Friday, August 26, 2016

Won't Wash Away

Art Credit: Mason Meyer, age 6

"Did people's houses flood all the way up to the roof?" my friend's six year old son asked her. 

Yes, all the way to the roof.

Most of us here in southern Louisiana have friends and family whose houses flooded up to the roof.

My son's school flooded to the roof. Everything was lost.

His dear friend's house flooded to the roof. My husband spent a Saturday helping the family totally gut the house and clear out the wreckage. Working alongside a large crew of many family, friends, and neighbors, they still didn't finish the job.

I'm still watching children process this information.

All the way up to the roof?

Photo Credit:

It's a difficult concept to grasp for adults, even.

For children, it's nearly beyond comprehension, even for those who experienced it firsthand.


 "Mardi Gras" is a pretty common play scenario around here. Furniture gets moved and tubs flipped over, boxes are dragged out and "floats" are created. Heavy bags full of last year's parade hauls - beads in every color, the occasional strange stuffed toy or piece of plastic jewelry, perhaps a glow stick that has long since lost its glow - are shoved into place in the rear of said "float," and the kids start bopping to the music (real or imagined) and tossing their "throws" to the parade attendees (usually me).

      I've seen this scenario quite a bit lately, as it's a fun thing to do with a full house of kids. In a departure from my usual small group of Playschool kids, I've been filling my weekend, afternoon and evening hours with friends' kids and friends of friends' kids, as they clean out and gut their homes, or the homes of neighbors, or volunteer at shelters, bringing much needed comfort and medical attention and supplies to evacuees (both humans and their pets). Women like me, filling this sort of behind the scenes role, have been dubbed "Cajun Rosies" as a nod to Rosie the Riveter and in keeping with the "Cajun Navy" and "Cajun Army," local people on the front lines in flood rescue and salvage.

      I've had conversations with kids who lost everything, including their family dog, in the floods. I've seen kids' eyes light up at the sight of a particular toy or book that was a favorite in that child's home before it was taken by the flood waters. The term "shelter" is used often in children's play, even when it is centered around "worms" tunneling through the play dough or "butterflies" emerging from a tangled "chrysalis" of blankets. Death and dying are common themes, embedded in scenarios like "dead foxes" and "dead princess," where all the princesses and woodland creatures can be revived with a quick trip in the box ambulance or some time tucked into the "hospital bed" on the couch. "Death" is reversible, it seems, but that is the term that's used nonetheless. It's something they're hearing, maybe on the news, maybe whispered by adults who think they aren't listening. It's worrisome to them and they're trying to make sense of it. Play is how children process those concepts that are difficult to process. This is how they make sense of their world.

      Most of the kids I'm hosting weren't directly affected by the floods and go home to dry homes and familiar toys and pets who are very much alive each night. But they've all had at least one parent wading through floodwaters or knocking out dry wall or negotiating the needs of people who have lost everything in shelters. This is a pervasive part of everyone's world right now.

     These kids are trying hard to make sense of the events that bring strong adults in their lives to tears and have taken from their friends the very comforts they take for granted themselves. They act out these things that scare and confuse them by playing "dead princess" and "worm shelters" and controlling the outcomes of the events. They are seeking ways to feel powerful in this time where even those who are "in charge" feel powerless. Sometimes they are more explicit in their play schemes  - I've watched children play "our house is flooding" multiple times - packing up toys and art supplies, sweeping them from the shelves into bags and climbing onto chairs. "Oh no! Our house is flooding! Get up here! Get up here!" There is a real intensity in this scenario, with children rushing breathlessly to higher ground.

     But amidst all these scenarios (and a healthy dose of your typical discussions of poop and Pokemon), I've seen "Mardi Gras" acted out many, many times. The "floats" seem to become more and more elaborate, and the usage of dress up bin items has been impressive. They dance and sling beads and remind their audience to say "throw me somethin'!" if they want the good throws.

     Amidst the loss, the ruin, the whispers of adults who worry many areas of Southern Louisiana will never be the same, these kids are reveling in the beauty of this place, this culture. They are processing through very serious, direct play scenarios, yes, but there is also valuable therapy in celebrating what we have, what we want to hang onto. A little glitter, a little laughter, something special thrown just to me - these things heal. These things remind us what we're working to save. Kids get that.

      Yesterday the Krewe of Ms. Sylvan's House put together a fantastic float, spanning a large area of my living room. They decked it out and prepared their throws. When the parade was ready to start, they requested music. I queued up a Spotify playlist entitled "New Orleans" after a quick scroll through to ensure there wasn't anything inappropriate in the lineup.  I started to sweep up from the day's snacks and craft activities, and Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" began and the living room Mardi Gras party was in full swing. As I stowed away rogue crayons and blocks, the parade continued, kids laughing and dancing and slinging beads. The next song began, and it was less ebullient: Steve Earle's painfully beautiful "This City."

    The words and the contrast to the joy of the moment moved me to tears and I had to excuse myself to the kitchen to wipe down counters and cry.

    Watching from the doorway where they couldn't see me wiping away tears, I was further moved by their resilience, their complete immersion in their play that blocked out the lyrics:

"This city won't wash away
This city won't ever drown
Blood in the water and hell to pay
Sky tear open and pain rain down
Doesn't matter 'cause come what may
I ain't ever gonna leave this town
This city won't wash away
This city won't ever drown"

     They continued to dance and laugh and toss beads around my living room. They continued to be children, and to immerse themselves fully in this moment that brought them joy.

     That is what moves us forward.

     That is what we are working to save.

     That can't be washed away.

Want to help Baton Rouge's Flood Relief Efforts? Here are some great local organizations working hard to rebuild our city and the beautiful community of people in it:

Together Baton Rouge

North Baton Rouge Disaster Relief

Companion Animal Alliance

The Loveabulls Project

Flood Recovery Fund for East Baton Rouge Public Schools

Runnels Art - Flood Recovery Fund

First United Methodist Church - Flood Relief

Read more about the effects of the flooding on the city's children here.

Learn more about play's healing effects in our city here.

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