The land of pecan trees, cotton fields, peanut farms, Hell Hole Swamp, fried green tomatoes and all those lost and forgotten sparsely populated towns where the oh-so-many “for rent” signs in the equally lost and forgotten storefront windows tell that all too familiar story of hard times. And if that shit wasn’t enough, it’s also where for the past thirty days the world of puddles and mo-squitoes has taken on a whole different meaning for me and anyone else that dares to brave it.
As a FEMA Reservist, I came here as a visitor. Someone whose time and care is limited. I can look around at all that’s good and all that’s distressing with a certain detached yet observing eye because I know my stay is temporary. I don’t have to endure this life. I’m only passing through.
But in no way do I not feel impacted by it.
Trust me when I say there’s nothing quite like standing in the middle of someone’s house, seeing what used to be the entire contents stacked high in one massive moldy pile of wood and fabric, completely destroyed, while contaminated water trickles down from a shanty roof barely holding its own, to make things crystal fucking clear in your head—if they weren’t already. That and doing a job which requires ten hours a day, seven days a week of tramping across mud, plowing through thigh-high grass embedded with fire ant hills, knocking on doors, passing out flyers, talking to people faster than the speed of light for fear that if you don’t, the friggin’ mosquitos swarming around you will make their way into your mouth before you have a chance to close it.
Welcome to the life of a DSA Reservist. Glory job this isn’t. That’s for make-sure-you’re-wearing-lots-of-bug-spray damn sure.
I’ve been asked numerous times why I do this work. And, you know, the answer’s always the same. I love what I do. It keeps me grounded, gives me purpose, makes me feel as if I’m actually helping someone in some way and given all that, I honestly believe, if come the end of my deployment I’ve made a difference in just one person’s life, well then . . . I know I’ve done my job.
Giving without any sense of expectation is so much more joyfully rewarding. I didn’t always understand that. I didn’t always realize the true prize was in the small miracle of a smile, of a simple thank you. But now I do. And like most things, there are those learning curves you either take or throw away by choice and as I ease into humility mode in the face of nature’s destructive force in South Carolina I carry with me my bucket of life tools hearing the echo of my FEMA brothers’ and sisters’ words ring in my ears: “whether it’s one disaster or a hundred, the goal is always the same. Go in, do your best, reach out any way you can, to as many as you can. And you’ll see, the people you encounter will change your life far more radically than you’ll ever change theirs.”
Hurricane Sandy brought that message home to me. It tore me up, then consumed with the kind of gut-wrenching emotions I’d once felt myself incapable of. And when I walked away, I was forever transformed in a way I’m not sure how to explain other than to say it was illuminatingly profound. There would never be any going back to whoever I was before that step into the light. And while my deployment here has been an altogether different experience for me, the people are not any less needy, or the mayhem surrounding them any less jarring.
So I know when my time is up here, I will once again leave renewed by it. By the absoluteness of its reminder just how thankful I am for all that I have. There are no regrets (well not anymore), no looking back wondering about all the decisions I didn’t make, along with the should haves and the could haves, because to wish upon all that pointless stuff, would simply negate the beautiful blessings that happened to me somewhere in between.
A friend recently told me: “There are no wrong decisions.” And, of course, he’s right. But, this too, isn’t something one readily wraps their brain around since it’s the kind of knowing that comes with falling and peeling your face off the floor one too many mornings before it hits you over the head. Granted some of us might not need to go off the deep end to figure these things out, while others do for the simple reason it’s in their genetic make-up. My younger hippy self free-floating aimlessly like tumbleweed, would never have listened then as she felt turning on and tuning out was the cool thing to do before being forced to join that much-dreaded establishment she knew awaited her. Therefore she missed the boat on so many things. Many critical choices that went hand-in-hand to a future landscape she couldn’t possibly envision. Not then. Not stoned or straight. She simply never saw them.
So all we can do is push on. Accept ourselves and all our perfect imperfections with loving grace. And after a lifetime of much soul-searching I feel I finally have done that. Well, at least enough to say out loud: I like who I am (wobbly bits and all). I like my life and this thrilling place I’ve finally arrived at. That I have been fortunate to live long enough to see my children grow, to hold a granddaughter, to travel to all those magnificent places I’ve dreamed about, to write a book, to stand up and be counted.
What more can any of us really ask for, then that?
They say when you reach a certain age you come to realize that despite all the crazy twists and turns you take along the journey of life, that all roads still lead you to exactly where you are now.
Well, if that’s true . . . then I guess I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Here. Traveling on my road, one both rural and favored by God’s green earth that I can easily imagine someone like Woody Guthrie singing about or Jack Kerouac writing about (on a new roll of toilet paper, hopefully) at some point. But should Woody or Jack not step up to the plate to do their stuff, no worries, I will. I’m told I can’t carry a tune worth a shit, but I do have some potential with a pen.
We shall see.-