How? In some ways, my skin is much thicker now that in was before. My patience is not what it used to be, nor my willingness to play nice to avoid potentially sticky situations. I am far more inclined to just tell it how I see it, be damned if feelings get hurt in the process. I have a hard time playing at things that don’t hold meaning to me. It makes me remember a question I answered when I was filling out an old Blogger profile – “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?” I answered shapeshifting, and at that point in my life, that was the truth. I could wear any number of masks, each tailored to advance me in any given situation or relationship I found myself in. I suppose that now retired superhero evolved from the upbringing I had – a constant changing of locations and friendships that demanded I expand outward if I wanted to be accepted, if I wanted to belong. I got very, very good at it. I still am very, very good at it when I choose to engage it. I am willing to bet if you didn’t know me, and you met me, I could make you like me, and make you think I like you, even if I found you repulsive. The difference is now, I won’t, because even before that superpower developed, before maybe even I was aware of my own identity, I’ve had one quality that defined me and continues to define me – sensitivity. Haiti, in breaking me open, which she has, and I knew she would if I gave her the time to, cut through those countless layers I’ve allowed myself, and exposed the core. For that, I’m thankful, even if, ironically, it has made it harder for me to be here, to continue to try and give of myself, to find a way to love this country and hold onto hope for her and her people.
Haiti is broken. I’ve written that many times before. But during my honeymoon with her, I found something redeeming in that, and in some ways I still do, because, in being broken, you are not awarded the luxury of a front. A truly broken thing cannot hide her brokenness from those who are willing to take the time to study her, and have the sensitivity to see the truth. But a broken thing is more often than not an ugly thing, and there is so much ugliness in this country. I don’t want to define her people that way, because, while many Haitians infuriate me with their mentality - “You’re white. Give me something. Give me money. Give me food. Give me your iPod. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” – I also know they are victims. They did not choose to be poor. They did not choose to be without proper education. They did not choose to suffer from the trauma that follows an event that kills 300,000 of your fellow people - mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, children, friends. Many of them are innocents. The little girl I watched die was far too young to have made any mistakes that would deserve her punishment. She was simply born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In writing this I get confused. My feelings for Haiti have become a twisted mess of love and hatred, of empathy and the total lack thereof, of hope and of hopelessness. I suppose navigating that in a way that enables me to continue to be useful here it is a matter of perspective, and allowing myself blinders. I have to focus on the small changes I am making. If I look at Haiti in her entirety I feel a sense of defeat, because I know that I cannot fix her, nor can any of us that do not call ourselves Haitian, and because, and I hate to admit this, I do not place faith in the idea that her people can rise to the challenge and fix her themselves. It reminds me of something I read in Jeffrey Sach’s “The End of Poverty”, in which he compares human development to a ladder – all of us on a rung somewhere. The First World sits at the top of the ladder, the highest rung. That’s me. That’s most of you who are reading this. Then follows the developing world, those countless millions of people struggling, some more successfully than others, to reach one rung higher, then another, then another, slowly but surely improving their lot. Finally there are those other countless millions that cannot reach the ladder to begin with. They can see it, they know it exists, and cruelly, they know what the top rung looks like because most of the mass-produced culture bombs that get dropped all across this fucked up, beautiful planet of ours are manufactured by those of us at the top. It comes as no surprise to me that so many of Haiti’s young men have bought in 100% to the bullshit mainstream hip-hop culture that comes out of the United States and offers absolutely nothing of value. It is a vapid, empty pipedream, and yet so many of my Haitian friends, and hell, so many of the people I know in the US for that matter, buy it hook, line and sinker. But here it is particularly cruel, and absurd, and ultimately sad. Haiti isn’t on the ladder at all. Her people can only see it, but cannot reach it. The lowest rung is beyond them. Be it through their own actions, or the realities of their situation, or usually both, they can only simply stay where they are, in a truly exhausting, repetitive, difficult existence, and know that it isn’t this way for other people, left with little hope or even the know-how to see themselves joining those others – to find that lowest rung and start climbing.
And yet even in writing that I feel like I’m shortchanging this place because now, having been here for the time that I have, I know that there are always exceptions, that there are people here who have the know-how and the will and the ability to make this place better. Some of them are my friends. But can they? I like to think they can, but the skeptic in me is always there, on my shoulder, reinforced daily by the beggars and the thieves and the filth in the streets and the dogs with their permanently broken legs scurrying out of the way of the motorcycles and the people who will kick them, by the people I met in July 2010 who have no more to show for themselves now than they did then. Still, there is a resilience in this place that I must acknowledge. The people here persevere. They may not seem to do much to improve themselves, but they do continue. I have respect for that. I have not traveled to any other countries as poor and devastated as this one yet, so I have no way to compare how other people in equally difficult situations behave, but I do know this – if the United States had to switch with Haiti for even a week, maybe even a day, the entire place would fall to pieces. We may have once been the people who could have risen to the occasion (I think of my grandparents and their generation) but that generation is old now, and tired, and passed on. The people of today would collapse in a mound of self-pity and defeatism, angrily placing blame as they wallow. Patriotic aren’t I? Fuck it. It’s what I believe. It’s one of the core things driving me – to prove to myself I’m not one of those people, that I can carry a burden that, while never matching what countless millions carry every day, still puts me apart from some of my more pathetic kin. I went to Malibu High School. I’ve done the bottle-service nightclubs. I’ve watched Paris Hilton make her way down a flight of stairs at a house party, and felt the absurdity in the energy that it created in the room. I reject that wholly. I will never buy into it. I can’t. It’s wrong. I’m at the top-rung of this ladder partly through my own actions, but mostly because of the conditions I was born into. I didn’t earn it more than anyone else. I didn’t deserve it. It just was. The die was cast, and I came out on top. Another die was cast and a little girl came out on bottom. She died alone surrounded by strangers and was left on a porch in a coffin any of us would be ashamed to bury someone we love in. It’s wrong not to acknowledge that simple truth. So many of us who feel we deserve the success we have need to wake up. It has far less to do with us than we'd like to think. Life is so much a game of chance. Yes, we all have choice, and that is a beautiful thing, but it is a naïve man indeed who believes choice alone determines fate. Who knows how many amazing people – people who had drive and intelligence and sensitivity enough to drive them far beyond anything we could hope to be – were snuffed out before they could ever rise because of the crushing conditions into which they were born?
Confused indeed. As the title might suggest, I started this entry to come to terms with the reality that maybe Haiti is fucked because her people are fucked. And yet here I am at the end feeling something different. Yes, Haiti makes me angry, and yes, my honeymoon with her is indeed over, and yes, many of Haiti’s problems stem from her people, but that doesn’t change the fact that I cannot simply write her off. “It’s Haiti…” That seems a cop-out to me. It’s an easy cop-out, and one I hear often, sometimes from myself, but the truth is far more elusive. As is usually the case in living, there are no black and whites here. Shades of grey define this place. Shades of grey define most everything. They define this entry. So no, I have no answers, and no, I’m not done yet. I’m not throwing in the towel. Yes, I’ve been beaten down by this place, but as I wrote before, I’m thankful for it, because in being beaten down I’m being forced to choose which parts of myself I want to devote my energy and time to, and which I want to discard. It brings to mind the final verse of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Man Watching - "Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being beaten, decisively, by constantly greater beings." I no longer desire shapeshifting. I am retiring that superpower. I opt to pull out those parts of myself I know to be closest to who I really am, and strengthen them. The others I’ll shed, and that is a good thing. It only brings me closer to myself. Comfort allows people to choose who they want to be. Hardship exposes people for who they truly are. Haiti is not a comfortable place.