Port au Prince, Haiti Day 12, Trip 4

I have just returned home and went to my favorite yoga class today. Our luminous teacher shared some words she woke up with, following a night of rich dreams:


She went on to describe how all the tulips planted at her mesa-top home had survived a long day and night of fierce winds. Perhaps, she speculated, the petals gather in and relax–versus cling—and that is how they hold on.

The image reminds me of Haiti — of her people. Of the communities still gathered to support one another to live outside, to live through the rains, to cook, sleep, protect their children. Kampe–stand up—Kenbe—hang on. Hang on with strength and grace.

I remembered three more stories I’ll share in closing this trips blog.

One of the woman I counseled on Wednesday described herself as having accepted the situation. After a month or so of fear, sadness, distress, she chose to accept and to go on with her life. Kenbe. Her house and family intact, she recognizes that this is easier for her than for others. And others are the source of her distress now:

“I cannot bear to look around me when I walk or drive anywhere. Every time I see how people are suffering, how they are living, I feel despair. I want to help everyone, and then I feel overwhelmed. ”

We talked for a moment about sensitivity, about prioritizing what we can and cannot do, about the sense of connectedness that is core to Haitian values.

Then she switched to her concerns for her 5 year old daughter. “Every time we go out, she covers her eyes, as if she cannot bear to look. I ask her why she does this. She says “I don’t want to see all this Mommy.” She asks me: “Is that o.k? Is she o.k?”

My reply: “I think your daughter has found a really good coping strategy. Maybe she is trying to teach you. What would happen if you do this together? We all have limits to what we can bear witness to. She knows that, and has figured out how to practice that.”

She loved the simple idea of sharing this practice with her daughter, even though she still acknowledged that she felt bad at not being able to do more, and at having the privilege to close her eyes to others suffering. She was deeply grateful for the “permission” to give herself breaks–moments of rest-from the overwhelming stimulus around her.
I met with a young man, in his early twenties, who began the session with a long, “spiraly” description of how he had changed. His summary: “I don’t trust anyone, anymore.” I tried several probes to see if we could locate a root, in the earthquake experience, for this sentiment–which is common after interpersonal traumas and human rights abuses. The intensity of his conviction seemed unusual following a natural disaster—though the magnitude of this ongoing disaster and tragedy is certainly capable of destroying trust. There is so little to anchor into, in Haiti. So little clear direction towards the future, no leadership, not enough housing in the rainy season, not enough food and clean water. No progress, or, very minute progress.We talked for awhile, and he shared very openly, and with humility. I told him I was impressed with his ability to reveal so much in a time when he could not trust. He paused, thinking. He smiled warmly at me, nodded his head.

Two names lit up in my head, like a traffic light. “Sartre” and “Camus.” I asked if he had read, or heard of, these philosophers. He had not, and, had wanted to. He lit up with curiosity and enthusiasm.

I spoke a little about my perception that he might be describing what some would call an existential crisis. I spoke about my sense of his losing his center–and he resonated immediately with this idea. He seemed relieved to have this named.

Along with referrals for two local psychologists with training in existential psychology, I “assigned” him to read the works of these two authors, and added Samuel Beckett to the list.

We agreed he could write me with thoughts and questions; though I suggested if he chooses to pursue therapy, he might request these works be a part of his therapeutic process. He left with what he described as “a little hope that he had something interesting to do, and gratitude that he had experienced a small moment of trust in his sharing.”
On the way to the airport the following morning, I had to pee really badly. Since the earthquake, there is no bathroom available prior to the gate and boarding area. The lines to get into the airport can result in a 1-2 hour wait.It was 6:45 m. The driver stopped at a service station /shop that appeared to not be open, but had people roaming around. When he asked if there was a toilet, there was a somewhat frantic exchange, and I was ushered to the back of the partially damaged building.

A man in a service station uniform lead me by the bathroom. Locked. We kept going. When we made it to the back, there was the typical rocky, chaotic pathway through a brief concrete alley into the back of the building. Puddles, mud, rocks, everywhere. Dismal.

Living quarters. A young law enforcement officer was dressing, putting on his swat uniform. He greeted me and apologetically moved aside so I could enter his shabby, concrete, drenched with rain, partially broken living quarters. A tiny dark, dank room with a simple cot. Across from it, a changing room that looked more like a small cell. The toilet–modern flush, and clean, sat in its own tiny dark room with barely a door.

I apologized for interrupting, joking that I should not have had coffee before the long drive to the airport, and bemoaning the lack of toilets at the makeshift airport.

“No, its my fault,: he said. I have the key to the bathroom here but cannot find it. Please…” and he pointed to the tiny toilet room.

When I entered the door would not shut, so he offered “I will hold it shut.” He did, leaning against it with his weight.I left, thanked him and apologized again for interrupting his morning routine. “Its o.” he said, kindly, generously, smiling, and extending his hand. “Have a good trip.”

I left this brief exchange with these two questions:
1. What is to become of a country where a member of the law enforcement swat team–with all the responsibility of that profession– must dress each morning in such dismal, broken, unlivable conditions?
2. How does someone living in such difficult conditions offer such gracious, kind assistance to a complete stranger who essentially barges into their home at 6:45 am?
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