Monday, January 14, 2013

Halfway Through, What Have We Learned?

It has been one hundred and fifty-three days, five months exactly, since Americorps NCCC/FEMA Corps Class 19A arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi on August 13th.

Three weeks into that, I met a bunch of complete and incomplete strangers. Two of them would leave the program less than two months later, but all of them would become--some quickly, some slowly--closer than friends. As much as we joked about it, it quickly became basically true: we were a family. Weird uncles, crazy aunts, teenagers, grandparents, we had everything. We were one tight little nucleus inside our metal-and-plastic shell, a van that we nicknamed Hildegaard.

After a month, we'd left Vicksburg as real, honest-to-God members of NCCC. After six weeks, Anniston, Alabama was fading into the distance as we drove east to Atlanta. After ten weeks, my team and every other FEMA Corps team was heading towards what quickly became the defining event of our term: the impact of Hurricane Sandy. We lived in a ship, the U.S.T.S. Empire State VI, and commuted from there to half-a-dozen flooded towns in Long Island's Nassau County. We registered survivors in shelters, canvassed door-to-door, fought for longer and harder work hours and were rewarded with consistent work. We met President Obama and a host of lesser lights, something none of us will ever forget.

And we helped, albeit in our own roundabout way, hundreds--maybe thousands--of disaster survivors. People with no power, no heat, no water, no car, no home, no idea what to do. We helped the kind and the overwhelmed, the broken and the lame and the elderly and the lost. We helped the ones who cried. We helped the ones who cursed. We turned them into numbers in endless reports, called in their crises to overwhelmed helplines, but I don't think any of us ever lost track of their stories.

Now here we are, back in New York, sitting on the edge of another week of work in another beaten-down borough, walking through another town and putting up fliers to make sure absolutely everyone knows that FEMA is there to help.

There will be challenges in this second half of the year. We won't always be used the way we want to be, which is a diplomatic way to put things. We'll have our fights, and we'll have our frustrations, and we'll crash headlong into issues we never saw coming. That's part of life in a program like this one, especially--as I've said countless times--one that's just getting started.

So what have we learned? I plan on finding that out through repeated interviews with the rest of the team; right now I'd only be guessing, other than the broadly held sentiment "Bureaucracy is frustrating". What have I learned?

Life is hard. Life is the accumulation of everyday events, not the great scripted flourishes that we always imagine, a scatterplot chatterbox of little, niggling things. The little things can eat you up if you let them, and the things in your way can turn you aside if you allow them to—if and only if. If I've learned anything this term, it's that the only thing standing in my way is me. And regardless of whether that's actually true, you have to believe that in order to create, in order to do what you must, and in order to rise above your circumstances. You have to believe in that, because nothing from the outside—not parents, not friends, not motivational posters, nothing can impel you without your consent. It really is on you.

I will take that with me throughout the next five months of my Americorps term. What will you take with you? Share, if you will, in the comments.

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