I’ve been thinking a lot about forward motion. When we’re injured or sick, we need help from people who are healthy and in possession of the resources and know-how to help, whether it’s chicken soup or setting a bone and a cast. Recovery takes teamwork. A musical partner of mine and I tell stories to a nursing home audience of young-adult shut-ins. We know that talking about our activities out and about in the community-region-world is akin to bringing a gift. Rather than hiding our mobility for their protection, we bring images and accounts of life on the outside for their benefit.
Habitat for Humanity is working relentlessly to correctly and conscientiously rebuild the toothless grin of New Orleans’ neighborhoods and return them to that beaming Louis Armstrong smile. The folks in the neighborhood welcomed us with the humility and gratefulness of a friend in need. Nicole, the new homeowner, stopped by after her workday. When I put my hand out and introduced myself to her, her first words were “Thank you.” For a beat and a half, I didn’t know what she was thanking me for. I wanted to thank her for the opportunity. For her courage. For her graciousness. For her poise. For that look in her eyes right into her soul that said don’t even ask about my journey or the hit that my family took from the very unfair and one-sided war with Katrina. You wouldn’t believe it.
I thought the past twelve months had been rough for me. The year ended with a visit to a city that has had unfathomable loss and devastation right in its front yard for not one year but for the past seven years and counting. I have been reset.
Our Berklee crew was full of stories that probably contributed to our compulsion to get down there and help with Habitat for Humanity. None of us were ready for the up-close view of the scars and gaping wounds left still unattended in the Ninth Ward and beyond. We worked in the Seventh Ward, where new homes shine and sparkle among the decay and disrepair of others.
Our team arrived energized and excited to get to work. Where? At what stage of building? Didn’t know, didn’t matter. After a night of checking out the French Quarter and gorging on some of the best and most lovingly prepared food in the world, we lucky eight set off in the morning for training and safety lessons at the given address. To our surprise, that was our work site. We waved goodbye to Mo, our taxi driver for the week, and proceeded to listen and learn as our site leader Andrew and his co-worker Mark set the tone for the week: we were to be a positive presence in the neighborhood. Our healthy and able-bodied selves– fresh off the plane from Boston where all of our comforts of home and loved ones would wait for us–showed up with various degrees of skills and experience, Red Sox stories, and plenty of smiles and giggles. We saw a vacant lot, save for a new foundation of cinder blocks and strong, sturdy posts set on thirty-five foot pilings. It was a sandbox. We built a house from the ground up. That sucker ain’t goin’ nowhere.
The power of forgiveness, community, friendships, shared knowledge, and our common bond of humanity spoke to me all week. Words are insufficient tools for telling this story. We kept going back to the truck and the compartmentalized boxes of snap lines and toilet paper and pencils and right angles. We kept going back even though we were carefully balanced on great big ladders because someone needed the right tool for the job.
We worked with several other folks volunteering for the job: father and daughter teams, mother and daughter teams, solo travelers from a few time zones away, all focused on the one job of so many jobs to do. I stepped back to take pictures at various times every day. Zoom out: I saw the swarm of the entire team buzzing with activity all around the site. Zoom in: I saw the two or three people that I worked closely with holding boards for each other and pounding nails in one by one. Each time I stopped for a breath, I saw that the house had grown since I last looked. A sand lot with a pile of boards on the ground was sure enough becoming a house with walls and rooms and love and laughter.
It was hard work in sun-baked heat, the portable bathroom grossed us out, I beat the daylights out of my left thumb one day. We also laughed until our stomachs hurt, we heard some magical, inspiring music, we saw a beautiful city and walked its colorful house and balcony lined streets.
It was an emotional goodbye at the house. We wanted to see it all the way through. Our lives in Boston called us back home. After a teary goodbye to some forever friends, strangers only a week before, I left Logan Airport wondering if my dog had eaten dinner yet.