Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bywater Beat

Thursday, March 13th, 2008-

We showed up at their house and the first thing I thought was, "Oh no, not more scraping."

For the past few days a portion of our group has been scraping a rot-iron fence to prep it for painting. And I can't lie, the job seemed slightly trivial and almost irresponsible. With so much devastation, with so much neglect, with so much at stake, why should we sacrifice the limited time that we have to a task that could be characterized as ornamental?

What today taught me was that our primary task in NOLA is not to do "meaningful work." Or to re-phrase, the work we are here to do, the work you all sent us here to do, is not the kind which lends itself to traditional calculation--square feet cleared, number of cases worked and clients interviewed--we were sent here for something altogether more critical if less tangible.

Let me try to explain.

The home whose stair-case and window sill I was reluctant to work on is inhabited by Katrina Survivors. I did not really appreciate what that meant until today. Katrina survivors experienced the destruction of their homes, the deaths of friends and family, the betrayal of local, state and federal government. They faced a formidable storm to protect their lifelong investment. They saved lives, and in the process they risked their own. They fought to maintain their dignity as they were scattered from state to state like so many shingles in a hurricane.

Then, after the trauma, drama, and flood water had subsided, they returned to daily life.

And that is the true survivors story. It is not glamorous. The true survivor continues to survive, from day to day, week to week, month to month, and so on, and on...

They struggle to pay bills in the wake of tragedy. They return home and rebuild. They raise their children. They resist temptation and vice. They pray. And they appreciate life in a visceral way; they appreciate life in a way that most of us can only feign to understand.

Hope is almost impossible to extinguish. But if there is anything that can achieve such an unconscionable objective, it is indifference. Neither insults nor assaults can compare.

Today we scraped the paint off the home of Katrina survivors. But ultimately the specific task we performed is unimportant. Today we showed that the plight of Katrina survivors is not a mere echo of the Post-"Katrina"-Media-Spectacle. Americans are not indifferent. We are a generous people, a compassionate people, an exacting people.

If only our public institutions could embody the best of our public spirit.

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