I often wonder why I bother to write when, more often than not, it will never be appreciated or, at the very least, read. It’s like throwing pebbles in a pond with the hope that one day they will pile up high enough that one is visible to others. Even then, that one pebble that peeks above the surface may only receive a quick glance from passersby. And when it rains? Well, that’s simply part of the seemingly futile process.
It is human nature to need some sort of acknowledgment for hard work. I was a line cook for thirteen years, and even though it was often a thankless job—it’s impossible to see pleasure on the customers’ faces from the dark recesses of a kitchen—I knew that my work was providing some sort of enjoyment on a daily basis. I simply had to see the empty plates that returned from the dining room. I received almost instant gratification, a large part of my motivation for going to work every day in an environment where burns and cuts are far more common than smiles and thanks. With writing there are no guarantees, but thankfully, there don’t have to be.
I was faced with this lack of guarantees as a chaperone for a youth mission trip to Houma, Louisiana, in July of 2010. We were tasked with repairing the home of a woman named Magdalene Smith that was flooded by Hurricane Rita in 2005. While there, a tropical disturbance developed in the Gulf of Mexico, and we were informed evacuation would be necessary if it strengthened into a hurricane. Luckily it didn’t, and we were able to finish out the week, a job well-done. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that all our labor was pointless. Sooner or later, another storm will strike Louisiana, and there’s a good possibility it will damage, maybe even destroy, the home we were repairing.
It’s an interesting dilemma, but I soon discovered a reason to be there, and why rebuilding in an area of certain destruction is not only the right thing to do, but is also necessary. One night during our trip, we were fed a potluck dinner by one of the local church congregations. This may not seem too special, but this is Louisiana I’m talking about. This was Cajun cooking, and not the junk you get out of a box. It was as authentic as it gets. I filled three plates with samples of everything they offered, ate every bit of it, and couldn’t believe my luck.
We may have been there to hammer nails, caulk baseboards, grout bathroom tile and paint, paint, paint, but that was all surface stuff. We were really there to rebuild a community and give the residents a place where they could continue to live their lives and cook their gumbos and jambalayas and étouffées for all to enjoy. If writing isn’t done because it is too hard or because its destruction is inevitable, how can a community foster something bigger than itself?
Now, when I wonder why I write, I can remember Magdalene and the way she cried when presented with a new stove donated by another generous group. She has a home where she will cook again even though another storm will arrive some day. She will cook because gratification for her isn’t about others, but is instead about making something that wasn’t there before. She will cook because that is what she does, a part of who she is, and no amount of doubt will ever take it from her. If she can do that, then I can certainly string some words together. And when it does rain and all my pebbles disappear? At least the water won’t wash my home away.