Most people know a passel of Before & Afters in one lifetime from tiny to huge. Life itself may be said to consist of a series of Befores & Afters linked by the ampersands of privately or publicly significant Events. What is certain is that the Event has made enough of an impression on a person to forever reference oneself as the self before and the self after.
Overlaying the infinitely cracked mirror of one's private self are the public Befores & Afters that make up a community. Until several people experience a common Before & After there is no community. The bigger the Event the more people experience a Before & After. Historical events have a big enough Before & After to bind a nation. Every war, successful or not, serves that function. In that sense, all wars are civil wars because the people involved mark their history Before & After the War.
The other big community-making Before & After is natural catastrophe. The people of New Orleans will always divide life into Before & After Katrina. New Orleanians were already, traditionally prone to dividing life in a series of big & small Befores & Afters because their history was fraught with wars, riots, epidemics, national identity crises and hurricanes. Each of those misfortunes had a Before & After that gave rise to a slew of remembrances, re-remembrances, rewritings, embroiderings, recastings, memorializations and rituals. A historic city like New Orleans is the sum total of its memories of catastrophes ritualized from the divide of Before & After in every aspect of civic life: architecture, language, civic associations, festivals and relations with its neighbors. The specifics of the Event that made for the break between Before & After are often lost in the swell of dramatization that rushes in to fill the divide.
I'm only examining this because I've had, as I've said, some big ones: Before & After Emigration, Before & After Communism, and now Before & After Katrina. There is no escape from what history deals you any more than there is an escape from the two guaranteed B&As life deals you. The good thing is that when you go through an Event with a lot of people, you feel close to them, close enough to go with them through the ampersands of any coming Befores & Afters, G-d forbid.
And speaking of G-d, I have it on good authority that the only thing they look at in the afterlife is your B&A score. The bigger ones you have, the better your chances of having a pleasant After.
Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City.