Moving as Meditation (and Other Pre-Lenten Events)

As Sara and I prepare to move back to the US next week,  leaving behind in Haiti a year’s worth of work, challenge, periodic victory and sometimes defeat, it’s a time for me to reflect, reminisce, think about where I’ve been over the past year, in an effort to figure out where I am going in the one to come.

In the reflective spirit of Lent* (which begins tomorrow), I thought that over the next week I’d revisit some of my earliest posts to the blog, remembering the lessons learned, even the questions left unanswered.

So–since I’m busy packing up one life and moving into another, and since, at the blog’s beginning, most of you weren’t reading yet, I’ll resurrect the first post below and give you a glimpse of how it all got started 4 months ago:

So–the old blog is reincarnated here under a new name!  It is, indeed, the Vietnam version “reinvented” from yet another edgy location–this time Haiti, where a cholera epidemic has spread to Port-au-Prince–my home for the next couple of years.

But before I address the big issues faced here on the western half of Hispaniola, I should clarify why I’ve chosen this new title.  For my less geeky readers, an “event horizon” is the edge of a black hole, a boundary in the space/time continuum beyond which no light can escape—in many ways, a point of no return.  You’ve taken physics; you know this; you’ve just forgotten.

Bottom line–it seems to me, that the far-away places Sara and I have been over the last couple of years have formed a kind of “event horizon” in my mind–taking me to the outer limits of my own comfort zone, shaping new perspectives in me about both the world around me and about this time in my life–a bending of my personal space/time continuum, if you will—–mind-bending for me, at the very least.

However, Haiti itself offers a kind of event horizon–a comparison I first found when reading Paul Farmer’s book “The Uses of Haiti.”  Farmer begins his chapter of the same name with the following epigraph by T. D. Allman:

Haiti is not simply one more of those tropical dictatorships where to rule is to steal, and headless bodies are found by the road.  Haiti contorts time:  It convolutes reason if you are lucky–and obliterates it if you are not.  Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space.  Venture there and you cross an event horizon. (After Baby Doc, 1989)

Wrap you brain around that statement and you may begin to see why I’ve renamed the blog–because this place, this  location has forced me to rethink my beliefs, not only about myself, but also about big issues such as poverty and hunger–and disease, for god sake!  We’re in the midst of a cholera epidemic!  

But even without cholera sickening folks by the thousands, we had an earthquake here last January, a hurricane last week, and a million and a half people homeless in Port-au-Prince today. 

Was the earthquake an event horizon for Port-au-Prince?  Will cholera bend time and space so there’s no escaping the dis-ease that’s plagued this place for centuries? 

Is there light for Haiti?

Now, fast-forward 4 months. 

Do you think the blog is fulfilling its mission so far?

And, even more importantly, if you have one, what task does your blog accomplish?  What is its purpose?  Tell us about it in the comments and leave a link.  You might attract some new readers!

And don’t forget that tomorrow we’ll have our “Mid-Week Mindy,” tomorrow a reflection on Lent*.  Mindy will be covering for me, answering questions, responding to comments.

* On the Christian calendar, tomrrow, Ash Wednesday, begins the season of Lent, 40 days of reflecting and fasting, leading up to Easter Sunday.  For a beautiful mediation on the meaning  of Lent, check out this post by my friend Jane over at PlaneJaner’s Journey.

Haitian Street Art: A “Good Report”

Most mornings in Haiti I drive past displays of “street art”— a common sight in and around Port-au-Prince.  In most instances, hundreds of paintings are attached to walls that line the roadways, a collage of folk art images quilting the street.

In Petion-ville, just down the mountain from where we live, art is sold across the street from a camp of earthquake survivors, and in fact, some paintings now for sale along the road have selected the disaster itself as their subject.

Below is a video about street art that was produced about a month after the earthquake.  In it two artists are interviewed, the first lamenting the loss of his mentor in the disaster, the second discussing his own earthquake-focused paintings.  Despite the language barrier, try to appreciate the images and emotions shared here:

Responding to the same depth of emotion expressed above, Sara and I, over the last year, have purchased a number of paintings from the street.  We love the stuff and have bought 5 or 6 pieces, not only because of the emotionally charged nature of the work, but also because the art is highly affordable and equally portable.  (Canvases can be removed from frames, rolled up, and packed away in suitcases when we return to the US.)

The first piece we purchased in March of 2010 depicts a market scene, a common motif in Haitian folk art and an especially popular one in street art:

We enjoy the bold colors in this painting by A. Emmanuel and are struck by the featureless faces of the market women.  Notice the women wear the head coverings common in the Haitian countryside.

Still other paintings feature religious themes, as in this image of the Madonna:

Notice the mirror images of the Baby Jesus.  Twins are especially important in voodoo, and sometimes even Christian paintings include elements of it.

However, other street paintings more overtly explore voodoo, this other side of religious life on the island.  Some offer heavily painted symbols of the loa, the deities of Haiti, such as the “vever” (design) for Agwe, the voodoo water spirit:

Sara and I have none of the “vever” paintings, but we do have the one below that is, at least obliquely, associated with voodoo:

Still other street art paintings, like the one below, explore rural village life:

I think it’s important to remember, that street art, like the painting above,  like those sold adjacent to the camp in Petion-ville, not only humanizes situations that might otherwise seem hopelessly inhumane, but also dignifies these places, in some instances almost encircling the camp with images of loveliness and grace, embracing the Haitians encamped there, culturally reinforcing messages about beauty’s ability to triumph over pain.

So the next time you think about Haiti—the earthquake, the cholera, the political corruption—remind yourself, and others for that matter, that though things here might seem singularly hopeless, they are, in fact, neither simple nor beyond repair.

Remember that over 200 years ago Haitians defeated the French, becoming only the second country in the Western hemisphere (after the United States) to gain independence from a colonial master—a nation of slaves strong enough and determined enough to refuse oppression even its most imperial form.

Remember, as well, that Haitian folk art in general and street art in particular articulate the daring of a people determined to overcome.  Remember that Haiti is not a hopeless place, but is, in fact, one whose people have endured centuries of mistreatment, first from a colonial system of servitude, then from a social and political elite whose wealth has depended for decades on the poverty of so many.

Indeed, the future may look bleak, prospects may seem poor, but Haitians are rich in emotional resources,  their creative spirit screams from street corners where art echoes centuries of grief and centuries of hope, decades of determination, and ages of insight, wisdom, and strength.

Haitians remember the Biblical imperative to think on “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.”  (Thank you, Jane, for the reminder!)

Haitian art indeed reminds us that things are lovely–

That beauty  paints a “good report.”

Stumping for Haitian Art: Gorgeous Gardens in Port-au-Prince

I had a close encounter with garden art last week—

An unexpected one at that.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a visual artist—of sorts—self-taught, poor, and living in exile on a Caribbean island, where electricity is in short supply, political stability is even harder to come by, and cholera is spreading like good gossip in a gaggle of girls.  I’ve shared my work in previous posts.  I love art, support art, enjoy it in all its incarnations, shapes, and sizes.

But it surprised even me last week, when an artistic enterprise unfolded in my own Port-au-Prince back yard—one uninitiated by me.

Ever since last spring when Sara moved into our house on a hill—Morne Calvaire (where we’re told a new neighbor is Baby Doc Duvalier), the land-lady has promised a garden, and last week she delivered, arriving with a landscape artist who installed a stunning rock garden near our front door.

We were happy.  We were actually thrilled.  However, we were not prepared for act two, which unfolded the following day.

It was morning; the sky was clear, blue bold enough to brighten even the most bored of bloggers.  I was writing, enjoying light that angled through my wall of windows.  While I was working, however, the dogs alerted me to a noise outside, one I might have otherwise ignored. Thank God for canine clamor.

There on the hillside that slants down and away from our house, three men, our landscape artist included, pushed and pulled, grunted and groaned the most massive of stumps toward a wall and fence that border the back of our garden.

I couldn’t imagine why.  What was the purpose behind this effort?  Why had Sisyphus himself shown up on my Haitian hillside?

What concerned me most, however, from my interpretation of signs and signals being gestured below, was an apparent plan to heave the stump over the wall and through the fence cemented into it.  I watched and wondered, watched and wondered some more till I was sure the plan indeed involved such fence bull-dozing, before running out to get our security guard to intervene and interrupt this planned assault.  Within seconds Sonny came running, riffle gesturing the men away from ruining our fence.

It was soon discovered via a phone call to our landlady that, having forgotten the fence was attached to the top it, she had asked the men to remove the stump by pushing it over the top of the wall.  Our stump-movers extraordinaire interpreted her instructions quite literally, intending to force the tree through the fence in an effort to accomplish the task.  So much for common sense.

Stump removal ceased for the day.

The men then returned the following morning, removing a section of fence, forcing their burden over the top of the wall, lowering it with ropes into the back of a truck on the other side, and replacing the offending section of fence, before departing—

I assumed forever.

However, the following morning, while I was again writing, a horn honked outside our gate, the dogs barked like insane caricatures of canine companionship, and I soon heard the shouting of what turned out to be seven men.  Within minutes massive crashing commenced on the deck above, more shouting, still more housing-rattling crashes, shouting and crashing, shouting and crashing, until I simply had to investigate.

The stump had returned.

It was now living on our patio, puzzling me, puzzling indeed.  I like trees as much at the next semi-green ex-pat on the island, but REALLY, did we want this stump on our patio?

Over the next several days, however, Dicton Gaston, our new gardener guy answered that question for me, proving more and more a sculpting savant, as the stump morphed from this:

Into this:

Dicton Gaston is a gardening genius.

Dicton Gaston proves art emerges from even the most unlikely places.

Dicton Gaston proves that in Port-au-Prince, though ex-dictators may show up unannounced at airports, though they’ll be arrested and released and move onto the mountain where you live, art can come from equally surprising places, in delightfully surprising packages.

So, this week, as long as the ex-dictator can maintain his EX-dictator status, as long as protesters don’t take to the streets and shut down the city, as long as posts can go as planned, this week I’ll bring you a series on Haitian art, hoping to remind you—

Port-au-Prince may be leveled, reduced to a dead stump of its former self, discarded on a hillside, in ruin.  Haiti may be broken, lost, and nearly forgotten, but still, like Dicton’s stump, it can occupy a prominent place, a patio blooming, green, and living once again.

A work of genuine genius.

Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite

As I’ve struggled over the past several days, trying to make even minimal sense of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return to Haiti Sunday evening, and worked even harder attempting to understand the Duvalierists I’ve discovered in my life since then, I’ve remembered why art is such a good way for me to grapple with complex issues, ones for which there are no easy answer.  When slugging through the muck and mire of not knowing remains the only way through a particular darkness, I, like both Aristotle and Shakespeare, find comfort in art and literature’s ability to “imitate nature,” be like the thing that’s bothersome, while, at the same time, not being the thing itself.

 So, in the midst of my Duvalier-induced dementia, I remembered a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  I’ve often taught this piece to composition students when wanting to demonstrate how “showing,” rather than merely “telling,” makes for stronger writing.  But yesterday Le Guin’s story reminded me why and how literature can become a way through confusion, especially in a place where more than a million remain homeless, cholera continues to kill, and ex-dictators come home to roost. 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a seemingly ideal city that hides a dark and disturbing secret (a dystopia, in literary terms).  Happiness and peace in Omelas depend on the suffering and misery of one small child, dungeoned in filth and despair.  According to Le Guin’s narrator, coming of age in this seemingly perfect place involves visiting this child and realizing, for the first time, the price Omelas pays for peace.

Clearly Omelas is not a perfect parallel to Port-au-Prince, since here the wealth and luxury enjoyed by an elite minority depend on the suffering of millions.  My Duvalierist friends may long for the good-old-days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, an era when the lights stayed on and the streets were clean, but even now in Haiti the balance is shifted in favor of the privileged few.

 In the story’s final paragraph (click here to read the story in its entirety), Le Guin tell us about a few citizens of Omelas, but only a few, unwilling to accept this “bargain,” unwilling to exchange the suffering of an innocent child for their own well-being, to trade conscience for comfort.  These are, indeed, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” 

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

 For the same reason these few in Omelas walk away, here in Haiti some have come and  decided to stay, refusing, in their own way, to accept the bargained-comfort that is life back home.  But this situation is extreme. 

I wonder how this same unwillingness to compromise conscience plays itself out in your life.  What do you sacrifice, what do you say “no” to, because doing so is good and fair and just? 

 How is conscience alive and well in your life?

If only I (k)NEW(s)!

Earlier this week my friend Lisa at “Notes from Africa” suggested I begin periodic news updates about Haiti.  I thought that a fine idea, as most of Lisa’s are, so today I’m here to deliver news, of sorts.

“Why ‘of sorts’?” you might ask.

A reasonable question—

For here in Haiti, the fact remains, it’s hellaciously hard to get good news.  And by “good news” I mean accurate news.  More often than not, I’m misinformed, ill-informed, or not informed at all.  More often than not I’m confused.  More often than not I throw my hands in the air and exclaim in utter and complete newsless-ness, “C’est la vie, la vie.”  Indeed—whatever will be will be—cause I’m not gonna be able to change it and I’m sure as hell not gonna know about it ahead of time.

In Haiti I think we have accurate news about like we have free and fair elections—rarely, if at all.

But here goes.  Here you have—

Haiti’s Week in Review:

Earthquake anniversary

If you’ve been reading this blog, you should know that January 12th was the one year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, an event which, I hear, got significant coverage in the US and around the world.  (I know the national director for Sara’s NGO here in Haiti was interviewed on CNN the night before last.)

–At least 230,000 were killed.

–More than 300,000 were injured.

–Only 5% of rubble has been cleared in the last year.

–Still 1.3 million are homeless in and around Port-au-Prince.

A couple of great articles on the anniversary have appeared at this week.  I suggest you take a look at:

                “Who Failed on Haiti’s Recovery?”

                “Haiti’s Quake, One Year Later: It’s the Rubble, Stupid!”


Not as much in the headlines this week, but I heard in an interview on NPR this morning that we are officially in the epidemic phase of the disease. 

–The death toll as of yesterday was 3, 759 according to the Haitian Health Ministry.

–Officially 181,000 have been sickened to date.

For more news on the cholera outbreak I recommend an article from the Montreal Gazette:

                “Haiti cholera toll tops 3,750”

Haitian Presidential Elections

Here’s where things get complicated and more than a little fuzzy.  And here’s where I wish I knew a whole lot more, not only because it’s important to the democratic process, but also because, in purely practical and selfish terms, what happens here over the next several days will impact my life most significantly.

First a bit of background in case you’re new to this issue: 

–On November 28th Haiti held nationwide elections, with 18 candidates running for president.

–Ballot boxes arrived at polling places stuffed with votes for the candidate from the ruling political party and soon-to-be son-in-law of current Haitian president Preval—Jude Celestin—causing most of the other candidates to accuse the government of fraud.

–Rioting broke out when election results were announced a week later and the top two vote-getters were Mirlande Manigat and Celestin—excluding hugely popular musician candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly from a run-off between the top 2 vote-getters on January 16th.

–Port-au-Prince streets calmed down when Preval’s government agreed to a recount of votes by the OAS (Organization of American States).

–The announced results of that recount have been delayed multiple times since December 20th, when they were originally to be made public, so the January 16th run-off has been delayed.

–Official results of that recount have yet to be announced.

However—and this is a big “however,” indeed—

–Monday results of that OAS recount were leaked to the press.  And BBC News reports that the OAS will recommend that the candidate from the ruling political party be disqualified from any run-off.  If this story interests you, check out the BBC piece,

                “OAS to give Haiti presidential election verdict.”               

 What does this all mean? 

There was actually some debate about this at a dinner party Sara and I hosted the other evening, but I will mention an idea discussed by folks who had just left a meeting with presidential candidate, Lesley Voltaire.

Our dinner guests mostly speculated which announced outcome would result in the most violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince and when that announcement might be made.  Some thought that announcement could come as early as last night, which didn’t happen, but was more likely on Sunday evening, January 16th.

Surprisingly to me, most agreed that more violence would result from Jude Celestin being left out of the run-off, since Preval’s government would pay protesters to take to the streets, despite the fact that few in the country actually support Celestin’s candidacy.  They said the omission of Martelly from the run-off would cause problems and likely riots, but fewer problems than Preval could pay the poor to incite on the streets.

So, there you have it, folks, the news from Port-au-Prince, as I know it.  Yes, I wish I  (k)NEW more—but I don’t.  We’ll just have to see what happens Sunday, whether an announcement is made then, and if so, who will be allowed to participate in a run-off.

The last time an announcement came, we were stuck in our house for 4 days because of city-wide violence.  For descriptions of that rioting and how it affected our lives you should click here and here  and here .

I’ll keep you posted———-

Haiti’s 35 Second Tragedy: a Second Chance for Peace

A mere 35 seconds nearly sealed the fate of Haiti. 

At 4:53 pm on January 12, 2010 an earthquake lasting just over half a minute devastated Port-au-Prince, killing close to a quarter million, injuring hundreds of thousands more, and leaving, still one year later, more than a million homeless in and around the Haitian capital.  The earthquake may have leveled Port-au-Prince  in half a minute, but cholera continues to kill Haitians by the thousands.  Every 35 seconds more are sickened.   More die needless deaths.

It’s not a pretty picture.  There’s nothing pretty about Port-au-Prince.

And as an outsider, clearly, I know nothing about the real suffering of the Haitian people.  I know nothing of a mother housing a family of 14 children in a tent the size of a suburban bathroom, nothing of another mother trying to quiet a baby crying in the dark, while torrential rain turns the ground beneath her tiny tarp to liquid mud.

How can I, a privileged white woman from a wealthy nation, speak of Haitian pain with any real authority?  

The fact of the matter is I can’t.  I have no right.  I have no knowledge of not enough food to eat or no clean water to drink.  I can only speak of what I see—

And what I see—every 35 seconds—is a city still in ruin.  I see the weary but not teary eyes of human beings too stunned to grieve even colossal losses. 

I may indeed presume too much, but I am here in Haiti on this historic day and I will take 35 seconds to pray for Haiti—

To pray for peace in the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince this morning.

Please take 35 seconds to share this prayer with me.  Take 35 seconds and pray for peace in Haiti.

Mud-Wrestling with God: Holiday Thoughts from Haiti

I know I should be bringing you important updates about current events in Haiti—about the cholera epidemic that’s killing folks by the thousands and about the obvious fraud in Sunday’s presidential elections.  But I need a bit of a break from such serious matters today.  So it’s in this spirit of departure from the muck and mire of disease and politics, that I bring you a story about my recent up-close and personal encounter with, well, muck and mire.

(Now, I must confess that the idea for this post—the reminder that meditating on mud can make for marvelous writing, came yesterday from a blog I’m newly in love with called “Sunshine in London.”  I discovered this blog from another site I REALLY like called “Notes from Africa,” and I’m learning lots about being grateful, thankful for even these muddiest of matters, from a series of posts at “Grandeur Vision.”  These three blogs are all well worth reading!)

At any rate, I realized yesterday I had not shared my own adventure with what we might call, for lack of a better term, “mud-wrestling.”

This encounter with the muck and mire that can be Haiti toward the end of the rainy season happened several weeks ago—just days before Hurricane Tomas actually brought that season to an official, if no less muddy, end.  I was returning from a two week trip to the US for an honest-to-goodness American vacation.  Sara and I don’t get many of them.  Though we travel a lot, traveling for pleasure is not usually part of the package.

So I was returning to Haiti feeling somewhat rested—ready to get down and dirty, though not exactly knee deep, in the challenges ahead.

Or so I thought—

I should have known it didn’t bode well when our security folks didn’t meet my plane and I had to make it through the Port-au-Prince airport without the special assistance Samuel provides.

But, I wasn’t terribly worried.  I survived the fight for my baggage.  I fought the good fight, the get-out-of-my-way-or-I-may-have-to-kill-you challenge that is getting one’s bags and getting away with one’s life.

I had not only gotten my bags, I had survived my driver surviving the traffic, gotten my groceries, gotten my dog, gotten inside my gate, gotten beyond my front door and down a few steps—

Before falling flat on my ass in a river of mud.

Not just a little mud, I might add—much mud, deep mud, muddy mud.

Muddy facts:

1.  My neighbor on the mountain above had been digging a new drive.

2.  It had rained a lot on that newly dug drive.

3.  The newly dug drive in its now liquid form had flooded my floor with a good inch of mud.

4.  I was not entirely pleased with his development.

Until I thought of something Sara says when it rains here in Haiti—something she thinks about when it seems the torrents of wet will never stop falling—especially at night when damp dark soaks the soul of a person—

Especially a mother, holding her baby, in a make shift tent—barely a tarp over a mud slick floor—

I thought of that mother.

that baby.

that floor.

I thanked God for my mud.

I thanked God for my floor.

What are you thankful for this holiday season?