That cycle of discourse often feels incomplete. I log onto myspace this morning to learn that an old friend from high school is gone. Died. But that's all I know. I see R.I.P. in a bulletin posting from an old 9th grade friend. I haven't talked to him in probably 13 years. I have no context for her death. I mourn, in my own silent way. Too many years have passed for me to shed tears, yet I feel the loss nonetheless. Jaw agape, colleagues asking me if everything is ok. It is. But it still feels strange.
I returned a week ago from my third week of "rebuilding New Orleans." Painting murals and beautifying a school. The conversations don't always find me, but I know there are people who believe and argue strongly it is all for nothing. That it is a city that should be forgotten. That it is corrupt and below sealevel and failing and dying anyway. They say the effort is futile. But who are you to damn a city? Who are you to intentionally ignore an entire population?
In a special issue of the Journal of American History, Lawrence Powell looks at natural disasters from a greater, historical perspective:
Storms, fires, earthquakes, mudslides—these are mere blessings in disguise. What was broken, dysfunctional, and decrepit has been leveled or swept away. Now, long-overdue improvements can finally be launched.
The issues we were dealing with - the poor state of education in New Orleans schools - is not a direct result of Katrina. These issues preceded her wrath. But Katrina took a failing school district and gave faulty politicians and local leaders an excuse. Compound these existing issues with displacement. Move the students to portables that look like prisons.
I may have just spent a week in New Orleans painting green and orange on slats of wood. Did I make a difference? Maybe it wasn't as tangible as gutting homes, erecting frames and hanging drywall. But I was a part of something bigger than that.
A spirit of service. Proof that these children are not forgotten. Proof that these kids are loved by strangers from the other end of the country.
On Friday night, Shake came to share his spoken words with us. It was incredibly moving and definitely a highlight of the trip. His gift of words is beyond what I could relay in this post - but one thing he said really stuck with me. He may not be proud of the leaders of our nation and their response. But he has seen volunteers from across the country lend their hands - use their vacation time, spend their own personal money - to come and help New Orleans. These people. These volunteers. Are. America. I may not be proud of our nation's current leadership, but I am proud of this population of volunteers. For the first time in what, 8 years? I feel pride in my country.
What's happening in New Orleans could be happening in any city in this country. Whether plagued by tornados, snowstorms, extreme heat, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos - natural disaster looms always, everywhere. There is always that potential for disaster. You can blame engineers for their failures, but you can't blame nature for her failure. Her wrath is beyond our control and beyond the room for blame.
Failing schools exist everywhere. Poverty and racism and class divide. These issues are present and real. They feel amplified in New Orleans - but that doesn't make them any more or less valid. It does, however, remind me that I can't just hole up inside my homogeneous, comfortable, middle-class urban existence in ignorance. I can't ignore the reality of oppression in our society.
I just read that they might be finding a resolution to the writer's strike. The strike has forced me to think about the creative process behind entertainment. And how that goes beyond my limited understanding of it.
I may not respect TV all the time, but there are times when I want to ball up on the couch and veg. But not in a completely vegetative state. I'd like my entertainment to be something more than mindless.
Give me the escape I ask for, but don't play me down to the lowest common denominator. Humor me with wit, sarcasm, allusions, character development. Layer it. Give me more than canned, recorded laughs. Entertain me with suspense and narative. Leave me with more questions than answers. Tease me with plotlines that I can't predict.