Revelations

Hurricane Katrina Changed my Life

Hurricane Katrina unleashed hell on New Orleans ten years ago this week. Levees burst, storm waters surged, and families fled – their homes ruined, their hopes scattered. From the horrors witnessed in the Superdome to decency inside the wreckage, stories detailing the endurance of survivors cover the news.

Katrina changed my life, though in a less accosting way than most. A visit to post-Katrina New Orleans propelled me on an inward journey. Part selfish search for meaning – part reconciliation – without New Orleans this quest never happens. And I’m likely not doing anything – writing, storytelling, volunteering – that I’m doing today.

Many Katrina stories exist. This is mine.

Revelations

Chevy To LevyI sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007 and the second to last day of a volunteer trip I made to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.

In front of me, a decaying white hat clung to the edge of a large pulpit streaked by ash the way pale scars decorate a ravaged body. Members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. Others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center. They pointed at the water lines that reached a foot below the sole wooden cross hanging just below the ceiling. The building had flooded when the levees burst, swallowed like the rest of New Orleans. My life was about to change, though I didn’t realize it steaming in the church. (more…)

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Revelations

I traveled to New Orleans in the summer of 2007 to paint schools and repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which engulfed the city in August 2005. This trip forced me to care—about New Orleans, about friends and family, those with less than me, and those with more. It set a process in motion to work in the service of others that six years later I am only beginning to understand. Life’s ebb and flow is a process full of inflection points and defining moments. And this experience that occurred with New Orleans’ sweat dripping off my sunburnt skin, is one of mine.

Revelations

Bible 2

Bible has seen better days

I sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and now spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007, and the second to last day of my volunteer trip to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.

A few feet in front of me, I saw a decaying white hat. It clung to the edge of a large pulpit smothered in ash and scarred by the elements. I watched as some members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. A few others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center pointing at the water lines reaching a foot or two below the sole wooden cross hanging near the room’s ceiling. Sitting on the hard floor, I recognized how the entire church had flooded when the levees burst and water swallowed New Orleans. What I didn’t see, or expect, was the life-changing moment just minutes away. (more…)

Pride Comes Before the Fall

Proverbs says that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall, but I’m confident that neither the prophets of the Old Testament nor Jesus himself ever learned this lesson firsthand by launching a Chevy Trailblazer through the front glass of a gas station convenience store. The truth is that I was a cocky son of a bitch on the morning my ego burst forever along with all the two-liters I caused to spew soda around the store like erupting syrup-filled hoses.

My trip to humiliation row started before 7 AM on a sun-soaked August morning. Just two days removed from my Wall Street internship in Manhattan and two weeks from starting my senior year at Princeton, I buzzed around Fremont to three separate stations hunting for that day’s Wall Street Journal. I didn’t even want to read that cursed paper, I only wanted to tell anyone I bumped into that I needed to read the Journal to stay current in the members only club of high finance that I longed to be included in and that I felt existed only in New York City—the new center of my universe. After my summer internship, I felt bigger and badder than my inane Midwest town. Arrogance oozed from my pores, and I wanted everyone to know it.

The Sunoco store marked my third attempt to find the right paper that morning. I stomped out the store and huffed my way to the Trailblazer.  I shook my head at my sad sack  hometown. I had graduated from small-town USA and matriculated into the bright lights big city and why would I want to turn back now.

I slammed the car into reverse, pounded the accelerator, and cranked the steering wheel to the left with my right hand. I was on the go to another station and didn’t pay attention to anything in my rear view mirror. If I had, I might have seen the gas island with four pumps in the center of the parking lot. But I didn’t and before I realized anything could be wrong the Trailblazer’s back tires crept onto the ridge of the island and my rear bumper tapped the base of the pump.

Phew, I exhaled. Thank the lord I reached the brake in time and the pumps didn’t topple. Now that would have been embarrassing, I thought, and jerked the car into drive.

Then, it happened. I pressed the accelerator with too much force and when the SUV lurched off the island I had more speed built than I wanted. Still a safe distance (maybe 10 yards) from the convenience store, my brain yelled “right foot jam the break,” but my foot refused and gunned the accelerator instead. The world went black for the next few seconds, and when the light returned I was inside the Sunoco store with my ass still planted to the driver’s seat and the radio still playing music out the half-open window.

If pride comes before the fall, then mortification pounces after the crash.

(more…)

The Morning I Started

As promised in my post Revelations, I will from time to time share material originally contained in To Dad: From Kelly.  These stories, the “leftover” writings, will now become part of a separate short story collection. The entry that follows is the original introduction of To Dad: From Kelly.

The Morning I Started

I sat alone at the small, wooden kitchen table in my living room. The clock ticked past 5:00 A.M., too early even for a cup of coffee. Somewhere through the white blinds and outside a fogged window, I pictured the sun debating when it wanted to rise that morning. Soon, I hoped to fill the empty lines of my legal pad with a letter to my dead father. I planned a simple, thankful message; something covering how much I missed him since his death nearly a year earlier. When I first pressed my pen’s blue ink to the yellow pages, I had no idea how the words I spilled that morning would change me.

Through scribbled letters and margin notes without direction, I finished a letter I never expected to write. Although I told my dad that I missed him, during the process my letter became something different. In paragraph after scrawled paragraph, I found myself asking, almost begging, for my dad to answer one question: why was he not fulfilled with everything in his life after he retired from professional football? I couldn’t understand how my father, a man blessed with a loving wife, two adoring children, lifelong friendships, a storied athletic career, and enough money to live comfortably, could feel that everything he had wasn’t enough. The question haunted me like a living, breathing monster snarling at every word I wrote. I wanted to flee the scene, but crumpled balls of discarded yellow paper confined me to my chair, a reminder that until I finished the letter I had nowhere to run.

Beneath the appreciation I felt for my father were words approaching anger and resentment–two emotions I never attached to our relationship. The words felt like a strike across my chest that pushed me against the back of the wooden chair I had now sat in for more than two hours. I idolized my dad and considered him my hero and best friend. How could I feel anything but love for him? This letter, though, proved that all the nuances of our bond escaped me. I needed to understand more about him, about me, and about our twenty-eight years as father and son.

I wanted to know why my dad, an All-American running back for the University of Michigan who finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, and someone who played professional football with the Denver Broncos for seven seasons, never recovered from the sting of retiring from the sport he fell in love with as a young boy. I wondered why my dad, a man who inspired and encouraged the lives of many others, failed to appreciate the importance of his influence. I sought these answers in order to understand the direction of my own life as I coped with his death. Like my dad, I suffered from a burning need for fulfillment. Despite graduating from Princeton University and trying several career routes, including working on Wall Street for three years and in the front office of the Cleveland Browns for one year, I felt purpose missing from my life. In the past, whenever I tried to find this purpose, it only left me more frustrated and confused than before I started my search.

I lacked answers, but this letter helped me finally ask the right question. For the first time, I accepted that in order to define what I wanted and whom I wanted to be, I needed to start by examining my relationship with my father. I would study the lessons that he taught me, the questions that I either never asked him or that he never answered, and the confessions from my own life that compelled me to write this original letter to my father. My goal was to summon my own undiscovered passion–and maybe my father’s spirit–to begin a journey of uncovering personal truths.

Revelations

I wrote a first draft of my father/son memoir, To Dad: From Kelly last year. This version contained stories covering three sections: lessons I learned from my dad, questions that went unanswered or unasked in our relationship, and personal confessions from the defining moments of my life (unfortunately, I never answered why I ever wore the hat, shirt, fannie-pack combination shown below but sometimes life’s mysteries are better left unknown).

PictureAfter receiving feedback from numerous trusted souls, I began the not-so-fun process of altering the manuscript to focus directly on the lessons and questions of a father and son. The only problem is that doing so left me with a bulk of material that is all dressed up for a party but has nowhere to go.

Over the next few months, I plan to package these short stories into a short eBook and offer it on this site for free or a small donation to charity. In the interim, and in addition to the other thoughts captured here, I will also post many of these pieces on my blog. Although I will do my best to adapt them into a form easier to view online, expect them to be longer and more story-focused than traditional blog musings. What they lack in brevity, though, I promise they will make up for in raw emotion and honesty. An example from a previous post is my story titled “From Darkness to Light.”

These stories are the personal admissions I struggled with my entire life. I’m proud to have written them, and am excited to share them. Thanks and I hope you enjoy.