As an activist, I have a habit of collecting stories about nasty stuff. I read a lot of horrifying stories and although they upset me, they also motivate me to work for change. That, the hope that things can be changed, is what keeps me going. Some people ask me how I can stand it (especially my mom), and I reply that I just don't know any other way to be.
What I've learned from Katrina though is that while stories about horrible things can make me upset, angry, or sometimes tearful, it is random acts of selfless generosity that really make me cry.
The week of Katrina, I was staying in a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. There I met a family who had been stuck at the New Orleans Convention Center during Katrina and who had spent a few days exposed to the elements on the interstate. Back in New Orleans, the husband had built a little privacy shield and makeshift toilet for his wife, who told me that he also never left her side, as there had been rumors of rapes. Her mother explained to me that most of her family had disowned her daughter when she married because they are white and the husband is black. "But," she said, "look at how he cared for my daughter. I will never again let anybody question their marriage. I don't care what anyone says. He proved he is a good man." The family had arrived in Little Rock by bus, and I ended up spending a day helping them get assistance at the Red Cross, get prescriptions filled, etc.
At one point, we were lost and so we stopped at a 7-11 to ask for directions. A man in workman's overalls approached my car, which has a bumper sticker that says "New Orleans: Proud to Call it Home." "Are you from New Orleans?" he asked. When we affirmed that we were, he opened his wallet and offered my passenger some cash. She hesitated to take it, but I told her, "You need it. Look, people are watching the news every day and they're pissed, and they can't figure out how to make it right, so if somene wants to do something for you, you should let them." So she accepted. As we drove away, she began to sob. She hadn't cried before - not when we talked about our the state of our beloved city, not when she talked about running from the rising water, not when she told me about being without food and water at the Convention Center, not when she talked about the fear of being raped, not when she talked about losing everything and not even having clothes for her children or her prescriptions or even eyeglasses. And yet, she began to sob over being handed $20. After all, she said, "I am a hard-working person, you know. I've never taken charity from anybody before."
And I have seen this happen again and again. People don't cry so much over what they've lost. They're much more likely to cry over what they are given.
I remember when the Red Cross explained to a woman in Little Rock that her debit card could be used anywhere. "Oh, good," she said, "I need to get these children some school supplies." "No," I told her, "don't spend it on that. Didn't you hear? Wal-Mart is going to give you credit to spend on school supplies. Show them your Louisiana driver's license, and they will give you school supplies." Her eyes opened wide and she said, "You mean, I can get these children some pens and some notebooks? Really?" When the Red Cross volunteer affirmed what I'd said, the woman moaned, "Oh- Jesus-thank-you-Lord," her face crumpled up, and she began to sob.
Even now, I hear stories about angels coming to New Orleans to help and these are the stories that fill my eyes with tears. Human depravity and cruelty can sometimes make me cry. But what Katrina has taught me is that the depth of human generosity almost always makes us cry.
Our government has forgotten us. The media remembers us only on anniversaries. The presidential debates commission won't bring candidates to the scene of the government's crime. And still, still, angels from all over the United States keep on coming.
high school kids from Rockford, Maine
people from Missoula, Montana
cops from Michigan, New York, and Oklahoma are still coming here to rebuild cops' homes (see video of a big New Orleans cop brought to tears by the generosity of others)
It's strange to think that the same species capable of such evil (the only one that sometimes kills without reason, the only one that makes war and fights its own kind not just to establish dominance but to the death) is also capable of such generosity. What I've learned since Katrina is that it's the latter that is most likely to make us cry.