I have never been a particularly well-informed citizen of the world. I mean, I’m not one of those people who couldn’t find Iraq on a map or who calls Africa a country, but I am also not one of those people who could detail something even as basic as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even when I was at my most passionate about politics and world affairs, I was one of those college kids who got all of my news from The Daily Show, and now there’s not a chance in hell that I could either stay up late enough to watch it regularly or be allowed by my children to watch anything but Yo Gabba Gabba or obnoxious families on the Disney Channel. When I have time to search the Internet these days, I am more interested in going to Pinterest to find cute crafts to make with the kids for my mother-in-law’s birthday than I am with figuring out what exactly is going on in Egypt. And even though I could still tell you all the words to 90 percent of the songs on Hangin’ Tough, I pretty much forgot the names of all of the smaller countries in Europe two hours after the exam in 10th grade. I’m not proud of this; I have just accepted it. My best friend’s husband, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, would no doubt point to me as a shining example of what is wrong with America. But when I wake up at 6:45 a.m. with a binky tangled in my hair and my 6-year-old “patting” my face and saying, “So Mommy? Good morning. Can I ask you something? Next year for Mardi Gras when you make cupcakes, can you put a baby in just one? And can you write a letter to my teacher to tell her that I need to get the one with the baby?” – well, my first thought is, “Oh my God, why are we out of coffee?!” and not “I wonder what happened in the wider world while I was asleep.” As I said, I’m not proud of my general ignorance and the utter smallness of my worldview, but I am also not really ashamed of it. I am ridiculously privileged, and I know it, and I am grateful for it, but beyond that, I don’t think my feeling guilty about it would do a damn thing. Could I actually try to be the change I want to see in the world at large? Maybe one day, when I am not working to make my tiny corner of the world a better place by raising good kids and earning money to pay my bills and volunteering at Ruby’s school and making sure my husband has clean shirts and that the recycling gets to the curb on time and still taking enough time for myself at the end of the day that I don’t snap to the point of messing up on everything else. But for right now, I have enough on my shoulders, and feeling guilty would just be a waste of time and emotion. I have accepted my willful ignorance of the Big Issues of the Day as one of my failings, just like I have accepted that I will probably never join a gym and that I will always have one too many glasses of champagne at a party.
But – and this is what’s known as “burying the lede,” folks, and I’m sorry – every so often something happens that snaps me out of my tiny little word of Toaster Strudels and temper tantrums. Yesterday, my mom called me to tell me that one of her friends had been shot and killed in Treme. Ashley Qualls was a 25-year-old social worker (that’s how my mom knew her, through their work with at-risk youth) who was killed walking home from work late at night. And I just felt sick about it, partly because it is so sad and senseless and partly because she really was trying to make the larger world better and this is what happened. Just like Joseph Massenburg, the 18-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer who was shot and killed in April. Like Deb Cotton, who moved here just before Katrina, became a fierce advocate for the city and was shot during the Mother’s Day parade. Like Nathanial Zimet. Like Helen Hill. And these are just the most high-profile examples, the ones I can think of without researching.
I personally don’t live here because I want to make New Orleans a better place. My primary skill is knowing where to insert commas and semicolons and correcting people who use the possessive pronoun “your” when they mean to use the contraction “you’re.” I love grammar, but even I can’t pretend that it has any real impact on people’s lives. No, I moved here for purely selfish reasons: I wanted to be home, in warm weather, among friends and family and likeminded people. I wanted to drink good iced coffee and eat good food. I wanted Ruby to experience Carnival.
I fully understand that I am in less in danger of being shot because my life is so very small – I am almost always home eating Haagen Dazs in my pajamas with the security system armed by the time it gets dark out. But it makes me feel terrible – guilty, even – that the people who do try to experience the city, who do try to get out there and walk the streets, who try to help and advocate and celebrate the city are doing something inherently risky. Dammit, New Orleans.
I am, as I said, basically a boring homebody. If my family lived in Boise, Idaho, and I had grown up there and it was all familiar to me? Then I would have moved back there. With the exception of climate, my life probably wouldn’t be too different. I would still watch the same shows with my kids, cook them the same chicken nuggets, read them the same stories, bake them the same Pinterest cupcakes, host the same birthday parties, eat the same ice cream in the same pajamas. New Orleans is largely wasted on me. But when people less boring come here for a reason and they get out and get their hands dirty and they learn to second-line and they fall in love and they cook for us and they make us laugh – and then they get shot? Ugh. Again, dammit, New Orleans.
I find myself asking, yet again, if I did right to move Ruby down here. Is the fact that she wakes me up in July talking about King Cake babies worth the fact that I have to explain to her that her grandmother is crying because a friend of hers got killed?
Mostly I say yes because mostly I don’t think about it too much. Israel? Egypt? I don’t even want to know what’s going on in my own city from day to day.