Lots of folks are complaining about what Edwards didn't say these last two days in New Orleans. This is good. I think now, more than ever, those still surviving in the affected Gulf Coast need to say what they need from the government, from the candidates, from each other, and say it loud and over and over again until they get it. But I'd like to take a moment to talk about what I think Edwards got right. What I dare say, he even got beautiful...
I recently wrote about my case of "Effie Fever," or my belief that Jennifer Hudson's Dreamgirls triumph is a harbinger of good things to come, that some of what's been upside down over the last six years is about to go right side up.
In my own fantasy sequence, I imagined us no longer--if I may use Sen. Edwards' language--two Americas, but one big Effie America, united, and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
See what happens when you visualize? You get a picture of Sen. Edwards leading a volunteer team in St. Bernard Parish.
Turn off your inner cynic for a moment and hang with me.
Wednesday night, I saw the picture of Sen. Edwards digging dirt in the backyard of a woman's home. I later read that this wasn't the first time he gutted or cleaned a house in the devastated Gulf Coast.
Any old politician can go out and pitch volunteerism as the solution to our ills. (Much easier than demanding real sacrifice or attacking systemic injustices...) And there's no politician alive that doesn't have a picture of himself building a house somewhere. The savvy among us quickly dismiss the Edwards pictures as the calculated imagery that it is. But I have something to say to those folks: yeah, it is calculated, yeah, people thought this through, but you know what? So what! This isn't Reagan posing with school kids the day that education budgets get slashed. If you dig into this moment, you get somewhere real. Somewhere, dare I say, beautiful.
The pictures tell a story. Not the story that some were listening for; there were no specific mentions of wrongdoing or negligence. But you know what story I heard, that I think is just as vital? In two years, we can have a president who knows what to do with all this potential energy coursing untapped through the body politic. We can have a president who, in the aftermath of a national tragedy, will call on us to do more than shop, who after a natural disaster, and subsequent man-made disaster, knows that dialing 1-800-HELP NOW is not enough.
What we do after the next national emergency is of crucial concern to all of us, because we cannot know who among us will be the next to suffer.
With simply a man and a shovel, those pictures remind us that there can, and must be, a better response.
The Particular Power of the Edwards Pictures, or, Why Gutting a House is Not Like Building One
To be honest, the volunteerism alone did not move me. Everybody promotes that. It's what I know about volunteering in the affected Gulf Coast that moved me. Gutting and rebuilding houses is messy work. It's hard. It's intimate. You enter the pain space of another human being and you do something that helps them heal. In this land of survivors, a picture of a man with a shovel in his hand, in the end, means so much more.
I work on a Katrina oral history project (www.thekatrinaexperience.net), and I interviewed a young woman, Cameron, who, with her church group, went to New Orleans and spent the week cleaning and gutting houses.
I've never gutted a house. But I'll take Cameron's word for it when she says the work is exhausting. You have to wear hot protective clothes. You have to cover your mouth, nose, and eyes. And before you can get the wet house down to the studs, you have to clean the place out. Maybe they've done this already. Maybe they haven't. Maybe it's you that helps the homeowner comb the mounds and mounds of wreckage--the remains of furniture, carpets, and belongings--for anything still salvageable. Then you and your team have to push all this wreckage to the curb.
I try to put myself in the shoes of the homeowner. You know you have to gut your house. You know you have to confront your ruined belongings. But if you're elderly, sick, or just plain depleted, it can be too much, physically, emotionally, to strip the house clean. And perhaps you can summon the strength, but now you're running on your last reserves. Sometimes you just need help. And you'll take it from strangers. You might prefer it that way. What a gift it can be for volunteers to show up and help you get over that huge hump that separates the past from your new life to come.
If you've ever had to sort through your parents' or your grandparents' personal effects after their death, you can begin to understand the terrain. But then you have to add water and mold and flies and heat and the fact that the effects have turned to ruins to better understanding what it must have been like, physically, emotionally, psychologically, to do this work.
I don't know how much sifting and pushing John Edwards did, but tens of thousands of friends, family members, and volunteers took on these roles, and I know that they did incredible services for those they helped.
Of course, not everyone is cut out to gut and rebuild a ruined house. But bravo to John Edwards for modeling to the world that when things go wrong, we help one another. And not just with the easy jobs. Thank you for showing us that yes, we can have a President who will return these values to the Oval Office.
Hear that? That's not just the sound of a Hudson money note. That's the sound of the world slowly, but surely, turning right side up.
To read Katrina oral history essays, please visit: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.