When I was in high school, there was a wildly popular book called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. I’m way oversimplifying here, but the basic premise of the book is that it’s hard for girls and young women to maintain a strong sense of self in the face of the cultural messages we get. Pipher, a therapist who specializes in working with troubled adolescent girls, shared stories of girls who cut themselves or starved themselves or convinced themselves that they had a shot at a happily-ever-after with The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
My teachers read this book. My mom read this book. My friends’ moms read this book. Everybody read this damn book.
And suddenly, everybody was looking at me if I got up to pee after a meal, convinced I was vomiting up my dinner to try to conform to the media’s idea of body perfection. And it drove me insane. As a teenage girl, I resented this book immensely.
I remember writing an editorial for the school paper about the book, saying: “This book was written by a woman who works with messed-up teenage girls for a living. That’s akin to a doctor who only works with blind children assuming that all children can’t see.”
Obviously, that metaphor seems a bit ridiculous from the distance of more than a decade (and the wisdom accrued during that decade), but I can still see where I was going with that, and I stand behind it. And I’m about to stretch the metaphor a bit further.
Because I have a friend, Brandon, a guy I’ve known since we were in kindergarten together at McDonogh 15, who argues with me almost every single day about why I live in New Orleans, why I want to live in the midst of such violence and suffering.
Before he moved to Denver, Brandon worked as a paramedic in New Orleans. He has seen way, way more than his share of blood and bullets and brain matter. In no way am I trying to diminish what he’s seen, what he’s done, what he knows. But just as Pipher’s experiences informed her generalizations, Brandon’s experiences inform his.
“I’m sorry that was your reality,” I tell him every time we argue. “It’s not mine. I don’t see violence every day.”
“Reality is reality,” he says. “It’s happening. The violence is happening whether it happens in front of your face or not.”
He called me after he read my blog last week, in which I said, “Damn the crime and the mosquitoes…”
“Did you really just put crime and mosquitoes together on a list of annoyances?” he said. “Did you really just compare 300 dead to bugs?”
And I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Did I? Well … yeah. I guess I did. And what’s awful is that, quite honestly, mosquitoes and potholes are more present and annoying in my day-to-day life than crime and violence.
Yes, I’ve had my house broken into; yes, I’ve driven through murder scenes; yes, I’ve heard gunshots.
But actual violence against people I know personally just doesn’t happen very often to me. And because I want to keep living here, because this is home and because I really do love every single cliché about this town, I don’t focus on the violence all the time. I can’t. I know ignoring it won’t help, but what will? It’s not a problem that I know how to fix. No one does.
I want to tell myself that Brandon doesn’t get it, that he was immersed in the bad side, and that skewed his reality, colored his perception.
And that’s true.
But I also know that I don’t get it, that I’m too immersed in the good side, and that skews my reality, colors my perception.
And that’s true.
No matter how “rah-rah New Orleans” I come across when people who don’t live here ask me how the city’s doing, no matter how many romantic words I throw up on the screen every week, it’s difficult to be a cheerleader for this city sometimes.
This is a hard city to live in. But it’s also a hard city to be away from. And, in my eyes anyway, it’s a city that it’s impossible not to love.