Letter from New Orleans by JordanVan Voast, Licensed Acupuncturist
As we continue our work in New Orleans we are presented with daily opportunities to give of
ourselves and grow as individuals while we lend our support to those in need. AWB continues to
ask for volunteers to donate their time in New Orleans and make this a viable and on-going
organization. By volunteering, you can share in once in a lifetime experience like those of
Jordan Van Voast whose writing follows below.
Oct. 23. 2005. Awake at 5am. I pull the ear
plugs out and the full force of generator hums, purrs and roars pound
my inner ear. My brain throbs with the heavy scent of diesel. A couple
of "Night buster" portable light towers illuminate Tent City with the
brilliance of a night game at a sports stadium.
soft orange glow in the east gradually begins to reflect off the New
Orleans city skyline just across the Mississippi River from the New
Orleans City Water and Sewer treatment facility which is my home for
the next week. It is cooler this morning. I grab my pile jacket and
head for breakfast at the mess tent run by the Cattleman's Meat Co.
Catering Division, a mobile kitchen operation out of Boise, Idaho.
food server prepares to load up my plate with several pounds of
food. Most of the men working for the Water and Sewer
Department look like football lineman - at least from the head down to
the shoulders. Below that, bulging waist lines betray our nation's
obesity epidemic in full force. I stop the server before she can heap a
second pile of hash browns.
breakfast, I walk past the mobile shower unit on my way to the laundry
unit. A NY Times article posted on the camp bulletin board revealed
that some of the FEMA shower trailers are costing $10 grand a day to
operate (Cost of staff and water tanker trucks). At least our camp
doesn't need to pay for the tanker trucks - just hook the showers right
up to the nearby water tower. Regardless, at the end of a long day full
of heat, humidity, dust, mold spores and flies, and who knows what
other toxic particulates, I am reluctant to complain about FEMA cost
overruns in the hot shower department.
a two minute hot shower with more pressure than my apartment in
Seattle, I don clean clothes and drop off the soiled laundry at the
laundry trailer. When I return in the evening, they are clean, dried,
folded, in a bag with my name on them, and the attendant hands them to
me with a smile.
A portable TV outside the
trailer shows Hurricane Wilma slamming Cancun and veering towards
Florida. Tropical Storm Alpha is forming. Now I begin to understand the
psyche of Gulf Coast residents which for many has not changed
post-Katrina: Just another hurricane. Life goes on. Whether or not the
residents of this city are conscious of issues such as the impact of
the levees on Mississippi River sedimentation patterns and the loss of
protective barrier islands in the delta - is another question.
it's not a question I have time to ponder long. The Acupuncturists
Without Borders (AWB) Group that I am part of have more immediate
concerns, as do most of the people in the camp. At 830am, our small
group of eight gathers in the mess tent and strategize on how to serve
a dozen or more health clinics scattered around Greater New Orleans
with just two cars and a handful of acupuncturists.
far, the response to our services has been one of profound gratitude:
Grown men who have been working long hours in toxic clean up operations
for too many days in a row show up with a blank look in their eyes and
slumping heads. Women holding families together, cooking for relief
camps, nurses listening all day to the tragic stories. People from all
walks of life living in unfamiliar surroundings. At first they are
often curious. Acupuncture? That can help with stress? "Yes", we reply.
of the days, the acupuncturists themselves treat each other. This
ensures we aren't just speaking from text book accounts. 5 needles
gently placed in each ear and within minutes a person begins to soften
and melt into the Earth, into the present moment, letting go the grief
from the past (sometimes with tears), letting go of worries about the
future. All of us have seen it time after time.
is Sunday. We are driving about 10 miles east of the city to Michoud, a
Vietnamese suburb. Leaving our Algiers on the West Bank, we thread our
way through the tattered streets, stopping at most intersections. Very
few stop signs remain standing and most street signs are also gone.
Stories of accidents circulate as returning residents drive dazed
through streets without traffic signs, their normal driving defenses
Over the Mississippi River bridge,
we approach the New Orleans skyline. Workers are busy on the roof of
the Superdome - like tiny ants crawling across a giant moonscape. As we
turn east onto Interstate 10, the full scope of the devastation begins
to reveal itself. Everywhere, roofs torn off, stranded vehicles caked
in dust and muck, shuttered shopping malls, billboards toppled or
shredded clean of their ads, houses mangled, abandoned cars, broken
glass, mattresses and garbage still scattered on the edges of roads. A
large boat - perhaps 40 feet long - sits on an industrial street,
several hundred yards from the nearest navigable waterway.
pull up to the Queen of Mary Catholic Church. Mass is underway being
broadcast over speakers on towers. We set up our treatment space partly
underneath a canopy on the edge of the parking lot. The sun beats down
on, as the loudspeakers blare with hopeful words about rebuilding New
Orleans on God's time, and speeches by politicians, asking for patience.
the sermons are over, and the congregation begins to stream out towards
the parking lot to get their Red Cross lunches, tetanus and Hep B
shots, and occasionally, an acupuncture treatment. It's not exactly the
relaxing atmosphere that I had hoped for, but the residents don't seem
to mind and most seem to need little encouragement to close their eyes
and enter the inner sanctuary beyond disasters and hot, noisy parking
The blessings in doing this work can
be summed up in many ways. Of course, as an acupuncturist, there are
the rewards of working with one's colleagues, learning from each other,
receiving and giving treatments to one another. I also share the dream
of many in our group of developing a network of trained acupuncturists
ready to respond to disasters around the world, as well as to help
train underserved communities in the third world to develop their own
response mechanisms and health care capabilities.
real benefits are in terms of how they nourish the heart. AWB's work is
our answer to a world which seems defined in the mainstream media by
negatives - war, crime, violence, corruption, apathy, and a long list
of similar attributes. I wake each morning, aware of the preciousness
of life, the good fortune I have in being healthy, well educated, with
abundant freedoms to develop the heart-mind of awakening, to give
I remind myself
before I am dressed for the day that all beings wish to live happily,
with inner peace, but for various reasons they do not. How wonderful it
would be if I could help them, not just in a limited way, but
completely, to help them obtain all happiness, inner and outer.
Therefore, I resolve to do my best, to be compassionate, to not
automatically think first of my own selfish needs, and to try to treat
everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion.
a more immediate experiential level, the acupuncture enables us to meet
twenty to thirty strangers each day and be quickly invited past all the
normal social defense layers, into an intimate space of healing which
nourishes both of us, as well as everyone else in the environment.
a father and mother I treated talked about their eleven year old son
who has had night terrors since Katrina. He wakes up screaming in the
night. They evacuated to Houston before the hurricane and now live in a
single motel room somewhere. The boy is in an unfamiliar school and is
having problems fitting in for the first time.
encourage the family to access whatever counseling services they can
and meanwhile remind them that everything their son is experiencing is
a normal response to trauma. "Try to give your boy more time. Let him
know that you are willing to listen to whatever is on his mind. Perhaps
he would appreciate being able to sleep next to you in the same bed."
Sometimes it is hard to know what to say.
talk with my tent mate in the evening, Dr. Okidi from Nigeria who is
volunteering with the Common
Ground relief effort. "People need someone to listen",
he says, "to help them unburden their hearts." Often times,
just being present with a smile, an attentive ear, and a few words of
hope and encouragement can make such a difference.
24. The eye of Wilma is hitting South Florida about now. A gusty north
wind has been rattling the tents for the past 24 hours. I am told this
is the outer tail of the hurricane getting sucked into the vortex.
is connected: Meat consumption, cattle ranching and deforestation in
the Amazon, the loss of ancient cultures and indigenous knowledge,
global warming, hurricanes, storm surges and levee breaks, obesity,
cholesterol levels, people's moods and awareness, how one chooses to
act or react in any given situation. Macrocosm, microcosm, planet,
human, body, mind - nothing exists in isolation.
there is one Buddhist principle that has been revealed to me in the
past five days or so, it is the principle of interdependence. How many
times pre-Katrina have I driven around my city - Seattle - oblivious of
the many women and men who rise each morning, managing the city's water
and sewer systems? Practically every day I must confess. But without
these people, a city cannot function. Toilets quickly back up. Potable
water is finished after a few days. And then people start dropping like
flies. Life becomes impossible.
kindness of these so-called strangers is vastly under appreciated. And
so it is for everyone working at any job involving service of a need -
the people who write the software, develop and build the hardware of
this computer I type on. The farmers, truck drivers, cooks and cashiers
who provide my meal. Even the people who push our buttons are kind in
that they provide the opportunity for the development of our patience
and other inner resources.
One such person
who is kind in many ways is Richard (not his real name), a 300 pound
truck driver delivering water to relief sites around the city. He is
trying to quit smoking and is coming to our tent in E-7 for acupuncture
in the evening, giving me the opportunity to refine my understanding
and ability to assist yet one more human individual.
the shower house one morning, I chat with Richard over toothpaste. He
wants to lose weight but smoking makes him quickly out of breath when
he walks and his knees hurt. I share my thoughts about how personal
transformation requires patience and effort. He listens intently as I
encourage him to eat more vegetables and salad, and less meat. Of
course, here at the Cattleman's Meat Company Catering division, that
will be a tall order - the white flour bread, cakes, pasta and potatoes
doesn't help either.
Crisis management is
a poor choice for systems management, whether we are talking about
personal health, or global society. Healthy energy flow is best
maintained when it is built upon well established patterns of our
everyday lives. In other words, it is far easier to fix the levee
before it breaks than to clean up afterwards. It's easier to get back
into physical fitness before the heart bypass operation rather than
afterwards. It's easier to be happy when we practice patience and more
difficult when we indulge in anger, and so on.
all beings be spared from every form of natural calamity. May they only
create the causes for happiness and peaceful living. May they develop
the deep understanding that enables them to choose their destiny
May all beings be healthy and
Jordan Van Voast, M.Ac.
105 West 5th, Suite 106