Friday, May 14, 2010

Watching Jazz in Antarctica & Memories of The Storm

I recently started watching "Treme" on television and as is typical with most HBO productions, it is an engrossing and well made series. It reminds me of one of the sweetest experiences I've had in my 6 years of working on the Ice: a core group of 3 of us (sometimes as many as 5) would gather together Sunday night and watch the "Jazz" documentary series by Ken Burns. I don't know if it was because of the situation (anything you could watch on a screen is going to capture you more at a tiny research station), or because the 10 part series was just so incredibly interesting and well made - but I found myself looking forward to that two hours each Sunday evening  more than I would look forward to boating opportunities. I felt like me & Ken and Kris (the other diehard fans) were on a gilded raft, floating through an exciting journey on the history of Jazz music which was far more interesting than I'd ever imagined it would be (it's as much a history of New Orleans and race and the human struggle to create). The amount of detailed research and the intellectualism and heart put into this show is astounding. The longer I'm away from Palmer Station the more I realize what a privilege it was to be there, but when I was there some of the personalities rubbed on me like a rock in my shoe...but our Jazz screenings helped my sanity, gave me something to look forward to, and kept me highly plugged into a vein of creativity that I have only had moments of experience with. I didn't know much about Louis Armstrong before I saw this series, but now I know that he may have been the greatest musical artist this world has ever known.

But this show, Treme, reminds me of when the storm hit. Living in Texas I had to opportunity to help out when Houston got too full and folks started coming to Austin. It was so hard to get on with the Red Cross as they were flooded with volunteers, so I just went down to the damned convention center and tried to help with the amelioration of pain that our city was attempting...the donations were bursting at the seams...the volunteers were trying to make the guests from NO feel as comfortable as possible under the horrific circumstances many of them had been in at the Superdome. People got off buses without shoes or hope, and we tried our best to get them the basics as fast as possible: a bed, some food, tons of clothes & personal goods that had been donated. The red cross had told me they did not need me & would call me if my name popped up. They had plenty of jobs at the office on computers but I wanted to be at the convention center...with the people from New Orleans. Each day was dramatically different & things happened fast. Once bellies were full and people were well-rested & medicines dispersed, people wanted to find their loved ones so phone banks were set up and even a job bank was opened for people who were ready to start a new life in Austin. I went down to the convention center on my scooter one day & just said "screw it" I'm gonna get in without an official Red Cross badge - and I did. I folded in with a volunteer group, they put a wristband on me, and I wore it everyday to the Center downtown. My job was to work in the clothing area, where guests (we were to refer to them as guests rather than refugees) would come and pick out garments as they had mostly arrived with nothing. It was fun helping them - and I was ever aware that as someone who couldn't possibly understand what they'd been through, I kept quiet unless they wanted to speak to me. We could eat with the guests so everyday I got up my nerve to sit with folks and ask them how they were doing. I heard some awful stories, and saw some unlikely friendships that had developed through shared tragedy. By the 10th day or so people were partying on the loading dock of the Convention hall! There were some instruments donated & an impromptu dance party had started. Smiles were everywhere...and I began to see how quickly the human spirit can recover. A couple of sweet memories: after about a week of my clothing sorting gig, a lady about my age came up to me & asked if I could find her some sexy lingerie as she had met a man she liked in the camp. She was giggling & embarrassed to ask me, but it was a moment that made me realize that I felt quite privileged to be a part of these people's lives: we were having "girl talk"...and this was wildly different than those first fragile days when folks walked off busses in shock - some so hungry & thirsty & wild eyed it was hard to believe that these people were from a place just a few hours down the road from our lives of relative ease and comfort. We were so aware of the appalling week they had had before arriving, that we only tried to make them comfortable. So to see the smiles & dancing 10 days later was amazing. Another sweet memory is that a friend and I took an AA meeting to the Convention Center. I think we had one or two guests show up...and hopefully it helped. On my last day when I was leaving after my final volunteer shift, I saw lots of guests sitting around the outside of the arena smoking and talking. I rode by on my scooter and stopped to ask them if Austin was treating them well...they said they were overwhelmed by how well they had been treated and LOVED Texas (boy I don't hear that much!). I went back to my tiny condo and realized how blessed I was to have this tiny space that had a soft bed & frigid air conditioning. I had gotten rid of so many possessions when the storm first hit, yet I still was rich in the basics. Interestingly, when I moved all my stuff & my kitty to a friend's house before deploying for my second season on Ice (a couple had leased my condo), the house, containing all my stuff and generations of my friend's family's stuff, burnt to the ground right after my last visit to say goodbye to my kitty. I had been on Ice about a week when my friend wrote to me the news. I sat in shock for a while looking at photos of this big house that was completely incinerated and felt terrible sadness that my 16 year old kitty died of smoke inhalation, and worse, my friend lost every material thing he had (and a beloved old kitty also). For some reason that tragedy passed quickly for me (except that I still am sad when I think about my kitty), because it was mostly just stuff. There's not a single item of that stuff that I miss, and in no way compares to what Katrina did to people's lives, but it did show me my how powerless I am over the random acts of violence by mother nature. Watching Treme has reminded me of that time, when I spent about 10 days interacting with the victims of the storm. I'm not sure how those folks that I had personal interactions are doing today, and I pray they are well, but I know that for me those moments of selflessless felt like the "pearl at any price"...."for it is in self forgetting that one finds...." and what I found was something I'd only ever understood intellectually, but can only be understood through experience: the giver gains as she gives.