This past winter break I went on a one-week service trip to New Orleans with a group of Cornell students who are members of the Cornell Commitment program.
The New Orleans accent is like nothing I have heard before — people hold on to every letter of each word, making their speech sound rhythmic and alive, much like the music played on the streets each night. Homeless people sleep on top of cars and on velvet sofas that line the curb. They rise with the sun and begin to shuffle down the street. A man walks out of the café wearing a fedora and waves to our group as if performing — he reminds me of Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There was something unfamiliar in this gesture, something southern.
A man walks down the street shouting, “There are no rules in New Orleans.” Even the houses in New Orleans seem to bend the so-called rules — they melt into each other and defy conformity in an artful manner. The waitresses call us “boo” and “baby” and the groundskeeper introduces himself as a person who “still moves like a 12 year old at 60-something.” Maybe the looseness of New Orleans is age-defying, though the cobblestone streets mark the age of the city, despite the apparent youthfulness of its residents.
We came to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that buys properties and then sells them to people at an affordable cost. To offset the reduced price, the people who buy the houses assist in building the house with the staff. In preparation for the trip, we read Rachel Naomi Remen’s essay “In the Service of Life” where she discusses the differences between helping, fixing and serving. According to Remen, “If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise. Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe.”
When working on the house, it felt that we were simply helpers to the Habitat employees who had to explain every process, whether we were learning to use tools, paint correctly or mix concrete. We had the privilege of leisurely conversing while pulling out the fence posts, as we engaged in a sort of tug-a-war with a stubborn metal rod deeply entrenched in the soil. After all, we could have easily agreed with Alex’s (a HFH employee) comments — “it sucks digging holes,” “I’m just as bored as you,” — knowing that after we finished our three days of work, we would return to our cushy Cornell lives (I wouldn’t say I ever found myself bored, just exhausted). When we finished, he said, “Thank y’all for all of yall’s help”, a sentence with a ring unlike anything I could pull from my evidently northern set of grammar.
Building a house is a task as old as time, so old that even language relies on architectural idioms: “Seeing the writing on the wall,” “breaking the glass ceiling,” “a house divided cannot stand.” Taking down a fence has a symbolic meaning of its own. We saw that new construction cannot take place without the destruction of old structures, like with the rusty fence posts and old foundations to be exchanged with a shining chain-link and a fresh coat of white paint.
At times it felt like we were constructing more than a house. Many of us enjoyed climbing up the ladders to paint the otherwise unreachable parts of the house. Reaching for the unreachable — and attaining the unattainable — serve as good metaphors for volunteering. While we can serve at a particular moment in time, it feels impossible to mend the larger systems at hand that contribute to poor distributions of wealth and leave populations on lands that lie below sea level vulnerable. People were losing faith in the government long before Hurricane Katrina left parts of New Orleans desolate and destroyed. Current attitudes that deny climate change and further disadvantage the poor may convince one of prevailing cynicism. Climbing a ladder is an exercise in perspective more than anything else. Looking down makes everything below look smaller and looking up towards the sky illuminates the immense wonder of life. Engulfed by the sky, I became small, just a student with a paintbrush on a ladder on a street in a New Orleans suburb.
My peers and I painted the ceilings of the house with long rollers, becoming walking Jackson Pollock paintings. In moments like these, we became the work, covering both the house and ourselves in fresh coats of paint, the work leaving a visible mark upon us. This is where helping and fixing diverge from serving. When you serve, experience leaves a mark on your mind and on your being. You can only feel gracious and more complete.
Rebecca Sparacio is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Space Between runs every other Tuesday this semester.