Saturday, January 28, 2012

The View from the mountiantop.

Here in Haiti beautiful hikes to the top of mountains with breath taking views of the sea are abundant. Before coming here, this was not my image of Haiti but it is the truth. Here you see me with my sister, Beth and friend, Maxa after a hike up to the Citadel in northern Haiti.

Behind the clinic, we can walk to the top of a small mountain through small farms and look out at the sea. Someone has built a small outdoor church there.

There is gentle mixture of mountain, river, sea and farm. In the traditional villages, the houses blend into this environment without disturbance or impact. This is the Haiti I have come to know and love.

A conversation about race

A conversation about race
The birth center is a busy place these days, filled with many visitors from North America. Gone are my early days here when I delivered baby after baby by myself with few resources, electricity or people. My work has evolved from being a midwife to developing standards to trying to work with an ever-changing pool of volunteer and student midwives.
There is food to prepare, protocols to share, customs to reinforce, language lessons to give all side by side with births, sick babies and emergencies.
Here at MBH, lunch is the main meal of the day. It is served after a busy clinic schedule and many of the Haitien staff that works in the mornings, stay for this meal. It is traditional Haitien food and is most often composed of a grain and beans with a sauce that is cooked on the charcoal stove. It is a difficult meal to prepare, as it requires much chopping, grinding, mashing and cooking. Sometimes the sauce may have a little chicken or fish but more often than not it has local greens and spices.
Each of us come to lunch after we have finished seeing our last mom or baby; carrying with us the stories we have heard and the problems we have tried to solve. Lunch has also been a time for celebrations, good-byes, prayers and songs. There is one long, wooden table with two benches and many scattered chairs.
Lately I have noticed that the Haitien staff is sitting at the table talking and eating with perfect manners while many of the volunteers scatter with lap tops to eat or talk with another volunteer. The room is divided in half. The darker skinned at the table together with a few white volunteers and then the rest on the sofa with each other or their laptops.
When I first began to notice this, I wanted to believe it was my imagination or a coincidence. I wanted to say the table was too crowded but then I had to accept that the room had become more and more segregated. I noticed that even when there was plenty of room at the table with the Haitien staff, most volunteers chose another seat. Was it the eating habits of America or was it the tug of discomfort when we are with people who are different than us? Why were two groups of people who had just worked together in the clinic, choosing to eat apart?
The Haitien staff enjoys their meal. They eat slowly and with appreciation. They talk quietly and laugh and love the traditional tastes and pleasures of a well-cooked meal.
Many of us are familiar with the ‘slow food movement.” Many of us also pride ourselves in our love of local, seasonal, organic foods. All these things are abundant in Haiti. Our food is always local, seasonal and organic and we have an opportunity to eat slowly and enjoy our noon meal.
I recalled the title of a book I once read called, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I remember being shocked at the title and feeling defensive. I did not want to believe this was true and so I had not seen what was right before my very eyes. I wanted to believe that my ESL students were all eating together because they were all learning English but then I had to see that it was not just ESL students but kids of color all grouped together regardless of ethnic background or language. There were, of course, kids who navigated comfortably amongst groups but when I was honest with myself I had to admit that the title of the book was asking me to take a hard look at race and I was uncomfortable with what I saw.
I cannot be in Haiti without being constantly aware of race.
Haiti would not be Haiti if racism did not exist. Racism is woven into the very fiber of its history. We would all, including me, like to believe that with revolutions, new laws, and new leaders and time that the force of race as a social construct has faded.
It is awkward and embarrassing to acknowledge issues of race. We all want to do it right and yet we cannot even begin because it is terrifying to acknowledge and so we pretend that we don’t have different skin colors. We adopt the age-old tactic of being colorblind.
In Haiti. it is somewhat difficult to not recognize that we are white as everyone yells “Blanc” as you pass by. Children reach out to touch your skin and hair with curiosity. Others see you through the lens of a legacy of imperialism and slavery.
I do not have an answer. I have agreed to not back away from conversations about race. I have agreed to feel discomfort and I have accepted that I cannot have closure. I must live, as we all must, with the willingness to have the hard conversations.
And so I ask myself, why is our lunchtime meal so segregated? Santo suggests a white table and a black table so the white people don’t have to sit on couches. Ouch. The white volunteers scramble for reasons why this is happening. They have computers to cruise and the black skinned diners do not. Ouch.
I am the grandmother here. I am the eldest and I am the clinic director. I feel responsible. I want to fix it; not just the seating at lunch but the hundreds of years of institutionalized racism in Haiti and in my life.
I cannot make the past go away or pretend that race is not at the heart of the human journey. All I can do is feel my discomfort and open the door for a conversation as we move forward.

Friday, January 20, 2012



Many of us remember the deep horror and fear, we felt as we watched the film, Sofie’s Choice. How could any parent choose between two children. How could they deicide who might better survive with less, who was stronger, who could get along with less protection in the care of others?

Here in Haiti, I have watched the struggle of parents who are faced with very little resources, make difficult choices about their children. By the time, they have found their way to our door, their child is usually very weak and near to death. They are without any resources. They know that in order for their children to survive they must feed themselves as well.

The gardener must decide to leave her 12 and 14 children in an unsafe house so that she can protect her daughter who had a baby as a result of sexual abuse. She does not want to leave the other children unprotected but she must choose and hope that they will survive while she tends to her other daughter and the baby. It is a frightening choice. If she leaves the 12 and 14 year old they will be fed and sent to school but are vulnerable to abuse.

A fathers whose wife died “ on the road’ must decide what to do with his new baby who came to us after only drinking sugar water for 14 days. He has two other children and they have very little food or housing either. If he puts the baby in an orphanage he can possibly find work. We drive him to the orphanage where he clings to his baby and says, after the visit, he can not leave her. We give him some work and try to get the older children in school. We give the baby new clothes and formula. He is a tall man who carries his little baby in a sling and walks far with the other two children just to have a meal at the center. He says maybe he should put the baby at the orphanage for a few months., after all. He has to choose between the baby and the older children.

A father’s wife dies after having a c-section. I am told she was having twins and after the surgery she fell off the bed and had complications. Then on the way home on a motorcycle, suddenly died. The father who had loved his wife dearly, was left with two newborn babies and very few resources. We give him clothes and formula and he asks if we can keep the babies. He loves these babies but he can not care for them. He struggles with the choices before him.

A mother who lives near by has four children. Her husband died a few months ago and she cares for an elderly mother who can not walk. They live in a one room house with no water or electricity of any kind. Last week she brought me her two year old who was in the grips of severe starvation and malnutrition. The baby I delivered was breastfed and is thriving. The others ate what they could but this baby girl somehow did not manage to get what little share their was . Without knowing, the mother was forced to choose the stronger children over this one who did not fight for her share. By the time we saw her she was so swollen, her skin was splitting open. She could no longer stand and would not eat. We drove her to the hospital and did what we could.

People ask me how it is that so many children under five could possibly die. I see that with so few resources, barriers of transportation and few medical facilities close by, that there is a hopelessness and a big family must, n some way, let some children go. They go to live with other people or to an orphanage that may have few resources or they just don’t seek medical help before it is too late.

It is cooler in Haiti now. The rains come often and there are often clouds in the sky at sunrise. By afternoon, however, it warms out and we enjoy day after day of throw off your sweater delicious afternoons.

It is also true that I meet with people each day who are willing and trying to help. There are the doctors in the pediatric wing of the hospital who take the baby who is starving. There is the local minister who agrees to be a sponsor through World Vision of the two older children. There is the volunteer who says she’ll send me money for rice and beans for the father. There are the people who gave me money for emergencies. There is MedicaMumba who gives nutritious peanut butter raised by local farmers to malnourished children. I am thinking soon someone will come and help me fix up a house for the gardener and her children. There is the orphanage, Children of the Promise, who works hard to reunite families. There are people building latrines and putting in pumps.

Outside on the road, a local artist paints a beautiful and educational mural about clean water on our wall. Everywhere there are hard stories and everywhere there is goodness and hope.

Sometimes we are faced with impossible choices and sometimes we are simply faced with the choice to look in the direction where the goodness is coming so we too have the strength and nourishment to care for others.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Edge

The Edge
What I wanted, when I set out perhaps, was this sense of home wherever I went; this change in space and time that would allow me to love in a way I had not known before. I did not know what this meant but only longed for it in ways I could not define or understand.
I had often felt this undefined sense of space as a child lying in the grass on a sunny afternoon. In time, I could not tell what was my body and what was the grass. I felt myself become that grass and could see that the insects traveled easily between the grass and me as if we were one.
I became curious about this space between what seemed to be very different things and the place that they met; the edges as well as the heart of things.
I could feel this as I left the United States and returned to Haiti; this space, this edge where the two were so close together that I could feel them both at the same time and in this way experience them as one.
I had resisted this, wanting to cling to the safe, familiar things of a south Florida airport. I had wanted to eat one more time, flush toilets, read magazines at newsstands and use my phone. I moved slowly towards my boarding gate at 4:00 am after sleeping in the airport. At the boarding gate, people spoke Creole more than English, the skin color went from white to dark brown, suitcases replaced handbags. I was surrounded by piles of gifts for friends and relatives in Haiti; toilet paper, a birthday cake and boxes filled with clothes. In front of me a woman bargained about the cost of an extra suitcases while children played chase and strangers shared a common story. So much happiness in “going home to Haiti.”
We lingered there in the dark corridor until the doors opened and we were led out into the half night of a Florida sunrise.
As I walked across the runway, I could feel that which was both Haiti and the United States; could feel the tug of the immigrant as he traveled home to Haiti and could feel my own tug in both directions until I let go and let the cool air lift me into the place where the two met; that edge which could not hold me but rather, even for a moment set me free.
Perhaps it is like the moment we dive off a cliff into the river and we can feel the space between the cliff and the river. This place of floating, this edge between two totally different but connected places.
That place where I could see two countries and their people as a place where two worlds drift one into another; their tendrils, their vines, the very air connecting them.
When I was in Oregon, friends would ask me about Haiti and I struggled to explain that Haiti is the mirror in which I see myself more clearly, that edge where my life connects to a truth long hidden from my view.
Being here is sometimes the soft, gentle edge of relatives traveling home. It is the edges between pregnancy and birth, between stranger and friend. It is also the raw, naked edge of poverty caused by slavery, colonialism, dictatorships and imperialism. These things that are my country’s legacy as well as Haiti’s.
Each day I can choose to cling to boundaries or feel the gentle, undefined space where continents, ecosystems, countries, cultures and people drift one into another, collide and grow.
I want to live on this edge, in this space where things and countries and people connect.
With these thoughts, I return to my home and work in Haiti, blessed by the sweet love and tenderness of those who have walked beside me.
Thank you.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Poem I wrote for Nathan's Memorial

I am Nathan

I come from the sound of the water buffalo,
Returning after a day in the rice fields,
The flowers picked by young girls woven into my mane.

I come from a village well where mothers
Bathed their children at dusk;
Pouring water from bowls of red clay
Over bodies golden brown from a
Long day spent playing in the sun.

I come from ancestors in Cambodia,
A long lineage of artists and farmers;
Fisherman and engineers
Who built the Kingdom of Angkor.
Temples reaching up to God; reflections of
The Buddha’s Compassionate Way.

I am Nathan

I come from grandparents lost to wars
Fought in villages and along the rivers of
Cambodia. I come from Phal Pot and the
Wound he left in my parent’s heart., as they
Fled as refugees to the home I knew as America.

I come from Khea and Tara who became Samantha
And Tim on the day they became citizens
Of the country that adopted them and took them in.

I am Nathan

Born on the last day of 1995 into the hands
Of my midwife’the only grandmother I ever
Knew. My placenta planted beneath the trees
Of childhood play and Easter egg hunts in the
Forest I called Grandma’s house; a place
Of endless dinners, chickens hatching and
Garden snakes sleeping in the sun.

I am Nathan

Brother of John and David.
In the middle. Struggling for
Knees and arms and a way to
Be me in the midst of them.
Basketball and bikes, trips to
The river. Nachos and movies
Warm, familiar, the open and
Close of a welcoming door. A
Soft bed and new shoes and
A home on Willowgrove Street

I come from divorce and the sound of
My parents fighting. I come from
Changing houses and changing rooms
And step parents who opened their arms
To love me even when I turned away.

I come from the rivers and ponds
Of Oregon, from turtles and frogs
And tadpoles in a jar. I come from
Fishing and muddy shoes and
A love of animals that lepta from
My heart and rested in the dog
We know as Treasure.

I am Nathan,

Inventor and artist
Curious, strong and
Tender hearted.

I come from cousins whose
Parents like mine came from
Afar to make a family. Cambodia,
Vietnam, Ecuador, Mexico and the
Philippines. Waiting on my
Birthday while we sing in every
Language. Clapping and laughing.
Egg rolls and turkey on Thanksgiving.
Young and old in Christmas
Photos where I move from the arm
Of my mother to a place of my own.

I am Nathan

I come from
Quiet dreams and closed doors,
Of laptops and computer games
Walls and codes and armor
To keep you from knowing
Me, finding me, loving me.

I am Nathan

I come from wanting peace,
Good grades in school and a
Buddha’s heart. I come from
Too shy, too fragile. I come
From a big body
That never matched the tender places
It held tenderly within its soul.

I am Nathan.

Lying in the snow
Looking up at a bright blue
Oregon morning; the last
cloud drifting across the sky

I am Nathan

Look for me still
In the loving touch
Of my mother’s hand,
In the bark of my dog,
When the fish are biting
And soft white clouds
Drift across
A clear Oregon sky.

I am Nathan
And I love you