Our souls are a beautiful collage of our hardest days and that which inspires us to persevere.
When I was a little girl I would run away from home (now is probably a good time to tell you I had a loving family and mostly wonderful childhood. My struggle started long after my runaway days).
I’d threatened to move into the garage.
Or I would run across the street to the local hospital and sit on a bench and watch the squirrels chase each other until I got bored. Or hungry. And then I would go home.
I was independent and wanted to live my own life. At six.
And it’s something I still struggle with. It’s a pull that many of us can relate to: the need to escape when things are tough. When we lose control. When life's outcome is yet unknown. The space that lies between what was and what will be.
Which brings me to my New Orleans service trip, the perfectly timed opportunity to run away from home.
I am struggling to get the experience out of my heart and head. To weave what I learned and what I saw, to process it and save the memories, to remember this special time and the way it changed me.
The hugs. (I remembered to ask for permission)
A sadness that is as thick as the humidity that blankets the town.
Their beautiful resilience.
And Mardi Gras, their crown jewel, the glue that holds a community together, that thing that drives them to preserver.
I’m still not sure why they call New Orleans the Big Easy, because it seems like life there, for many, is anything but easy.
I remember Labor Day 2005 being glued to my television, watching the tragedy unfold in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina was set to level the city. And in the days and weeks that followed I felt called to help. Me, a 20 something from middle class middle America.
What did I have to contribute? I couldn’t do it.
At the time I had a laundry list of reasons why I shouldn't go… none of which registered in my head as fear. But it was fear that held me back, my brain’s way of keeping me safe.
Our prehistoric brain is always trying to keep us safe. It doesn’t care about our happiness. That’s why we often have to do an override when the messages our brain sends us are keeping us safe (but not happy). To know that fear often means "proceed with caution" and not "abort plans".
And for a long time I lived feeling very safe, but I was not very happy.
Safe and happy rarely co-exist.
Passing on not one but two opportunities to help has lingered with me. And in the time since I’ve changed so much. It's hard to recognize that version of myself, my old life, because regrets are no longer welcomed. Doubt and fear are considered challenges; they no longer register in my head and heart as a warning of danger to come. Or if they do, I look for facts to overcome self-doubt and move from fear to action.
So imagine my joy when I was invited to do a service trip in New Orleans. And with it a chance to run away from home.
Behind the smile, things have been heavy. Sickness, stress and worry had crept in. And when that happens I need to get away from it all to focus on others. It’s my way of putting that negative energy to good use.
So I joined 18 strangers in an unknown city and we emerged ourselves in the culture. We gave of ourselves. We tried to help in the way we best could. The long weekend is a blur of sadness, perseverance and hope. And echoed through our acts of charity, our love in action:
"When are you going to the parade?"
Even from those standing in their front yards with roofs ripped off by the recent tornado, dealing with the emotion yet another natural disaster brings. And the PTSD from Katrina rises like the creek. It’s tattooed on their souls, never to be forgotten. The very best and very worst of human nature.
"When are you going to the parade?"
So to honor those wishes we went to the parade. I danced in the rain, covered in beads. And it was pure joy. Those 30 minutes…my heart was doing cartwheels in my chest. Nothing else mattered. Life was good.
And I got it.
I finally understood, come rain, high water, tornado or any other challenge they may face the parade is what unites the people of New Orleans. Their culture, their history, their future. It’s symbolic of their resilience and a reminder that better days that are certainly ahead. They don't run. They take one day at a time and look forward to the next parade.
This trip, the people I met, showed me a resilience I didn't know existed. It awoke that part of me. Next time, I'm not going to run. I'm going to work through it. But I'll be waiting for my parade to get me through.
Thank you to the people of New Orleans for your warm welcome and hospitality. Thank you to Camp Restore for comfy beds, delicious meals and taking such good care of us during our time in your city. Thank you to Cathy for coordinating our experience, your words of inspiration and most of all your insistence that we go to the parade. Thank you to the Giving Hope Food Pantry for letting us in, allowing us to serve and tolerating us type A ladies when we tried to improve your system. Thank you to Meredith and the Saint Bernard Project for allowing us to represent you in the community. We were welcomed with open arms because of the trust and love you’ve built in the community (and beyond). To Janet and the beautiful people I met in the 9th Ward you are in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you for allowing me into your life if only for a day. You will stay in my heart for a lifetime.
And a very special thanks to my sisters who joined me on this adventure and the women of Kappa Alpha Theta whose generosity made the trip possible. TLAM