Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rebuilding Hope: A Mission Trip

Yet New Orleans didn't die, proof, perhaps, that cities are more than functional conveniences. They inspire affection, emotional ties and loyalty. It is now the fastest growing city in the United States, at 7-8% per year, even if, at about 340,000, it is still below pre-Katrina levels. If people persist in living in earthquake-prone Los Angeles and San Francisco, why would they not return to New Orleans? This renewal is despite, more than thanks to, the efforts of the city's government. New Orleans has suffered from what the New York Times called the "dysfunctional stalemate that has bogged down the city's recovery". The dysfunction is both between black and white populations and between city and federal government, and the consequence is that swathes of the place are still visibly ruined, and homeless rates remain high.

[in] the nearly five years since the storm, a "recovery plan" was drawn up, often reviewed, and barely implemented. The city, according to one involved in reconstruction, "has hundreds of millions of dollars committed but not spent". The recovery plan was created "without a drop of sense as to what was implementable".

Into the vacuum of action created by government, individuals and independent agencies have piled in. Self-organised groups that have grown up since 2005 have become significant forces of renewal.

Habitat for Humanity, an international charity, has built more than 1,300 "simple, decent, affordable homes" in the four states effected by Hurricane Katrina and her nasty little sister Rita, which followed shortly after.
The Observer
Sunday March 14, 2010

these days that you were waiting for
will come and go
like any day
just another day

there's never gonna be a moment of truth for you
while the world is watching
all you need is the thing you forgotten
and that's to learn to live with what you are

everything you've ever wanted
floats above
sticking out his tongue and laughing
while everything
anyone can ever need
is down below
waiting for you
to know this

Learn to Live With What You Are
Ben Folds

I'm doing loads of laundry and only-slightly-ok-mostly-sort-of-absolutely freaking out about leaving tomorrow to spend a week in New Orleans helping to build houses with RHINO (Rebuilding Hope In New Orleans) and Habitat for Humanity.

I'm freaking out because I'm afraid I'll forget something vital, like protective eye wear or my journal, and I'm freaking out because I haven't done anything this before. In the ultimate paradigm shift, I am abandoning a lifestyle to which I've grown accustomed and complacent in the hopes of shifting my perspective enough to find some new stability in life. Which is really just a high-falutin' way of saying: "I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and devote a week of my life to helping others." The fact that I get to travel, and the fact that I get to travel to a kick-ass city, is sheer luck.

Mochi once told me her theory about listening to music, and how instead of separating you from reality it makes you hyper-aware. As though you're in a movie. The music creates a temporal space that forces you to focus on minute details. The wash of sun on your face, the stitching on the handbag of the woman standing next to you, the smell of a street vendor's fare. Your mind creates a cinematic landscape, flush with flashbacks and day dreams, and the music guides this little moment in time.

The same can be said for travel. A change of scenery, biologically, creates in us a hyper-aware sense. Constant vigilance is required, because there's no telling what might be a threat or potential food item. Evolution has done nothing to tamper with our natural instincts, despite our best efforts to numb them on a day to day basis.

I find myself dampening these instincts, tuning out, turning off, and focusing instead on the rhythms of everyday. Get up, go about the day, eat at prescribed times, and follow a routine and pattern so exacting that it's stultifying to suddenly realize how much time has gone by. I decided at the beginning of November to enact a radical life change for myself and set about trying to find what, exactly, that change might be. A new job, a new city, a new religion, a new career?

And then, suddenly, I fell back into the routine. Like a mechanical ticking, my days trickled through my hands, the hours gone and wasted. And it's March. And nearly five months has gone by since my "wake-up call."

What I did do, smartly, was to sign on for this trip in the height of that flurry of decision-making. Whatever it was I was planning to find for myself and do for myself, I committed to this trip and decided it would be the anchor. If everything else fell through, I would still have this thing that I had agreed to, worked for, and am now finally embarking upon.

A week in a different city with people I barely know, focusing on a cause that has always plucked at my heart strings and doing brute manual labor is certainly a cause for hyper-awareness. An appreciation for different sounds, smells, flavors.

One of the things I was always so amazed about when I moved to Florida was the change in light. A monstrous, flat sky with intense light that cut through everything for twelve hours a day. Nothing like the thin, milky light that comes and goes with the seasons in the north east. Florida is nothing but light and air and water, and for three years I never got used to the intensity of it.

This is what I mean by hyper-awareness. Who thinks about light, unless it's Daylight Savings time, or a shift in the seasons? You travel, you think about light. Your perception is skewed and acute.

I've never traveled without some evolution or revolution. I'm a thinker, and airports and buses and independence and time alone and away breeds new visions and hopes and choices. This is such a ripe moment of my life, with everything marinating and culminating and the past few years slowly beginning to slide away leaving only the meaningful and taking with it the petty, but insurmountably heavy, baggage and heart break and doubts and failures.

And so I take up my proverbial hammer, and I head to NOLA with hopes of transformation, transition, and making some small dent of a difference in the overwhelming mountain of need. I'm searching for some moment of truth, I know, but attempting to keep everything in perspective and let things happen organically.

Mostly, I'm there to rebuild. Houses, of course, but myself too. However selfish that sounds.

Stay the course with me, and we'll see what comes out of all this.


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