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.