Although Hurricane Katrina and the Great Flood of 2005 in New Orleans has long since dropped off the front pages of the media, the after effects of this disaster continue to impact people in the area as they struggle to put their lives back together. Acupuncturists Without Borders’ work in New Orleans was an eye opening experience for Serena and I and from this experience we both acquired a deep resonance with the idea of establishing a community acupuncture practice back in Seattle. These stories are from the journals I kept in New Orleans:
Oct.23, 2006. Awake at 5am. I pull the ear plugs out and the full force of generator hums, purrs and roars pound my inner ear. My brain throbs with the heavy scent of diesel. A couple of “Night buster” portable light towers illuminate Tent City with the brilliance of a night game at a sports stadium.
The soft orange glow in the east gradually begins to reflect off the New Orleans city skyline just across the Mississippi River from the New Orleans City Water and Sewer treatment facility which is my home for the next week. It is cooler this morning. I grab my pile jacket and head for breakfast at the mess tent run by the Cattleman’s Meat Co. Catering Division, a mobile kitchen operation out of Boise, Idaho. As a vegan, I realize this could be tough, but surely there will be pancakes.
A foodserver prepares to load up my plate with several pounds of food. Most of the men working for the Water and Sewer Department look like football lineman – at least from the head down to the shoulders. Below that, bulging waist lines betray our nation’s obesity epidemic in full force. I stop the server before she can heap a second pile of hash browns.
After breakfast, I walk past the mobile shower unit on my way to the laundry unit. A NYTimes article posted on the camp bulletin board revealed that some of the FEMA shower trailers are costing $10 grand a day to operate (Cost of staff and water tanker trucks). At least our camp doesn’t need to pay for the tanker trucks – just hook the showers right up to the nearby water tower. Regardless, at the end of a long day full of heat, humidity, dust, mold spores and flies, and who knows what other toxic particulates, I am not going to complain about FEMA cost overruns in the hot shower department. After a two minute hot shower with more pressure than my apartment in Seattle, I don clean clothes and drop off the soiled laundry at the laundry trailer. When I return in the evening, they are clean, dried, folded, in a bag with my name on them, and the attendant hands them to me with a smile.
A portable TV outside the trailer shows Hurricane Wilma slamming Cancun and veering towards Florida. Tropical Storm Alpha is forming. Now I begin to understand the psyche of Gulf Coast residents which for many has not changed post-Katrina: Just another hurricane. Life goes on in the age of global warming. Whether or not the residents of this city are conscious of issues such as the impact of the levees on Mississippi River sedimentation patterns and the loss of protective barrier islands in the delta – is another question.
But it’s not a question I have time to ponder long. The Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) Group that I am part of have more immediate concerns, as do most of the people in the camp. At 830am, our small group of eight gathers in the mess tent and strategize on how to serve a dozen or more health clinics scattered around Greater New Orleans with just two cars and a handful of acupuncturists.
So far, the response to our services has been one of profound gratitude: Grown men who have been working long hours in toxic clean up operations for too many days in a row show up with a blank look in their eyes and slumping heads. Women holding families together, cooking for relief camps, nurses listening all day to the tragic stories. People from all walks of life living in unfamiliar surroundings. At first they are often curious. Acupuncture? That can help with stress? “Yes”, we reply.
Most of the days, the acupuncturists themselves treat each other, avoiding the superman syndrome and recognizing that PTSD affects everyone in the disaster zone. 5 needles gently placed in each ear and within minutes a person begins to soften and melt into the Earth, into the present moment, letting go the grief from the past (sometimes with tears), letting go of worries about the future.
Today is Sunday. We are driving about 10 miles east of the city to Michoud, a Vietnamese suburb. Leaving our Algiers on the West Bank, we thread our way through the tattered streets, stopping at most intersections. Very few stop signs remain standing and most street signs are also gone. Stories of accidents circulate as returning residents drive dazed through streets without traffic signs, their normal driving defenses absent.
Over the Mississippi River bridge, we approach the New Orleans skyline. Workers are busy on the roof of the Superdome – like tiny ants crawling across a giant moonscape. As we turn east onto Interstate 10, the full scope of the devastation begins to reveal itself. Everywhere, roofs torn off, stranded vehicles caked in dust and muck, shuttered shopping malls, billboards toppled or shredded clean of their ads, houses mangled, abandoned cars, broken glass, mattresses and garbage still scattered on the edges of roads. A large boat – perhaps 40 feet long – sits on an industrial street, several hundred yards from the nearest navigable waterway.
We pull up to the Queen of Mary Catholic Church. Mass is underway being broadcast over speakers on towers. We set up our treatment space partly underneath a canopy on the edge of the parking lot. The sun beats down on, as the loudspeakers blare with hopeful words about rebuilding New Orleans on God’s time, and speeches by politicians, asking for patience.
Soon, the sermons are over, and the congregation begins to stream out towards the parking lot to get their Red Cross lunches, tetanus and Hep B shots, and occasionally, an acupuncture treatment. It’s not exactly the relaxing atmosphere that I had hoped for, but the residents don’t seem to mind and most seem to need little encouragement to close their eyes and enter the inner sanctuary beyond disasters and hot, noisy parking lots.
The blessings in doing this work can be summed up in many ways. Of course, as an acupuncturist, there are the rewards of working with one’s colleagues, learning from each other, receiving and giving treatments to one another. I also share the dream of many in our group of developing a network of trained acupuncturists ready to respond to disasters around the world, as well as to help train underserved communities in the third world to develop their own response mechanisms and health care capabilities.
In a world which seems at times defined in mainstream media by negatives – war, crime, violence, corruption, apathy, and a long list of similar attributes – it’s important to ever affirm the positive. I wake each morning, aware of the preciousness of life, the good fortune I have in being healthy, well educated, with abundant freedoms to develop the heart-mind of awakening, to give service to those in need.
I remind myself before I am dressed for the day that all beings wish to live happily, with inner peace, but for various reasons they do not. How wonderful it would be if I could help them, not just in a limited way, but completely, to help them obtain all happiness, inner and outer. Therefore, I resolve to do my best, to be compassionate, to not automatically think first of my own selfish needs, and to try to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion.
In a more immediate experiential level, the acupuncture enables us to meet twenty to thirty strangers each day and be quickly invited beyond all the normal social defense layers, into an intimate space of healing which nourishes both of us, as well as everyone else in the environment.
Yesterday, a father and mother I treated talked about their eleven-year-old son who has had night terrors since Katrina. He wakes up screaming in the night. They evacuated to Houston before the hurricane and now live in a single motel room somewhere. The boy is in an unfamiliar school and is having problems fitting in for the first time.
I encourage the family to access whatever counseling services they can and meanwhile remind them that everything their son is experiencing is a normal response to trauma. “Try to give your boy more time. Let him know that you are willing to listen to whatever is on his mind. Perhaps he would appreciate being able to sleep next to you in the same bed.” Sometimes it is hard to know what to say.
I talk with my tent mate in the evening, Dr. Okidi from Nigeria who is volunteering with the Common Ground relief effort. “People need someone to listen”, he says, “to help them unburden their hearts.” Often times, just being present with a smile, an attentive ear, and a few words of hope and encouragement can make such a difference.
October 24. The eye of Wilma is hitting South Florida about now. A gusty north wind has been rattling the tents for the past 24 hours. I am told this is the outer tail of the hurricane getting sucked into the vortex.
Everything is connected: Meat consumption, cattle ranching and deforestation in the Amazon, the loss of ancient cultures and indigenous knowledge, global warming, hurricanes, storm surges and levee breaks, obesity, cholesterol levels, people’s moods and awareness, how one chooses to act or react in any given situation. Macrocosm, microcosm, planet, human, body, mind – nothing exists in isolation.
If there is one Buddhist principle that has been revealed to me in the past five days or so, it is the principle of interdependence. How many times pre-Katrina have I driven around my city – Seattle – oblivious of the many women and men who rise each morning, managing the city’s water and sewer systems? Practically every day I must confess. But without these people, a city cannot function. Toilets quickly back up. Potable water is finished after a few days. And then people start dropping like flies. Life becomes impossible.
The kindness of these so-called strangers is vastly under appreciated. And so it is for everyone working at any job involving service of a need – the people who write the software, develop and build the hardware of this computer I type on. The farmers, truck drivers, cooks and cashiers who provide my meal. Even the people who push our buttons are kind in that they provide the opportunity for the development of our patience and other inner resources.
One such person who is kind in many ways is Richard (not his real name), a 300 pound truck driver delivering water to relief sites around the city. He is trying to quit smoking and is coming to our tent in E-7 for acupuncture in the evening, giving me the opportunity to refine my understanding and ability to assist yet one more human individual.
At the shower house one morning, I chat with Richard over toothpaste. He wants to lose weight but smoking makes him quickly out of breath when he walks and his knees hurt. I share my thoughts about how personal transformation requires patience and effort. He listens intently as I encourage him to eat more vegetables and salad, and less meat. Of course, here at the Cattleman’s Meat Company Catering division, that will be a tall order – the white flour bread, cakes, pasta and potatoes looms large as a dangerous obstacle in his path.
Crisis management is a poor choice for systems management, whether we are talking about personal health, or global society. Healthy energy flow is best maintained when it is built upon well-established patterns of our everyday lives. In other words, it is far easier to fix the levee before it breaks than to clean up afterwards. It’s easier to get back into physical fitness before the heart bypass operation rather than afterwards. It’s easier to be happy when we practice patience and more difficult when we indulge in anger, and so on.
May all beings be spared from every form of natural calamity. May they only create the causes for happiness and peaceful living. May they develop the deep understanding that enables them to choose their destiny consciously.
Washington Park. The Rainbow Family encampment has invited AWB to offer acupuncture services to people passing through the park. On the edge of the French Quarter, the free kitchen draws a mixture of free spirits, college students on semester break, long time activists, residents, and many who resist easy categorization.
Sandra (not her real name) is a jewelry maker and nearby resident. During her first treatment under the awning in the center of the park, her needles had been in place for about three minutes when I noticed a steady river of tears flowing down both cheeks. Another man was also silently weeping. When the Qi flows, the heart mind sometimes releases deep burdens of trauma, grief and stuck life energy.
A few days later, I returned to “Rainbow Park¨ as I had begun to call it. Sandra was just leaving and she stopped me. I barely recognized her. She was beaming and joyful whereas before she was glum and looked as if she were carrying a pile of skeletons on her back. “I’m lonely,¨ she told me. “My apartment is okay, but the city feels empty and spooky. There aren’t so many people on the streets at night and it doesn’t feel safe.”
“Are you giving treatments today?¨ “Yes”, I replied. “Well then, I’ll just turn right around and be your first customer, okay?¨ “Sure, that’s why we’re here.”
She tells me how the other man who had been crying in the group was now able to sleep at night for the first time since the hurricanes. It is a story I’ve been hearing in one version or another quite a bit lately.
Another frequent client at one of the clinics is having a treatment one morning. After I place the needles, I notice that he has his head in his hands and is muttering to himself, “Gotta help people, gotta help people, gotta help people.¨ He seems distressed. “Are you okay?¨ I ask. The answer I receive isn’t clear. I decide just to be safe to remove his needles even though it has only been ten minutes or less. Afterwards, I check in with him.
He tells me that during Katrina, he encountered a body floating in the street. “I don’t know no resuscitation, but I try, I try. I pounded on his chest and said come on! Don’t die! Come back! He is releasing an energy blockage which could otherwise cripple his emotional energy for the rest of his life if it remained stuck in his heart and lungs. This is the promise of ear acupuncture a few needles skillfully placed by attentive hands and tended by sensitive hearts can facilitate deep healing.
October 27, 2005. Word is spreading about the magic of acupuncture. A couple of sergeants in the National Guard who came for treatment at Tent City talked with their higher-ups and within a few days we have an invitation to treat enlisted servicemen at the Louisiana Air National Guard base in Belle Chase, just south of New Orleans.
We follow a Humvee military jeep from a neighboring tent city in Algiers, out to the base. Somewhat oblivious of the unprecedented frontiers we are opening up for our profession, we are waved past by the security guard at the gate. One of our team members has military tags on her truck, another of many strangely fortuitous circumstances which seem to be unfolding in our favor of late.
Driving past the array of war paraphernalia- retired F-16s, 500 pound missiles laid out in a small fenced off area- the peace activist in each of us seems to be thinking the same thought: swords into plowshares…and acupuncture needles. The transformation of a militarized globe will only happen by touching hearts one by one.
After some logistical organizing, within an hour we have a shady treatment space inside a tent, open to the breeze on 3 sides, and about ten willing clients, sitting in a slightly semicircular row of chairs with five needles in each ear. The room gets very quiet. The men close their eyes and some nod their heads. After about forty minutes, we remove the needles. The men thank us and go on their way. Some have just arrived. Some are going home. If all goes smoothly, we’ll be back in a few days to treat more of the men.
The doors are opening in a synchronistic fashion which verges on miraculous. Okay, I can fathom acupuncturists in jails and drug detox centers, but military bases? No this can’t be happening. But it is. And all these men and women (a lady Colonel refers to us as “Angels with Needles¨) when they go home to their communities spread out across America will now be savvy health care consumers aware of the powerful healing potential of acupuncture.
Afternoon. The team is driving me to the airport in Lafayette. Passing the wide open blue expanse of Lake Pontchartrain, I think of my family in Seattle where I will be in 24 hours. Or at least, that is where I think I am headed. Who knows if I’ll arrive, or if I’ll be back? Life is uncertain. We make so many plans: “I will go here, there, do this, that.¨ But we don’t really ever know. It can all end so quickly. And when we live in alignment with this truth of change, our energy flows unobstructed and the heart is full.
May all beings be healthy and happy, with vibrant communities, possessing all the necessities of life, free from disaster, hunger, strife and obstacles of all kind inner and outer. May all beings quickly liberate their minds by actualizing the highest wisdom and compassion.
Jordan Van Voast