Naomi sat, staring out of the city bus window. She held two large, brown shopping bags on her lap. The bus was not really crowded, but she did not feel at ease. Looking out the window was her way of avoiding eye contact with the other passengers. An undercurrent of fear caused her to wrap her arms around the crumpled shopping bags. Clutching the bags close to her, she sat silent as she peered out the window. It was hard to see through the dirty, rain-streaked glass, but it was better than looking at the blank faces of the other passengers.
Christmas was just a few days away, but Naomi felt no joy. For Naomi, it was just another bleak, dark December day. The gaily decorated store windows, the cheerful seasonal music, and the hustle and bustle of the other shoppers did nothing to inspire her to join in the Christmas spirit. She seemed to be missing that magic area deep inside, that swells up and makes you feel a warm glow at this time of year. There was no song of joy in her heart, no gleam in her eyes, like the other shoppers had as they selected special gifts for loved ones. It was as if that part of her anatomy had been ripped out and replaced with a lump of ice.
Riding on the bus, Naomi could not say she was going home, because this place was not her home. She felt lost, cast adrift in some kind of surreal limbo. She was forced to live in a place foreign to her. This would be the second Christmas she spent someplace that was not her HOME. It would never be HOME. To her it was just a place to stay. Even though her children were all grown and no longer lived at home, they had always been close enough to visit. Christmas time was a special time. At Christmas time her entire family always got together to share the joys of the family traditions.
There was no longer any place for her family to come HOME to. All that ended two years ago. Her life and family were torn apart. Now she was not sure if she would ever see her children again. Naomi lost her home two years ago, in the flooding that followed the ill winds of a hurricane with the harmless sounding name of “Katrina.” Her real home was not much of a house, but it was all that she had. It was old and needed to be painted, but it was her home. Even though it was not much, it was a part of her, it was her HOME. It held everything that made her life worth living. Now her home was gone, her children were “blown away” to places too far to visit. It was becoming abundantly clear, by the looks she saw on people’s faces, she had over stayed her welcome at this place that was not her home. As if she had ever felt welcome. Sure, at first there was a great outpouring of sympathy. There were the Red Cross, FEMA, and local organizations trying desperately to make up for lost time. They put her in a strange place, and gave her plastic money to get the essentials. There were even people that knew about computers that helped her find out the fate of her children. It was a great relief to know they too had survived, but now they were so far away and could not afford to visit her.
Two years had come and gone, yet from the first day, there had been accusing fingers pointed in every direction. It seemed like everyone was in charge, but no one was responsible. It soon became clear that there was more than enough blame to go around. Yes, the fingers pointed in every direction, and accusations were spread until there was no one left to blame. In the end, she had to admit to herself that some of the blame fell on her. Maybe she had just a bit too much of the all too prevalent, “Oh I have lived through Hurricanes before syndrome,” that prevented her from evacuating before the storm hit. But she did not own a car, and she could not afford to take one of the buses. She did not hear about any plan to evacuate the city. No one told her where she should go. So, she decided to ride out one more storm. In the end she did survive the wind and the rain, but her home could not survive the flooding. The floodwaters rose fast, forcing her to flee to the roof. Exposed to the elements, she struggled to hang on until someone could come to rescue her. In time, someone got her off the roof, but she is still waiting to be rescued. Oh, what a shame. Two years have passed, and she is still waiting to be rescued from this place that is not her home: Two years of political promises left unfulfilled, two years of politicians dodging the issue. In the end it seemed like no one was to blame. After two years, the well of sympathy had run dry.
College schedules were new to Sandy. It was not like the military so it took her a while to get used to the new demands. It seemed she was always rushing from one place to another, running down the crowded hallways to make it to her next class. As if by chance, Sandy overheard a group of students in a loud discussion about how the president and his administration had let the people of New Orleans down. This was a topic she could not ignore, and she jumped into the fray. She tried to explain that the hurricane was not the president’s fault, and that there were many levels of government that had failed to protect the citizens. In the heat of the argument, a quote from John F. Kennedy, one of the great presidents, came to her mind, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather, ask what you can do for your country.” As she spoke those famous words, she could see that she had struck a chord with the other students. Soon they were no longer arguing. Instead, they were talking about forming groups to gather information on how they could do something to aid in the reconstruction. By summer break, they all made plans to go to New Orleans, and do whatever they could to help rebuild.
Walking down the deserted streets with the National Guard unit commander, Sandy could not believe her eyes. She had seen the video clips on the nightly news reports, and she had been in war zones. She had seen towns and villages bombed to the ground, yet nothing she had ever seen prepared her for what she now saw. As she walked the streets of the 9 th Ward of New Orleans, she was overcome by the amount of rubble and debris that used to be homes.
Sandy came to New Orleans during her summer break from college, to help in the reconstruction. She never thought it would be like this, after so much time had passed. Sandy did notice a lot of work being done, and there were some signs of reconstruction. Most of the new construction was restricted to the business centers. The Superdome was open and back in action, and of course the French Quarter was open for business. It seemed to Sandy that the areas that needed the most work were the ones getting the least attention. The waterlogged wood in the hot, humid air was the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Even though the skies were clear, the air had a nasty rotten odor. What once were people’s homes were now mounds of rotting wood infested with mold, fungus, and God only knew what other creatures. More than a year had passed since the hurricane that caused this damage had passed, and the area still looked worse than a war zone.
Sandy arrived in early June, and now it was late December. She just could not go back to school and leave this job undone. She did not come alone. She had joined a group of student volunteers that raised money to help rebuild the damaged homes. Their hearts were full of enthusiasm, goodwill, and humanitarianism, but their funding was meager. They had good intentions, but they did not have the money needed to completely rebuild the homes, like a few of the sponsored projects they saw around them. Sandy went to the “GRAND PRESENTATION” of a home that had been rebuilt from the ground up for a poor great-grandmother. She stood at the back of the crowd watching as the cameras captured every detail of the event. Sandy was happy that this woman was regaining her life, her home, but Sandy had to shake her head in sorrow. “WHY CAN’T THEY DO THIS AT LEAST A THOUSAND MORE TIMES?” she thought to herself. Happiness for one was not going to help the thousands that still had nothing left of their lives. The little group that Sandy belonged to could not compare to the TV sponsored event, but their efforts to rebuild homes did not go unnoticed. After they turned over their first project to a crying mother and her two young sons, a few of the local lumber yards and building supply stores started to contribute supplies so they could work on a second home. Sandy’s group stayed on, working on one house after the other. They were still working when the other groups had packed up and returned to the normality of their world. They were in the Ward working, when the government bused in displaced residents so they could rummage through ruined homes in search of what was left of their past.
Depression and loneliness were the only feelings Naomi had left. The real depression started after some well-meaning government agency bused her and all the other refugees back to their homes. While Naomi and her neighbors were being bused through the city, they all could see where the reconstruction was going fast, and where it had not even started.
“Maybe the president was telling the truth about how the aid was not based on racial discrimination,” Naomi thought to herself. “Maybe it was just economic discrimination. Just another case of the HAVES SHALL RECEIVE, AND THE HAVE NOTS WILL GO WITHOUT.” She had to go through an intensive process to confirm that she was the rightful owner of the property before she was allowed to start sifting through the remains. She was given a large plastic bag to put the items she found into. Walking through the wreckage of her home saddened her. They were there for a weekend, so they could salvage whatever was left of their lives from the ruins of their homes. She retched at the sight of her home. The sight was worse than the image left in her mind from the helicopter. Trying to brush the tears from her eyes, she carefully probed what was left of her home. The hot air carried a pungent odor. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed around her face. With a solemn grimness etched on her face, she let her gaze wander in a panoramic view of the city she loved. As bad as it was, it was still her home. After a few hours of searching through the rubble, Naomi carefully placed the few treasures into the bag and trudged off to meet the bus for the long drive back to the refugee camp.
The words of an old song ran through Naomi’s mind, “How can you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” as she sat staring out the window. Her emotions raged within her as she thought about the conditions that the evacuees were forced to accept. She was outraged and disgusted when she read reports of the way her fellow refugees were conducting themselves. She bore witness to the way some of the people from her old neighborhood resorted to crime.
Her old neighborhood was not the Garden of Eden, but now she saw people that used to be decent, law-abiding citizens committing crimes. This only added to the resentment, suspicion and fear that festered and grew. All the stories about people using/abusing the FEMA money cards to buy vacation trips, sex films, and fancy jewelry only added fuel to the fire of dissatisfaction that seemed to burn in the eyes of the local residents. Naomi knew that the residents blamed all the criminal activity on the evacuees. She often thought the regular residents of the city considered the little ghetto that she was forced to live in as flotsam cast upon the shore after a storm. When she stopped to think about the way things were in that place where she lived, maybe that was an accurate description.
Returning to the refugee camp, in this place she did not want to be, plunged her into a deeper depression. Now Naomi sat on the city bus, heading back to the place where she stayed. It was just another bleak, dark December day, just like every other day. Every day Naomi had to do battle. She had to fight with whatever organizations were still around, just to get the very basic essentials. Today she managed to get an extension on her FEMA credit card, so she could buy some food. The bags that Naomi lugged held no precious Christmas gifts. She could not afford such luxuries, but it was not just her financial status that precluded her from buying anything that was not required to survive. No, it was her lack of Christmas Cheer.
Sandy felt lost in a stormy sea of emotions. Her heart was filled with sorrow for the people that were displaced. She felt rage burn within her when she thought about how much money was being wasted on contractors that failed to produce any tangible results. Sandy often felt depressed because her little group of volunteers was not able to do more. Even with all these negative emotions, Sandy did feel pride in what had been accomplished. Each time they turned a home back to the owner, she shared the joy of the moment. Each completion seemed to drive her onward, but each day her group of friends seemed to shrink. As each of her friends departed, she thanked them for all their efforts. Most of them had stayed on much longer than they had planned. Time was really the biggest enemy. With each passing day, there seemed to be fewer and fewer projects being worked on. Not that there were really fewer things that needed to be done-- rather it was just human nature. The moment of the great disaster was long ago, and the events no longer dominated the media. This year no hurricane hit American shores. It was just another case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Sandy and the few remaining die-hard friends decided to tackle one more project before stopping for the holidays. It was the last house on the block that had not been renovated, and it was the one that required the most work. Over the many months of “learning while doing,” Sandy and her friends had become rather accomplished in all aspects of home renovation. Each member of the team had established expertise in dealing with all the different tasks of home reconstruction. Everyone had a list of key people that they could rely on to assist them with money, or, even more to the point, material needed to rebuild the damaged structures. The first day was spent carefully going through the house, taking notes of problem areas that would be gone over in detail later.
As she worked her way through the wreckage, Sandy found an old photo album under a pile of rubble. If she had not needed to move the pile to check on some wiring, she would have never found it. The photographs were water stained, but still in good shape. While she looked through the collection of memories, Sandy could not hold back the tears. Page after page, the small squares revealed the happy times of those that once lived there. This book had to be preserved. Sandy checked her list of contacts and found the number she was hoping to find. After briefly describing what she had found, and why she thought it was important to get the photos restored, Sandy was told to bring the book to the back door of the museum. She told the group leader that she had an important mission to tend to, but would be back in time for the planning session that afternoon.
Naomi dropped her bags in the little apartment, and went to the collective mail boxes. The little receptacle was full of the normal junk mail. She quickly sorted through the stacks of ads and fliers. She tossed them in the trashcan that had been conveniently provided for just that purpose. Soon she got down to a few official envelopes. She knew she had to respond to these, or she would lose the little support she received. One of the very official looking envelopes was thicker than the rest. Because it looked different than the envelopes she normally received, she decided to open it first. There was a one-page cover letter referring back to some forms she had signed while she was on the bus trip to visit her old home. She was not used to reading legal jargon, and she was not sure about what the letter was telling her. It was just something else she would have to go fight through red tape, to find out what she had to do and why she had to do it. Over the past year and a half she learned that letters from the Government did not mean good news.
All the long months living in exile had succeeded in grinding a once strong woman down. Anger and despair raged within her as she thought back to the last time she saw her home. The thing that hurt her most was the sight of the new construction going on in New Orleans. All around her street there were crews of workers rebuilding the damaged structures. All she had was a few items she found buried in the rubble. Now it looked like she was going to have to fight some fancy suited government agent to find out where she was going to live, now that the time limit for support for the refugees was about to run out.
Naomi’s emotions plagued her sleep. Her dreams turned into vivid nightmares filled with storm winds and surging water swirling around her. Like the ghosts of the past, present, and future, her life flashed past her. The good times, and fond memories of her family came into sharp focus. As she was tossed in the whirlwind of shadowy dreams, the one thing that remained the same was the house where she lived. The center of the storm whirled around and around that shabby little shack that she called home.
In her dream, this storm seemed greater than the hurricane that forced her into exile, and the dark gloominess was overpowering. Naomi was tossed about, and plummeted through the darkness and despair. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a light. It was just a little flickering flame. Just one little candle challenged the darkness. Yet that one little candle seemed to spread joy and goodwill. “The light of hope eternal,” Naomi mused. She thought about an old gospel song she sang in her youth, “This Little Light of Mine.” That light burned bright and melted the gloom away long before she awoke in the morning. When she got up, she had the words of the old gospel ringing in her head. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” The song seemed to put wings on her feet, as she made her way to the government building to find out what fate awaited her. For the first time she felt the stirrings of the Christmas Spirit.
With a lot of help from new-found friends in the area, Sandy’s group had torn down all the old framing, managed to raise the foundation to a level that would meet the new standards, and managed to get donations of lumber to start the reconstruction. Sandy knew that time was not on her side. Many of the hard-working volunteers were leaving to be home with their families for the holidays. Sandy had to admit to herself that she would be on the first bus out of here as soon as this project was complete. It was just four weeks until Christmas, and time was running out. What Sandy really needed was a few more hands to help out.
At first Sandy did not notice the old woman standing across the street. It was not until the woman shouted, “What are you doing to my house?” that Sandy jumped down from the new concrete porch to see what the woman wanted. The woman said that she had come home to rebuild her home, and she was glad that she got there in time to stop them from taking her place from her like a bunch of hungry vultures. At first Sandy did not understand what the woman was talking about. After a few minutes Sandy only knew that the woman’s name was Naomi and she was the rightful owner of the house. Sandy then impulsively took the woman in her arms and held her close for a long moment. While holding Naomi, she whispered in her ear that she was so happy to meet her. Then she told her that they were working to rebuild her home for her, so she could come back to live in her old neighborhood. At first Naomi looked skeptical. She had learned, over the years, to be careful when strangers tell you they are there to help you.
Slowly Sandy gained Naomi’s trust, as she guided her around the construction site. The old woman could not believe anything like this could be happening to her. Choking back tears, Naomi explained that the reason she had returned was to start rebuilding her home. Naomi briefly talked about her dream and how she had been taught that, “The Lord helps those that help themselves.” Now she was going to help rebuild her home, and she praised the Lord for arranging to have so many helping hands there to assist her. Sandy had to admire this woman’s determination. Here was a person that was not happy with the way things were being done by the government, and instead of sitting around crying about the situation, she was willing to roll up her sleeves, and put her life back together with the sweat of her own brow.
The days passed quickly, and the progress was visible. The framing and roof were up, the siding was finished, and what had once been a heap of debris was now looking a lot like a home again. Sandy told Naomi that they had been blessed by mild weather this year. There had not been any storms to slow the construction crews. Naomi was happy to see that some of her old neighbors had returned home after their homes had been repaired. Much to her surprise and gratitude, many of them came over and assisted her in restoring her home. When it was too dark to work on the house, Naomi shared many of the heart-warming stories of the good times she had in the past. Stories about her children, stories about the many holidays with the entire family gathered to share in the blessings of the season.
When Sandy listened to Naomi tell of the good times of the past, she realized that this house was more than just cement, wood, and nails. The stories made her think back on her childhood, and the holidays at home. She thought about her family, and felt a burning compassion for her mother. It was becoming clear that they would be able to complete the reconstruction before Christmas, but Sandy wanted to make the rebuilding more complete.
Clandestinely, Sandy met with some of her new contacts, and soon phone calls were made, agencies contacted, and wheels set in motion. All these events happened undetected by Naomi, as she labored to get the finishing touches on the home complete. Sandy sent Naomi off to talk to a carpet supplier. While she was out, the work crew set about putting up a 5 foot Christmas tree, with strings of twinkle lights, and one box wrapped in gold paper with a big red bow. After the house decorating was complete, Sandy rushed off to make the final arrangements.
Sandy came dashing around the corner of the house just as Naomi stepped off the city bus. Naomi walked with her shoulders slumped forward. Exhaustion was etched in her face. When she saw Sandy, she sighed heavily, and told her that she was not able to get any more contributions. Sandy took her old friend in her arms and told her it was ok, as long as “she let her little light shine.”
That was the signal everyone had been waiting for. Suddenly, all the decorations on the house were turned on. The Christmas tree was framed in the front room window, and at each side of the porch stood a four foot tall candle. Naomi stood stunned as she looked on in total disbelief. From the back of the house voices singing could be heard. It was the entire church choir singing “Deck the Halls” in a style that could only be from New Orleans. Everyone escorted Naomi into her new home. She held her hands in front of her face crying out, “I can’t believe this!” Sandy bowed down to pick up the single package under the tree and handed it to Naomi. Sandy told her, that even though it was still a few days until Christmas, she should open this package now. Withered, calloused hands that trembled from anticipation plucked at the ribbon. In the seconds that lasted an eternity, she struggled with the wrapping. At long last she opened the box and extracted a large book.
The book was bound in leather and the pages had golden edges. When Naomi opened the book she almost fell faint, and had to be supported by those standing closest to her. The book contained all the photos that had been carefully restored by Sandy’s friend in the museum. Naomi choked her thanks over and over, as tears ran down her cheeks. She turned to each person present and hugged them, and thanked them for making this the most wonderful Christmas she could remember. She was guided over to a big chair where she collapsed. She sat, carefully turning through the pages of the big photo album. The choir started to sing a typical New Orleans rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” when there was a knock at the door.
As Sandy opened the door, the choir shifted from “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to “When the Saints Come Marching in,” and Naomi’s two daughters burst into the room in a teary-eyed, screaming rush. While Naomi and her daughters hugged, kissed, and cried on each other, everyone else departed. There was really nothing to say except “Merry Christmas.” Sandy pulled the door shut behind her, and thanked everyone for all their efforts. The lights of the decorations twinkled and shined brightly in the clear winter night. “Was this the light of hope eternal?” she wondered. The chilly wind attacked her face, but she was bathed in the warm glow of the joy she had witnessed. Her mother had been calling everyday, wanting to know when she would be home. Seeing the cheer of the family gathering, Sandy knew it was time for her to get home. Sandy knew this was one more Christmas she would never forget. She would go home with the memories, and a new answer to what Christmas is.
Over the years Sandy had learned much about the meaning of Christmas. She learned it is in your heart. She learned that it is about family, it is about sharing. It is about caring about others. This year she learned Christmas was about doing what was right, helping those that need help, and assisting those that are working hard to survive. Yes, Sandy had learned that Christmas was more than bright decorations, more than mindless seasonal songs, more than piles of gaily wrapped packages.
The treasure of Christmas is greater when shared with others. Take a moment to share your joy with others that may need to be reminded to look into their heart, and reach out to the family to find the treasure. Look into your heart and find the true Christmas Treasure
May the Blessings of the season be with you all year long.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year