Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Home Sweet Home" on Feliciana Street

A funny thing happened in the swampy 90 degree heat as we pounded in nails and hauled deadwood boards into a half-built house down on Feliciana Street: we fell in love with the work, with the house, with, as Barbara said, each other, and even a little bit with the heat. Then at night we fell in love with the city - that glorious old city that fueled the wealth of the Spanish New World, the politics of the French New World and the culture of the African New World. The city that Alexis de Tocqueville, on his grand tour of America in the 1830s, said "seems to be 10,000 leagues away from the United States." We felt that, too, looking at the collapsed houses and the FEMA was as if we were 10,000 leagues away from a wealthy and powerful nation rather than in that nation's soul and heartland.

But Tocqueville had something else to say to us, too. He was in awe of the volunteer spirit in America. In his classic book on American democracy, he explained to his European readers that what makes America strong is the ordinary person's conviction that we are all in this together, that volunteer work toward the collective good is part of the American definition of citizenship. Looking around at the volunteers from Florida and D.C. and Rhode Island who worked with us day after day, I was reminded of Tocqueville's words, and found them moving.

We have talked a lot this year at Berklee about learning through collaboration, and these are three of the lessons I learned by spending time with our crew: 1.) First, even if you don't learn from your own mistakes, don't worry, 'cause someone else will. It was fascinating to try to solve problems that had resulted from someone else's slightly inaccurate measurements a week earlier. Perhaps someone had hammered something in at an odd angle and it had to be fixed. And in fixing it, we learned how not to make that kind of mistake. 2). Just because you've always done it that way doesn't mean that's the right way to do it. After spending much of the past 5 years swinging a hammer, I only had to watch Linda for 10 seconds to realize I'd been doing it all wrong, and that you swing from the shoulder, not from the elbow. Paying attention to how someone else works takes little time, and yields invaluable information. After that, we were rockin' the blockin'. 3.) Put yourself in the other person's shoes again. In the classroom, I forget that it's all new to the student. I've said it a hundred times and I know the big picture, so I sometimes go too fast and assume too much. But I WAS that student on the worksite: new terms and directions were being thrown around as we tried to take it all in and plan for the job, and for the day. There was one afternoon especially when it felt overwhelming. Until our new friend Jim, in his patient and cheerful way, found just the few right words to make it all clear. He said, "I know you do something else for a living, so I'll try to make this easy and help you out." When I got that piece of deadwood right, I looked down from the ladder and there was Jim, smiling his approval before he walked off to help someone else in his great modest way. I'm going to remember Jim often.

The work was intense, the heat was tiring, but the experience was beautiful. It was so hard to leave. We started to feel really comfortable in the houses we worked on, even on the day it poured and we huddled around getting drenched and listening to the thunder. One morning on the ladder I saw that someone had written "Home Sweet Home" on one of the tresses. I would like to go back someday and see that house when it really has become someone's home sweet home, animated by the sounds of an ordinary day. My memories are of other, quite peculiar sounds: the whirr of the circular saw, the tinkling music of the snowball truck, the constant slamming of hammers all down the street.

Finally, I want to thank Mike for being our evening host. Without his gracious and delighted guidance, I would not have seen the charming restaurants and clubs and antique shops on Decatur - the ones the local folks describe, in a bittersweet voice full of hope, as "Still there." Still there, in spite of disaster.

God bless the city of New Orleans.

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