Tags: new orleans


fire walk with me

This afternoon I was so preoccupied with work that I almost didn't notice how unfathomably gorgeous the day was. Thanks to Huzzah to the Shopkeep for piquing my curiosity in the commotion by the pagoda in Tappan Square, leading me to a space where a small group of students were bathing in a sea of yellow leaves and prompting me to look up and OH MY GOD. I've seen emerald hills and marble canyons and sapphire beaches; I've seen cherry blossoms in the spring; I've seen smog sunsets and mountain sunsets and ocean sunsets--and yet I don't think I've ever seen anything in nature that could raise a branch to the changing of the leaves in the American Midwest. Oranges and yellows and reds and greens splashed across fractal, spidering branches--a useless side effect of a chemical process, serendipitously tasteful. In three dimensions, here and there and everywhere, scaled perpendicular to three horizons. Would blow any human artist's mind. I picked up a handful of leaves and threw it in the air, experimentally, and the wind cascaded it across space in sparkling organic glitter. I picked up a single leaf, marbled red and gold with infinitely complex fractal veins, and said to myself, wryly, "Leaf."

You didn't have to make such beautiful things, God, but you did. And I won't pretend I know why, but I'm glad you did.

Which brings me to something I heartily encourage everyone to do more often: Look up. People spend so much time looking at eye level or at the ground that they forget that the world is much bigger than they are. There's so much beauty in second and third story windows (and fourth and fifth and fifty-eighth, if you live in the city), and in trees heavy with dying leaves, and in solemn overpasses and highway signs. If you live in a place that isn't overcast all the time, there are birds and helicopters and gorgeous cloudscapes, and waning suns, and enormous drunken 3 AM moons. Life is too short to live on the ground.

Speaking of Tappan Square, the storytelling bonfire tonight was amazing. The art of storytelling was born in the firepit, and the firepit is where it belongs--there's something ethereal about licking flames and spirals of smoke that accentuates the distinction between a mere lie and a near-spiritual experience. There's something inescapably mesmerizing about a crackling bonfire, and not just because it's never the same fire two seconds in a row--Anna tells me it's called reverie. And I was deep in the reverie tonight, lost in the magic of the sparks and the spiraling smoke--like the tiny paper-wrapped flames people put in their mouths, but with a bigger fire. One that stones your heart, not your mind, and evokes an awed, captivated emotional state that cannot easily be expressed in prose. The Writing Madness, but with no actual muse. And I had that experience with the one person on campus who would understand, and I could not find the words to tell her. I could not ask if it had been the same way for her. It was awful in a way I cannot explain.

So lost. So, so lost.

People have told me not to revel in the drama of life, but at one point it was the only joy I knew. So I cherish it.

I wandered around town for an hour and a half, still in the fire-reverie--at some point having a poignant adventure with a jar of grape preserves, the significance of which has been lost to sanity--and somehow ended up at the New Orleans volunteer party. (For the record, it was the second party I have ever been to ever.) I'm not sure how I got there, but I did. You ever have dreams with familiar people in strange settings? This was the opposite for me--it was such an ordinary place, this house, so real and concrete and consistent with my perception of the world--and yet it was filled with people I had met in extraordinary circumstances. It made Oberlin foreign for a while, like just another rest stop on our twenty-two hour highway march. I wasn't alone in this sentiment, apparently--a bunch of people started conversations about how everything familiar was strange again, how it felt odd to wake up and delight in the absence of broken glass or toxic mold on the floor, or to remember what it was like taking hot showers for granted. It was a little presumptuous, several of us admitted, how we had only been down there for a week and yet were talking about the experience as if we were veterans of some great war. But we were brought together by the experience we shared--an experience that many of us found it difficult to talk about with even longtime friends. I had my first can of Pabst and was almost disappointed at how tolerable it was. I was expecting horse piss and instead got something akin to watered-down Budweiser (which is more or less what it is).

Since Oberlin no longer felt familiar to me by the time I felt like leaving (and not because of intoxication, mind you--as always, I had exactly one beer), I felt it would be appropriate to get some food at the gas station. No one who is here for any extended period of time ever goes there because the prices are high and the selection is bad, but it was one in the morning and I felt I had a lot to gain by seeing Oberlin from the perspective of someone who would consider it just another place to pee on the Big Road. I got a Hot Pocket Chicken Pot Pie, which I am convinced is the best thing to happen to convenience store road food since sliced ham. Main Street looks funny at one in the morning on Saturday night--all the stores are long closed and most of the lights are out, but there are still a goodly number of people wandering about. To a traveller driving through in the dead of night, it must look like just another town. Just another place to get an energy bar and a burrito.

I sang "One Night in Beijing"--loudly, obnoxiously, and in Chinese--all the way back to Talcott.
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    SHIN - One Night In Beijing
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mission accomplished

We smell like hippies and we're covered in toxic black mold, but we did it. We survived New Orleans and made it back home. And thanks to the fine folk at Common Ground, we left it just a little better than we found it.

So much to write. So much to tell. It wasn't a particularly traumatic experience, and any change it may have made to my life is subtle at best. But there's so much about New Orleans the world deserves to know. So much about these people and their indefatigable spirit. I have pages and pages of notes. I don't know where to begin.

I guess the best I can do is roll out one entry for each day, whenever I have time to write one. If you don't want to hear about my experiences in New Orleans, you might want to skim over all my entries this week.

But not now. Now I can barely get my thoughts straight--all I can think of is how good it feels to take a hot shower in a clean bathroom. When I have the energy I will write more. I promise.

Back to decontamination.

A quest has been completed!
You gain 16000 XP. You gain a level!
You receive the following quest items: Grape Jam of Reconciliation, Disco Bead Crown, Plastic Beads of Remove Armor x5
You gain +1 Fortitude.
You gain 5 skill levels in Carpentry.
You gain 1 skill level in Weapon Proficiency: Unarmed.
You acquire Weapon Proficiency: Hammer.
You acquire Language Proficiency: Deep South.
You acquire Mortal Enemy: Black Mold.

[edit] http://simcityneworleans.ytmnd.com/

greetings from new orleans

Am alive and well. Would say more--I have two pages of notes and a camera with a soon-to-be-full memory card--but can't stay on too long; internet access is limited and visitors to the distribution center get priority (as they should). Things are going better than expected. Hope you are all enjoying your break. (Or not break, if you're not on break.)

[edit] http://www.commongroundrelief.org/ if you want to know what I've been doing. We're always looking for food, money, supplies, or anything else that could help the people of New Orleans back on their feet. I'd show you guys pictures if anyone had a Sony memory card reader here--this place is awesome; it's like a convenience store where everything is free.

new orleans or bust

So. Most of campus has already left for fall break, and I head out to NOLA tomorrow. I can't believe I'm actually going. I'm scared shitless.

These last few weeks I've been feeling like I'm not a good enough person to go on this trip. I haven't raised a dime (we were given three weeks to raise $200), I've missed two mandatory meetings, and I've done nothing but criticize. There are all these amazing, hardened medic/lifeguard types with multiple certifications for emergency medical training, and all these mules who can carry hundreds of pounds of supplies day after day, and all these drivers who are going to go hundreds of miles without sleep, and all these activists who are insanely good at getting shit together--and me, I'm just dead weight. I've contributed nothing to the group so far--all I've done to prepare for this trip is complain a lot and buy my own personal supplies. I haven't done as much as lift a goddamn box. Am I even remotely ready for such a difficult and noble undertaking? Better people than I intentionally put themselves in the way of anarchy and violence when they do not have to. Better people than I put themselves through backbreaking labor and excruciating stress for little or no personal gain. I'm one of the teeming masses, man. I'm one of those guys who watches disasters on TV and shakes his head and thinks nothing more of it. I can almost hear my parents telling me scornfully, "Don't go, Kevin. Don't go. That kind of thing for saints. You think you Jesus? 這麼小的孩子去這麼危險的地方? 不尊!" My secret hope all this week was that Common Ground would tell me they didn't need me, and I could just stay in Talcott and chill like everyone else--fool myself into thinking that I've stressed myself out enough over midterms, and somehow deserve a rest.

Fuck, man, even now I can't help thinking only of myself.

There's some crazy shit going on down there. The news makes it sound like it's all back to normal, but our coordinator Arthur Richards, who came back from there just a few days ago, insists that it isn't true. Anarchy still rules the streets, and after so many months a lot of the hardest hit areas still haven't received any relief whatsoever from FEMA or the Red Cross. Common Ground was raided several months ago by rogue cops with shotguns--they called out one of the volunteers, arrested him for taking a cooler off someone's lawn, and drove him away. He was found in a 4x12 cage in the makeshift prison several law enforcement agencies had set up by the Greyhound station, severely beaten. Claimed that while he was in the cage there were red dots on his head and his chest, and that if he moved the dots would also move. Was released without charge and brought back to Common Ground the next day, seriously in need of medical attention.He had been beaten as he was being arrested, he had been beaten at the prison. He was only sixteen.

If you're thinking, "Wow! I wouldn't be brave enough to go down there after hearing about that," rest assured that neither am I.

But no. There is no turning back now. Anyone can stay at home and do nothing. No one can be blamed for staying at home and doing nothing. It's only human. There is only so much the average Joe can be expected to do--tragedy or no, we all have our own lives to live. But there are people down there who don't have that option. People who have been left with nothing, with no homes to take for granted, with no complacency to return to. If there's no way I can go down there for me, I have to go down there for them. They want outside help. They're asking for outside help. And I could let someone else do it--there's always someone else to do it--but this time there is the opportunity for that someone else to be me. And I figure I'm only going to be this young once, and I'm only going to be this strong once, and I'd better put me to good use before I'm not so useful anymore. Life is too short to waste on yourself.

So I'm going. But there's nothing noble about it, for the only things that are driving me into this are raw momentum and a tragically misguided sense of civic duty. And if I'm not strong enough to do this, may the Holy Spirit carry me. For only God has the courage to voluntarily walk into hell.

May God have mercy.
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    Senses Fail - Save Yourself
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let not the right hand know what the left is doing

So it looks like I might be going with a group of student Common Ground members to help rebuild New Orleans this fall break. Since their needs change every week, and the situation over there is in a constant state of flux, it really depends on whether or not they need me. If they need seven volunteers, we're sending seven volunteers. If they need zero, we don't go. The skillset I gave them suggests I'll probably be fixing computers or lifting crates or speaking to people in Chinese, but who knows what they might need me for. They want carpentry and first aid skills, which I do not have. We'll see how it goes.

The girl organizing the trip--really just a loose group of students and student organization representatives at this point--warned us that it will be forty hours a week of backbreaking heavy labor, and will be deeply traumatic. Every now and then, volunteers flip out and have to be sent home (which is a reason why they need us in the first place). One member of Common Ground was beaten by police and falsely detained on grounds of burglary and resisting arrest, and he was released the next day without charge. It is not going to be easy, physically or emotionally. That scared a bunch of people out of the room, but it holds a strange appeal for me. For this is no Michael Jackson bleeding heart fundraiser--there are enough handouts, enough emergency supplies. This is hardcore, brutal, hands-in-the-dirt relief work. We are teaching men to fish. We are reserve soldiers in a war against ourselves.

And I know it's selfish to think of it this way, but this may be a good opportunity for me to test how truly resistant I am to trauma.