Our first morning there I made sure to rise early enough to have time to figure out how to use the coffee pot without an audience surrounding me. After a quick breakfast we all loaded into the vans and headed over to the offices of the St Bernard Project (located, appropriately, in St Bernard Parish). Da Parish, as it’s called, had quite a bit of damage from Katrina but not the complete devastation that certain areas of New Orleans proper suffered. We were split into two groups and sent to two different houses that the St Bernard Project was in the process of re-constituting.
The biggest obstacle that many homeowners run into is that they have to go through a mold remediation process in order to be allowed back into their homes. One of the houses that we worked on was in the middle of that process, and a part of our group spent hours in protective masks scraping, treating, and priming the studs so that the houses could pass inspection.
My group spent the morning cleaning up roofing tiles from a front yard. This house was in a small neighborhood which, like most of the neighborhoods we saw, had inhabited houses right next to ones that were still in bad shape. As we worked in the sun loading up bags and tossing rubbish onto the back of a truck, at least five people stopped to ask where we were from and how they could apply to have their house worked on. One woman in a school bus pulled over because her brother had been told that he had a month to rehab his house or it would be torn down.
We had two Americorps volunteers who work for the St Bernard Project who supervised and helped us during the day. (They were also the ones who pushed us to lift two sheets of drywall at a time on our last house of the day, but we ended up fond of them anyway). That organization was crawling with Americorps volunteers, which got me thinking back to my idealistic days as a full-time volunteer.
I think I have a pretty good relationship with my “deepest desire”, as Ignatian-speak calls the truest callings of our hearts and souls. I experience the same confusion and bad decisions as anyone else, but in general I have what I want and I do what I want. I have started a life that suits me, and when I do not behave as I want I do my best to alter that which needs to be changed. At the end of most days I can reflect and say “I have done what I want”.
But looking at the young volunteers and the brave choices they have made I was pretty well humbled. I think I am reaching an age of preoccupation with the road not taken. I have to wonder if that is inescapable now – will I always look at other lives and see reflected in them the permanence of my own?
My “real” adult life has arrived and swallowed me up, and I have enjoyed the ride so far. My path is unique and promising, and I treasure it. But I see other people living the lives of sacrifice and radicalism to which I aspired and wish that were my call. I am in a good place, one where I can both do good work and be happy. Still, sadness – no, nostalgia – flares up when I glimpse the widening distance between what I want and what I wish I wanted.
Next up: Day 3 – Urban Immersion