Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Lessons learned from my time away:
1) It is hard for many people outside of this area to care about what is happening in Mississippi because it is even harder to understand.
What happened in New Orleans was a palpable and photogenic tragedy. What happened here is simply mass destruction and devastation on an incomprehensible scale.
When I left the Peace Corps, I was warned about the relative indifference of the rest of the world, especially from my fellow Americans, in regards to what I did and what I went through. The following conversation was frequent:
“Wow, you were in Africa?” a curious individual would ask.
“Yep,” I would reply.
“What was it like?” the curious individual would ask.
At this point, I wouldn’t know what to say. Try summing up any two year period of your life in which your ideas on humanity, happiness, metaphysics, social interactions, hygiene, language, right and wrong, up and down, and the way the world turns were completely turned on their head.
Sometimes, I would be curt.
“It was a learning experience,” I would often say.
On other occasions, I would be thorough and give anecdotes about my cat getting eaten, my projects (and my house for that matter) being stolen from, my illnesses and the desperate squalor. I would also add the happy stories about smiles, sunsets and strong drinks.
Then, there would usually be a ridiculous question. Example: “Were there any lions?”
At first, I was upset by this. Then, one day I realized how detached the questioner was from my experience and what had informed them about Africa to that point.
My point of relating those experiences is to put in perspective what happened last weekend when I was visiting with my Peace Corps friends, all of whom went through similar difficulties after their time abroad.
“So you live in South Mississippi now, huh?” one would ask.
“Yep,” I would reply.
“It’s really messed up down there, huh?” the next question would be. Or, “What’s it like?”
“It’s a learning experience,” would be my reply.
When I would get into details, try and expand upon the experience a bit, I got this question occasionally: “So it’s kind of an adventure, huh?”
“No, it’s actually really f****d up,” I would reply.
I relate all this not out of bitterness. I wanted people to not care or talk that much about what was happening. I went to the Green Mountains to detach myself as much as possible from Mississippi.
But it was a little jarring to hear Peace Corps volunteers, who had dealt with the difficult questions themselves, turn around and lay them on me.
I suppose that you can’t understand it until you see it, smell it, live it. I know that all the reporters who come here from elsewhere, stay a while and then leave still don’t get it. Shoot, even I don’t really get it.
I see, smell, feel, taste and hear the devastation all the time. I saw Hurricane Katrina coming and I watched her go. Yet I don’t understand the situation fully.
I loved Mississippi the moment I got here. Great food. Great outdoors. Great people.
To see it ripped to shreds though, has left me confused and wanting of a better picture or frame of reference for the whole situation. But even those who have been here decades don’t get it, which brings me to the second thing I learned while roaming Vermont’s lovely mountains…
2) The mental health of people living and breathing the disaster is precarious at best.
Because we can’t grasp the entirety of what’s happening, we have no chance of gaining a routine. There is nothing comfortable about being here, let alone working and living in it.
It is nearly impossible to “recharge” for large, daily tasks while here. All that being here seems to do is break you down.
One of the hardest parts about Africa was how different everything was. The hardest part about here is how different everything has become.
There is no getting back to normal. I even disagree with the saying “Getting back to the new normal.” The base that was there is gone. Building from the ground up means any kind of normal is gone.
It is hard to understand that.
Almost two out of every three dwellings in South Mississippi are gone or unlivable. To comprehend that, go outside, look at your block and say there-gone-gone-there-gone-gone as you glance from building to building. That’s saying nothing about the jobs, schools and lives lost.
When people begin to get that, and few do and even fewer seem to try, it is beyond jarring. It is worse than being slapped, beaten or knocked out.
There is an immeasurable degree of humiliation in the face of a force not only beyond control but miles past understanding.
On to my final learning point…
3) There is no horizon.
The endgame is unforeseeable. A conclusion is impossible.
Therefore it is now a question of picking oneself up and learning to work and live with that.
------------------------------
Mike is off to sunny Florida for a few days of much needed recharge. I hope his time there gives him some perspective on here as my time away did for me.
There may be a lack of photos for a while, although I may post a couple that won’t run with my story tomorrow on the guy who was evicted from his FEMA trailer for not taking care of his dog.
Thanks for reading.

27 Comments:

Blogger Susi said...

The guy at Gulfsails.blogspot.com could use your counsel. He's stay in N.O.thru it all, posting with car batteries, etc. He's burned out. Thanks for your insights. Opal & Ivan in FWB, FL were small compared to your destruction. We out here appreciate your info.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*hugz*

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could give you and your fellow Mississipians instant comfort and solace. The sad truth is that normalcy is an illusion. Humans have an ability to not notice subtle weirdness in our daily lives until all hell breaks loose and jolts our eyes,noses,etc open.

Please know that your fellow citizens are raving mad at our government's blatant failure, and we are with y'all for the long haul. In the meantime, all I can offer is the ancestral southern mama advice: You have to take small steps and you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other; even if,on a bad day, you only advance one inch.

Godspeed and you are in our prayers.

John in NC

6:56 PM  
Blogger Lo said...

Your heartfelt writing is so amazing. I love reading you guys everyday and I think it's great you guys can take the time to share the most difficult times of your life with all of us, and I never really have much more to say than you're in my prayers and I hope for the best for you guys, because I could never put into words how bad I truly feel for everyone in the Gulf

~Lo

7:27 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

What is next for you? Now that you are back, what is your plan?

Best wishes from Nebraska. My prayers are with you, yet somehow I know that's not enough.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Sarabeth said...

Through this all, both of you have been so amazing to keep this up. Your insight is touching and reaching many people. Having lived in that area before I understand just an infinitesimal slice of the tragedy and the scale. Life can go back to some type of normal. Take a look at the Miami/Homestead area after Andrew. We can't go back again, but at least forward is somewhere better than where the area is now.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Jillene said...

It is heartbreaking to hear the dispair in your writing. Your blog has been a place where many people go to get a tiny glimpse of the devastation that you call daily life. However, don't let that overshadow your need for mental stability. Even in surviving a couple tornadoes in the backyard and a couple hurricanes, I could never claim to understand or even have a fathom what your community is going through. People may ask silly questions but they don't know what to say, this is an unbelievable experience. I grew up in Gulfport and it is heartwrenching that everything that I remember is gone. One thing that I remember is the resilensy of the community and it is my hope that that is still alive and well. Get some help if you need and everyone's prayers are will you.

9:34 PM  
Blogger KimberlyDi said...

A word keeps coming up as I interact with people dealing with turmoil, be it emotional or Katrina/Rita... boundaries. We all have boundaries to keep us safe. The fence surrouding our yard, the walls that support our house, and the bills we pay religiously to keep our rights to our home and creature comforts... Rita/Katrina blew those boundaries to Hell. I don't know what I would be without my house, my family and my job. I would be scared, desperate, and defensive. I would have lost my identify because I define myself by those things... my home, my family and my job. It's a war zone over there and I hope you find the strength to keep going.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Networkchic said...

No horizon? My friend, there's always a horizon. It may not be the pretty shades of orange and purple that we remember, but it's there. The trick is, to look for it.

6:35 AM  
Anonymous barb said...

if i may and please people don't get mad here.


what new orleans is it's a disaster caused by people's incompetence and it's a damned shame that people who survived the brunt of katrina are being forgotten cause of what happened in new orleans ok i shall begin in new orleans cause that's where i feel the disaster of the man kind has happened. first blame lies in people years ago after betty hit who said that building levees to withstand only category 3 hurricane cause it will be too expensive to build larger levees . and who built them from limestone insteadf of proper building matyewrials that would not errode as fast. how many hundreds of billions are they're spending now not to mention the historic new orleans lies in ruins.

2) what kind of a shitty job did they do evacuating people the governor the mayor should take a hard look at them selves

as for Mike brown he was let go from ahra's ring stuart job under weird circumstances most of his cidential's were fabricated at best and this idiot still says he heasn't done anything wrong... what a !!!!!!!!!!!!


ok now to missisiippi you guys have done such a service to those like me who will never know what it feels like to be in a disaster of such magnitude. what happened in your gulfcoast towns is staggering and i don't pretend to even come close to understanding a about how hard it is emotionally and physically to go through such horriffic stress.

I'll tell you once thing i'm really peeved with Canadian Red cross

they had the nerve to advertize that they needed people to go and help in the disaster zone and when i offered to go they said i didn't have field experience . they took the choice of me helping in any way i can away from me becaus ethey deamed me inexperienced and i know i thrive in such situations. then i get jumped by my fellow horse forum members because i'm being canadian critisizing your governemt and how us Canadians do nothing to help we'll all i have to say to all who reAD THIA when ever we have disasters here in canada we handle them, ourselves yet when it comes to helping our neighbour to the south we're the first country to offer help so please don't judge us by the fact that we didn't agree with the way MR.PRESIDENT went to war in IRAQ .
if there's anything i can do for any one who survived this disaster pelease let me know here's my email addy i have broad shoulders and am willing to listen to no matter what is said with in reason of course.

pufftmajikdragn@yahoo.ca

I'm sad and frustrated that this is so little but if i can help even in such a small way let me know. BARB

11:54 AM  
Anonymous BARB AGAIN said...

by the way Josh talking from experience here isolating your self would be the worst thing you can do as difficult as it has become you do need to talk and vent and not let anything negative build up in you . what you have lived through is total
distruction of the life you knew and sometimes it feels like it's hopeless but it's not believe me it will get better even though it may seem all F***** up right now . that goes for everyone who has llived through many different kinds of horrors and disasters natural or man made .....HUGS ....BARB




AS FOR NORMAL .... WORKING WITH DISABLED CHILDREN WHO OFTEN ARE LABELED BY SO CALLED PROFFESSIONALS I'VE OFTEN WONDERED... WHAT IS NORMAL?.... IT'S JUST A PERCEPTION OF A PERSON WHAT IS NORMAL TO ONE PERSON IS ABNORMAL TO ANOTHER IT TRULY IS A SUBJECTIVE CONCEPT. N

12:07 PM  
Blogger The Fergoosons said...

I got to see my brother and sister in law that live in Biloxi for a day yesterday...It's amazing how their lives have changed. They lost a son in a car wreck 3 years ago, his only child, so his idea is that after that, you just get through one day at a time then this happens...they are totally numb, they both have an emptiness in their eyes that I didn't see even when Jason died. They both said that people drive and walk around doing absolutley nothing, they don't know what to do and FEMA will go to one house where they lost everything and hand them $40,000.00 and walk to the next house where they lost everything and give them $150,000. Where is the sense in that? People are sitting on their porches like they have a house behind them and they have nothing...But, regardless of what the media is saying, people are helping each other, feeding and caring for each other all over Biloxi. Someone is given food and they give half of it away. My brother said that on his way to Missouri where I met him, he'd stop for gas and people would ask where in Mississippi he was from and if he said Biloxi, there was always the question "did you see dead people?" so finally when they ask now about where he's from, he says "The Delta" and life goes on. That's another thing, he said that the they are not being truthful about the victims, they are saying the only a couple of hundred have died, but in truth they have freezer trucks full of people. I wish all people were as strong and resilient and the people of Mississippi.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me you are a bit harsh on your fellow man here; like we are all stupid and don't understand. I understand your plight and I understand that Africa would be a cultural shock (ala Alvin Tofler - it is often hard to adjust to the changes in our own culture). But to more or less forget to mention that there are MILLIONS of Americans (and others) that have contributed billions of dollars, prayers and energy to the cause of those that have lost all is sad. You will have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps - a tough and thankless job. There are those out there that DO understand and help. Americans are the most giving people on earth - consider yourself lucky you aren't some where where the tsunami hit.
Good Luck.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

What a wonderful heartfelt commentary. I hope you have good friends, family, people around you who have also gone through this experience to lean on and talk to. No one can really understand, only try to understand and that can be a lonely place for the ones trying desperately to be understood. I've been to Africa as well, and know where you're coming from...especially the stupid questions...

12:56 PM  
Anonymous barb said...

hey anonymous the last one to post not the first one .COOL IT


have you ever heard of needing to vent you may feel misunderstood but this man just went though a horrific experience and if he needs to say these things wether you feel they just or not then please let him say them . you know i can honestly say that you anonymous are comparing apples and oranges here we all would rather help 3rd world countires when it comes to helping our own it'alway abit different oh they can get a job oh they are lazy etc type of attitude . yes i speak from experience Josh keep venting

1:08 PM  
Blogger Josh Norman said...

dear anonymous,
Thanks for your comments. They were very insightful except for one gross mistruth, namely, "Americans are the most giving people on earth."
By the numbers, the Japanese are the most giving people on earth, in terms of percent of their GDP donated to disasters and the third world.
While dollar-wise, we may be on top, we still keep the lions share to ourselves. Americans, as far as donating percentage of GDP goes, are by far the worst of any industrialized nation.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

I was born and raised in Pascagoula, and my entire family still lives there. I live in Texas now, but I went home just a few weeks ago to take things to my family.

My feelings were the same...until you've seen it, smelled it, lived in it...you can't really understand what these people are going through. It is a horrible existence. I was only there for a few days, but it was enough to break my heart. To see the pain and exhaustion in my family's eyes was tough.

Your writing is beautiful and comforting to so many. Thank you. And God bless everyone who is living through this every day.

4:10 PM  
Blogger zilla said...

Josh-

I had the good fortune to visit my mother in Vermont this summer, so I know just how restorative a hike through the Green Mountains can be. I'm glad for you.

My mother was born in Detroit and vacationed six weeks every summer on the shores of Lake Michigan. Her main complaint about Vermont is the lack of horizon.

It isn't a horizon you lack, it's a focal point. It would be awful damned hard to find one amid complete chaos, but it is there. With patience, you will find it.

Caring is not dependent on understanding, but some people, not all, but some people do want to understand. I've been reading your blog at least weekly from the start. The biggest thing I have learned is that I have no way of understanding what you and others are going through, but I do care, and I care deeply.

We've made our donations to the Red Cross, we've encouraged others to do the same, we've bitterly defended those who could not evacuate from the heartless a**holes who've attacked them for having no sense. Some of us have done more than that; none of us should do less.

What then must we do?

Thanks for writing, Josh.

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Blogger Blue Dog Art said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Blue Dog Art said...

Watching something from afar and actually living through it are two very different things. Keep your spirits up as best as you can. I'm glad you were able to get away to Vermont. Take care of yourself.

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