Monday, January 21, 2008


Wow, I am so overdue for an update. I keep trying. I’m so busy and involved here, and having so many incredible experiences. When I’ve had down time, I’ve been exhausted.

I’m taking today to rest, write, and catch up, so let’s see what I can do.

I’m doing research for EDOLA staff who’s writing a book, one aspect of which is graces in the storm. There have been so many graces in my own life, here. I’ve been given so many unexpected gifts: all at some cost, but which have grown me in ways I won’t understand for a long time.

One of these graces is the work itself. I’m interviewing survivors of Katrina. The first week or so I was here, I was really shy about asking people to talk to me. One afternoon with a vivacious deacon cured that. More on her, later. Since that day, it’s been easy. People have been so willing to talk to me. All but one were directly hurricane-affected; most are caregivers in some way (clergy, rebuild coordinator, volunteers). As I’ve done this, I’ve gotten better at it: listening more closely, able to ask better questions and still be sensitive. Their trust in me is sacred, and amazing. Yesterday, I asked at church if anyone had transcription software, as I have several hours of these interviews. No one did. But the rector spoke about how sharing her story with me had been a gift to her, as well. I believe she’d been the first, and I really didn’t know what I was doing then. She had offered me 45 minutes, and given an hour and a half. She was so eloquent, composed and articulate; I’d had no idea that this work of mine had given something real to her. Since then, others have told me the same.

I’ve already written about the gift of St. Anna’s. If you come here, go on a Wednesday night. My having visited nine months ago, gave me an anchor for now. They’re in the thick of the resurrection of this city: they know devastation, and wow do they know joy. They will welcome you.

I interviewed someone I met at St. Anna’s, who is involved in the Mobile Medical Mission. We talked for over an hour. I turned off the recorder, and we kept chatting. He used a phrase that has always bothered me: “There but for the grace of God go I.” I told him why I was cringing; I was a Catholic Worker for a year, and the only things I saw that separated me from the guests were chance and circumstance. If God is everywhere, and God’s grace keeps me from being homeless, where is God for the homeless person? He talked to me about the presence of gifts and graces in everything: a meal, a bed, your life. And he said to me, “Maybe a grace for them is you.”

Oh. I got it.

Last Thursday, Mimi and Grandpère took me to lunch. They live about an hour and a half from here. We got into an accident, and I got whiplash. Yes, it hurts—but other than being kind of wiped out, I’m not really suffering all that much. I went to the ER at Touro Infirmary the day after it happened, and got diagnosed and treated. They did a CT scan of my neck (all clear, thank God) and gave me good drugs. My neck’s only slightly stiff; the pain’s in my right scapula. The first two days, I felt fileted. That gave way to a feeling of having been vaguely kicked in the back, and like someone has their fingers underneath my shoulder blade and is trying to tickle me. My right pinkie was feeling a little weird; now it’s mostly better. The drugs are really kind of fun; I take a muscle relaxant at night, which has me hopelessly uncoordinated in ten minutes and asleep seconds after. (My friends I've e-mailed after taking it, know this.)

Mimi’s been amazing; she checks in with me pretty much daily, to see how I am. I’m just thankful that neither of them were hurt. 2 ½ months of neurological weirdness, I can handle. They’re both older; I’ll heal much faster than they would.

And it’s only transient pain. There is no permanent injury. I’m learning that all human experiences prepare us to minister to one another; I’ve certainly been ministered to here, by people who have suffered more loss than I can wrap my mind around. There is a deep humanity here; it’s one of the things that draws me to this city. And I was in an accident a month ago, from which we all walked away just fine but which was pretty much my fault. It can happen to anyone.

I mentioned earlier, the help I received from a fantastic deacon. Deacons in this diocese rock. They do everything. The deacon at St. Andrew’s asked me a week ago, “How’s your project going?” I told her, not as productive as I want—I was having trouble figuring out transportation, and struggling with getting going. So she offered to either lend me her truck or drive me around.

That was all the impetus I needed. I’d been really stressed, and felt guilty about not doing enough. With her offer, and the interest of others at St. Andrew’s, I felt so much better. That Sunday afternoon was warm and beautiful—think May in Olympia, September in San Francisco. I took the streetcar to the Quarter, played tourist and ate. Walked until my feet were aching; went to Jackson Square and watched the river for awhile, remembering how to breathe. Bought some Mardi Gras beads and a shirt that reads, “Re Cover Re Build Re New Orleans.” Took the streetcar home… and I don’t remember, but I think I took a nap.

That Monday afternoon, Elaine picked me up, and then another friend of hers, and we drove downtown to the mayor’s office to deliver roses to him. They do this every Monday; one rose for each murder victim of the previous week. St. Andrew’s does the mayor’s office; St. Anna’s, the chief of police. They go in pairs; the apostolic model, and it keeps them accountable for going every week. We talked to the woman at the front desk, briefly: she gets it, though I don’t know whether the mayor does. Afterward, Elaine invited me in for tea, and we started doing the interview. We talked for maybe 45 minutes, then we got on the topic of Brad Pitt’s pink tents. I think she said she hadn’t seen them; I said, “I know where they are. Wanna go out there?”

She looked at her watch, and we jumped in the car. We talked the whole time; she knows so much about this city, and she freely shared it with me. She told me which neighborhoods we were in as we drove through them, and showed me the homeless encampment under the freeway. We drove around in the Lower 9th, and circled back to the pink tents. Some of them were down—and a house was going up.

This is her home; her city. It isn’t mine. But we both cheered. This is resurrection.

There have been so many other gifts and graces, here. It will take me a long time to realize, and remember, all of them. But I needed to get something in print; I don’t want to forget this, and I want to share the hope I’ve found here.

I’ve been told again and again, “Disaster can happen to you. And we will be there, when it does.” These are human beings. They did not deserve what happened to them; it is not their fault, for living where they do. (The San Andreas fault runs 800 miles through the most populous state in this nation.) They have thanked me over and over, and told me how much the presence of volunteers—for compassion, as much as any skill—has meant to them. This city is rebuilding, and it’s thanks to the vibrant spirit of these people, as well as the help they’ve received from volunteers. Come and see.


Lauralew said...

My dear, weren't you just in an auto accident? Blessings and prayers to you.

And how generous you are to poo-poo any injuries to yourself to focus on the plight of New Orleans. Thanks for your comments "it is not their fault, for living where they do." I've heard so many folks say, "Why don't the @*$! folks just move?" But it is their home. My home of origin in Missouri is buffeted by tornadoes every few years and St. Louis was almost destroyed by one in the late 1890's--no one suggests everyone leave Missouri, Kansas, or other states.

Thanks for keeping us alert to the needs of those in the Big Easy as well as the entire Gulf Coast.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kirstin, what beautiful writing, my friend. You are hooked. New Orleans has you hooked. You will be back and back, and back. Of that I'm sure.

I believe that you cannot know what you give to the people that you interview. Intentional listening to their stories is a great gift to them. In listening and recording, you will assure that the stories survive and are passed on. We must know the stories. They must not be lost.

I have learned more about your state of health from this post than from the emails we exchange, some of which you did, indeed, write under the influence of the good pills. I'm grateful that you are healing, Kirstin.

I'm going to link to this beautiful post when MLK has had his day.

I send you love and prayers.

FranIAm said...

Kirstin- this is extraordinary. I feel so blessed to even be reading this and to be praying for you, for the work done there, for the people in that city.

Grace indeed. Resurrection indeed.

Praise be to God and thanks for all of those like you who do His work with your hands and heart.

Diane said...

Kirstin, you are doing such great work, and I'm glad you are sharing it with us, even a little!