Monday, October 06, 2014

When a Habitat build ends...what else begins?

Time passes interestingly when you're on a volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity. In my experience, the first two days of the build always seem longer, as you sloooowly learn how to do what you're doing, work with new materials, work with new people, get accustomed to the work site, settle in to your accommodations and routine, practice the language, etc.

Our work, in progress
Then, the third day, often a Wednesday, all of a sudden the week seems to accelerate and the next few days go by in a blur. Regardless of the length of the build (mine have ranged, but usually the trip is between one to two weeks), the second-to-last day seems to go a bit more quickly in the afternoon, like all of a sudden it's almost time to be over. The last day often has a last-day-of-school feeling, although there's no pithy "See you next year!" tossed off in the yearbook signing, because there's a good chance you might not ever again see these people with whom you have worked, sweated, and broken bread.

I loved pretty much everything about Poland and traveling there, and turns out the Habitat project itself was also great. As I've previously blog-mentioned, we were building a house for a man who was part of the Barka community of Marszewo, near Nowy Tomysl, west of Poznan, Poland. We, the baker's dozen volunteers, worked with him, our Habitat Poland coordinator, our local construction supervisor, and several other locals. Besides our coordinators, only one of the local guys spoke English, so there was definitely some opportunity to practice my Polish here and there. To be honest, when I'm with twelve people who can't speak a word and only one other North American with any grasp of bits of the language (beyond those who had early in the week mastered "piwo" for "beer"), even my minimal skills could come off as impressive once in a while, simply for being able to ask where something is or tell someone I understand. "Ahhh, you speak Polish very well!" they would respond in Polish. Ha! Don't worry, they'd quickly realize the truth. But it's fun to have even basic conversations, like, "I like the cat." "Me too." 

There's Donna, up to her elbows in the mud tub
The whole mud-straw-clay mixture process was one of the dirtier jobs I've done in this world, and I think it will be forever embedded in my Habitat Poland t-shirt and the shoes I wore on the work site, so those might never again be fit for normal daily wear. Our site was really well organized, and I got to try a few different jobs during the course of the build. I enjoyed the inside wall sanding/smoothing work the most. But the whole week was great, and I enjoyed the tunes and language acquisition I got by listening to the Polish radio station, too! Once in a while, the guys had to unplug the radio from the extension cord in order to plug in a drill temporarily and I would be eager for it to come back on. 

And, I've already mentioned that the animals on this site were great: the three wonderful cats, the frolicking puppies (really, dogs, but I basically call any dog that I like a "puppy"), the goats who would come say hi when I walked toward their fence and said, "Hey, goats!", the poor pigs who live inside a pen their whole lives, the chickens with their daily greetings...

As I've told a few folks, I think it's really important to go work on a Habitat volunteer project, and not just because I believe in the cause of eradicating poverty housing. I spend a lot of time inside my head and/or staring at a computer screen, and I need to make myself go do real work in the world. Sure, for the physical exercise of it, but also for the mental. Get out of that inner space and out into the world. 

As the wise Girls sing, which I've surely quoted here before, "Now I know a refuge never grows/from a chin in a hand and a thoughtful pose/gotta tend the Earth if you want a rose." (that would be Indigo Girls from "Hammer and a Nail"--feel free to play it while you read this blog entry!) I've been listening to that song for more than 20 years now (um--gulp!), and I understand what Emily Saliers means when she looks back on her early lyrics and cringes and sees them as pedantic or wishes she could change them...but really, once you actually do "go out and get a hammer and a nail," you do totally get it, in a way that's even deeper than when you sat in your bedroom playing that song (on cassette) over and over as a teenager. I don't really think she needs to worry too much. I mean, lines like "even my sweat smells clean..." are still, well, true!

"Loft"-y concepts, indeed
And sure, maybe she would tinker with the words and the poetry, I get that, but to actually try to make your life more than a vision, to "get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail" on so many levels, is really a decent goal. Don't worry, Emily! Your youthful expression of this lofty concept still resonates. 

One thing we talked about in multiple discussions while in Poland, including one great dinner conversation with the national director of Habitat Poland, was the immense challenge of solving the housing problem. But another thing we talked about was how many of us on this trip have worked with Habitat for a while and we observe it changing and growing, something that is crucial to any organization's success and effectiveness. It's not all about getting out there (with a hammer and a nail) building a new house, but Habitat also does advocacy work, building with eco-friendly materials, renovations, and so on. I personally love that Habitat works to restore and renovate urban housing (including in U.S. cities) because I think that is what we all should be doing (hello, developers, are you listening?)  As someone who grew up in Phoenix, I have certainly observed the endless suburban sprawl, encroaching every month further upon the beautiful Arizona desert, while people demand more and more space (and then wonder why there are scorpions in their bathroom...)  I may hate millennials (that's a long-running inside joke; don't try to understand it if you don't understand it) , but if they as a generation (if) are more interested in neighborhoods in urban centers than driving to a subdivision every day, they've got one thing right, anyway. I would love to see a moratorium on new home construction (oh my god, you can just hear the heart attacks that economists and politicians would have upon reading that line) and a major societal push (with financial incentives) to build, restore, renovate, and live in already-existing neighborhoods, in cities that have deteriorated AND in cities that have grown by flying ever outward and eating up the land. 

(I might add that any of you who freak out about house cats killing birds and therefore advocate keeping cats imprisoned inside for their whole lives? might want to consider your !@#&%* subdivision's part in clear cutting and destroying birds' habitats, not to mention your endless malls and parking lots, and you might want to stop blaming the cats, who would much rather control the mouse population in the city for you anyway, and then everybody wins.)

Well, back to the U.S.A. I come with all my Poland and Habitat thoughts, and all my cares in the world. Gifts to bring, as Emily and Amy sing. Gifts to bring...

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