Eyes in My Eyes

07/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You couldn't go anywhere these last weeks without seeing the Red, White and Blue on cocktail napkins, shot glasses, plastic beer steins ... why not? Who wouldn't want to toast the birthday of a place so diverse that nobody living more than 50 miles in from the coat of Massachusetts can understand what most of us Bostonians are even saying?

I had my own lesson in diversity last week in New Orleans where I found myself so completely out of my element that when a couple of young women kept calling me "Ma'am" I took their tone for sarcastic.

Confused about the billing process for the appointment I was trying to book with them, I fumbled along with many questions.

"Yes MA'AM!" "No MA'AM!" "Whatever you want to do MA'AM!" they kept saying until I got so rattled I flat-out asked if they were annoyed with me.

"Annoyed? No MA'AM!" they gasped, horrified.

"Well, where I come from nobody calls a person Ma'am unless they're struggling not to call you something worse."

"Really?" they said in unison. "If our mothers EVER caught us failing to say 'Ma'am' we'd get smacked in the head!"

And that's how it was for my whole time in that city: I was in a world wholly new to me and found myself thinking again and again of what all my best teachers said to me for the two-year period when I was studying to be a massage therapist.

"What you think it is, it isn't," these wise instructors would say. "Be humble and before you lay hands on anyone being total attention and pray God for eyes in your hands so you can see what's really there." in other words summon all your learning and leave your ego at the door, along with any fine notions of how You Wonderful You, will bring the healing.

It's advice very much like what I have had from the people I most respect most in my career as a columnist. These people have also said that you can never SEE a thing right when you first look at it, either because you are rushed, or you think you already KNOW what the story is or again you are too enamored of the notion that you alone can bring Understanding where Understanding has been lacking...

I went to New Orleans for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists whose theme was Katrina-based and in those four days looked at things I never thought to see in this country in terms of the help that from the government that never did come Thirty-four months after the storm I saw the high school principal Wayne Warner of St. Bernard Parish where not one house was left unaffected struggling to control his tears as he spoke to us. At least I think that's what I saw. I wasn't a foot away from him as he spoke.

Later, after we had left him and were lunching at Dooky Chase's amazing Creole/ Soul Food place mid-city section of New Orleans, I stepped outside into a sudden rainstorm.

These scant few days before Independence Day 2008 I saw a brick housing project being razed and looked and looked at the mountains of dark-red rubble dotted with the brightly colored remains: a bright lawn chair here, a splayed umbrella there.

The rain drummed hard, on it and on the street itself and on the small patched-over houses next to Dooky's.

I looked and looked -- for 12, 14, 15 minutes -- and finally knew what I must do which is to come back here; to pray for eyes in my hands and eyes in my eyes, then roll up my sleeves and start in helping.