Hope and Compassion in New Orleans
Returning home after my second trip to the Gulf Coast, the standard questions get asked by friends and family: “How was your trip? What’s the situation in New Orleans now?” My mind flashes across the mountains of debris which blanket the city, the disrupted lives of people and animals dispersed in all directions, returning residents struggling to face the essential uncertainty of their lives, relief workers doing their best to meet immediate food, medical, and housing needs.
The newly refurbished Superdome roof gleams white, even if inside the place is purportedly a putrid mess. I remember my first days in New Orleans in mid October, marveling at the teams of ant people high atop one of the nation’s signature buildings, dangling from long ropes in 80 degree heat. That was six weeks ago and basic services such as water, electricity, gas, and bus service are still largely absent from vast tracts of the city. In winter, the temperature in New Orleans can drop below freezing when a cold front moves through. Homeless or not, without heat, thousands are literally being left out on the cold.
Even as a rescue worker with a fledgling group of holistic health professionals - Acupuncturists Without Borders - it is all too easy for me to slip into the “Everything is normal” mood of the media which glosses the nation’s post 9-11 mind state. Life after terrorism and natural disaster goes on. Indeed, one of the truly remarkable aspects of the human organism is its ability to adapt and evolve in response to any extreme - at least so far.
Tent City. The food server hands me my plate of chicken-factory eggs and white flour bun, wishing me a good day. I thank her, feeling fortunate that my cholesterol levels and intestinal peristalsis aren’t an issue. I pause to consider whether to inquire about her health – any aches and pains from the repetitive motions required in her job? I stop myself though, remembering that food service management has a policy that does not allow the workers to take advantage of the free acupuncture and massage being offered at the camp. Liability paranoia probably. With a long list of agencies and rag tag clinics requesting our services, I let it go, wolfing down my breakfast so that I can be ready by 8am to mobilize our small group for another day in the field.
On any given day, our team of five acupuncturists may split up and visit a half dozen or more clinic sites scattered across two parishes. On a busy day, collectively we may treat close to 75 people, not counting those we just smile at, or give shoulder massages to. Many of them have never heard of acupuncture before and are apprehensive at first. Once they see someone else though, sitting at a chair with five tiny needles in each ear, they get curious. “Does it hurt?” “No, nothing like a tetanus shot”, I answer.
The response to treatment varies by individual. Some people cry. Some drop their heads forward and appear to doze off. Most get very quiet and seem to enter a deeply relaxed state. “That was incredible, will you guys be back tomorrow?” Depending upon the site, it may be tomorrow or in a week. With more volunteers and funding, we could do more, but at the fringe of the fringe of the non-profit world, we content ourselves that we are here for the moment, doing our best to respond to a huge need.
Evening. Driving through the Ninth Ward at night is spooky. The headlights of our rental mini-van probe through the darkness like a miniature submarine on the Arctic Ocean floor, carefully navigating the hulking wreckage of the Titanic. Up ahead, I see signs of life, a few headlamps atop human like figures moving through the dark - yes, a sighting of humans...this must be the place.
We have arrived to offer ear acupuncture to members of the Common Ground “Convergence”. It is the week of Thanksgiving and hundreds of college students and other volunteers have come to offer their support to returning residents in the area. The Ninth Ward, if you remember, is where the floodwaters took their heaviest toll, with water rising to the rooftops. Bodies were still being recovered in attics as of late November, and probably still are.
The word on the street is that residents in this area are being blocked from returning to their homes. City government has dragged its feet on creating a coherent plan to welcome people back. Located next to the prosperous, and relatively undamaged French quarter, many feel that developers are already seeing this area as an opportunity to clean out the large base of predominantly low income, African American residents and create high end condos for the wealthy white folks. One rumor has it that the breech in the levee near here was intentional. Some say they heard a large explosion, and then the water quickly appeared and rose to the rooftops.
On the second floor of a gutted building next to the train tracks, we set up our clean fields and begin treating the mostly twenty-something crowd of volunteers. Generators power Christmas lights for mood lighting. A spray painted caricature of George W is on one wall. A freight train’s horn sounds intermittently nearby as people come and go in the group healing room.
The young men and women are tired from their labors. Yet, they gleam with hope and enthusiasm for a just and caring world. During the day, they don haz-mat suits and respirators for long grueling shifts removing dead refrigerators, scrubbing mold, and shoveling layers of caked toxic mud from resident’s homes so that they can begin to rebuild their lives. I feel it is a privilege to offer my skills and energy to support their work.
Despite the widespread cynicism towards the official response, the accusations and counter accusations of corruption and incompetence - all of which spreads its own formless toxic mud invisibly through the collective mind space, despite the massive uncertainty over the fate of the levee, the city, and hurricane patterns in the age of global warming, despite the certainty of years of toil and every possible adversity for all living creatures in this vast region, it is the story of hope and compassion in action to which my mind keeps returning.
New Orleans, where the mighty waters of the Mississippi approach the Gulf. If the acupuncture channels of a human being were superimposed upon a map of America, New Orleans would be the first point on the Conception Vessel - Ren 1, the place of utmost Yin. It is only fitting that here, in the wake of Katrina, the gentle energy of compassion and humanitarian idealism flows on, for all who are open to seeing it.