Those of you who know me personally, know that my plans changed very suddenly this past week and my intentions of spending a relaxing spring break week at school–processing my experiences from India last semester and taking some time to catch up on work and sleep–were taken off the table very suddenly. On Wednesday two weeks ago I found out that a faculty adviser for the New Orleans Mission Team had dropped at the last moment and I was asked to step in.
Just two days from relaxation and reflection, I instead found myself preparing for a 15-hour drive straight south and demolition work for a week. I still can’t get over the cosmic sense of humor I find myself dealing with most days:
No sooner have I thought for a brief moment, Hey, I have some time to reflect back, to take my time, to appreciate old experiences rather than making new ones and to find balance and calm for a moment
than the universe chortles back, How about we shake things up a bit instead? Balance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and you’re forgetting that life isn’t that neat and compartmentalized. Find your balance among the chaos. Pack your bags.
Last week was my third time in New Orleans working with the St. Bernard Project to rebuild homes devastated by Katrina. With an entirely new group of people, a new house to work on, a new family to meet, and a different shape and tone to the week that lay ahead, the trip revealed all sorts of new insights than my previous trips to New Orleans.
One of the things I grappled with more on this trip than on any other was the idea of homelessness. It came up repeatedly in our reflections after our 6-hour work days gutting and demolishing a house left soggy and wilted by the flood waters. Other team members discussed how seeing homeless people across the city impacted them and often leaves them feeling helpless and weighed down. I can relate to that feeling. Homelessness is difficult to see and is certainly one of the many problems facing New Orleans that seem insurmountable.
But beyond that feeling of helplessness, a couple new considerations of homelessness impacted me this week.
First, I was struck by how different homelessness looks across the world. Homelessness in India looks different than homelessness in Boston and even homeless people in different areas of New Orleans experience the world in different ways. There were the disabled homeless we passed on Canal Street that made the group feel weighted and helpless, there were the homeless people living in temporary apartments as they save money to rebuild their homes in the Lower Seventeenth Ward, and there were scores of young homeless people living on the streets of the French Quarter, making art and collecting money to finance a search for a new home.
Each of these groups are distinct in their experiences–as are the individuals within these groups–and suddenly the idea that homelessness was a uniform problem across the globe became more complex.
Second, after passing that first homeless man on Canal Street and talking about homelessness that night in reflection, I realized that I was very uncomfortable with the way I reacted to him. When I had seen him earlier that day, I instinctively stuck my hand into my purse and felt for a dollar. I grasped onto one and as the group raced across the street in a different direction I released my grip and followed. It was a terrible feeling. The next night when we went into the French Quarter I didn’t want to react that way again and even though my diversions to purchase cardboard art from a middle-aged man and to drop some change into a musician’s tin often held up the group for a moment, my dollars seemed to fit so much better in their tins than they had sitting stationary in my purse.
Aside from grappling with new ideas surrounding homelessness, I found myself entranced to an entirely new degree with the music of the city. On the first day we arrived we went to Soul Fest at the Audobon Zoo and heard some classic New Orleans jazz. We arrived just in time to hear Glen David Andrews perform and in minutes we were on our feet, following Andrews around the yard with his trombone, dancing and signing along to songs we were only now hearing for the first time. I was struck by how unifying his concert was and how I could feel the rest of the audience connecting to the political content of his lyrics as we sang along. Work still needs to be done, the people in New Orleans will not give up hope, that this is a city that thrives. And we could all feel it.
Walking through the French Quarter later in the week, I was struck by the music again but in a different way. In the Quarter it struck me how quickly the tone can change simply by turning a street corner. On one
corner of Jackson Square we heard a electric violinist improvising in front of the Cathedral which took the long, deep sounds of the wooden string instrument and bounced them back out at us, resonating in our rib cages. On another corner just one block away there was a young girl sitting on a trash can happily playing her accordion on a quiet street corner. I always feel surrounded by art through music in New Orleans and was astounded this trip by what a unifying force music can serve while simultaneously being such a personal and individualized representation of someone’s unique soul.
Speaking of souls, if you want to get in touch with yours look up some of the music by Wael Elhalaby. He is incredibly talented.
All in all it was a wonderful, surprise trip and I left with much more than I could give yet again.
In the time since I’ve been back I’ve also had some time to reflect on my posts from India last semester. How on earth did anyone manage to keep up with all of those?! I had no idea I was that wordy! Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about what I’ve learned from that experience and carry with me now. More to come.