Taking and Giving

Six years ago, Serena and I launched CommuniChi, our vision for affordable community acupuncture in Seattle. Intentions are powerful, but only if we remember to feed them. Storytelling is one way to remember.

In July 2006, I left Seattle for my third trip to post-Katrina New Orleans. I had been captivated by the vision of a ragtag group of acupuncturists calling themselves Acupuncturists Without Borders. It was there on July 4, 2006, on the corner of Decatur and Barracks in the French Quarter that I met “Voice”, one of the survivors of what had been called the largest natural disaster in American history.

The shop door was locked. I dialed the number posted on one of the flyers. “Would it be possible to rent a bike this morning?” I asked. “I’ll be right down,” someone replied. The door opened and a middle aged African American man appeared, wheeling up a fat tired cruiser bike with a large basket hanging off the front handlebars. “I thought you might like this one. You can put your pack in the basket.”

His face was smooth with a pleasant appearance. There was something different about him, a kind of softness and glow in his aura. Minutes later, I was pedaling away, into the cool welcome relief of a morning shower. Earlier, I had asked the white woman at the desk of my hotel in the French Quarter whether it was safe to travel alone into the ninth ward.  “Definitely not”, she replied with a horrified expression on her face. “What could happen to me?” I asked. “I don’t want to predict anything negative,” she said. “There’s not enough people down there. If you have a car, that’d be safer.”

I asked the bicycle man for a second opinion. “No problem,” he said. “Besides, you have a bike.” Yes indeed, and what a lovely way to travel after being imprisoned inside the stale air-conditioned air of a rental car. Almost as good as acupuncture for relieving stress.

Crossing the Industrial Canal, I followed Jourdan Avenue north along the new levee which replaced the section that had failed. An entire neighborhood had once stood here. Now, concrete slabs with a few cement steps leading up to empty space was all that remained on many lots. One house had its side completely smacked in, as if struck by the hand of God, probably the barge which had busted out through the levee.

Mangled cars lined the streets, some upside down, some on their sides. Entire blocks were empty of houses, with only scattered debris remaining. I was alone. After a while, I saw another human, a utility worker, or someone employed to remove debris perhaps.  I didn’t stop to chat as I was feeling uncomfortable being there, like a voyeur at Ground Zero, snapping my camera pictures like a detective at a crime scene.

Pedaling back to the Quarter, there was something comforting about going down streets where people could occasionally be seen coming in and out of intact houses – as if I was returning to the world of the living. The bright pastel colors of houses with stained glass windows seemed to almost sing out like bees in a summer meadow.

I met the bike man and thanked him for the wheels. “By the way, what is your name?” I asked. “Voice,” he replied. I paused and started to chat and he gave me his story. “The street musicians gave me that name. I used to sing on the street when I first got here in 2001. When I had saved a little money, I bought a push cart and some cleaning supplies and then built a clientele cleaning cars, window store fronts, and doing other odd jobs.”

When Katrina hit, I was evacuated to Houston. I made a big cardboard sign which said “Thank you Houston, your Love is so Big. Need work.” And my phone number was on the sign.  Calls poured in from as far away as Israel.  I kept carrying the sign even after I had plenty of work.  Other people needed work too, but they weren’t ready to hold up a sign and ask for help, so I found work for them.”

“When I got back to New Orleans, I reopened my bike shop and some local people saw what I was doing and decided to support my work. Soon, I plan to open a free law library for everyone.”

“I don’t have much, but if you are hungry, come in, and I’ll share what I have.”

“What inspired you to dedicate yourself to good works?,” I asked.

The New Jim Crow

“All my life, I was a taker. I spent twenty years in prison. It was scary, but one day, I decided to become a giver instead. I didn’t have much to give, but I figured if I shared what I had, God would take care of the rest. Everything I’ve given has come back to me many times over.”

“Why were you put in prison for 20 years?” I asked.

“Three joints of marijuana.”

I said nothing. Tears began to well up in my eyes.

“They took twenty years of my life for three joints of marijuana.”

His voice broke up in quiet sobs. I put my arm around his shoulder.

Not knowing what else to say, I quietly said, “You’re a good man.”

Twenty years ago, I had been caught by U.S. Customs entering from Canada with the equivalent of one joint. I had paid a fine of $50 I vaguely recall and never heard of the matter again. Is it mere coincidence that my white skin brought me only a light slap on the wrist and his black skin landed him in the slammer for 20 years? As a convicted felon, employment and other opportunities had been legally slammed shut in his face.

For a moment, I tried to imagine the past twenty years of my life completely erased like a file being deleted from a computer, looking at four cement walls and steel bars twenty four-seven for three hundred sixty five days times twenty.

Earlier in the day, I had urgently needed a bathroom. I strode into a cafe with my white shirt, big white hat, and my invisible but unmistakable white privilege, breezing past the sign which said “restroom for customers only.” I had no intention of being a customer. I just needed a toilet, and nobody said a word, not even on my way out. Would a black man have been as well received? Or would he have been forced to find a park bush or an alley, and perhaps been jailed by the authorities for indecent exposure.

A Mental Health Crisis in New Orleans

In the evening, my co-volunteers on the acupuncture trauma relief team and I head out to St. Jude’s Community Center, a temporary shelter on North Rampart. The sign on the door says “No new clients being accepted, We have 2000+ applicants on our waiting list.” 11 people have come for ear acupuncture including some of the staff. The treatments bring immediate relief for symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as for insomnia, pain, and a wide range of other conditions.

An hour after arriving, everyone has received treatment and we are packing up to leave. A woman walks in and is obviously disappointed when she realizes we are leaving. She asks us where she can go to receive treatment later in the week. She is practically shaking with despair. We invite her to sit down. After placing five tiny needles in each ear, she starts to unload the tremendous emotional pain and distress that has been blocked inside.

“My work is my refuge, my routine. By staying busy, I can avoid all the pain which I don’t know how to deal with alone. My family can’t help. They call me and want to talk about their problems. My father is dying. Another family member was recently killed in a car crash. Many of my friends have left. A few weeks ago, I went online and found information about how to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. I feel so desperate and depressed sometimes.”

Tears start to run down her cheeks. I reach out and invite her to hold my hand – she squeezes tightly. Another volunteer puts an arm around her shoulder. For the moment, she has found the strength to carry on.

A man who might easily have been consumed by bitterness and hatred instead chooses love and thereby changes his life, and the world.  A woman struggling with suicidal thoughts, somehow finds the strength and courage within to carry on.

If ever I have doubts about my life, I try to remember Voice, or the woman at the church shelter. The people of this planet are crying out for compassion, justice, sanctuary, balance and healing. If we can provide that for people at CommuniChi, for even an hour, once or twice a week, then at least we have begun to fulfill our mission.

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