Confessions. Blast!

So, I’ll just get to it.  Lots of things are a little bit off. For starters, I am having a hard time balancing. It’s (surprise!) difficult to experience, article-write and express my own sentiment all at the same time. I sort of thought this would all be in the bag. For optimal quality, each task requires being fully present, and my brain is evidently only capable of two things at a time. I can experience and internalize, but not fact-gather. I can fact-gather and express, but without much sentiment. I can internalize and reflect, but I can’t, in that moment, be experiencing. We are always experiencing, and I am totally backlogged.

Here’s the kicker: I process through writing. So backlogged means I am currently a jumbled mess of girls’ schools and street kids and TV antennas made of metal padlocks and vocational centers and genocide and escape stories and reconciliation stories and coffee communities and traditional dance and outdoor kitchens and church services and landscapes and moto bikes and rainy season and memorial sites and stretchy green bread and music and orphans and polygamy and widows and ancestral spirits and gorillas and laundry and language and ways in which the ancestors screw up fertility.

Plus, when your job becomes your former hobby, you get kind confused about which content belongs where. I feel safe writing about scarves and Wait, what? moments, but I haven’t even told you the basics like where we’re living, or who we’re with, or the type of work we’re doing, or what we’re eating, or what the weather is like!

To make things even more complicated, the World Wide Web is— as you might have guessed— worldwide. Everyone is on Facebook and WordPress and twitter. Gone are the days when I could see something and throw it on the Internet for all 8 readers to vicariously experience without risk of harm. Today we’re all right here in the same space—you, me, and the person or community I’m writing about. I post a story, WordPress publicizes it to Facebook and twitter, and my host sister is reading it ten seconds later in the next room. This takes a special kind of crafting, understanding, permission and respect. I refuse to be a reckless observer.

And a layer below that? It’s about to get real.

Because I refuse to be a reckless observer, I don’t feel competent. What can I possibly offer that hasn’t already been written or expressed about Rwanda? How can I share these things—the history, issues, people, stories—accurately? I can’t wrap my head around the genocide. And, once I stop trying to put that piece together, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that life continues on the other side. That people are working and eating, walking along these same streets and attending these same churches, that kids play and women do hair and taxis commute and bikers bike and people laugh and sing and purchase data plans and watch 24. All this with an entire ethnic group almost entirely wiped out of the population, resting in mass graves under this very ground.

Everywhere I look I can see the stories I’ve heard playing out in my mind’s eye. In my field, we call this vicarious trauma. A tiny corner of my heart feels bruised every time I walk out of the house and look around me at the land, while the rest of it functions as normal in present day.   I just can’t make sense of it.  The only two thoughts I have, and they’re not fully developed, are this: here is an entire country demonstrating the reality of post-traumatic growth.

If you look at the Disaster Response Phases graph below (provided by my pal Mary, who teaches the Foundations to DMH class at the Red Cross in Indy) you can note the different responses a person or community has pre, mid and post disaster. There is a new term emerging, though, after a post-traumatic event called post-traumatic growth, wherein the person or community, on the very far right of this graph, actually ends up at a higher level of functioning than they were before the event. So, the person reaches a level a growth that would not be possible had that event not occurred. This country is living out that term.  This doesn’t mean things are spectacular.  There are still—and will always be—triggering events and memories generations deep, but I have met people coping and forgiving at a level I am not even able to comprehend. They are not doing this in spite of the event, but because of it.

God restores, is my point.

DMH Graph ARC

My second thought is the truth in this statement, which was originally printed in my NOLA church bulletin on the 5 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, adapted for Rwanda as we head into memorial month: We will remember [the genocide] and give sacred honor, but in worship we inherit all things anew for this day.

Yeah, you do, Rwanda.  I am so thankful for all things newly inherited by you today.

…And then (you thought I was done?) someone posts this article, which cracks open another forgotten corner of my heart, and I remember where I was and who I was three weeks ago, which seems like at least ten years ago. That familiar ache returns for a minute, and I can’t find the words for the prayer.

The world spins, I can’t make anything fit into any categories, my brain and heart are totally unorganized, and I am tethered by a poem shared last week by my friend Kim (I’m always snatching content from her, but God uses people, I think):

You can only pray what’s in your heart.

So if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing

If your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg

If your heart is a river gone wild
pray the torrent

Or a lava flow scorching the mountain
pray the fire

Pray the scream in your heart
the fanning bellows

Pray the rage,
the murder and
the mourning

Pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.

-Elizabeth Cunningham

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August and Everything

August is this creepy little month that sneaks up behind me while I’m laughing and oblivious in July and says, Hey. Buck up. A lot of things are about to change, and it’s going to be hard for a minute, and very cold, but there’s coffee, at least, and fireplaces, and when it’s over, you’ll be okay.

Last fall, I packed up my comfy little 400 sq. foot apartment and said goodbye to New Orleans. I cried through 3 Gulf states, thought I didn’t know why at the time, and said goodbye to Jeff. Three weeks later, I was knee-deep in grapefruit-o-lanterns and Belizean 8-year-olds.

Two falls ago, I stuffed SJP and Sprinky into the Rendezvous and drove to New Orleans, threw my things into a supply closet, got evacuated for Gustav during orientation, and came back 3 weeks later a total stranger, still. A month after that I was dressed like a Ninja fighting pirates on Jackson Square. With friends.

Three falls ago I was meeting my French uncle at a train station in Marseilles. I don’t speak French. He doesn’t speak English. I hadn’t seen him in ten years. Three falls ago, Katie died.

Four falls ago, I got rejected to 14 grad schools. For writing. Which ruined my whole plan. Tale spin.

Five falls ago, I was driving a 24-foot diesel truck, on fire, from Austin to Beaumont and living out of a 50-degree medication closet. Red Cross. Katrina.

Eleven falls ago, my aunt died.  In a car accident. Just like that.

So here I am, in fall. In that strange quiet sunlight, with those twirly little yellow leaves, a ten minute drive from family, in a cozy home, with the most kind and loving husband, three little nieces, jobs we are blessed to have, access to pumpkin spice lattes- and I feel panicky. Even when I’m happy, I’m anxious.  And even sometimes, sad.

I think August is really saying: Hey. Your aunt died.
She would have been 50 last week.
And further still, August is really really saying: life is out of control.
I’ve never been able to dissociate fall from that feeling.

But it’s only a season.
N.N. says it better than me:

And even when the trees have just surrendered
To the harvest time
Forfeiting their leaves in late September
And sending us inside
Still I notice You when change begins
And I am braced for colder winds
I will offer thanks for what has been and what’s to come
You are autumn

And everything in time and under heaven
Finally falls asleep
Wrapped in blankets white, all creation
Shivers underneath
And still I notice you
When branches crack
And in my breath on frosted glass
Even now in death, You open doors for life to enter
You are winter

And everything that’s new has bravely surfaced
Teaching us to breathe
What was frozen through is newly purposed
Turning all things green
So it is with You
And how You make me new
With every season’s change
And so it will be
As You are re-creating me
Summer, autumn, winter, spring

N. Nordeman

The Great Snow of 2008, and other silly stories.

I think you probably heard, but it snowed in New Orleans.

This was not just a little dusting; it was a full inch. School was canceled. Businesses pushed employees outside to run willy-nilly through the yard and throw snowballs. The entire city fell apart at the age line and turned six-and-a-half, simultaneously.

I’d heard there might be snow on the North shore, so when my mom woke me up with a text that said, “snow?” I turned on the TV and rolled over. I only jumped out of bed when Good Morning America and the Today show were preempted by local news standing at Audubon Park frantically and joyfully screaming about how blinding it is when it falls heavily. And white! I waited patiently for Geraldo to show up and walk sideways into the wind.

Kids were rolling around and spreading snow all over their bodies. Adults were sledding on suit coats and building thousands of teeny, tiny 6-inch snowmen, and then adorning them with full-sized hats and scarves and carrots and sticks. We were encouraged not to venture out if we didn’t have to, because the roads were very, very bad. The bridges and overpasses were closed, and government offices closed in two parishes. I ran outside to take pictures, and found clumps of people gathered all over the sidewalk and streets staring up at the sky. Most had their tongues out.

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I called the Red Cross to make sure they were still open before I ventured out in the snow that wasn’t yet accumulating, and they asked me if I was comfortable driving in “this”. I told them they could count on me. They said good, because Orleans parish was in a Level One snow emergency and they were in the midst of pulling together staff and volunteers for two standby cold weather shelters.

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All day stations played, “Let it snow” over and over, and it has since been referred to as the Great Snow of 2008. If you go to Tulane’s website, you’ll see an entire photo album and slide show documenting happy students playing in the lawn with scarves and hats to lure prospective students into thinking, “See? We have Christmas, too!”

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It was a joyous and happy Christmas miracle. It melted by dinner, and the next day was 65 and sunny. Just how I like my snow—beautiful, then gone.

Here are some pics of the Christmasy city yesterday-

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Santa and His half-brass Band

When right in the mall there arose such a clatter, I got up from the food court to see what was the matter.

Only in New Orleans would Santa and half a brass band saunter around the mall singing.


Finals Week

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As of now, I am one-quarter Master Social Worker.
(You can call me Master for short.)

Prince vs. Michael Jackson

Other appropriate titles for this post:

• In which I hit myself in the face with a bed frame
• Moving the entire Southeast Louisiana Red Cross down 8 flights
• An early morning sprint down St. Charles avenue

Last Friday, I moved out of the Med District downtown into a loft-type apartment on St. Charles Ave, uptown. When I got up the six flights to my new apartment and my key didn’t work, I had no choice but to call it a night. When I say ‘call it a night’ I mean I dumped all my stuff on the floor and met some people at Republic for the Prince vs. Michael Jackson DJ battle.

I got there at eleven, which I thought was appropriately late for someone approaching 30. But apparently eleven is the new 5:30. I made it just in time for the geriatric beer specials and sat down at an empty lounge area to wait. There were some little business cards with the Uptown Salon logo on the lounge table, and I wondered why someone had left all their business cards around. It wasn’t until I was served a bucket of champagne that I realized I was sitting in Uptown Salon’s reserved booth, and that Republic thought I was the first member of Uptown Salon to arrive.

I sent this text to Sprinky: I hit a new low. I’m at a club by myself drinking $2 miller high life in someone else’s booth waiting for a DJ battle between Michael Jackson and Prince to start. Where did things go wrong?

I was about to call it quits, but then Prince showed up. Everywhere.

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Michael Jackson followed.
And then my friends.
I’m not sure if Uptown Salon ever made it, but I should send them a thank-you for the champagne…

Prince and Michael Jackson at the DJ booth discussing weather or not Billy Jean was his lover-

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The next morning I met the furniture guy at 8:30, and the leasing agent let me into the apartment. This is what she said: Oh, there is a trick to unlocking the apartments. You didn’t know? (Hello. How could I have known that, lady?)

The apartment is amazing- full skyline view of the city, open loft-type floor plan, HUGE closet- think Carrie Bradshaw in the brownstone- and cheaper than where I was living before. Before you get jealous, realize I am only talking about 450 square feet of goodness. But for me, it’s perfect.

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I spent two days moving and still have not unpacked. I did, however, put together a desk, a futon, a bed frame and a bookshelf and arrange them all myself. And then I hit myself in the face with the bed frame. I was trying to put bed elevators underneath, and the bed shifted and fell on my face. The next day I went to school and introduced myself to all my potential employers at the internship fair with a black eye and small gash.

I also spent Thursday morning moving the Red Cross, which has been displaced for the entire three years following Katrina. They’ll fling open the doors to their original pre-Katrina office tomorrow morning on Canal Street. The chapter has been functioning out the 4th floor of the T-mobile building in Metairie—which has no elevator. We lined up 50 people up and down 8 flights of stairs and moved the entire Red Cross, one box at a time, in an assembly line from the fourth floor down.  It was exhausting, but I felt happy to help considering how unreal it is that this chapter, among everything in the city, is just now moving home for the first time, and I helped carry a box. Or two. Hundred.

On Friday, as if my body really needed the extra early morning sprint, I walked out of my apartment and caught a glimpse of the Tulane shuttle turning the corner a block-and-a-half away. I thought my days of chasing the shuttle were over. Turns out, the only thing worse than chasing the shuttle down Tulane Avenue is chasing it up St. Charles where my classmates can see me. I crossed my fingers hoping that no one was on the streetcar that day.  It was an ugly, panicked run, knocking old men out of the way and flinging people to the side with my bookbag…

The most annoying part happened when I heaved myself onto the shuttle and flopped down, gagging and coughing and sighing and looking around saying, “Thank GodI made it!”

We just sat there for another 5 minutes.

When I walked into Tools, totally stressed and falling apart at the outfit/hair seams from all the running, Allison said, “Brooke. I saw you exit your apartment this morning.”

She didn’t laugh right away, which was nice.
I asked if she’d seen everything, and she said she had.  She said she wanted to yell out after me, “Don’t worry! It’s only Tools!” but I was too fast.
Anytime I picture myself sprinting down St. Charles Avenue at 7:58 am, I laugh out loud.
Here are some pictures of the weekend:Social Work crew at Superior

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These jokers were at Lucy’s on Saturday before the New Kids on the Block show.  1992 threw up all over the room:

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Shea and I at the park on Sunday observing children for the Theory lab-

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Seriously, we’re legitimately observing. Don’t call the police. (You kids want some candy?)

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Social Workers Gone Wild- the TSSW picnic

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Note the face and the hair below. I was just coming off a triple back layout with a half twist.
Karine’s like, Oh God! Not the half twist!
Tiffany’s like, If she dies I’m getting it on camera.

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The poor kids we kicked off the moonwalk

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Tim teaching kids how to fight in preparation for the Pirate vs. Ninja flash mob on Halloween night.

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I love SGA for planning this picnic. It was fun to see everyone outside of class and outside of all the little groups. And for the record, our volleyball team won.