Spring Break 3: Michigan
On day four of Spring Break, we gutted a house for “Ms. Lisa.” Ms. Lisa is an African-American woman about 80 years old, and has lived in the same Gentilly-neighborhood house for about thirty years. She’d actually paid off the mortgage just a year before Katrina.
After the storm, Ms. Lisa went to Michigan to live with her daughter. She said it was nice, and the people there treated her like a queen, but it was just too darn cold there and she just HAD to come back to New Orleans and the warmth! My friends speculated the weather was just a convenient excuse to move back. I said one doesn’t really need an excuse to come back – it’s home! But, my friends said, when there’s only one other person on your block, your favorite haunts are still gone, and everything to your name is garbage, perhaps you need an excuse to feel psychologically justified in coming back. And feelings really do count for something, because when all is said and done, God and feelings are all you’ve got.
Ms. Lisa’s return really spoke to me. Rebuilding New Orleans is an overwhelming and sobering task, and at her age, she can’t actually do any of the work herself – she must rely on others to do every last physical step for her. It would be so easy for her to turn her back on the mess and be done with it: call the city and have it demolished without taking another look. She even has a loving home in Michigan to escape to if she so desires! I’m guessing that if I were in her shoes, even I might flee to Michigan – but not Ms. Lisa. For better or for worse, home is home and she’s sticking it out. That, I think, really says something about the character and spirit of the people of New Orleans. She’s even taken on another job and baby-sits a little two-year-old boy in her trailer and yard.
I had a conversation at St. Andrew’s after church that week with an older gentleman, perhaps 60 years young, who said post-Katrina New Orleans is such a stressful world. His was a refrain I’ve sounded here before: after work, taking care of your kids, dealing with sick elderly relatives, running a household, dealing with piles of government paperwork, and cutting through miles of red tape, you don’t have any time to sleep, much less work on your house or, heaven forbid, several more houses of family members. You need help not only to get through it, but just to get started – if two people stand alone in the doorway of an ungutted, unmucked house, the job seems as big as building the place must have once been. Moving out all the contents alone, let alone taking out walls and ceilings, looks like moving Mt. McKinley with a backhoe, plus emotional baggage. As another homeowner put it, “You don’t even know what corner to start in!”
But thankfully, homeowners don’t have to do it alone. Although millions of citizens don’t realize the dire straits New Orleans remains in, Dartmouth still sent a dozen relief groups. Grinnell College has seen an outpouring of support to the region. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Free Church of America, the Presbyterians, and other churches have followed the call of God. Habitat for Humanity, ACORN, and Common Ground do good work.
And as a result, Ms. Lisa’s spirit really does get to count for something.
This wraps up my spring break report. My next posts: tomorrow, pictures; sometime later this week, the Governor’s race and hopefully NM Gov. and '08 candidate Bill Richardson on New Orleans (I'll meet him Wednesday).