Yesterday started out hard. I won't go into detail here -- mostly because I am pretty sure that 90 percent of my blog is some kind of descriptive variation on "I'm feeling sad" -- but just know that I was in a bad mood. Normally, when I am in a bad mood, I do the following things:
- Take off whatever presentable clothing I had on in exchange for, like, a ratty nightgown over a pair of flannel pajama pants. (A person definitely needs both. The nightgown makes it look like you're wearing a blanket, and the pants cover your legs. To complete the look, add a shawl. And maybe an actual blanket on top of that.)
- Get in bed.
- Find something to watch on Netflix that is syndicated, from the '90s, and doesn't have any blood, gore, or death. Ever. So, basically just That Seventies Show. Although... didn't someone on that show die? Never mind. I don't want to talk about it.
- Summon the cats.
- Order a pizza over the Internet.
- Let the dulcet sitcom tones of the computer lull me into a false state of numb oblivion.
This is how I lose friends and alienate everyone around me, whilst simultaneously putting on a bunch of stress-related weight. Yeah. That's the secret to that sort of depressed-puffy look I'm always flaunting.
But yesterday was a Tuesday, and I had told my friend Carrie I would meet her at the school where we work to volunteer with the goats. I am making it sound like "goats" is a derogatory term I've selected to describe the other volunteers. No. Our school has multiple actual goats that live there. One of the goats is even pregnant. The other volunteers were City Year corps members, many of whom I secretly find super-attractive, and none of whom (as far as I know) are pregnant. Basically, I'm trying to tell you that this was a win-win situation. Attractive volunteers plus goats plus working outside? Sign me up.
As much as every sinew of my consciousness was tugging me towards a spinster uniform and a six-cheese special from Dominos, I managed to pull myself together enough to get to the school garden. When I arrived, the school garden teachers were leading the (attractive) volunteers in building a fence. One of the teachers told me I could clean out all the animal cages and replace the pine chips.
Let me tell you something about this job: it smelled bad. (I just deleted and retyped that sentence a bunch of times, because I can't quite get into words how bad it truly smelled. Imagine that for some reason, someone has filled a pie pan with the contents of a diaper, and then they pied you in the face with it. It was like that, kind of.) But there was this one really great moment when a tiny mouse ran out of one of the chicken's coops and into the other chicken's coop, and two of the bigger chickens ripped it in half and swallowed each half whole. Watching Sleepy the Chicken gulp down the tail half of the mouse was like something out of a Tom Six movie. It was horrifyingly delightful. You had to just kind of say, "Man. Nature is crazy."
Then I talked to one of the garden teachers about the magic of the universe, and about hiking trails that have waterfalls on them. Carrie got there with her dog, Congo, and told me all about why pregnant women can't eat unpasteurized cheeses. We found a horde of buck moth caterpillars in the oak tree above the raised beds, and fed grape leaves to the goats.
I left to go listen to teachers, parents, and students tell stories about their experiences inside the current New Orleans school system at this cool grassroots event called Journey 4 Justice. The event -- which included stories from a panel of twelve affected citizens -- took place at a beautiful historically black church called St. James AME. The church was established in 1844, before the Civil War. It's one of those places where you can feel the significance of its history in the walls. It is a space that feels alive.
The stories were powerful. Parents talked about the things their are subjected to at school. (They mentioned walking lines, staying quiet, and getting up at 5 in the morning to catch the bus across town. Someone said, "Our children are being talked to like they are dogs." I thought, "That's really astute; except that honestly sometimes I hear adults at school yell at students in a way they wouldn't dare yell at a dog, for fear of repercussions by the ASPCA.") Teachers talked about being unable to find work after Katrina; two told stories of being forced into retirement.
There were tons of high school kids from Chicago in the room, who were visiting the city as a spring break service project. Their schools are going through a lot of the same things our schools are. The most affecting moment of the evening came when one of the girls -- she was wearing a blue T-shirt and cutoff shorts, and had dyed her hair platinum blonde and then light blue at the tips -- started crying. She said, "Our schools are made up of corporate leaders and not educators. As a student -- " (this is the part where she paused and started crying, then caught her breath) "as a student, it makes me not want me to try. And I guess that’s what they want." There was another long pause. Then the girl spoke again. "But it’s a good thing that we are here. Because we can change things."
Sometimes you really, really need a teenager to tell you that she believes that we can change things. It's teenagers (and kids) who need to believe that.
When the stories were over, I debriefed with my friend Rebecca, who'd been sitting in the front row, listening. She was smiling. She said something about how she felt better after having spent two hours in this space. The stories had been difficult and deep; they had brought to the surface some of the ugliest truths about the school system in New Orleans. They are truths so onerous that honestly, it's hard to feel good in the face of them. But Rebecca said she felt inspired. After she said that, I realized that so did I. There is something so powerful about a small group of people who believe in justice, gathered in one place to declare their commitment to a cause. That's why historically we have rallied; stood together in groups; come together in droves; fought hand-in-hand in the streets.
And that's really my point. We live in a time where it is easy to be an introvert. It has never been simpler to sit at home alone and order a pizza while sinking into the wormholes of the endless Internet. Don't get me wrong: I think Alone Time is unbelievably important. I think it is so important that it is easy for me to forget how equally necessary it is to gather.
There are times when sadness mandates lonely space. There are also times -- and here is what I need to be reminded of -- when we have to be pulled out of our own self-contained realities and gain perspective. A goat can give you perspective. So too can a friend you haven't talked to in a long time. And so too can a group of people who believe strongly in something beautiful and scary and enormous, collected in solidarity. We have to find it in ourselves to find the world outside ourselves. Because yes, this life is huge and unknown and terrifying. But there's good news: we are not alone.