Friday, April 27, 2012

In an exhilarating week, a new identity

In Lower 9th,  a roof is finished
But house has far to go
“Letterboxing” in Northampton, Mass. with grandkids and whipping up their favorite “cloud pancakes.”  Picnicking at the spectacular Three Sisters Sanctuary.
Days building roofs and hauling compost in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth ward. Nights with Cajun feasting and drinking.  
In my former life-of-career, would I have immersed myself in so many jam-packed adventures?
Would I have used my precious Vacation Time this way?
Briefly, this is  my week: On Tuesday I drive five hours so a daughter can fly to an out-of-town meeting while her kids are on school break. Hike a couple days with the kids, luring them on with letterboxing hunts. (The idea is to find hidden plastic boxes using online clues, then mark a journal with a stamp found in each box.) Drive home Friday, collapse for a day.

At 7.30 a.m. Sunday, flight to New Orleans. In 30 years, I have rarely gone to any of my husband’s professional meetings, never wanting to waste the VT on a not-really-vacation. And I have no interest in doing the “spouse” thing as I imagine it – tours, lonely lunches, museums, or hanging with other spouses. This time around, I have no intention of being the “spouse” either. I will have a mission and identity as a volunteer with
Darren and Emily at headquarters

I have no idea of the surprises awaiting me. The instructions say to show up at 7.45 a.m. with work clothes, gloves, bug spray, hat, water bottle and be set to work til 5.  Over two amazing days, I get to know eager young volunteers from Europe, including two civil engineering students from Paris, working to rebuild this community devastated by Katrina and still needing help 6 ½ years later. I spend a day with a local guy named Darren McKinney, who despite a couple screws in his legs still runs up and down ladders, directing a crew of volunteers to re-roof homes. I meet Summer Moore, a brilliant vagabond, who has lived in a half dozen states in the last two years and runs the group’s organic farm. Under her command, I burn off 1,000 calories in the fields.

That's me, digging weeds
 And overseeing it all is Emily Stieber, a cheerful young woman with red ringlets who runs the effort like a Swiss train.
One day, I cut asphalt shingles and carry them up a tall ladder to the roof, dismantle scaffolding, lug long boards into a pick up truck, mix concrete, help create a wall.
The next day, I pull weeds, shovel trenches, dig planting beds, fill a pick-up truck with compost,  plant cow peas, basil, marigolds, and petunias and water dozens of plants, some growing inside old tires serving as raised beds. Mostly, I get to know Noelle Bakri, lately of West Philadelphia, who supports herself working weekends in the French Quarter,  performing with flaming hula hoops and eating fire. She's got time, so she's out in the fields volunteering, too.
Noelle Bakri
 For someone who no longer can claim a work title, for two days I bask in a new identity.  Needing to find the right bus in a dicey neighborhood, I say, “I’m volunteering in the Lower Ninth” and everyone is eager to point me the right way. When after an exhausting day, I return downtown and unwittingly jump a long line of tourists to grab a seat at the Acme Oyster House bar, the manager forgives me after I explain,  “I was volunteering in the Lower Ninth.”

Of course, this being New Orleans, I make sure my husband is free for two special nights. For one we take the trolley out to Upperline, a charming rowhouse-type restaurant with unbelievable roast duck and drum fish, a recommendation of Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan.  The other is a Frog's Leap wine tasting at Le Meritage, where we sit at long white-clothed tables, with five wine glasses before us and  indulge in, among other delicacies, frogs legs (another adventure!) and a 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Betsie Gambel at Frog's Leap tasting

And get to meet more people we would never otherwise have known, including Betsie Gambel, who because of a complicated connection to Valley Forge Military Academy now mail orders her coffee from Wawa. And Nancy Campa, a Charlottesville, Va. artist who once donated 10 knitting machines to poor women in West Virginia.

Could my life be fuller?


Wendy Lee said...

Well, just as I thought, the world becomes a better place for having a "retired" you in it! Between the invaluable assistance to your daughters, the extra fun and grandmother time for your grandkids, and for the people who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and need help rebuilding...well, it's a damn good thing you retired. Your new identity is inspirational and wonderful. Thanks for writing about it.

suekagancarson said...

Sounds like you are ready for Burning Man!

Laura Marigny said...

Just looking at this after all this time has passed and reminiscing...Thank you again so much for spending that special time with us, Dotty. We loved having you! You should come back and bring some friends - we've still got lots of work to do! xxx Laura