Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mission Mississippi - Friday

We woke up Friday to more rain. In yesterday's blog I failed to note that on Thursday I had called my husband from the toolshed and left a message along the lines of, "Hi, honey. They are calling for tornadoes here. Worry not. I'm in a flimsy toolshed one mile from the gulf and surrounded by trailers. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'll call when it's over."

Friday it was so dark from the storm that we all had trouble waking up. Or maybe that was the fatigue. Our crew was starting to look bedraggled. The Beverly Hills Episcopalians were dragging, too, and looking more like Congregationalists from Wichita. (I have no idea what this means. My only defense is that it sounded funny at 6 AM in Mississippi. I am sure the fine Protestants of Kansas are a glamorous bunch.)

My claim to fame on this trip is that on Friday morning as one supervisor insisted on the very tall Eli being in his group, and the Americorps volunteers were snatched up, my grounds guru Mike said that my considerable skills were needed again in the toolshed. It is good to be loved. We did all kinds of strange little jobs and I used half a dozen power tools and random gizmos I do not know the names of. Mike has a knack for introducing the novice to the fun parts of home repair. Who knew that the glob of caulk stuck in the nozzle is called the worm?

The emotional toll of relief work was being felt by all. We began to see houses according to water lines. Had the water reached the second floor? The roof? Was this house a rebuild or a redo? We were able to name all the little towns we'd been working in and knew the difference between Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach, and Gulfport varieties of devastation.

That we would have another trip was now a given. The questions before us became: whom do we invite to join us? How do we make this trip possible for people with limited income and those with construction skills? What supplies will we remember to bring next time? If Jack can't come, how do we get a Muffaletta sandwich back home to him?

Other than the depression and the weight of the realization of how much is left to do, what I felt strongly was a need to rid myself of stuff. Once you see the pictures, the video footage, the boxes of belongings in the front yard, the husks of residences, the stairs that used to lead to home and now lead to nowhere... it makes you think about your own home differently. I pictured what my home would look like under water. I imagined losing it all and what I would miss. I thought about how much I could do without that I am currently living with.

This was not all imagination for me. A few years ago Tropical Storm Gaston dumped 11 inches of rain on Richmond, VA. Our basement was flooded with 3 feet of water. I remember looking down into the water and seeing the oil tank floating on its side and feeling numb. I cleaned out the basement with the help of a friend and two Mormon missionaries. My husband had been emotionally paralyzed by the extent of the mess. And we had been very lucky.

As I worked in a toolshed in Mississippi listening to the rain pounding on the roof with only one pair of clean socks and undies to my name I imagined going home and getting rid of half my clothes, my sewing supplies, my books, my little mementos. I imagined my children running through a house with less stuff and being happy and free. I imagined that ridding myself of excess belongings would rid me of the weight of the memories of Mississippi's losses. I was getting loopy, as you can see.

Friday wasn't all contemplation. The UU crew had completed the sign that would commemorate our visit. I noticed that plenty of space was left to add names on our next visit.

In the evening we headed out to celebrate the culmination of our week. One group went to the local seafood festival. I took a group to New Orleans. What was I thinking? Is there anything less contemplative than Bourbon street? Okay, yes. Vegas. And the similarities between the two are multiple. The whole NOLA experience was a total culture shock for me coming at the end of our mission trip.
After a week of eating to replace all the calories burned on houses, we were confronted with cuisine. After a week of minimalist living I had the shock of a $17 bowl of gumbo. After a week of wardrobes chosen for utility, we were all amazed by the abundance of New Orleans cleavage. The shocks were not all unpleasant, however. Working construction made me look at the French Quarter with approving eyes. "Wow. Check out that siding - all wood. Nice." And I went wild over the beignets (doughnuts). In fact, I could swear I woke up Saturday with a beignet hangover.

But the most memorable part of New Orleans was the drive into the city. We passed block after block of dark, sometimes windowless apartment buildings. My Katrina eyes were only able to look for Katrina familiar. And it was everywhere. By the end of our 3 1/2 hour NOLA visit I was overwhelmed. Like my 2 year old daughter, I handled the overload by falling asleep in the car.

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