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.

A Rant! A Rave! A Prayer?


I miss Sara terribly when we’re apart, but now that it’s been four days since she’s returned to Haiti, I’m experiencing the separation more intensely.  I tend to isolate when Sara’s gone.  I want to be alone.  I want to sleep.  I can barely tie my shoe or utter a coherent sentence—let alone clean the house, cook a meal, or walk the dog.  It’s a sad state of affairs. 

Yes, yes—I know I exaggerate, but I did have one small victory yesterday afternoon, having managed to extricate myself from the green chair I’ve been living in for days and drag myself kicking and screaming to the grocery store.  But then again, hunger’s a pretty strong motivator, and the only thing I want to do more than absolutely nothing is eat—eat everything—eat any and all things unhealthy and heart-attack inducing— I could so Twinkie and Ho-Ho myself to an early grave, it isn’t funny.

It doesn’t help that I’m on a diet. It doesn’t help that the date I return to Haiti has yet to be determined and will depend on security in Port-au-Prince over the next several days.  It doesn’t help that Kentucky, besides being famous for its fried chicken, is in fact one of the most boring places on the planet—no rioting, no cholera, no real election fraud to speak of.  Things are so comfortably tedious and middle class, that even the excitement phobic find themselves twiddling their thumbs and begging to be mugged, praying to be clubbed by a decent natural disaster.  Even a blizzard would do.

Obviously though, I shouldn’t tease about these things.  Obviously I should change this ornery desire to be anywhere I’m not—and never where I am—never in the here and now, in this city, in this state, on this day.

Please help me, God, to be content in the coming year—grateful for today, in this house with warm meals and clean water to drink.  Please teach me to be grateful for the little things and thankful always for the heart-pounding passion that makes me miss Sara when she’s away. Please keep her close.  Please keep her safe.  Please take me to her soon.

How do you handle separation from the ones you love?  Does humor help?  Writing?  Prayer or mediation?

(And thanks for the fabulous feedback and comments on my previous post.  Please share your thoughts and feelings on this one, as well.  My readers rock!)

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Weighing in on Bangkok: a Retrospective


(Since the holidays have kept me from writing for several days now, I’ve decided to offer a retrospective, of sorts, hoping a peek at past posts would offer decent reading in the meantime. 

The piece below was written nearly two years ago–January 4, 2009–just after this blog was born under another name.  Sara and I were living in Kentucky.  I was teaching writing at a local university, and Sara was considering a return to disaster response work that was expected to take us to Bangkok.  Initially this blog was meant to chronicle that adventure. 

In the post below, I’m moaning about a diet I’d begun as part of a New Year’s resolution.)

Okay, I got on the scales this morning–big mistake!  It may be that we are about to embark on a grand and exotic Asian adventure, but, God knows, I can’t do it fat!  I simply can not walk the streets of Bangkok like this–all 173 bulging pounds of me.

This is how it all went down.  Sara and I had agreed we would weigh on Sunday.  I had begun dieting a week ago but was too afraid to step on the scales.  Sara is to start watching what she eats on Monday.  Sunday then seemed a reasonable day to determine what we weighed.  While I may be a chicken shit when it comes to actually quantifying my size, once the decision is made to put a number on the situation, I want to get the pain over with as quickly as possible.  So when we woke up at 2 this morning to take the dogs out for their middle of the night pee, I brought the scales into our bedroom, as the floor in the bathroom slants too badly to weigh accurately in there, and proceeded to strip naked, because God forbid I weigh even an ounce more than necessary.  I even removed my glasses and seriously considered doing without a barrette but decided it unwise to try reading the numbers both blind and with hair falling in my face.  Then, stepping on the scales like the most over-sized contestant on the Biggest Loser, I was told I weighed a mere 75 somethings or other.  Now I may not have a completely realistic sense of what I weigh, but I did feel fairly certain I hadn’t been 75 pounds since I was seven.  And, of course, being without glasses I was unable to get the stupid scales to stop reading in kilograms and begin weighing in pounds, as I stood shivering and blind in a drafty 100-year-old house–not able to weigh having made the big decision to do so.  This did not sit well with me.  So Sara, who knows my inclination for throwing fits and was herself sitting warm and fully PJ-ed under the covers of our bed–decided to intervene.  After playing with the thing for a few long and chilly minutes and asking me where I had put the manual–when in fact she is the manual keeping half of this relationship–got the apparatus reading in pounds again.  You know something is not right with the universe when a book of directions is necessary for figuring out scales.

To make a long blog a little shorter, let it suffice to say I weighed a good many pounds more than I wished.  So I am an Asian bound woman on a mission.  I will not walk the streets of a Thai city like this.  I may be willing to wear my glasses the next time I weigh, but I will not make a big fat spectacle of myself on the sidewalks of Bangkok.

(Sara returns to Haiti soon, so in a few days postings should resume normally.)

Colonialism Challenges Thanksgiving in Haiti?


I had planned to post the following yesterday, had not the old sit-down-Thanksgiving-dinner-for-23 gotten the best of me, eating up any time I might have dedicated to posting what had, for the most part, already been written:

Let’s face it.  Planning Thanksgiving from here in Port-au-Prince has had its fair share of near disasters and we haven’t even had the dinner yet.  That’s not till tonight.  But it’s in this spirit of near calamity I’ve been writing all week about my misadventures trying to make this holiday happen here, ruminating in posts over the past several days specifically about the shopping and oven-related challenges that have nearly derailed my efforts.  Today, however, in honor of the day itself—a holy day, of sorts—I’m pondering the moral implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children will go hungry today, will have gone to bed last night with not a drop of dinner and woken of this morning with no real breakfast to speak of.

This dilemma has its roots in a system that got started centuries ago.  In fact, some have argued, that Haiti’s economic challenges originated in the kind of colonialism our American Thanksgiving actually celebrates.  Now I like my Macy’s parade and other Thanksgiving traditions as much as the next guy.  But frankly, I find it uncomfortable to be highlighting this event from a place where colonialism couldn’t have gone more wrong.

Let me clarify—by offering the following facts.  You ponder them and tell me your thoughts.

–Christopher Columbus landed here on the island of Hispaniola in December of 1492, setting up Europe’s first settlement in the New World.

–When the Spanish arrived an indigenous population of as many as 8 million welcomed them, but in fewer than 20 years only 50,000 remained, most of the Indians having been killed by diseases first brought to the island by Europeans, namely yellow fever.  Thirty years later only hundreds had survived.

–With the loss of an indigenous labor force to mine for gold, the Spanish and later the French, needing manpower to work their sugar plantations, began importing slaves from West Africa, until by the beginning of the 19 century, as many as 500,000 may have occupied the island.

–Because the population of slaves was so high, compared to the few Europeans actually in residence, and because the French were so brutal in their abuse of slaves, soon-to-be ex-slaves revolted and won their independence from France in January of 1804, becoming the first independent ex-colony in all of Latin America.

–Because Haitian political leaders wanted to trade with France and wanted their country’s legitimacy to be recognized by the US, they agreed in 1824 to pay France 150 million francs to compensate the former French plantation owners for lost income, effectively paying an indemnity, effectively buying their freedom, the freedom of an entire nation of former slaves.

–The Haitian government was not able to pay off that debt until the middle of the 20th century and was forced to hand over to the French tax revenue the government might otherwise have invested in infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals, an electrical grid—none of it established in Haiti as it was in the US by the 1950s.

–Some have argued (see Paul Farmer’s Uses of Haiti), that it is this fallout from former colonial rule that has left Haiti destitute economically and vulnerable politically to the kind of pre-election violence we’ve seen in Haiti this week (elections scheduled for Sunday, November 28th).  Some have said this continued servitude has left Haiti without the basic services a government can establish with tax revenue—left it without a building code, for example, and therefore structurally vulnerable to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake—left it medically vulnerable without enough hospitals to manage the cholera epidemic we see raging in the streets of Port-au-Prince today.

The bottom line is this—

I feel uncomfortable celebrating a holiday that essentially celebrates friendship and feasting between colonizers and an indigenous population.  It feels wrong, in a lot of ways, border-line hypocritical, especially with hunger, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water killing thousands just down the street in Port-au-Prince proper.

I don’t mean to imply it’s wrong to celebrate, as we would have back home.  Rather, I’m suggesting that this awareness has troubled me for most of the day—a sore spot on the conscience of someone of European descent, celebrating the holiday of the (sometimes brutal) colonizer in a place so ruined by the colonial system.

What are your thoughts about this?

Note: the Thanksgiving dinner was fabulous, thermostatically-challenged oven and shopping snafus not-with-standing. I promise to share details in upcoming days.

Figuring out Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince


In honor of the upcoming holiday, I’ve decided to share, over the next several days, a few of the challenges we’re facing trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti.  So stay tuned all week for the sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening, sometimes mind-numbing complications that inevitably arise when celebrating this most American of holidays in the least American of places.

Today I give you the oven-related challenges.

I told Sara when we were looking for a house here in Haiti, that I simply had to have an oven.  Neither of the two homes we had in Vietnam had anything other than a cook top in the kitchen, which bothered me to no end, since I like to bake—cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies, muffins.  The only thing I like more than making them is eating them, but that’s another post for another day.

 So Sara did what any Tollhouse-cookie-loving-partner would do.  She got us an oven—a real honest-to-goodness gas oven—minus the thermostat.

 I kid you not.  There’s no way to set any specific temperature on this most essential of kitchen appliances, any temperature either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

 Now, I love Sara more than anything, even more than my daily dose of cake and cookies, and those of you who know my inclination toward carb-consumption, know that’s saying quite a bit.  But sometimes she misses the most obvious of details.

 “Oh, that’s not that important.  You’ll figure that out.”

 Twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of cookies later, I’m still figuring. 

 Which brings me to the matter of needing an oven this week, a temperature controlled oven, I might add.   In America we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  It’s the most Thanksgiving of Thanksgiving desserts—even when celebrating from here in Port-au-Prince—especially when celebrating from any far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled part of the planet!

 A pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 to 50 minutes at 350, temperatures too precise even for the oven thermometer I brought back from the US.  It only seems to get me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees. 

 But what about the turkey Sara plans to roast, what about the thermostatic requirements of the old Butterball?

 Oh, that’s not that important.  She’ll figure that out, she says.

Watering Change


No water has flowed from the faucets at my house here in Haiti for 2 days, and I’ve decided not having water is way worse than not having electricity.

Bottom line:  I’m not a happy camper—or at least—not happy camping, as the case may be.

At the same rate, I must confess, to living a ridiculously comfortable life here in Port-au-Prince, certainly by Haitian standards.  So, I have no real reason to complain, especially when one considers the more pressing crisis of cholera contaminating the water supply, an epidemic that has killed nearly 1000 in the past few weeks, sickened nearly 20 times as many, and incited violence against UN peacekeepers in a number of towns across the country.

It’s mostly a matter of not having what I’ve come to expect after more than four decades of running water’s near perpetual availability.  To say I’m spoiled would be both true and minimizing of just how comfortable, on some level, I think I’m entitled to be—an ugly truth, I don’t totally know how to change about myself.  Perhaps, doing without is the only way to train myself otherwise.  And it seems it may indeed be a matter of training, relearning how to think about the resources in America we so casually take for granted, waste, complain about, and even don’t know how to survive without when shortages arise.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed, after living in Haiti for a number of months, to come from a country that plays survivor games on television (to the appeal of mass audiences), calling that “reality” TV.   But the sense of entitlement I’m uncovering in myself is exponentially more shameful.

After a chronic illness left me unable to work for a number of years, I’d come to consider myself fairly self-aware, someone who thought about poverty and hunger and wanted to do something to alleviate suffering.  But, too much thinking coupled with not-enough acting, can clearly translate into an hypocrisy I and too many Americans, both liberal and conservative alike, unknowingly live by.

Certainly, I don’t have the answers, not even for myself.  I only know that by the time this piece posts, it’s likely water will again be flowing in my house and complacency will become even easier, once more.  I can only pray that my attitude improves, that I learn to do with less, that I complain less about the little things and do as Ghandi said we should, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If only I knew how!