out of town, ticking off a mental list of stuff you meant to take along even as you are bedeviled by a gnawing feeling that you’ve left something of worth behind.
And no matter how hard you sift and sort and process, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Nick Marinello is features editor of Tulanian.