Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How was Haiti?

I'm still struggling to write about my trip to Haiti.

Two boys getting water near MPP
I say "still" when in reality, I've been home a little over a week...and I think that's the problem.  I came home and was catapulted into a work schedule so hectic, I'm not really sure how it all got done.  It did, though, or it is, but in the midst of that, it's been a hard readjustment process.  Going from talking to people who are carrying water on their heads to interviewing predoctoral interns, and from seeing children playing with a metal hoop and a stick to seeing children tantrum because I'm cutting their screen time back by 30 messes with your head, let me tell you.  I avoided the grocery store for a week because I couldn't stomach the idea of waltzing through 56 types of cereal and 3 aisles of junk food.  I'm completely serious when I say that my main meal last week was beans and rice.  Something about that just felt right. 

One of the hardest things, though, is answering the simple question of "how was Haiti?"

"Haiti was life-changing," I say.

"Awwww," they say.  "That's so nice.  So you liked it?"

Three boys and their donkey, near MPP
And I don't know what to say to that.  It's not that I didn't like the trip...but it's just the wrong word. 

I loved the trip.  While on this trip, I felt strong.  I felt brave, and confident, and at peace with myself.  I felt whole, and valued, and like I was an important piece of something transformative.  I did not feel the same self-consciousness and fear and anxiety that is always chirping on my shoulder.  I was doing something so far out of my comfort zone, and yet I did not feel afraid.  I don't understand why that happened...and as hard as I tried to hold onto it, it's gone now.  But it was there, for a week, and it made me feel badass.  I love that I was brave, and I love that I felt badass.

I love that this trip changed me wholly and completely.  I love that my worldview is forever changed.  I love that I had the privilege of breaking my heart open and allowing the beauty and the pain and the hope and despair of Haiti and her people enter into my heart.  I love that I saw landscapes so beautiful that they moved me to tears, and I love that I saw landscapes so devastated they did the same.  I love this experience in a way that you can only love something that is deep, and personal, and painful and profound.  I love the way Haiti has burrowed under my skin and now enters my dreams in beautiful and painful ways. 

At school
I love that I can sit on my couch in Maryland, cuddled under layers of sweatpants and blankets, close my eyes, and evoke in myself the feelings that I had while sitting on the Big Thoughts porch: feelings of peace, and community, and a way of life that matches the beating of my heart.  Feelings of discomfort, and growth, and feeling so very small in a world that is expanding out beyond what I knew was possible.  Feelings of love and hope for the world and her people, and feelings of disappointment, and despair, and a heaviness that weighs on my heart and body.  All of these things, all at once: I love them because they are here, and they are real, and they are changing me.  I love them because they are the world, and because I want to witness it whole-heartedly. 

So when I'm asked that question of "how was Haiti?  Did you like it?" I say, "Haiti was life-changing.  It was a very amazing, and beautiful, and difficult experience." I say this because at the water cooler, or in the bathroom at work I can't talk about how I hold in my body this sense of overwhelming vast holiness that consists of pain, and struggle, and beauty, and hope, and despair, and inexplicable resilience, and hopelessness, too.  It's an uncomfortable feeling I don't know how to name or contain without tears stinging my eyes.  I don't know how to say in an elevator speech that it's impossible for me to like the discomfort, and the despair and sadness and pain this trip opened me to.  It's hard to say that I liked seeing faces like the ones in these pictures.  It's hard to say that I liked hearing trauma, and hunger, and thirst, and struggle, because you can't like that.  I didn't like that.  But I held it in my heart, because it is real, and because I witnessed it, and because I am learning to hold those things.

Little guy at village 5
"So what was your favorite part?," they ask me.

And I struggle with that word, too.  Favorite.  Like my favorite color is purple, and my favorite ice cream is mint chocolate chip...favorite feels like an indulgence.  Favorite feels like choosing which of the struggles I witnessed particularly appealed to me.  Favorite feels like choosing that beautiful landscape over the struggling, beautiful people within it.  There isn't just one moment that stands out...there are slideshows of moments, and roller coasters of emotions of moments.  So many beautiful, hard, broken open moments.

The moment, though, that I am really struggling to tell is the story of our visit to Bassin Zim: a completely gorgeous waterfall we stood at the foot of, and climbed to the top of and looked down.  The water was this amazing color of aquamarine that I have never seen in real-life water before.  We saw the "Voodoo cave" and went in another cave with supposed ancient drawings on the walls, and the biggest bats I've ever seen flying in and out of holes in the ceiling of the cave.  It was absolutely beautiful, and mysterious, and refreshing to see that much water in one place after so many days of dust. 

Bassin Zim
This experience, though, is the only one in which I started to cry and could not blink back the tears. 

Our tour guides for this journey were children -- boys, primarily -- that looked to be between the ages of 8 and 12 or so.  These children clamored to take our hands and to help us over the rocks and streams to the waterfall so that we would pay them.  These children reached, and reached, and reached for whatever hand they could find to grab it, and hold onto it, to be able to earn a dollar from us -- the white strangers.

And those faces.  Those faces.  Those faces just stay with you. 

The boy who took my hand introduced himself in English with a lilting Creole accent: "My name is Eben," he said.  "Take my picture.  Is very beautiful."

I introduced myself, too, and he repeated my name, tripping over the tricky vowel in the middle.  "Is very beautiful," he said again.

"My parents died in earthquake," he told me.  "That is my brother," he said, pointing to another boy.  Throughout our time together, he pointed to one boy or another and named them as his brother or his cousin -- and who knows what of his story is true.  It hardly matters.  What I know for sure is that he wore dirty clothes.  That the houses we passed on the way there hurt my heart.  That he wore adult size sandals he just barely kept on his feet as he walked up the steep hillside and over the rocks. 

Before we began our ascent, he took my hand and smiled.  He pointed up to the sky with his other hand and stated, "we have one God."  I smiled. 

"One God," he said again.  "We have one God."

I made myself smile again.  "Yes, Eben," I said.  "We have one God."

At the end of our walk, I gave Eben the dollar from my pocket.  He walked away, rough-housing with the other children.  I wish I could say it was playful, but another child had come up and punched Eben in the back -- I'm guessing out of jealousy over the dollar, or perhaps a previous fight -- and Eben ran off to seek revenge. 

We have one God, he told me.  One God.  We have one God.

Another child at Bassin Zim
When we were walking back to the vans, I stopped and looked at the waterfall and then at the children around me.  I caught the eye of a young boy -- perhaps 9 years old -- and the look in his eye, and something about his face reminded me exactly of a young client I love.  A young client who lives in one of the wealthiest counties in the US.  A young client who has some challenges, but attends an excellent school, has parents with advanced degrees who are able to provide him with everything he needs.  This client is so dear to me because of his beautiful, naive, creative and inspired soul. 

And this little boy here, in Haiti, with that same round face and soulful eyes, this little boy is essentially begging for money.  He is working when he should be in school.  Who knows what is story is, or what it will be? 

I couldn't help it: the tears just came, and I had to walk away to hide them.

I keep looking at my pictures of the faces.  Those faces.  And I keep thinking of Eben's words.  We have one God.  One God.  We have one God.

I reside pretty firmly in the agnostic camp...and in one sense, I absolutely agree with my little friend.  Of course we have one god, Eben, I think.  We have one god that is a god of love, and you, Eben, are loved. 

"Take my picture?"
Boys in the cave at Bassin Zim
On the other hand, I just can't believe it.  How can we have one God when that God allows such disparities to exist in the world?  How can we have one God when I am able to get on a plane and leave this country, and Eben will stay here, at Bassin Zim, in his too big sandals and not enough food, fighting for money?  How can that little boy look at me, with the fire of "Seen Too Much" burning in his eyes, and tell me with such certainty that we are blessed by the same holy being?  I don't know, Eben, this part of me says.  I don't know what sort of god must be up there that would deal you and all these other little faces this hand in life. 

What comes to mind now is the line from Staceyann Chin's poem:

"I believe God is that place between belief and what you name it.

I believe holy is what you do when there is nothing between your actions and the truth."
- from the poem"Feminist or Womanist?"

I still don't know how to talk about my trip to Haiti.  I don't know how to answer the questions people ask, and I don't know how to tell these stories, but I know that it was holy.  Witnessing the lives of the Haitian people and allowing their stories to seep in through my pores allowed me to align my heart and my actions with the truth of the world. 

 I don't know that I believe in the God that Eben asserted to me so firmly, but perhaps I can believe that my god is that place of love, and presence, and whole-heartedness that lives between belief and the name you devise for it.  My god lives in my feelings of love and hope for the world and her people.  It lives in the feelings of disappointment, and despair, and in the heaviness that weighs on my heart and body.  It is all of these things, all at once, and I love it, because it is here, and it is real, and it is changing me.  I love it because it is the world, and because I am here to witness it, whole-heartedly. 

Eben and friend


  1. How amazing it is that Laura can find these beautiful words to express what I cannot. Thank you, Laura. Thank you for your words. Thank you for your pictures. And thank you for your loving heart.

    1. Thank you, Alice! So glad I got to travel with you.

  2. I'm not sure about God myself, but I'm pretty sure that if there is one, (s)he isn't "allowing" places like Haiti to struggle. I'm pretty sure she gave us a dangerous and beautiful world to decide how we wanted to nurture it, form it, and appreciate it. (S)he knows the imperative of true gift-giving: Once given, a gift belongs to the recipient (all of us, in this case) for good or for ill.

    Though I need to to say that the fact that the world has people like you in it who show us the meanings of giving and appreciating is evidence that something pretty terrific is at work. Thanks for the story.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for this insight, too - "once given, a gift belongs to the recipient...for good or for ill."