31 March 2006

Oxford American, how I love thee.

Most of my blog-readers already know this (I reckon 2 out of 3 counts as "most"), but let it be known that though I love Oxford American for lots of reasons, I now have another: this glossy mag with admirable Southern quirkiness has taken one of my poems!

The poetry editor returned two of three recently submitted poems in Monday's mail, indicating that he had sent the third about to all the staff, so I was hopeful but unsure. But yesterday, the managing editor emailed me to say that they'll publish "Three Days After Easter, 1994" in their upcoming "Best of the South" issue (on newsstands mid-May), and they're even paying me. Little do they know they don't need to: I'm so thrilled I'm about to come out of my skin.

So yesterday was a red-letter day for my inbox. And my year. And my life.

08 March 2006

Hurricane Relief: post mortem

On Sunday evening, back from the trip, I was glad to bathe in my own tub, crawl into my own comfy bed, and sleep next to my husband, but I felt a great emptiness waking the next morning to the familiar and heading to a sterile office rather than going to gut houses. I woke with my heart in the 9th Ward, and it has followed me around ever since.

This is partly circumstantial—I was there for three days and feel changed because of the brief trip, so it's natural to still be thinking about it. But there's also an emotional reality that steps beyond the circumstantial—that is, I didn't just wake Monday thinking about the Ninth Ward because I was there but because it's right and necessary to do so. When I woke at 4:30 Monday morning with a Katrina cough seeking ibuprofen, it felt weird walking in the dark through my familiar home, confident that everything was where it was supposed to be. It felt weird to have a confident familiarity. It felt weird to have a home.

But we must press on in action, not despair. One of our number said she never thought of the situation as potentially hopeless until she saw the Ninth Ward itself. Indeed we may never see this thing fixed in our lifetimes or even in this age, but we must hope in the God who will fix it one day, at least for the glorious age to come.

The very beginning of Genesis 1 can teach us something amazing here: when the creation was a dark and formless void that to our eyes would have looked like utter chaos, the spirit of God was yet hovering, doing something that eventually finished wise, right, and good. We may not see the activity, may not understand it at all, but I believe we can be confident in the Lord of the universe to not forsake His creation. One day and for all eternity, He will make it right. When we look at this kind of destruction, it seems all the more amazing that He will do it. And such assurance energizes me to work in the meantime. As long as He tarries, let us partner with Him in the care of His creation.

The whole of Habakkuk speaks to this same paradox: the prophet is frustrated over God's apparent lack of action as oppressors threaten Israel, and he asks some rather indignant questions of God in the face of it. He asks questions like "Isn't this pretty much reversing the promises You made to us? Isn't this diminishing Your glory? Don't you care about this injustice?" and then just sits there awaiting answer. God's gracious responses point Habakkuk to His glory and governance—He rules all things perfectly, though it may honestly not always look like it at the moment. I'm not sure Habakkuk himself really gets it by the end, but he starts moving that way, singing a fantastic song that we might apply to Katrina's destruction well: even if this place never grows back, God is still good and deserves worship because He is the only joy of my heart and the only security for my feet.

So let us proceed with hope, knowing He will finish it one day for His own glory and our good. We will be more glad on that day for our temporal obedience. How gracious He is to join us in His work! In contemplating a higher and higher view of God and in doing such God-honoring work is our hope and joy.

Hurricane Relief: Day 3

We spent Saturday morning touring the New Orleans area since we had finished our Boys and Girls Club work faster than they expected. Jerry Hilbun, Pastor at FUMC Slidell, prepped us: the levee break decimated the Ninth Ward but the west wall of the hurricane (which is the least of the wind, of course—the worst hit Bay St. Louis and beyond) plus the 17' storm surge covered Chalmette. So we went there first—it's a ghost town but for the Home Depot (newly opened) as abandoned cars line the road (some say "Do Not Remove" in spray paint on the windshields) and many buildings are burned black.

Across the bridge, the NASA plant was unscathed—they sandbagged before the hurricane and went back to work the next day.

The Lower Ninth Ward is rather middle class—cars everywhere, so some ask why they didn't leave. Reason: they had no warning. As we drove toward the 17th Street Canal, the Industrial Levee, we could see the damage increasing. Homes more and more flattened, or leaning, or moved further over—on top of a truck, into the next lot. Or, as we crossed the train tracks (an additional barrier for the Upper Ninth Ward) into the Lower Ninth Ward, completely gone. Where are the houses? There is only debris. 1100 people died in the Lower Ninth Ward alone. The first several blocks from the levee are completely flat—just staircases leading to emptiness, piecemeal washers and dryers, empty photo albums, china strewn about.

I walked to the top of one staircase which had across its top the base of a great tree. Looked down the tree and realized it had fallen diagonal across the house, no other traces of which remain.

I walked up the driveway to another house and entered what would have been the front door. Walking through that ghosted monument to a family, I saw a party dress stuck to tree limbs, as though hung awkwardly out to dry. Tiny Tots kids clothes, dry clean only, the tag still read. Brown crepe and black velvet, crinoline skirt. Wrapped around its same makeshift laundry line, a long piece of white aluminum siding, which clapped loudly in the wind, making an awkward waltz with the two-beat flap of the dress: clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap. Then the log packer at the levee joined in for a terrible crash at the beginning of every other measure: pow clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap, pow clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap.

We all felt a bit sick to be there, Ashlie especially: she had been excited that we were coming but now felt like an invader into the property of the dead and forgotten, a tourist in a graveyard.

Click here for all my photos of the Ninth Ward and the rest of the trip.

Hurricane Relief: Day 1

On Ash Wednesday, I drove to the New Orleans area with a group of about 25 Centenary students and staff. Over the next four days, we gutted as much of a house as we could, emptied the Boys and Girls Club of Slidell, toured the Ninth Ward, and drove home wanting to go back. Here are my notes from the work on Day 1:

Finally over Lake Pontchartrain we saw our first inundations of hurricane damage. Though Katrina hit August 29 (now 6 months ago) blue tarps still rest on so many roofs, tent villages rest off the interstate, trailers enjoy stairs and landscaping in the front yards of pier-and-beam homes, smashed windows appear as design elements down skyscraper sides. Water lines remain like mold tattoos on houses street after street.

Hardly any stores open, we drive past boarded-up Rite-Aids while several tell stories of driving through New Orleans not long after the storm to see $6000 signing bonuses on McDonald's marquees. Omnipresent vans and trucks bring help while other cars just bring normal people back to an attempt at normal lives in the city.

We finally arrive at our job in east New Orleans: the pink house has a lovely front porch, red double French doors for the entry and a set of French doors on either side into other rooms. Betsy went through the house to get instruction about what work to do: the walls marked X were to be torn down. Those who had been on the fall trip went immediately to work—no further instruction necessary. The banging was cacophonous and piercing. The rest of us, however, required some guidance: for real, I'm just supposed to hit this wall? for real, I'm supposed to rip all this out? Sure enough, yes was almost always the answer.

How peculiar. I began in the kitchen and immediately began imagining what it would be like to have this done to my kitchen, my living room, my bedroom, my dining room. Nothing in the house looked hers any longer—just wallpaper and paint, no personal belongings (which had all been moved to the back house or to storage). Suddenly her space is full of strangers. Helpful strangers, but the help is demolition.

What would it be to have 20 strangers enter my home and start ripping down mildewed walls? Our wedding china would likely have been shattered, our clothes black with mold, our books warped beyond readability, and on and on. But the owner must have spent enough fright and anxiety and sadness over it already because she simply came alongside and worked with us.

We ripped down the wooden planks behind plaster behind drywall in almost every room, down to the bare frame. Then scooped up the chunks in shovels and created a mound 4' high by 15' long as new hedgery between her house and street. The second floor demolition created a huge disposal problem: how to move that trash to the street? Through the window? but it dispersed too far (if flung down by shovel) or came down in too heavy of chunks (like trash bags).

The best method seemed down the stairs, which created a steady slide of plaster, wood, and general debris. The women sequestered upstairs shoveled their trash to the top of the stairs, someone else pulled it to the mid-floor landing, and a pair of others pushed it down to the ground level where two other people bagged it. Each person had his or her own technique: Eric (strong and a thinker) pulled with the rake and pushed with his feet (riding it down like a snow drift), Helen kicked it backwards as though she were on a treadmill, I pushed and pulled with my feet using my quads and leaned over to fill shovels with my hands. Then we scooped shovelful after shovelful into trash bags and trash bins, all to land on the curb.