Friday, July 6, 2012

Dancing with Sean Penn in Haiti

Dancing with Sean Penn in Haiti
Now that I am back in the United States, many people ask me if I saw Sean Penn in Haiti. Maybe I am in the grocery store or walking down the street with my grandkids or carrying a load of plants for my garden.
“Hi Sarah. How was Haiti? Did you see Sean Penn?”
And then, I can’t help it, my mind drifts and I am walking down the dirt road outside the birth center. There is me, Michael Jackson. Sean Penn and yes there is always Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. There are all the people I knew in Haiti. They are well fed, alive,happy and carrying tools of their trade. There are cows and horses and goats and chickens on every shoulder. We spread across the street and the parade goes on for miles . I am right up there in the front with Sean Penn and Michael Jackson and the president of Haiti and Bill Clinton and we are singing “Life’s A Happy Song” from the Muppets. There is a marching band from a high school and the ra ra bands from carnivale. Everyone is singing in unison.
Everything is great.
Everything is grand.
We have the whole wide world in the palm of our hand.
Everything is perfect. It’s falling into place.
La, la.
It is so great. Bu then I remember where I am and that I have to answer, “Actually I never saw Sean Penn. I never saw any singers or movie stars…..
I try to explain that I was in Cap Hatien and that maybe all the movie stars are in Port Au Prince but by then they are walking away. I return to my musical version of helping Haiti.
There is nothing we can’t do
The skies are blue when its me and you and you and you and you…
Life’s a happy song when there is someone by your side to sing along.
I heard Sean Penn told the Canne Film Festival that the whole world forgot Haiti. I sigh but take some comfort that my co-star in Hait; the musical is having trouble explaining the situation and he’s an actor.
Sometimes I try to tell myself that it was a dream, or that it never really happened. It was a movie or made for television drama. Someone made the whole thing up. It could not possibly be real.
I guess that’s why they ask me about Sean Penn. The real questions are just to hard for any of us to ask or answer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Happy Fathers Day to the 1000 fathers per day.....

Each day 1000 mothers die from pregnancy related deaths worldwide. A special fathers day wish to all the men left to make hard choices about the babies the mother left behind. Here are two of the many fathers I met in Haiti, who lost their wives shortly after childbirth. The twins were placed in an orphanage and baby Dafka is being raised, with help, by her Dad. They must put aside their own grief while they work to care for the infants who have no food while continuing to support for the family. Happy Fathers Day to these very special dads.

Monumnet to Haiti on the Washington DC Mall

The monument to Haiti on the Washington DC Mall
Being back in the United States has forced me to examine the relationship I had tried to create with the people of Haiti and to look more closely at my country’s influence on those people’s well being. I had to ask myself again and again, how one can be a global citizen, committed to the well being of others, without repeating centuries of colonial and imperialist ways of thinking. I saw my life and everything around me through the lens of Haiti and the lessons she so generously taught me.
Shortly after returning to the United States, I went to Washington DC for a Helping Babies Breathe conference. I got up early one morning to ride a bike around the monuments that stand as testimony to what the country stands for. I had not had the opportunity to ride a bike in some time so having the wheels beneath me on a morning washed clean by a warm, summer rain felt delicious.
I rode comfortably down wide bike lanes, reflecting on the many ways US cities have come alive with pedestrians, housing, art and gardens. Efforts to recycle and collect rainwater were everywhere and there was even a beehive in the White House kitchen garden.
As I approached the mall, memories of tear gas, singing, marching and prayers swept over me. Most of my memories of Washington DC were as a demonstrator and not as a tourist.
As I rode past the statues, fountains and monolyths, I saw them with my Haiti lens. I began to see the monuments within the monuments; the spaces between the marble where the unwritten stories were told. In my imagination, I saw the monument to Haiti; a monument celebrating the second independent republic in the western hemisphere and the first and only successful slave revolution in the world.
I saw Haiti in the other monuments too.
I saw Haiti at the Washington monument; saw the not yet written engraving that said, “The father of the American Revolution, tired, overworked and misguided sent $400,00 in arms and supplies to help defeat the second revolution in the Americas. He, who gave so much for the freedom of some, failed to recognize that until everyone is free, no one is free.”
As I turned past a group of school children, lining up for a photo, I thought of the young Henri Christophe who had been a 14-year old drummer boy at the Battle of Savannah in the Revolutionary War. He along with four hundred and fifty men from Haiti came and fought in our war for independence! That same boy went on to be a revolutionary leader in Haiti’s own bid for independence. I see the invisible statue of that young boy, with his drum, there amongst the monuments. Did our revolutionary leaders accept the young boys offer to fight their war and then deny him help when he too strove for the very same independence?
I ride past the Jefferson Memorial as school children are getting out of the first buses of the day. Jefferson refused to acknowledge Haiti as an independent nation and in 1806 declared an embargo on Haiti; a legacy that was to hurt the Haitien people for many years to come. There can be no doubt that save for the revolutionary efforts of Haiti, France would not have been forced to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States and Jefferson’s great legacy would have been told differently. The efforts of the former slaves in Haiti had caused the landmass of the young US republic to double.
Haiti was not recognized as an independent nation, by the United States, until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Haiti’s recognition became a battle cry of the abolitionists. When the south succeeded, there were, at last, enough votes to recognize the tiny island as an independent nation.
I think about the fourteen year old Henri Christophe leading the long march against colonialism. I think of Jefferson and Washington and how some guidance, friendship and support might have caused Christophe to choose democracy for his new republic instead of declaring himself king. I think of Washington who turned down an offer to be king and how that might have been a model for Haiti had our founding fathers shown a little kindness and believed the words they themselves wrote. If there had been support instead of embargos perhaps the Hatien revolution would have been less violent and easier to achieve. Perhaps today the ease and standards of schools, health care and clean water would have been a given and not an on-going struggle.
In my monument to Haiti, I see Fredrick Douglas, the first ambassador to Haiti and there is a plaque that quotes Douglas.
“Haiti is black and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black. After Haiti had shaken off her bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continue to refuse to acknowledge that fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”
I peddle into the new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. He is is the only statue but I see many others come to stand with him and it is there that I put my imaginary monument to Haiti. I see Martin Luther King surrounded by a crowd of people who fought to destroy slavery and its legacy. And there in the group that stands beside him is a farmer/ soldier from Haiti; arm in arm with all those who fought marched, prayed and sang their way to freedom.
As I ride away, the sun high in the sky, I think about all the untold stories of the Washington monuments. I think of the shadow of Haiti and other countries like her who were always there providing labor and natural resources that in some way helped build the clean, smooth streets I ride on.
I find myself wanting to apologize for Washington and Jefferson’s tolerance of slavery; for their lack of support for Haiti; for so much. I want to explain to the visitors that it is not quite the way it looks.
But our history and the history of Haiti are always being created each day. There is more empty land around the pools and still time for the monument to our mistakes and vulnerabilities; for the places where we failed and a monument to the places where we keep trying. This is the monument that I love best. The one that allows me to love my country because of all the goodness in the people and for their fight to keep trying to be better while learning from the past.
I love living in a country with a rich history of immigration but I am sad for all the conflicts that caused them to flee or be forced off their own land. My monument is the monument of this dichotomy; the place of discomfort and the place of pride.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Remember David


Remember my brother, David
for the way he tickled my toes and
kissed my outstretched fingers.

Remember the funny faces
that made me laugh;
the way
he carried me upside down
when our father was gone
and we went looking for a
neighbor to give us food.

Remember David for the
way he cried the night our
mother died; for the way
he held me;
All of us wrapped inside
our fathers arms
in the darkness that
seemed to never end.

Remember David in his
new clothes when and my sister
got to go to school all
proud and clean,
looking back with a wave
as my father held me
and sighed; the first
smile on his face in
a long, long time.

Remember David
for the dark, handsome
face that was the first I saw
each morning and the last
that kissed me at night.

Bouncing, running, jumping
never resting.

Remember his new shoes;
the ones Dad bought
him in Port Au Prince.
The way
he looked when he first
put them on
runnning fast
through the field to the
one room where we all sleep

The bed where I was born;
the place where we were once
five and now are just three.

Remember David,
Gone to Heaven with Mama
who dad says was lonely up there
without any of her children.

Remember David;
whose jumping on clouds
in Heaven and tickling the
toes of angels.

Remember David who
through years go by
and time passes will
always be my brother.


David is a six year old little boy who died from complications of a UTI in Haiti. He is the older brother of Dafka. Their mother died last January leaving three children; one who was baby Dafka. Dafka was kept alive by waves of volunteers at MamaBaby Haiti who brought formula, fed her,held her, bathed her and gave her medicine. David seemed a strong and resiliant little boy and I never feared for his safety in all the days and nights I worried about Dafka's ability to survive. I wrote this poem from Dafka's perspective; trying to celebrate his hard, young life as I struggle with the waves of grief that I am feeling.

He is one child, of thousands, in the world who dies each day from a lack of adequate medical care.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Did you know Audubon was born in Haiti?

All the birds in Haiti, have gone to the Domincan Republic” Clauden

Each morning, throughout the fall and early winter, Clauden and I spend the early hours of the day working in the clinic garden. It is cool then and the world is still quiet except for the women waiting outside the wall who talk and laugh together.
We have planted a patch of sunflowers to greet people as they come into the clinic and on that morning, the stalks are knee high with leaves and buds. With this observation, I feel hopeful about so many things. I comment to Caluden that the birds will also like the sunflowers but her interrupts my enthusiasm to explains that “ all the birds in Haiti had gone to the Dominican Republic.”
I am shocked by this relevation and its significance. There are already millions of Hatien immigrants in the Domincan Republic as well as a significant amount of the manufacturing. Many a mother reports that her baby’s father is in the DR as it is commonly called. How can the birds be there too?
I look up at the blue morning sky and I realize that there is not a bird in the sky and none in the nearby bushes or trees. Why hadn’t I noticed before?
Clauden explains that many people hunted even the smallest birds and that when they cut down so much of the forest, the birds like many people migrated to places where it was easier to find food, safety and the ability to earn a living.
I dig deeper, determined to make the grounds around the clinic a safe haven for birds with places to hide and get water; a place of seeds and soil rich with insects and worms.
I also look up “Birds in Haiti” and am surprised to find out that James- John Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Haiti which was then known as the French Colony of Saint-Dominique. His father came to Haiti as a Lieutenant in the French army and then stayed to make his fortune on a sugar plantation. James Audubon was the son of a Creole mother who died shortly after he was born. His childhood was marked by the cruelty of slavery and the slave rebellion. He had three known siblings in Haiti; all of African heritage.
When his father left for France, he took his two fairest skin children, James and Rose, and left the darker skinned children in Haiti. They were adopted and raised by his father’s French wife. At 18, restless and lacking ambition, he left for America, where he made his mark as a great naturalist and illustrator of birds.
I wonder that I was never told that James Audubon was Hatien. I have gone to the Audubon Center hundreds of times but have no memory of that being shared. I say to everyone, for many days after, “ Did you know Audubon was Hatien but mostly they do not know who he is. I say, with excitement that he was the most famous American bird illustrator and he was Hatien! I am so excited.
I discover that Haiti always stayed with him and that the early deaths and violence of both the Hatien and French revolutions were strong influencing factors on his view of life and death. Perhaps it bred in him that sense of the wild that only can only be calmed, for some, in nature.

In an article in the New York Times at the time of the earthquake, the author reflects on Audubon’s bird illustrations and Haiti.

The same sleight of hand informs Audubon’s bird pictures, which are vividly lifelike although they usually used dead birds as their models. But for all their vitality, Audubon’s paintings resonate with loss as well as life—touched, in Audubon scholar Christoph Irmscher’s words, “by the experience of death, or at least impending death.”
Audubon seemed infinitely fascinated by the precarious line that separates life from death, and how that line can vanish in a matter of seconds. That dark recognition started for Audubon in what is now Haiti, and it gives his bird pictures an especially unsettling resonance as the people of his birthplace continue to mourn their dead.
I learned, in Haiti, to look for birds as a sign of life, hope and recovery. I watched the skies and in time, I began to find them, though more often in the mountains and by the sea. I saw hummingbirds in the bright pink flower by the side of the road and stopped to watch a hawk drifting over head. In this, I found reassurance and hope.

One day, at the fishing village, I saw a group of young boys with a bird they have captured. It is small and surely would not offer much food. I offer to buy it from them so it can go off and make more birds but they want more money than I have and I am forced to give up and keep walking.
I remember Audubon’s painting of birds and I realize how so many of them have both dead and live birds in them; capturing that place of inevitable transition. I think of the many mothers, fathers and children who I knew and held and died in my short months in Haiti. I too must make peace with this inevitable edge.
I trapse through the forest and climb into the mountains, looking for answers in the tiniest flower and the song of the bird hidden in the underbrush. I think about his siblings who were left behind because there skin was too dark and what may have become of them. I think of how Audubon was presented to me as a French aristocrat who painted but never a young boy, orphaned and raised in Haiti.

Once I was told that African- American children don’t like nature and I think, “Ah but you were wrong. One of the most famous naturalists of all time was of African roots.” I think of how my understanding of the world and its history would have been different if someone had told me the true story of a little boy, born of a French soldier and a descendent of an African slave; in Haiti, a place I did not know.

In my life, I look for those places where the natural world and history come together; that place where they influence each other and culture takes root and grows. I know that the birds left Haiti because so many rich and powerful countries took the hardwoods and because of hunger and the loss of farmable fields. But I also know that life regenerates itsel,f when given a chance. I know that there is time to tell the story of Audubon’s Haiti and to replant trees and welcome the birds back to Haiti.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Dancing with ths Matrones / The Matrone Song

The Matrone Song / The Midwives Song

Each day, at the midwives training in Bas Limbe, Haiti, the matrones danced to a rousing chorus of this song. It was led by my translator, Mama, who always got everyone up singing and dancing as they waited to wash their hands before lunch. I
Although they came by foot or four to a motorcycle and though they traveled through streams and large muddy holes in the road, they arrived in their Sunday best clothes with hats and a smile.
After an opening prayer, birth stories and morning demonstration they welcomed the opportunity to stand and dance with each other, their instructors and Mama. They sang the song with pride and determination for their villages, their country and for their God given profession.
Most of the matrones, in Haiti, believe that they were called to be a midwife by God and so they do this work to honor him and not for any personal benefit to themselves. The song was sung with a joy for life despite inevitable hardships.
It was a great joy and honor to sing and dance with them. When I return to Oregon, and teach an art class to 7th grade girls I get them up dancing and tell them in Haiti, I never taught without dancing and they look at me somewhat surprised but when the music goes on, they too dance. I tell them that I don’t ever want to live my live again without this commitment to joy in the face of hardship and loss; dignity in the footsteps of a history burdened with oppression.
I want, when all else, fails to stand and sing and dance and to remember the simple and complete happiness of washing my hands before delivering a baby.

Here are the words in Creole and the translation into English. Mama gave this to me so I apologize if I have not copied it correctly.

Water, soap and cups these are the three things that are necessary.
Put a lot of water in your house for you to wash your hands.
Midiwfe, you need to wash your hands before delivering the baby.
This protects mama as well as the baby.
One- pour water on your hands
Two – Wash your hands well
Three- Lather your hands with soap
Four – Clean under your nails

Dlo, savon, ak yon goden tois babgay necesae.
Mete anpil dlo lakay nou pou nou lave men nou.
Matron fou lave men ou avan ou fe akouchman,
Sa protégé mama ansemble ak tibebe.
Yon – vidle dlo sou men ou
De- Byen frote men ou.
Tois- Savonnem men ou
Kat – Lave

Monday, May 21, 2012

Islor's Red Jumprope

Islor’s Red Jump Rope
Two volunteers send a box from the United States. By the time we get to the airport to pick it up, the rats have chewed through the cardboard and many people have picked through the contents and taken the things they want most. It is discouraging but there remains many treasures including a long red jump rope for Islor.
I find her and with, an odd sense of hope, place the jump rope in her reluctant hands. I wonder, for an instant, if she does not know how to jump rope or if she can not believe that this gift is really for her. I realize that I have never seen children jump roping or playing with any toys at all.
I prepare myself to teach her to jump rope but soon it is in her hands and my instruction not needed.
For some time, I can hear them playing jump rope; the soft thud of barefeet on the cement driveway of the birth center.
I can smell the plantain frying for dinner and know that Mona will add sweet potatoes that we will cover with spicy picklies; a relish of cabbage and hot peppers. It is not too hot out and I bask in the goodness of my life in Haiti.
A woman comes to the gate in early labor and I quickly become lost in the work of checking her in and making sure she has everything she needs to be comfortable in the early hours of birthing. I create systems to prevent complications and to protect all of us from heartbreak. I know I am not just protecting the mother and baby but the community and indeed myself. I go through the familiar steps of allowing the mother to stay even in early labor; knowing if it a long way home and she can rest and be cared for at the center. Too many women who were sent home ended up coming in later to report giving birth on the “road” on the way home or on the way back to the center. I tell her to sleep or walk ; to drink water and help herself to a bucket shower. There is no hurry.
But then Islor is running in with tears in her eyes; frustrated and mad. They have taken her rope for the goats. No matter how I explain and ask that the rope be given back, her rope is never, ever returned. I tell people who are suppose to make sure there is no stealing at the center. But it is only a rope and it is only after all a little girl and an orphaned one at that.
Later Islor is banned from the center for stealing. I never heard exactly what she stole but I know that she knows the red rope was never returned to her ; that the words of adults are crooked and broken.
I watch her on the outside of the wall that surrounds the center. She grows dirty and the dress given to her in January; the one covered with bright red and yellow flowers fades and the shoulder strap rips and hangs. She never wears shoes and is out after dark.
When we have an Earth Day Fete, we buy rope for swings in the field we convert into a park for the day. The rope seems very expensive and by the end of the day each piece has broken and some group of children have landed on the ground. It is re-tied and rehung and eventually taken from the children.
In Portland, I see jump ropes left on sidewalks beside chalk drawings and swings that have hung in my yard through twenty rainy winters still strong and able. I see swings hanging by the trees along the city streets for anyone to stop and use. I wonder who makes the rope in Haiti and why it falls apart so easily. I think about the worth of a piece of rope to people trying to improve their lives.
Islor’s mother died when she was very young; one of many motherless children in Haiti. Like many children who are left without a mother, she is vulnerable and develops the skill she needs to survive. She can climb trees to find food and toughens both her feet and her heart.
I see her standing by the graveyard gate, watching a funeral as the children often do. They listen to the bands or the singing and watch as the casket makes its way down the long road. The gates are open and so it easy to stand in small groups and listen to the music. It is a graveyard for the very rich; people no one ever knows buried in a place they know they will never be buried in.
A few feet away a goat is tied to a tree with her once red jump rope. She looks at me and says in Creole, “ I am hungry.” I give her a hug and pretend I don’t understand. Her body stiffens beneath my hands and she looks away.
And that’s when I decide to help Islor build a small herd of goats.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Melove's World

Closing words / reading this blog

I wrote this blog as a way to communicate easily with family and friends. At times I used it to reach out to anyone who was listening when I was afraid or heartbroken or just wanted someone to join me in my prayers. I also found myself wanting to defend Haiti and to help the world to see the history, its people and the landscape in a different way than it is often portrayed in the media. I wanted to show Haiti through the lives of the people I met and interacted with everyday. I was not expecting to feel so much love and support over the many miles through this experience of a blog and I appreciate the many people who offered me their prayers and support.

In the upcoming weeks, as I work in my garden and spend some much needed time alone, I hope to add some pictures and a few pieces I never published. This time with the blog will, I trust, help me to reflect on my experiences and re-visit with the many people I loved.

I hope to place things in chronilogical order but for now, it is backwards and it might be best read from start to finish. Haiti was a great gift in my life. I felt grateful that I was able to spend the many months there that I did and grateful for all the volunteers and most of all for the Hatien men, women and children who I met.

It is hard to figure out the best way to return to ones loved ones and ones community. I cannot really understand that no one knows what I ma talking about and the reality is too painful for many to accept. In time, you begin to wonder if indeed you are exaggerating or if it was as you remember. Surely children do not starve to death. Surely mothers do not die in childbirth and surely there is an easy solution that involves them just trying harder.

Sometimes I am swept away with grief and longing. I sit with people but they say I seem sad or too thin and my hair is too straggly. I want to pay attention to the present moment but I am not able to- yet.

My heart is filled with many things and I trust that my dreams will grow wings and I will find new opportunities to meet new people, learn new things and to somehow be of service in the world.

I know this requires that I allow my heart to break from time to time so that I can let the hurt out and the goodness in.

Thanks for walking with me on this journey.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

For a special type of mother on mothers day

Happy Mothers Day to women everywhere who have had to work as a prostitute to feed their children. My heart breaks for you; for the terrible choices you had to make, the shame and the scorn. You are in my heart and prayers.

If you look at her with disgust
Once more
Or scorn her footprint on this earth,
As any less sacred than your own
I will stand between you and her
Like a mother bear and her cub
And I will fight you with my eyes
Until you are forced to look down
And let her pass.
And on her dead child’s grave,
I will defend a mother’s right to
Feed her children however she can
Until those with power and privilege
Help her up off her back with
The God given dignity, which is
Her and her children’s birthright
While you are still sleeping,
She works the fields with
The machete of her husband;
Dead now, these six months,
From cholera spread by those
who squat where they please in
another persons garden.
Do not say her name.
It rolls off your tongue,
With the sour smell of bitter rum
That is not dignified by
Your perfect, private school French.
Do not raise your hand
to silence me
or disregard my words as crazy.
Her song is her weapon
and I hear it deep
within the streams
gathering force from the

But do not be mistaken by
The sweet melody
of the morning bird or
the song she sings as she
starts the fire and carries water.

It is a song of unity,
Written by all the women
Of the world who sold
themselves for a piece of
Bread to feed a starving child.
who in my life time or
another will rise up and be free.
Look at her now
and let her pass,
For she and her children
Are the only future we ever had.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I dream that someone shows me a small glass fish bowl and in it is a perfect replica of the places I knew best in Haiti. I am amazed at the detail and how well the artist created each tiny detail. Then I look more carefully and I see Innocance, Dafka's father, trying to climb the walls of the glass bowl. He is trying to push a cart and he keeps falling backwards into the landscape. It is too steep and the glass is too slippery.

And with this dream, I stop fighting the tears and begin to allow them to tend to the tender places in my heart.

This is my story, this is my song

I wrap Haiti in my arms and hold her tight. I breathe in the sounds of the women singing at the chapel on the mountain, the sounds of people preparing for night, the smell of the small yellow flowers on the path where I walk.
I can see that the baby pigs have grown older and venture further from their mother who is still tied to a tree with a fraying piece of rope. They grow brave and independent but run home to their place beside the muddy ditch, to nurse simulataneoulsy as the sun sets and dark settles into the valley that rests between the mountains.
I sleep beneath a veil of mosquito netting my heart aching with the tender pain one has when saying good bye to what one loves so dearly. Sleep comes easily. It has been a busy day of giving things away and soft, slow good-byes. A day of packing up and helping the new director know where to find beauty and comfort as well as how things might be done.
Then… a car horn beeps and there is banging on the gate and I am, one last time, making my way through the darkness; pulling on clothes, opening the door and welcoming a mother and her baby. The young women call me, “Mama Sarah “ without introduction and I feel grateful to be a known part of her community. The birth is easy and sweet and while the baby is being born, I hear, in my heart, the children at the orphanage singing. “This is my story. This is my song” And in this way, I nearly burst with happiness. I look to the heavens, as the Hatiens have taught me to do, and felt the tender kiss of angels who smile and sing to me. “This is your story. This is your song.”
When the people ask, if I will return, I say what they always said to me, “If God wants me to”. I say this with a twinkle in my eye because that is what they often said to me. I am surprised then when I find myself believing my words. I feel that I can relax into this presence and know that I will be shown a path, as I always have. When asked what I will do next, I say “Find my grandchildren and hold them close, weed some gardens, look out over the valleys of Oregon; at the rivers who travel to the sea and out into the sea that connects us all. I will lie on my back and watch the dragonflies on a summer day and send a prayer to all that I have loved here in Haiti.
Thank you, Senior, for a wonderful birth on this my second to the last morning in Haiti. I have always loved a Sunday morning birth. Isn’t it just like you to remember the small details.
Senior is the Hatien expression for God.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Waiting for church to begin

Waiting for church to begin
“Meet us at the church at 5 am. “
“Be sure to be at the Catholic Church at the end of the road by 6:00 am. Yes, we will all meet there at 6:00 am.”
“7:00 am. It begins at 7:00 am so we will see you then.”
I wake up and put on the same clothes I have worn for eight months. They are scrubbed and bleached and hung in the sun until there is very little of them left but they are clean and presentable and I make an extra effort to comb my hair and wash my shoes.
The road to the church is muddy, however, and so by the time I walk there the shoes are muddy once again. Its quiet on the road with only a few men passing me with machetes as they make their way to their gardens on the mountain.
The church is padlocked shut when I arrive and I must accept that it will open sometime and that the time is not 7:00 am. I sit on a piece of concrete to wait. A young man who knows English wanders up and sits there beside me as I watch the Sunday morning comings and goings on Highway 1 in North Haiti.
I ask him if he is going to church and he says, “ no clothes.” He is of course fully dressed so what he means is that is clothes are not good enough, not fancy enough. We talk awhile about how that should not matter but he shrugs and maintains that you cannot go to church without good clothes.
I watch two groups of people walk down the road. Those who are going to church and those who cannot; not those who do not wish to go but those who cannot go because they do not have the right clothes. I know this because the baby for whom I am Godmother’s family has made it very clear that wearing the right clothes on Sunday morning is more important than food, housing or an education.
The small, local market is close by so I walk down and buy a larger than needed quantity of bananas and return to my cement perch and start giving them to anyone who does not have “church clothes” on.
I realize I am not doing this with love in my heart. I am actually teetering between furious and annoyed. The priest comes and unlocks the gate and a few faithful members come and prepare the church for services. There are paper decorations hanging from the ceiling and the tin roof has numerous holes in it to let in the rain. It is a simple concrete block church. Light is pouring in despite the bursts of rain.
I say to the church. “You are a simple yet beautiful building in a simple but beautiful landscape. Why do you insist on this show of clothes and shoes and hair straightened with a charcoal filled iron.
I remind myself that I am working on being non-judgemental and living in the present moment. I feel myself failing. I tell myself that this is most likely what it is like in other places but I just don’t go there. Still I think of the Catholic Church in North Portland and am pretty sure that they were not too dressed up or some were and some were not. I did not recall feeling out of place.
I go outside and wait some more. I am clearly right in the middle. Not as poorly dressed as the children going to get a cup of rice and no more at the market and yet decidedly not nearly as dressed up as the church goers.
I practice my Creole with whoever stops to visit and finish passing out bananas. When the family I am meeting crosses the road, I cannot recognize them any longer. When I met them, they were starving and homeless and the young girl was pregnant.
I had spent hours the week before trying to explain that one pair of baby shoes for a baby that can not walk is the same as a school uniform or books. I begged and pleaded and said I was sure God did not care. They agree but on the given day they appear in heels with straight hair and the baby has on shoes.
I tell them a Godmother is suppose to instill spiritual values and that this is too hard for me. I struggle and am so annoyed at the class distinctions so inherent in any society that I can not enjoy the moment.
But at last, I must sit down and be soothed by the music and the order and sense of goodness that I can see the church is giving to everyone gathered there. I love watching the young girls dance down the aisle with the cross and the way the light from the holes in the tin roof dances across the scarves that are part of the dance.
I stand and sit twenty times. I hold the baby as it is doused with water and then after three hours we all go outside and in time blend into the people on the road who are going to the market or catching a tap-tap or looking for charcoal for dinner.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

So they say

So they say
Out in the sea, on the edge of the horizon, there is an unusual island. I squint. It is larger than all the small islands and is surrounded by mist. There are small lights all over it and there are no lights here. One minute it is there and later when I go out for a walk in the village it has gone. It is an island that comes and goes.
The people say this is a cruise ship.
The people say that when the moving island comes the people on it do not know its Haiti. They play in the water but that they are locked into that place and are not allowed into Haiti to see the villages or meet the people. They say guards with gun stand by the fence so that they can not get out and so that the people of the village cannot get in. I do not know if this is true but its what people say.
The people say that only two weeks ago a woman bled to death in childbirth and they tried to call a cruise ship van to take her to the hospital but they said no. Later she died and they sent flowers. I do not know if this is true but this is what her brother says. The placenta would not come out and she bled to death while the people on the island that comes and goes ate and watched movies and danced. I do not know if this is true but its what the people say. They said the father of the woman who died threw the flowers on the ground. That is what they say.
There is a massive rubber float toy on the beach where I walk. It sits deflated and crumpled by someone’s house. They say its from the cruise ship but I do not know. They say it floated up on shore along with thousands of plastic soda bottles. I had thought the people just didn’t pick up their garbage but then I realized you can not buy a soda there and I never saw anyone drinking one. Things float to shore. The people say it comes from other islands. Where would they take it even if they picked it up and still the waves will bring more tomorrow.
They say once a few people escaped from the island that comes and goes and went into Cap Hatien. They were not allowed back on the boat. They left them here in Haiti. I do not know if this is true but its what people say.
They say the clinic has no doctor and only two nurses who are not able to do the work. Once the cruise company paid for a Cuban doctor but he went away. That is what the people say.
They say Christopher Columbus’s ship sailed here and that his boat burnt in the cove near to where the ship stays. That is what the people say. They point and I look out in the sea I and can not imagine.
I walk up on the hill and down into a clear cove of bright, blue water. Dogs and children follow along and later there is soccer on the beach and a fire and the last songs of the day.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Perfect Day

On a perfect day, in Haiti...a day too delicious for words.. I climb up into the mountains and follow streams to where they leap from pool to pool with waterfalls one right after the other. The children who come with me, quickly take off their clothes and swim in clear, clean water; their laughter holding me in quiet rapture; their songs echoing off the hillsides where cows graze and farmers work in their gardens. We lay in butterfly and hummingbird filled meadows.

When we walk home, Islar, finds us all mangoes. I don;t know how she does it but she finds us these sweet, delicious mangoes that drip from our lips and sticks to our fingers. They are the first of the season. We sit in the sun and eat mango after mango and I think, this is a very perfect day.
These are the sounds and images and tastes that I will hold close within me forever. I know that children die and don't get to go to school and are orphaned far more than us fair but I also know that children know the names of plants, how to climb trees, the words to many songs and how to delight in a Saturday afternoon hike....and when we did not have any food, they knew how to find some. This picture is a picture of pure delight and happiness. These children, who I have come to know and love so well, have parents who work hard all day long and so this was a day of celebrating life for us all.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Lapli , the Creole word for rain. The gentle afternoon rains that cool a hot day or turn them into steam. The rains that call young children out of their houses to bathe in the yards, the rains that water the small farms that spread up the side of the mountains. Lapli- the rains that come and go and come again but never stay very long. Lapli, lapli. I hear the word when the rain drips off the roofs and from the banana leaves.
But now we have a different kind of rain. It blows and lasts all night. It reminds me of a hurricane. Hurricane is one of the last remaining words from the Taino people who first inhabited this island. Of all the words, of all the customs, of all the people – this word survives and spreads and is used on weather channels and news papers the world over. Hurricane.
When I lie in bed, listening to the storm, I can not help but think about the houses that the many people I know are sleeping in tonight. I think of the walls woven tightly, artistically. I think of the best of these houses; how the branches are woven in intricate patterns to keep the mosquitoes out and let the air in. I have marveled at their design. If the rain fall straight down, I think, then they will be dry but if it goes sideways they will all be huddled in their beds in the rain. I can see that some of these houses are made by more skilled craftsmen than others. I know this island has survived many storms but still I think of the people I love out there in this storm.
I think of the mud caked walls of Melove’s little house. I am sure there is a proper way to line the walls with a mixture of mud and plants to keep the rain out but her house appears to have been fashioned with less skill and so the mud is slapped on the walls without ever really covering anything at all. I have no faith it is keeping the rain out. There are two rooms. One for her and her three children and one for her mother. Each room is barely big enough for a bed and little else.
The floor is mud and I know that it is flooding tonight; that they are on two little islands of mattress huddled together, confident that a day of sunshine will come to dry out all the bedding. It sits on the edge of a gully in a sort of ditch where they cook, wash and spend their days. I imagine that the ditch is a pond with cook pots floating around the house.
Her roof is a tin, splattered with many holes. A volunteer came and hammered up a piece of plastic to keep the rain out but I wonder, as the rain beats down all around us and the wind blows, how much that piece of plastic can hold back.
The night before last, I slept at the fishing village where I am training Matwans. The only road into the village is flooded. I had to take a motorcycle in; getting off and walking part way through knee high streams of water. Yards are flooded and children wade waist deep to get to their houses. When the sun comes out, the blankets are all thrown over cactus fences to dry before the next night’s rain.
At Dafka’s house, they are sleeping, as I write, in one bed; Dafka, her Dad and the two older children. The front door of her house and many traditional houses in Haiti, is covered with a piece of cloth or curtain. They are often made of lace and blow slightly in the breeze on a warm afternoon. They offer privacy and shade. They are, it seems to me, a symbol of Haiti’s grace and charm. In a well built traditional house, there would be strong wood doors and shutters but in most they have long since fell into disrepair. Because so many people wish for a concrete house, they often do not repair the traditional houses and so even if they once were designed for these rains, they are no longer.
I think about all the children who have come to see me with “coughs, colds and fevers”. I think of the fungus infections growing on so many children’s heads. When it rains, they may have to bring their charcoal cook stoves into their sleeping rooms, the smoke making the coughs and runny noses even worst.
When I return from the fishing village and tell of my journey through flooding streams, they say I have walked through cholera water. They say this is the season for cholera because all the waste is washed into the swirling stream where people have to walk. The wells are flooded with the contamination. It had felt good to wade in these streams. It reminded me of wading in my old creek and I liked being in the streams with all the other people. My feet enjoyed the cool water, the round smooth rocks and the squishy mud. I am sorry everyone had to look alarmed and tell me it was cholera water. I can see that this is true, however, and recall the nurse giving talks to the people in the fishing village about cholera. I know it is true but I am not sure how they can get anywhere – school , church, work or market without wading waist deep often through water.
The rains beat hard against the clinic walls and blows the trees. It seems it will never end.
But I know come morning, Melove , and others like her, will emerge from their houses, with determination and a smile. With grace, the sun will emerge as well -from behind the clouds, from behind the mountains and dry the bed clothes once again. Feet will get lost in a landscape of mud puddles. Carts and wheels and hoofs will get stuck and need to be pulled and pushed and coaxed out so that they can be on their way again.
And in the morning, children will emerge with neatly washed and pressed school uniforms and matching bows in their hair. The girls will have socks trimmed with lace and there will be no sign of the considerable day to day effort it takes to survive this stormy season in Haiti.