Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Rehearsal Dinner

More than two thousand people from thirty countries attended the opening ceremonies of the 2009 Carter Work Project, held tonight in a lush botanical gardens outside Chiang Mai. The crowd trailed back so far from the stage that most people had to watch the welcoming speeches on large video screens, but the reception was hardly an impersonal event. In fact, it was almost like a wedding—a truly enormous wedding.

One reason it felt this way is that a lot of people already know one another from previous Carter builds. Some have been taking part for ten or twenty years, so there’s a lot of familiarity. Exclamations of recognition followed by hugs of greeting are commonplace, and people seem always to be catching up. The interesting part is that , as at a wedding, the spirit of inclusiveness extends to everyone.

At a good wedding, the guests are pleased, not because the food is good or the liquor is plentiful, but because everyone is happy for the bride and the groom; and the commonality of feeling binds the group together. No matter whom you may encounter at a wedding, there really are no strangers, because you know instinctively that everyone you meet shares your delight at being part of the celebration.

The same is true of the Carter Work Project. When you’re standing next to someone on a breakfast line or waiting for an elevator, it’s natural to introduce oneself and begin chatting, because you know that you and the other person are joined by a special, common enterprise. At least that’s what I think is going on. In the moment, it feels as though all of us are distant cousins (which is a little strange, because I never knew that I had so many relations in, for example, New Zealand).

The opening ceremonies had some lovely pageantry, of course, highlighted by traditional Thai drumming and a spectacular fireworks display over a beautifully lit temple that looked like a Siamese version of Cinderella’s palace. But I doubt that many people will write home about what they saw, because they were too deeply engaged in conversation—some with people they’ve know for years, others with people who just happened to occupy a nearby chair.

One gets the strong impression that a lot of these people have experimented with several different philanthropies before settling on Habitat. Now, they’ve finally found something that works for them, and the fact that you’ve found it, too, suggests to them that you’re a fellow traveler on the same road. So why not relax a little and enjoy some camaraderie as the miles roll by?

Except the opening ceremonies aren’t entirely like a wedding, and here’s why: The work isn’t over—in fact, it hasn’t even begun—and tomorrow’s wake-up call is scheduled for 4:30 a.m. So perhaps tonight was more like the rehearsal dinner.

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