Saturday, October 29, 2011

Day 149: The Honeymoon Is Over

A few days from now I’ll have lived and worked in Haiti for a year. I’ll have lived in Belval Plaza, in our base, an unfinished nightclub, for a year. I’ll have called two small tents home for a year. I’ll have met, and said goodbye, to too many beautiful people to remember. I undertook this adventure, if that’s even an accurate description of what this is, hoping for something big to shift in me. It has. Haiti has fundamentally altered who I am, how I act, what I believe, what I put out into the world.

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 na├»ve 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. 


  1. Quinn, Thanks for keepin on keepin on, in your work, in your writing. It's awesome to see someone dedicate themselves to something so wholeheartedly, especially when it's so easy not to. I think you'd enjoy reading some of Haiti's history and maybe answer some of these questions. Reading about that has definitely helped me understand Haiti better. Questions like the ones you asked are really connected to other questions. Questions like: What happens when the a country is founded on the revolt of an enslaved people,then not recognized by foreign world powers, whom it depends on for trade of essential goods, for decades? What happens when that country includes a clause in its constitution that says any enslaved people, including indigenous people, can find a home there and be free citizens? (It gets shunned by colinizers, and all world powers were colonizers then). What toll did it take when world powers placed sanctions on haiti, limiting its ability to trade the goods that made it the most profitable colony in the world? What happens 50years later when the US invades, occupying haiti for almost 20 years? Or when its once-colonizer exacts a "tax" on Haiti, as a reparation for lost property in human chattel, which was not paid off til 1953 because of the reasons listed above? And what about when that country is taken over by a dynastic dictatorship that is supported (clandestinely and at times openly) by world super powers? What happens when in Haiti's first democratic elections (won by a popular vote of 90%) is up-ended by foreigners bc of foreign interests (metaphorically and sometimes literally, Wall St.)? Would your view of the country change if you were surrounded by Haitian civil society groups, of which their are many, instead of those hardest hit by the earthquake (of which there are many more?) Since I've come back to NYC, home of one of the largest segments of the Haitian diaspora, I've come to realize there are amny more very deeply involved people than I saw when I was there, I even marched with some of them to OWS recently. It gave me an intersting viewpoint...What happens when the first democraticallly elected president of Haiti is whisked away in the middle of the night, leaving a country with no leadership and grieving for not just a leader but a symbol of its sovereignty, and the UN substitutes a foreign army for the democratically elected leader, to "stabilize" what is then undoubtedly going to be an unstable place? (This is how Haiti came to have MINUSTAH btw.)

    Even if the actual services aid workers provide are provided without politics, the existence of the need was never apolitical, nor is our presence in Haiti apolitical, bc our privilege to be there is political. half of all households in the US gave some sort of donation to Haiti when the earthquake hit, some of us even gave days, weeks months, Years(!) of our lives to help! And our very ability to do those things is political too! And that is an awesome testament to the resilient human-ness left in us despite the attempts to beat it out of us in the name of...(well, that's another conversation but you hit on it in your post, but Paris Hilton willl go unnamed.:)).

    I say all of these things for two reasons. 1.because I know you are interested in stuff 2. Learning about this stuff was HUGE to me when I came back from Haiti. I don't know how to explain it. 3. I think those of us with a special place in our hearts for Haiti have a responsibility to understand Haiti on a deeper level.(speaking mainly for myself) Yes. There is need, and there is a need to provide whatever it takes to make that need less acute. (Like clean water!) But that need does not exist in a vaccuum.

    So a small group of Haitian Americans marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to Occupy wall St symbolize the ways that Wall St has occupied Haiti for decades. I think it's our job as "helpers" of Haiti to find out why, see if we agree, and then maybe work on that, too. Or at least be cognizant of it.

  2. Excellent comment Terri and I agree completely. I have read some of Haiti's history, and I suppose in not mentioning her history in this entry I do her a disservice, because yes, her history is so much of why Haiti is where she is today.

    Still, as much as I love history (no, seriously, I download history podcasts and listen to them for fun), I also know history has very little ability to affect change in the now. It cannot be undone. It cannot be rewritten. The value that is has in the presence is the chance to study it and learn, but the actions taken are taken in the present. Which I guess is simply to say, yes, Haiti's history is perhaps one of the more difficult and beautiful national histories out there, but we cannot linger on it. Haiti today needs people focused on today, not the past. History offers explanations, but solutions cannot manifest in the past.

    That said, I would like to read more, get a better understanding. Any book(s) in particular that you recommend?


  3. Quinn. As always, well-written and considered. The slow progression of change, the one step, or one biosand filter at a time, is glacial. Real change often is. We pay attention, we see only the big moments of transformation, the obvious. But much went before that in order to create that change, in order to create the circumstances out of which change can happen.

    I understand the burn-out and frustration. And I do think some of it is burn-out. But, I go back to that little girl, and think, with your biosand filters perhaps you are saving the life of another little girl or boy, a man or woman, who will be an instrument of change. You will most likely never know. Life is a meditation, a practice. It is one breath and step at a time, aiming for the good, fighting the fight, wrestling the Angel as best we can. Sometimes, we need to crawl away from the fight in order to restore ourselves. But, people like you, me, your mom (who went down fighting), many of the people in your life, will come back to fight another day. We don't give up. And I know you won't, or not for long if you do.

    On a personal note: As you share the lines of that poem, I recall walking through SF reciting it to you with your mother walking behind us (she too whom I had recited many a poem and to whom I had early in our relationship given the book out of which that poem came). I could feel her enjoying our connection, our sharing of poetry.

    You are doing great work. Find peace when you get burned out. Know that the Angels consider you a worthy opponent.

  4. Hey Cyn,

    Thanks for the kind words. Definitely truth to what you said about the glacial nature of significant change. That's how I keep myself going - focus on the small things that are being improved.

    As to burn-out, I wouldn't say I've hit that yet. I've seen burn-out here, real burn-out, and when it hits it pretty much shuts you down. I'm definitely not shutdown yet, just becoming ever more aware of the realities of this place, and that can be hard to stomach in moments. I do find myself tired a lot, but I'm blaming the asshole roosters in front of the base that start crowing at 4AM. One of these days those roosters are going to meet a sledgehammer. See what their crowing gets them then...

    Believe me, if I ever feel I've truly burned out, I'll leave, at least for a little bit. Once you've crossed that line, staying here does nothing to help anyone. But I can sometimes surprise myself when it comes to resilience, and Haiti has proven to be the biggest surprise for me when it comes to that. I'm still here. I'm not done yet.

  5. Hey Quinn. Thanks! And you're right, we need to focus on the present and what can be done now. And it's impossible to include every factor in Haiti's lead up to the present in every blog post. I just read this one and "spoke" (with my fingers) off the cuff, because that's what it made me think of.:)

    One reason I think it's so important to understand history, is because I'm home now and my ability to do things in the present is geographically shifted. Like I can be an advocate for a different kind of foreign policy vis-a-vis Haiti, which is important because it's directly linked to Haiti's current state...and for me this kind of learning/action is a powerful way to stay connected to a place I would really like to physically BE more often.

    One reason I commented was less for you than for others who have less background to fit these stories into. When you've been to Haiti, met a lot of brilliant hard working generous people, and seen how amazingly difficult it is to make a life there, there's a context for the hardship that is harder to discern from afar. I remember reading an Op Ed by David Brooks of the NYTimes right after the earthquake happened. One main point was that the earthquake was more than a natural disaster, it was also a man-made disaster. This is true.But he was saying that it was man-made because of "Haitian's 'culture' of not striving, not succeeding, not working hard enough." That's where history is important in comprehending the present. For instance, if Haiti did not have a history of enormous and unjust debt, would it have such a broken infrastructure, which could've been paid for with those millions ofdollars? Clearly you and I and a lot of other people know that Haiti is not a country full of people with no will to succeed, and there are enormous obstacles to "succeeding" in Haiti. Like everywhere, there are good and bad and complicated people there. And it's true all over the world where there is poverty, including here.

    I also relate to your story about the little girl. When I worked at the cholera hospital last year, it had an enormous effect on me. I'm not even sure how to articulate this any further, so I'll stop there.

    As for books, one I am thinking of right now is Damming the Floods. me and Charlie both read that last year. I also read The Dewbreaker by Edwidge Danticat, and it's a piece of historical fiction that really makes the plight of Haitians under the Duvalier dictatorship palpable, and even makes it more easy to understand citizen participation in the violence. I'll think of more and send them to you. Oh, and "After the Earthquake" by Paul Farmer has some things I find problematic, but does a good job of analyzing some issues with aid there, and highlights something not many others do: that when the earthquake hit, Haiti was not just encapsulated in violence and mayhem by criminals, and that before any relief got there, Haitians were actually working together, helping one another, praying together, and conducting whatever "relief" they could on their own. This isn;t to say help from outside wasn't needed, it was. But Haitians were there helping each other, too.

    Oh! And I LOVE this blog from a journalist there:
    He does an awesome job covering Haitian community groups and social movements and politics in a nuanced way. (He was also a journalist who moved down there in Dec 2009, survived the earthquake, and stayed for the last 2 years.)

    Also, I like keeping up on your blog. I picture Leogane everytime I read it, and love that. It's also nice to enter into these little conversations, though it would be better to have these conversations over a Prestige somewhere...

    I am glad you are still working on water issues there, particularly in a way that is accessible to so many people. It's good work.

    Please give anpil hugs to all my zanmi there, and take good care of yourself.



  6. excellent.