Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2007

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Healing Words

From the time I saw the television images of the Superdome and the Lower Ninth Ward, I knew I needed to go to New Orleans...

So writes Sheldon Laskin in his yet-unpublished article "New Orleans: Lament for a Royal City", which documents his weeklong journey to the Crescent City – still very much reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – this past January to perform volunteer legal work.

"I've always been engaged in social action in one form or another," explains Laskin, a freelance writer who by day serves as Director of the Multistate Tax Commission's National Nexus Program. "Katrina says so much about where this country is now. I mean, in my lifetime, we've never had anything like that, and those images were just so…compelling."

From the start, Laskin – who also has personal ties to that area – knew that offering his legal services made the most sense.

"Habitat for Humanity does a wonderful job," he laughs, "but I'm not really very good at that kind of stuff."

Unfortunately, a trip being organized by students from the University of Baltimore – where Laskin also teaches as Adjunct Professor of Law in the Schools' Graduate Tax Program – didn't mesh with his own schedule, "so I pretty much went on my own and made my own connection, with New Orleans Legal Assistance (www.nolac.org)" – a nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters to low-income residents of southeastern Louisiana.

Sheldon Laskin
 
Sheldon Laskin
"After some e-mail went back and forth for a while, they figured the best thing I could do was help out in the low-income tax clinic," notes Laskin, who spent his time in the area working on a backlog of such cases – many of which had been held over since before the storm hit.

As surely as volunteering his legal skills, Laskin planned to write of his experiences in the storm-ravaged region, though he was less sure of how he would approach such a potentially-sensitive piece. "When I actually started to listen to people's stories," he explains, "I kind of naturally felt [I would] just record what these people said, with minimum commentary, and just let the observation speak for itself."

The resulting aforementioned 3,000-word article offers a sobering look at a city where, according to Laskin, "time just stood still" in one tragic, well-nigh incomprehensible moment, through the eyes of those whose daily lives continue to bear the scars of its impact.

"Because I did that, there are limited venues where it can be published," he admits. "It's not political – it's just observations – so a political magazine isn't going to be interested in it."

As a proponent of social obligation and responsibility, Laskin has had other work published in such progressive venues as Tikkun (www.tikkun.org), a magazine which describes its purpose as being "to heal, repair, and transform the world" – themes which pervade Laskin's personal conversation and writings.

"I'm active in the Tikkun community, Rabbi Michael Lerner's progressive spiritual political action organization," notes Laskin. "The full Hebrew expression is ‘Tikkun olam' – ‘to heal the world,' which is an obligation of everyone [as a part of society]."

Laskin has also had numerous technical articles published by way of such professional outlets as the Maryland Bar Journal and Lexis-Nexis. An amateur genealogist, he has also been featured in niche publications such as Ancestry.

"You know the old axiom, ‘Write about something you know'?" Laskin posits with a laugh. "It really does work. Try to sit down and write about something you don't know – sure cause of writer's block."

While Laskin continues to shop his latest article, however, his motivation in writing it remains steadfast, regardless of where it might be published.

"I think people should try to empathize," he stresses. "They should try to understand what a trauma this (Katrina) was – and is…that it's an ongoing trauma. I mean, how do you move on when every night you come home to a house that's half-gutted? New York, September 11 – it was a horrible experience, but people could essentially go home to their houses that night. These people, when they go home – nothing is untouched."

To this end, Laskin hopes to return to New Orleans in the future – though preferably not alone. "I'd like to involve my daughter. [At 12], she's too young to do a Habitat for Humanity project – they won't let her for insurance reasons. She's obviously not old enough to drive, so she can't even be a gofer. But she's certainly old enough to do something. I mean, she could read to kids in daycare centers, for one thing. There are things she can do, and I think it's important."

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March 2007