This week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To mark this solemn date, I am reposting two essays I wrote as I watched from a distance the terrible situation deepen in New Orleans.

Consider yourself part of the solution

(first posted August 31, 2005)

“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.” – Flora Edwards

Do something. Extend yourself.

New_orleans_dead

This is no way to say goodbye to someone who has been your cornerstone, your love, your driving force, your partner, your rock.

Xavier Bowie was 57 and had lung cancer. Finding no one to take them out of New Orleans, he and his wife hoped the storm would spare them. “I’ve got electric and stuff right now,” she told herself. “I can keep going. I’ve got oxygen. I can keep going.” But the oxygen ran out.

As the Associated Press reported, “when Xavier Bowie died in a flooded neighborhood, his wife did the only thing she could think to do. She wrapped his body in a sheet, laid him on a makeshift bier of two-by-fours and, with a little help, floated him down to the main road outside the French Quarter, her husband’s body resting on the grassy median as car after car passed, their wakes threatening to wash over the corpse.”

I was driving home from a meeting recently and in a rush of emotion, I felt overwhelmed by all that I care about in the world and all the needs that I can’t fix—it breaks my heart that children are abused, that manatees are gnawed up by the motors of unthinking Sunday boaters, that there are people in the world who are literally starving to death as I type this, that…, that…, that…

I felt a physical sense of despair in that quiet moment on Merrimon Avenue between Jiffy Lube and Ingles, a sense that I could never do enough in this world, that it was too overwhelming, the need. Maybe it was the news of three little boys found dead in a car trunk in New Jersey in the next door neighbor’s driveway, or maybe it was the faces of Tsunami orphans, or the suicide of a popular downtown coffee shop owner in the Swannanoa River. It’s all those things, and more. It’s just bloody overwhelming; I feel so ill prepared, so inept, so inadequate to solve the gaping aches around me. And I feel so selfish sometimes when I simply walk away from need, when I close my door, when I say no or turn the channel.

And now, the hell that was New Orleans and Biloxi and their neighbors: unimaginable dislocation, death, destruction, drowning, all that people had in the world floating in an oily brew of stagnant water, including the bodies of loved ones. This is not an inconvenience or a rise in gas prices. No, these are people’s wild and precious lives.

What happens when our infrastructure collapses? Most of us will never know, not in this country, no. But some in the Gulf Coast of the United States know it harshly right now, up close and personal. While I’m brushing my teeth and using too much water in the shower, they know. While I’m talking on my cell phone and emailing this to you, they know. When I’m eating dinner cooked in my own kitchen and watching the waters rise in New Orleans on the evening news, they know. And they will know for a long time to come. And of course, the hardest hit are always those who were already the hardest hit, those who are always the hardest hit: the poor. How can they possibly rebuild their lives when their livelihood has been destroyed, just like their homes? Where on earth will they go when they leave the Superdome, that last safety net before the free fall?

The wave of horror I feel at the world’s pain has been revealed to me as a peculiar form of privilege; there is a sense of horror and a terrible sense of relief at the same time, if I am honest. I am not there, which allows me the luxury to have an intellectual response to this event. I must dig deeper into what it means to be connected to these people who are so affected; it is that intellectual response to tragedy that keeps us immune, that makes these tragedies all the more possible in the world. I manage my reaction to them by keeping them small tragedies, the size of my TV screen—I cannot allow that to happen and I must all at the same time. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Congo? Nothing. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Middle East? Nothing. What am I doing about starving children in the world, about starving children in my town, about the man with no shoes downtown? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

What can we do? It’s not enough to watch the news and feel empathy for those we see on rooftops waiting to be saved, or those we see desperate for water and food to give their children. It’s not enough to sit in the dryness of our own homes and criticize the relief efforts and wonder when on earth Mr. Bush might wrap up his happy vacation to take a look-see at the devastation. It’s not enough to wish you could help. You can and we must.

I urge you to contribute as much money as you can to the American Red Cross to help with this relief effort—not a comfortable amount, but a slightly uncomfortable amount, a dollar figure that will be different for each one of us.

Having served on their National Diversity Advisory Board and now on the Board of the local Red Cross, I know that they do good and important work on the ground, providing water, food, and shelter, as well as emergency and counseling services. We all know that the hardest hit will be lower income families in New Orleans and surrounding areas – the Red Cross is well positioned to provide aid to them. The money will go where it is needed. This is not the time to clean out your clothes closets and send boxes of toys and linens. At this stage, those gifts are a burden, not a help. Give cash.

Finally, about three hours after Xavier Bowie died, his wife flagged down a passing flatbed truck filled with downed tree limbs. Someone paid the driver $20, she helped load her husband’s body into the truck bed, then climbed aboard.

We cannot sit idly by.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

We must consider ourselves part of the solution in order for any change to occur. We must give more than we think we can.

Donate to the Red Cross in memory of Xavier Bowie for these relief efforts. They know what they are doing and they do it well. They are mobilized and in position on the ground. Go to www.redcross.org and sacrifice something for this effort—stretch yourself. Do something bigger than yourself.

Also, if you are able to give blood, please do. Blood supplies are at emergency levels.

 

Replace “they” with “we” with “I”

(first posted September 2, 2005)

We all believe in equality, as long as it is equality with our superiors.

What is the tipping point?

IntersectionI’ve long been fascinated by the fact that our Social Contract works—that people stop at four-way stop signs and allow the person to their right to move first, creating a sweet dance of understanding and civility. By the fact that social anarchy doesn’t occur more often at Labor Day Sales, by the fact that people generally queue in straight lines and take turns to buy their Big Macs, that we muster the wherewithal to tell people when they have spinach stuck between their teeth, and that we are a nation of givers and volunteers.

But after my house was broken into recently (while my older daughter and a friend slept in the next room), prompting this life-long pacifist and Quaker to want a gun, only then did I realize that social niceness is only possible when our basic needs are met—when we are not in fear of our lives, when our children are not in danger, when we are hydrated and our kids have clothes, when we are not shuffling around a devastated city in shoes made of rubber bands and pieces of a box that sadly says “keep moving”, when we are not starving and dirty and wet and have no place to urinate or defecate, when we have not just lost every single thing we have, including our family. No, four-way traffic stops fall far short in those situations. I’m reminded of Yeats’ famous line: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

The social contract is tenuous. And it has broken. The fear and the fury that has been below the surface in this country for many years has emerged from the cracks in New Orleans. The poverty we try so hard to ignore and make nice and keep in tidy pockets of space has risen to the surface, literally floating in the streets of this fine city.

Ours is a nation of profound social divisions. As professor Mark Naison from Fordham University said recently, “black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws. Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation.” That’s what we are seeing up close and personal in New Orleans this week.

When do people become less than human? When are there too many people in one place for the individual humanity of any one of them to be considered? When does it become okay to leave our corpses floating in canals or in a wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center? What’s that tipping point?

We think they are, but natural disasters are not equal opportunity disasters. The invisible poor in New Orleans were told, like everyone else, to evacuate–but had no means to do so–no cars, no credit cards, no money, no nothing. Those of us in the dominant culture in this country were blind to that reality. White privilege and socio-economic privilege is called “privilege” because it means that I don’t see and don’t have to see the realities of people who are less-than me (less fortunate, less wealthy, less educated, less cultured, less articulate, less white). I simply don’t know what I don’t know—and, importantly, I don’t need to know it to survive.

Racism and classism aren’t always proactive and blunt and violent acts. I don’t have to wake up in the morning determined to do racist things in order to be racist. It isn’t wearing white sheets and burning crosses. No, it is more often a subtle ignorance of the realities of another group of people, an unknowing disregard, a not knowing, a not considering. It’s white flight and red-lining by financial institutions. It is de facto segregation in New Orleans and many most U.S.cities. It is what made it possible for an evacuation announcement to be made without adequate provisions to actually take people out of that city. It is both a willful and an unconscious disregard.

Jane Elliott, well-known for her work on racism, responds to people who argue that racism no longer exists or that white people are now being discriminated against, in the following way:

“So I say, ‘Fine. OK. Will every white person in this room who would like to spend the rest of his or her life being treated, discussed, and looked upon as we treat, discuss, and look upon people of color, generally speaking, in this society, please stand?’ And I watch. And wait. And the only sounds in the room are those made by people of color as they turn in their seats to see how many white folks are standing. Not one white person stands. And I just let them sit there. Then I say, ‘Do you know what you just admitted? You just admitted that you know that it’s happening, you know that it’s ugly, and you know that you don’t want it for you. So why are you so willing to accept it for others? The ultimate obscenity is that you deny that it’s happening.’

New_orleans_shoesI know in my heart of hearts that if 20,000 of the nation’s most influential and richest people were in that Superdome, they would not have been left to live like animals. We would not be calling them refugees, and they would not have been sitting in feces and beside corpses. No, they would have made things happen for themselves because they have the socio-economic privilege and resources to do so. It is only possible for this sub-human horror to have occurred because the people in there are nameless and interchangeable and without the resources to challenge and help themselves (except through violence), like many poor, black people in this country. They are, for the most part, not considered as individual human beings, but as a mob, a mass, a problem.

While there are many material victims of this disaster, losing homes and things they cherished and worked hard for, the human victims of Hurricane Katrina are largely poor and black. They are the ones who could not escape. They are the ones who should have been provided for first, but weren’t. They are the invisible people who clean our toilets when we go to New Orleans to eat beignets, listen to jazz, eat garlic-mashed potatoes, and hold conferences about new ways to do our jobs. They are the faceless bellhops and waitresses who have for years provided the infrastructure for New Orleans to thrive as a tourist Mecca, the steel beams on which the happy debauchery of Mardi Gras could stand. They are the poor, voiceless people of this nation, not the rich ones.

Many of them are the poor ones from whom we avert our eyes, the ones we avoid and hide in appropriate sections of town, and the ones we hide from, embarrassed by our own standing on their shoulders. There are no wealthy people in the Superdome; there are no wealthy people dead in wheelchairs outside the Convention Center, skin popping in the heat and water, no. They simply are not there. The storm wasn’t racist and classist, but we are (in addition, in the face of this situation, to being quite desperately inept). This situation points to a reality far wider than what is happening now in New Orleans; it is this larger and more complex issue that our nation must address after we have taken care of those displaced and dead and distraught people in the Gulf Coast.

Each human being asked to suffer the conditions of the Superdome and the Convention Center is a person with a mother and a father, children, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams that aren’t different from my own, not really. They have a history, however, that is nothing like mine, and their history—like mine—figures into their reaction to this tragedy, these broken promises, this horror. They all deserve dignity and respect, even when they don’t behave in the way we would like for them to behave, even when they resort to looting and violence. It is easy to love and care for lovable people; it is harder to love and care for those who are unlovable. That is our challenge in times like these.

And, to be honest, I wonder what the difference is between wealthy oil companies jacking up gas prices immediately after a tragedy like this and those “looters,” poverty level people now homeless and with no hope who are finally finding a crack in the wall and reaching in for once in their life.

Somehow, we must learn to grant specificity and humanity to the Other even when our only connection to them is that we are both human, even when we cannot fathom living their lives, even when we believe that they get what they deserve, as I’ve heard some suggest. I felt connected to the Tsunami catastrophe because I used to live in Sri Lanka. I’m connected to the Superdome because the 92-year-old aunt of a good friend is in there, somewhere, lost. But I cannot turn “whats” into “whos” only among those people I know or to whom I have some connection: I must extend that humanity to everyone. I must stretch that feeling of connection, not just to those I know, but to those I’ll never know.

Responding well in situations that are not desperate is not much of a skill. It doesn’t take a lot to be civil when all of our basic needs are met, when we are having the equivalent of a nice tea party with white gloves and glossy pink lipstick expertly applied and eating cucumber sandwiches on white bread while giggling about Johnny Depp. No, that’s not the test of who we are. Instead, responding well in a situation of this gravity and magnitude is where we begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I realize after a day of blaming people that I’m not even passing my own test. I’ve spent the last day like one of those old ladies that Faulkner writes about, the ones he describes that sit on chairs too tall for their feet to reach the floor, my impotent little legs furiously kicking below me in the dust motes.

So here is my vow: I am not going to spend mental or physical energy blaming people for this unconscionable and undeniably incompetent response to this tragedy. No, not yet. No, to do that now does not honor those men and women and children who have yet to eat or drink, it does not honor those dead human beings with real lives and families who loved them and had to leave them floating in the floodwaters, a desperate and incomplete goodbye to the real and true and precious loves of their life. I cannot sit here with my cup of coffee and tasty scone and place blame on people who are desperately trying to help in the best way they can. No, I will save all that fury and helplessness and second-guessing for later. I will only offer constructive suggestions now until the last person is buried and the last person has been fed and showered and found. The more I ask authorities to respond to my allegations of blame, the less focused they are on the families still drowning by inches in their attics, and the more distance I can create between my own self and this tragedy.

We are all accountable for this.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

When you look at the TV coverage of this, count the people you see by ones, not by the thousands. Every single one of them has a story, whether they are the little boy who cried until he vomited when his dog, Snowball, was taken from him because pets weren’t allowed on the bus to the Astrodome, or my friend’s 92-year-old aunt somewhere, somewhere in this painful reality. We must see ourselves in their stories. What keeps us from doing that? What makes it possible to disassociate so radically that we cannot demand the change that must occur for people to live and die in dignity, not squalor?

Where I find myself saying “they,” I must say “we” instead. And instead of just saying “we,” I must say “I.” Instead of asking “why aren’t they doing more?”, I must ask, “why aren’t we doing more?” and, finally, “why am I not doing more?” How have I left these people living below the poverty level in substandard housing for all these many years? It’s not their fault, or our fault, but my fault.

How many lessons do we have to learn and forget and learn again? Let’s all prepare for future disasters, yes. More importantly, after the waters recede and we bury the poor deserted dead and feed and comfort the living and get them proper shoes, let’s have a dialogue about poverty in this, the wealthiest nation on earth. Let’s create a disaster plan for that, you and I.

Let’s begin with boldness—I hear it has genius, power, and magic in it.