In a few hours, I’ll wake up to a brand new day. The sun will probably be shining, the chicory-flavored coffee will tickle the inside of my nose, and the birds might even be singing. I’ll get in my car and drive down the road and talk to a few people, maybe take a boat ride, come back to my brother’s house right outside the city, do some laundry, pack up my car, and probably go out to a nice final meal in a city that I’ve spent two decades loving. That probably sounds like a mundane day to most people, right?
If I were to add that one short week ago, the sun couldn’t even be glimpsed through the torrents of rain, would it still sound the same? If I mentioned that the drive down the road was to a place called Braithwaite Park, would it mean anything? If I accurately described the boat ride as a trip on a flat-bottom through water that undoubtedly has alligators and has been anywhere between 6 and 15 feet deep covering streets and yards and homes in a residential neighborhood, would it sound dull? If I added that my brother’s house is right outside of New Orleans, just a few miles from the famous French Quarter, and I was packing up my car to drive back to my own home in Northern Virginia, would that still be mundane?
I’ve spent almost a week in the New Orleans area, after Isaac showed up on the seven year anniversary of the now infamous visit by Katrina. I volunteered to be here. I practically begged to be here (I wouldn’t be surprised if my Regional Director is nodding his head thinking “No, she actually pretty much bugged us until we said she could go, just so she’d stop e-mailing everyone!”). I drove straight through from Virginia, through a storm that shut down major interstates and roadways in multiple states, because I wanted to be where my brother was, and help in any way that I could.
Is that unusual?
I spent a few days in some pretty intense heat helping clear trees out of yards. I’ve been safe, I’ve been fed great food (with the notable exception of an MRE that kicked up the respect-meter for anyone in the military that eats those on a regular basis!), the work hasn’t been all that difficult. It’s been a little exhausting for me, because the heaviest thing I usually lift is my coffee cup, but it hasn’t been impossible.
I’m fortunate to be married to a man that said “Yes, I know. You need to go,” without a litany of questions about expenses or how long I’d be gone or who was going to cook dinner while I was away. I’m lucky enough to have wonderful children that didn’t think it was weird that I was leaving, didn’t cry about it, helped me pack my gear, and even managed to sneak a love note into the lid of my thermos for me to find later. To them, I’m the buyer of groceries, the cooker of food, the giver of hugs, the taxi driver, and the one that always wants to leave when bad things happen to strangers far away from the safe Virginia neighborhood I picked to call home.
So I’m trying to figure out why I’ve gotten comments and text messages and phone calls from people saying “You are amazing!” when they find out I’m here helping out after the most recent hurricane.
Webster defines amazing as: causing amazement, great wonder, or surprise.
I’m pretty sure that carrying tree limbs isn’t anywhere in that definition. There is no great wonder or surprise associated with relocating fallen or chopped up branches. By the actual definition of the word, I’m nowhere close to amazing, unless it caused great wonder and surprise that I actually put down my coffee mug and stepped away from my keyboard long enough to pick up some logs.
Today, I met Amazing. I sat beside Amazing in a boat, listened to Amazing point out things like her refrigerator that was resting in a tree, and walked through a house that smelled like a swamp, complete with lily pads where the kitchen floor should be, while Amazing showed me the hutch that survived Katrina that had been tossed 15 feet across a room and was laying on its side because of Isaac. Amazing kept a warm smile on her face the entire time.
She told me that she just had to keep smiling. That’s how she’s dealing with everything that’s happened. She’s smiling.
She was open and friendly to my TR partner and me, two strangers that happened to be walking down a road while her worldly possessions were floating in alligator infested water around us. She didn’t know us, but she asked us if we wanted a boat ride, while she was helping a friend offload recently salvaged possessions from his waterlogged home. We gladly accepted, because we were trying to figure out how our organization could actually help this devastated community. She played tour guide for an hour, while her Strong, silent companion steered us safely around obstacles like road signs barely visible above the waterline, and debris that included the bloated and decaying body of a pig.
I was humbled by her quiet reflections, her ability to see the positive in this tragic situation, and her willingness to help two strangers that were hoping to get a look at the devastation up close.
I guess what it boils down to is that I am, by no stretch of the imagination, “amazing”, even though friends back home keep telling me that I am. “Amazing” is strength in the face of adversity, quiet composure during chaos. “Amazing” is standing in the rubble that used to be your dream house and expressing compassion and concern that your neighbor’s house looks worse than yours.
Our tasking here in the New Orleans area changes daily. In a day or so, I’ll head home to my kids, and another group will take over a new mission here. I don’t doubt that the next group of volunteers that show up will also be told that they are amazing by many.
I’m not trying to deny that volunteering to come into a disaster zone and help strangers isn’t worthy of a small amount of praise or commendation. It is, I suppose, if only because there are many people who, after only a week, barely think about the fact that there was a hurricane that ravaged this region because it isn’t headlining the nightly news. Out of sight really does mean out of mind to many, so the people that show up to help out a few weeks or months from now are at least deserving of being called compassionate and conscientious.
I’m here because I wanted to be here. I volunteered to be here. I wanted to help, just like every single member of the group that was with me. I think the Team I was with would agree that we feel it is our duty, our responsibility, to help these strangers that just lost everything for the second time in less than a decade. In my opinion, if you’re able to help, you should help. I’m able, so I’m here.
My volunteer work with Team Rubicon is noble to some. People that are sitting safely at home, no longer thinking about the havoc that Isaac wreaked a week ago, are tossing out some pretty lofty labels to describe me and other volunteers that are here. I won’t deny that it takes a different kind of person to put your own life on hold for a week or a month and come down here to help out strangers. I wish every person in our country was willing to spend at least a week doing whatever they can do for this region.
But “amazing”? Please don’t ever use that word to describe me or what I’ve done here. I’ve seen the face of Amazing, and that face has a smile that would warm you up like a Bayou sun. Amazing has a spirit that isn’t flagging. Amazing has a strong body that houses a heart that overflows with hope when it’s surrounded by destruction.
There are many words that could describe chicory coffee, Cajun food, or a beautiful Bayou sunrise. “Amazing” doesn’t work for those things anymore though. From now on, “Amazing” is reserved for one particular woman that walked me through the disaster that was once her living room and kept a bright smile on her face the entire time.