Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Au Revoir

A Carter Work Project often feels like summer camp. You leave your daily life behind to spend a week in the company of other like-minded campers. You eat together; you bunk together; you travel from place to place together. Everything is provided for you, so you can focus entirely on the experience.

I didn’t realize how distracting my normal routine was until I left it behind. What a relief it has been to focus on just one thing—building House 2—knowing that everything else is being taken care of. And what a joy it has been to unwind at night with other people enjoying the same difficult, rewarding experience. It’s no wonder that so many people leave these builds with new, close friends. I know I will.

Now that the build is ending, everyone is mingling in the hotel lobby, enacting the usual end-of-summer rituals: tearful embraces, the exchanging of addresses, promises to visit in the months ahead, promises to return next year.

All of us want to keep the moment going as long as possible because we know that we’ll miss not only the fun but also the opportunity we’ve been given to step outside our binding home and work relationships to become, for a short time at least, the kind of adults we wanted to be when we were thirteen, instead of the adults that various circumstances have influenced us to become.

That the build gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves is fitting because, in a larger sense, the Carter Work Project reinvents the world. For a week, within the confines of Chiang Mai, Thai and foreign volunteers alike get to live and work in a world characterized by cooperation, generosity, kindness, and compassion. Who wouldn’t want to keep such a world alive? Who wouldn’t want to return to it year after year, as so many volunteers have?

Much came into focus for me during President Carter’s closing remarks. As at the opening ceremonies, the president was greeted with a loud and lengthy standing ovation, conveying the personal devotion that so many Habitat volunteers feel toward him and Mrs. Carter. When they applaud President Carter, they’re not merely acknowledging what he and Mrs. Carter have done for other people; they’re also showing their appreciation for what the Carters have done for them, specifically by creating a meaningful way in which volunteers can share in Habitat’s work of transforming the world.

The exhilaration recedes, of course, especially as the gravitational pull of doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences and family dinners reestablishes itself. But there’s one part of the experience that I know won’t recede, because so many volunteers have told me that it doesn’t.

Many people wish for a better world. Some even conjure up elaborate fantasies of what such a world might look like. We call these imaginations utopias because, like Thomas More’s “no place,” they exist only in the mind. During this last week in Chiang Mai, however, the world in which I lived was, if only fleetingly, a better place; and having been part of it in real time and real space made an indelible impression. I’m in no position to tell you whether what happened here can be repeated or extended beyond the next Carter Work Project, but I can tell you with assurance that better is possible because I’ve seen it.

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