Friends in Far Away Places: a meditation on “good-bye”

Saturday night our friend Kathryn came to dinner.  Sara cooked Pad Thai.  There was salmon pate and wine, and an evening on our deck with a friend we dearly love.  We had wanted to celebrate Kathryn’s recent milestone birthday—I won’t mention her exact age, just that she could pass for someone a good 2 decades younger.

But that’s not what matters here—not what matters most by any means. What’s more important is the fact of friendship, the fact that Sara’s worked with Kathryn in countless places around the world, and I’ve been with her in a good many locations myself.  What matters most is this benefit, this blessing of friendship—one of the unexpected perks that comes with Sara’s work in disaster response.  It makes things feel a little less disastrous.  It normalizes.

Travel to exotic places is sometimes made a little less pleasant by the day to day reality of actually living in uncomfortable locations, places our pampered American upbringings have not prepared us for.  But when it comes to folks we’ve worked with, there’s just no down side.  Sure it feels good to know that Sara’s work improves the lives of others, but when one gets down to the nitty-gritty selfish reasons I benefit from this arrangement, it’s really all about the people.

Since I’m not the one actually doing the work, since I’m the one sometimes forced by circumstances to set aside my career as a writing teacher to be with Sara in the field, I’m especially grateful for the folks we meet along the way, the ones we live with, shop with, cook with, cry with. 

I’ve gotten close to many of Sara’s colleagues, folks like Elizabeth and Minh, like Dee and Aileen, like Todd and Robin and Lesley and Jack.  But Kathryn, well, Kathryn has not only been one of my personal favorites—Kathryn is leaving us today—going back to the US to take a job with another international aid organization.

And though this makes me sad—(sad for only selfish reasons, I might add)—it’s a great development for Kathryn herself, since she’ll be headquartered in the same city her daughter and grandson live in, the same city several other of our friends have also settled, friends Kathryn too has worked with in many places on the planet, from Thailand to Tanzania.

I already miss the year we shared with Kathryn in Vietnam—months living together in Hanoi, days shopping in the Old Quarter, mornings walking West Lake, a 30 hour train traveling the country south to north. 

Here in Haiti she’ll be missed by many more than simply Sara and I—and our dogs, wagging, barking, licking kisses to” Auntie Kathryn,” whom they adore.  Here she’s loved by both Haitians and expats alike, people who have come to Port-au-Prince to participate in the recovery—come from places as far away as Alaska or Alabama, India or Indonesia, Eastern Europe or Western Africa.  

Kathryn is loving. 

And accordingly—she is loved.

The bottom line is this—

When working far from family, far from the comforts and conveniences of home, we’re thankful for the exquisite blessing that is friendship—friends who comfort, friends who share our homes and become like family.

 We’re grateful for the Kathryn’s among us—

— even when we say goodbye!

Woe is me and the burden of being blessed

Okay, despite moaning and groaning earlier this week about not having water, despite complaining to my mother about being without electricity for much of every day, despite the fact that it’s often unsafe and the infrastructure sucks, please understand I’m not exactly suffering here in this beautifully warm and mostly sunny part of the world. 

I feel particularly compelled to set the record straight, since I’ve not shared much in this blog to date about the benefits I’m afforded as an expat living in Haiti.  Clearly the media in the US doesn’t tell this side of the story, mostly because the biggest story to tell about Haiti, in fact perhaps, the truest story to tell about Haiti involves the unimaginable pain people suffer on this tiny island.  But clearly that’s not the experience of the Haitian elite, largely not the experience of UN peacekeepers, diplomats, humanitarian aid workers or missionaries living here.  Some of us are getting along quite comfortably in Haiti, quite comfortably indeed. 

Partly, I feel compelled to share this now since friends and family tend to commend me for what I’m doing, and, frankly, I feel guilty.  The fact of the matter is I deserve no special recognition for doing anything all that sacrificial.  It’s important to remember I not only chose to be here, I want to be here.  It’s not like I’ve been dragged to this climatically semi-perfect part of the planet kicking and screaming.  It’s a Caribbean island, and folks like to vacation in the Caribbean for a reason.  It’s paradise. 

Yes, we had a hurricane last week, and hurricanes can kill.  But they kill in the US, as well.  God knows Katrina killed in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast.  It’s true we have a rainy season and days with way more water than any land-loving creature would know what to do with, but even during those damp months in summer and early fall, we wake up to sunny skies almost every morning.  And you don’t have to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder to know that sunshine tends to make people happy.  We’re kind of weird that way as a species.

But I should try to wrap this up, since the housekeeper will be here soon.  She’ll sweep and mop the floors, do dishes, drop off clean laundry for the weekend.  

I gotta go to the beach on Sunday and out to a lovely dinner tonight. 

Somebody has to suffer.  Might as well be me.