Small, Hard, Fast Balls


I learned early on I was a magnet for small, hard, fast balls. My first encounter with a hard, fast ball was when I was 6 years old. I was playing, hanging out with other kids in a rec center where parents dumped their kids while they went to the Piggly Wiggly or who knows what. This was the ‘50s; I’m sure the stay-home moms needed some time alone.

I was standing a little too close to a pool table watching some “older boys” (9-10 year olds) shooting 8-ball. Suddenly one of the pool balls jumped the table, flew straight at me, and hit me in the mouth. My lip split, my tooth broke and I was forced to drink from a water fountain while blood flowed from my mouth. I don’t remember the pain as much as I remember the discomfort at being the center of attention. My front tooth was chipped and my lip was swollen but otherwise I was fine. I had that chipped front tooth from elementary through my teens; it became part of who I was. (I later had it capped.)

The next time I was hit with a small, hard, fast ball was a couple of years later, when I was 8. I was standing in the backyard of a friend’s house watching her father hit golf balls. (I was still unaware of my magnetism issue.) It was a hot, Texas, summer day and we had nothing better to do. Her dad took a swing and suddenly the golf ball flew towards me like a speeding bullet and hit me square in the eye. Yep. It hurt like a-fucking hell, although we didn’t say fuck in the ‘50s. I didn’t lose my eye but I had a big shiner and was developing a fear of hard, fast balls.

Around the same age, although this has nothing to do with balls of any size, but does indeed involve gravity, in that same friend’s front yard, I was hiding in a tree from the older kids being let out from the school bus. I wasn’t intentionally hiding; I happened to be climbing the tree when the school bus stopped and I was so shy I didn’t want anyone to see me. Suddenly, I lost my balance, fell out of the tree, landed on my back and was knocked out for a couple of minutes. No one noticed me lying in the grass under the tree. Spread-eagle, staring up at the sky, through branches and clouds, I watched the older kids step over me on their way home. Apparently compassion was in short supply in the ‘50s. Before helicopter parenting, it was dog-eat-dog. I finally got up, dusted myself off and walked home. I didn’t tell my parents, or anyone. Well, I may’ve mentioned it to my Mom, but again, these things happen. No need to get excited if there was no blood or bones sticking out at odd angles. The idea of a concussion or brain damage wasn’t entertained. Thinking back, I may’ve suffered a slight concussion but it’s 60 years later and I’m writing about it so no worries. I decided to steer clear of this friend and her front and back yard for a while.

The last time I was hit with a hard, fast ball happened when I was 12. I was under some misguided illusion I should learn to play a team sport, softball. It was my turn at bat and sure enough, I’m standing there, bat in hand, watching as a softball comes hurling towards me and hits me in the head. I fell down and while lying there, I realized I wasn’t cut out for playing team sports. Especially any sport involving, well, you know, a ball.

So, there you have it. I learned early on that I am cursed with a magnetic energy field that attracts small, hard, fast balls. I’m like a planet with a gravitational pull. I don’t understand the metaphysical or mathematical reasons; I only know that I’ve got it.

And I learned to duck. Finally.

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RUNNING

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anaïs Nin

The first time I went for a run, I was 24 (1975). I had not intended to run, I was compelled. Walking my dog, Max, I discovered a sweet pocket park, not far from where I lived in Capital Hill (Denver) called Alamo Placito. One day, while walking around the park, I started to run. And I kept running.  After I ran around the park 20 times, I stopped; fell on the grass, breathing heavily, staring at the clouds, I felt alive, awake. Max came over and licked my face. A heaviness I had unknowingly been carrying for years was lifted. I didn’t have running shoes or what would become expensive, proper running gear (sports bra, anyone?). I was blissfully unaware of looking cool. In those early days, the popularity of running was just beginning to take off.  Frank Shorter, notwithstanding, the commercialization of the sport was in its infancy.

I eventually found other trails and paths close by. For my remaining time in Denver, my favorite trail was the Cherry Creek bike path, which I discovered when it was still partially dirt. I became stronger, liked how I felt in my body and loved the freedom of running. Gradually running became the medicine I needed to function. I didn’t know that my brain chemistry was being altered, that running released hormones (serotonin*, endorphins, dopamine) that flooded my brain, creating a euphoric high. I quickly became addicted.

* Serotonin – “runner’s high” – less anxiety and a diminished ability to feel pain.”

Running competitively never interested me. It was always about running solo – me and my thoughts. I worked out problems, had conversations with those whom I needed to talk with but couldn’t, wrote Haikus in my head, started stories, replayed broken relationships, tried to figure out where I was going in life, ran off stress. When my sister died in 1981, I fell into a dark hole of depression. I sobbed while running, tears streaming down my face, not caring what passers-by thought. Running lifted me and helped me find a way out. I processed the loss and grief with my feet pounding miles of pavement and dirt over the next few years. I would push myself until it hurt. And that felt good.

Over the years, I’ve kept running – more or less. I ran 5Ks and the Bolder Boulder 10K several times. My daughter and I ran a few 5 and 10Ks together. (She was/is more a natural runner than I ever was.) I fell in love with a beautiful, elite runner, who changed my life completely and forever. I never got tired of watching him run – he was a natural athlete, a gifted runner – gazelle-like, his feet seemingly never touching the ground.  After many years of training at a high level, competitively, his body turned on him. His hamstrings were so injured he was unable to run. While in physical therapy, trying to heal, weeks without running turned into months. He would limp out to run and come back within half an hour defeated, depressed and in pain. After months of not running, the chemicals in his brain changed.  Serotonin levels dropped, a genetic marker for depression was no longer controlled by endorphins, and he plummeted into darkness, and eventual psychosis. After almost a year to the injury date, he took his life, forever free of the pain that had taken over his mind and body.

I’ve read many articles about how healthy running is, how it changes brain chemistry, the “high”, the Zen of running, how running keeps you fit and sane. I’ve not read any cautionary articles about what can possibly happen to a runner’s brain, who has trained at a high level for many years, when the runner is forced to stop running, for whatever reason. My theory is that my boyfriend had a genetic marker for depression and mental illness (confirmed by his family) and because he ran and trained at a high level for many years, he was unknowingly self-medicating, keeping his depression at bay. Once he stopped running, the chemicals that were keeping him mentally healthy dropped precipitously and because they were not replaced (artificially) with SSRIs, a pathway was paved for the genetics of mental illness to take over. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but this is what I sense happened, in retrospect, over the course of that fateful year.

After I turned 60, my body changed. I’ve kept running but it’s harder because of weight gain, worn out parts and injury (plantar fasciitis, knee, joints). I’m 66 now and I’m learning to appreciate walking. But honestly, when I get out on the path, all my body wants to do is run. I use to see older (in their 60s-70s) runners out on the path jogging, with a hitch in their giddy-up and I’d think, “Good for them! That won’t be me!” Well, guess what? It is me. And just like those older runners, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m out and I’m moving. It ain’t pretty baby, but it’s all I’ve got.

I do miss running. I think the main reason I ran was to mitigate stress and depression. Getting outside and running in every season, in all types of weather, was good for my soul on so many levels. I can still get about half of that high walking and enjoying, albeit a bit more slowly, what is going on in nature, being in the moment and moving to the beat of my own drummer.

 

 

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My Turn

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

I was 19 – or maybe 18. I don’t remember. The rapist was not a stranger. I did not report to the police. I am 1 out of 5 American women.

The year was 1970 or ’71, ’72, I don’t remember. The place, Houston. Rape was not something anyone talked about openly. I don’t know if I was ever warned about sexual assault. I don’t think I had heard, read or knew anyone who had been raped.  Where and when I grew up, young girls and teens were not taught or warned about rape. We were barely told about sex. We learned about menstruation in 6th grade and that was pretty much it. The story ended at procreation.

After the rape the thought of going to the police never entered my mind. Who would believe me? I couldn’t imagine. I chose the path of forgetting. I shrink-wrapped the experience and put it away in a box on the highest shelf in the darkest corner of my mind and never looked back. Some might say I was in denial. Denial is not deep enough for what I buried.

And then one day, about 15 years later, I remembered, slowly. It took Oprah (of all people), to unlock the memory. I was watching the Oprah Show and the subject was “Date Rape”. A piece of a memory became dislodged in my brain and I remembered something. And then something else broke free.

I do not remember his name but I do have clear memories of place and other details. It was summer. I worked at my father’s swimming pool company in an office with a large open window that I could look out of while working at my desk.  There was a new salesman and every morning I watched him walk into the sales offices.He was new to the company, new to the Houston, from southern California. He was “older” – in his late 20s/early 30s. He was attractive in that 1970’s blow-dried-southern-California-way. He was a loner; he didn’t socialize with the other salesmen and didn’t seem to have friends. As he passed my window, he would bend down, smile and wink at me. I was flattered and eventually developed a little crush on him. And he knew it. What I didn’t know then was that he was grooming me, the shy, insecure boss’s daughter with a half-formed identity.

One afternoon we were getting coffee, just the two of us, and out of the blue he spoke to me. I don’t remember what we talked about before he asked me if I’d like to go to dinner. He was charming and I said yes.

He gave me his address and told me to come by his apartment around 7:00 and we’d go to dinner from there. When the day came, I left work early, went home and got ready for my date. When I arrived at his apartment, a woman with a squalling baby on her hip answered the door. He briefly explained that she was his sister and he was staying with her until he could get his own place. He mentioned he wasn’t ready to go out yet and motioned to me to follow him.

I followed. He closed his bedroom door and almost immediately started to undress like it was the most natural way start to a date. I was confused and totally blindsided. He started taking my clothes off. I began to protest and stammered that I thought we were going to dinner. He said, “we will afterwards”. I didn’t know what was happening. After my “NO’s” and protests were ignored, I gave up. He was tall, strong and completely over-powered me. Fear took over and I was paralyzed.

I remember kind of blanking out and going along because I was afraid to cry out for help. The fear was overwhelming. Subconsciously, I did what every woman since the beginning of time has done, shut up and hope to live. Survival instincts tell you to go along and then get the hell out. What I know now, but didn’t then, was that this man was an experienced rapist.

I remember feeling powerless in a way I’ve never felt before. He was rough, uncaring. He was hurting me and I told him. He didn’t listen. He didn’t look at me. I cried, but intuition told me not to scream. I knew if I did, he would shut me up. I was scared, terrorized and trapped. I remember feeling that if I could just get it over with, I would live and be free to go home.  After it was over, he told me I could leave. Or maybe he told me TO leave. I left. We never made it to dinner.

It was still light outside and I felt humiliated and ashamed as I stumbled to my car. I drove home numb, crying, feeling sick. When I arrived, I pulled myself together, quietly slipped in the house, grateful no one was there I would have to interact with. I immediately took a long, hot shower and afterward quietly closed my bedroom door and stayed there until the next day. I never told a soul. I don’t think the thought of telling someone (my mother) even entered my mind. I knew how upset my mom and dad would be and I didn’t want to be the cause of that. I also felt I would be blamed.

And yes, I felt ashamed. I was the one who went over to his house. I was the one who followed him into his bedroom. I let it happen. I didn’t scream loud enough. I was stupid. The thought of reporting him never even occurred to me. I somehow knew who would be blamed.

I never saw him again. He disappeared – quit his job and moved away. Where did he go? Why did he leave California to come to Texas in the first place? Did his sister hear me crying, saying “NO!”, “STOP!”? Did she know what he was doing in the next room? She must’ve known. Crap. Had he done this before and she knew it? She knew her brother was a rapist and said nothing?

Unfortunately, I will never know because I didn’t go to the police. And because I didn’t report, he likely continued his career as a serial rapist. My prayer has always been that a woman – braver than I – did report him and he spent a significant portion of his life in prison. I’ll never know. He’s probably dead by now. I hope so.

I know now, I was marked from the first time he saw me. I was a shy, insecure young woman who had no idea who she was. That I was the boss’s daughter probably made me a more attractive target for him. He was in total control from the first moment to the last. He took a chance that I wouldn’t be a whistle blower. His instincts were correct.

I felt it was my fault for following him into his bedroom. What I was left with was shame. Shame is what prevents women from reporting. Shame and regret. Shame that I followed him into his room, regret I didn’t have the courage to go to the police.

I’ve shed the shame and regret. I write my story, not to elicit sympathy, pity or admiration of strength, but to shine a light on what has long been buried. To tell my untold story. There are so many similar stories out there and all are unique and need to be told. I’m not special, but my story is. So is yours.

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Of Dreams and Memories

I awake at 6am. It is dark.
Did I sleep? I don’t know.
I look outside and find
A faded watery dawn.
Eventually
Pale light filters through a syrupy fog.
A weak promise of a sunrise.

I see the ghost tree and it looks different
Than it did before.
My state is altered. Nothing is the same.
In slow motion, I take a shower.
I wash my hair. I put on make-up.
I get dressed. I am a robot.

We drive through a frozen, white world.
It is quiet. There’s nothing to say.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
I think to myself.
We arrive and enter the church.
Noise and reality slice through my brain.

We sit. We stand. We pray. We sing.
Many are weeping.
I stand and float to the front.
And look up to a sea of sad faces.

I begin to read,

“Stop all the clocks … cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking … with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos … and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, … let the mourners come. ”

“He was my North, my South … ”

I continue to the end,

“The stars are not wanted now: … put out every one;
Pack up the moon … and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean … and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can … ever come to any good.”

And float to my seat.

A slow, silent ripping of reality, separates time.

An ending and a beginning –

An ending of you – of us.

A beginning of life without you

Entering a life
Of dreams and memories.

From February 17, 2006

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Write like a …

Write like a ...

From The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed) column. Recommend Cheryl’s “tiny beautiful things, Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.

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Reflections on Haiti

I was going to write, “subjective reflections” but that would be redundant. Nevertheless, keep in mind, these reflections are seen through my eyes after only a week in Haiti.

Background

In January I spent a week in Haiti visiting St. Paul’s Parrish, the Colorado Haiti Project’s (CHP) mission in Petit Trou de Nippes, a small coastal village, located along the southern peninsula of Haiti, about 90 mi from Port-au-Prince.

IMG_0513There were 16 of us from Colorado, joined by 3 women from Old Dominican University.  Several in the group had been to St. Pauls  many times over the 25 years CHP has been in Haiti.  CHP’s mission in Haiti is to work with the rural Haitian community to help lift Haitians “out of extreme poverty by increasing access to and capacity for foundational educational opportunities, clean water, community and public health, job training and economic self-sufficiency.” Over the 25 years, CHP has built a church and rectory, school, dormitory, cafeteria, playground (in process now), and a sewing/vocational school. There are other vocational opportunities for students who wish to study plumbing, engineering, building clean water wells, and becoming an electrician. Plans are underway to farm a nearby field (agronomy) and build an on-site medical clinic, employing Haitian doctors and nurses.

Episcopal churches throughout the Colorado Diocese raise funds each year to support CHP’s effort in Haiti and to support each child at Ecole St. Paul (K-10th grade). The cost for each child is $300/year. CHP has successfully done that for 25 years. CHP’s intention is to not build and leave but to build a continuous, long-lasting relationship with the Haitian community at Petit Trou. And as a first-time visitor, I could see how the reciprocal bonds of respect, friendship and love are strong and growing with each visit.

This particular trip to Haiti was to represent our respective Parrish and to build relationship and further strengthen those bonds. We were also there to represent CHP at the hugely prepared for and celebrated 25th Anniversary of CHP, as well as the annual Feast of St. Paul’s at the church. The Episcopal Bishop of Haiti attended both celebrations as did other Haitian dignitaries, choirs and a comedy troupe from Port au Prince, and many locals from Petit Trou.

Landing in Port-au-Prince

Arriving from Miami, we landed at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, completely rebuilt after the earthquake in 2010. What I remember most is stepping outside, finally in Haiti, and immediately saying, “what’s burning?” There was smoke in the air and living in Colorado, when you smell smoke, you immediately think “what’s on fire?” Someone said, it’s wood smoke from charcoal fires. Ah, of course. The climate felt a little like Houston to me, hot and humid, even in January.

And there our adventure began.

We loaded ourselves and our luggage into 3 4-wheel drive SUVs with our luggage mostly on top of the vehicles. Our drivers began the arduous task of driving through PaP on a labyrinthinian route along narrow streets with no names and finally onto a “highway” – the road we would take to Petit Trou – that runs down the coast. Haitians drive with their horns – not in an aggressive, mean way – it’s just the law of the land. It’s what you do to get around. You have to be artfully skilled to drive in Haiti. We, Americans, are mostly a timid and polite bunch who don’t like using our horns. We think it’s like yelling at a stranger. It’s not.

Port-au-Prince is a hilly, chaotic mess, bordering on anarchy. Haitians are smart and have learned to survive via the black market, where if you can sell something, anything (minutes for cell phones, anyone?), electronics, clean water, clothes, shoes, food, whatever is needed for daily survival can be found on the streets. When I asked Teresa why we couldn’t change our money in a bank, she chuckled and said, no, we don’t go into Haitian banks and told me I’d see what she meant. I did. I’m not sure there were any banks, at least not how we envision what a bank is. Just a dark door in a wall that indicated money changing.

It appeared there was no zoning, urban planning and the structures mostly DIY without codes or reinforcement.  There was a lot of rubble as one might expect 4 years after a 7.0 earthquake. But I heard that it looks much the same as it looked before the quake.  I kept thinking of the “stone age”, looking at the structures and seeing a man with a pick ax breaking up large stones.  I was also reminded of movies, photos and stories I’d seen and read of the shanty-towns in South Africa and refugee camps in Sudan. We only saw remnants of the blue tarp tent cities that sprung up after the earthquake and a few UN trucks and soldiers. The UN is no longer welcome in Haiti because apparently they are doing little to help with anything. They are just a presence, driving around in UN vehicles wearing UN uniforms.

It seemed like the only way to re-build Port-au-Prince, as in Bill Clinton’s words, “building back better”, would be to raze it and start over. Given the population of almost a million (minus the 230K who died in the Earthquake), that would be impossible. There are lots of ideas floating around among some of the brightest international minds and entrepreneurs, but clearly no easy answer.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

When we finally made it out of the City and driving along the highway (mostly a rocky 4-wheel drive road), I looked up and saw what Paul Farmer called “mountains beyond mountains” (from a Haitian proverb). Haiti is truly beautiful, with mountains flowing into mountains as far as the eye can see, surrounded by the beautiful azure blue Caribbean. The contrast is stunning. There were towns and villages and people all along the route with a few fishing villages. People lived in fragile dwellings along the beach. I kept wondering where they go during hurricanes and storms. Surely their homes get flooded/destroyed. Maybe that’s why the structures look so temporary. They are built to collapse so they can easily rebuild? Where do the animals go? What do I know?

You could see the jungles up in the hills with wood smoke coming from dwellings and small settlements. We didn’t make it up very far into the hills but the time we did take a walk to see a CHP-built water well up in the hills, it was lovely, with thick tropical vegetation. Very few birds, however. I was told that tropical birds have mostly left Haiti because of the deforestation. Although the mountains still looked green you could see large swatches of barren, brown once-forested land. Sort of looked like what we see in the Rockies from swatches of beetle-kill.

The Language

Haitians speak Creole (Kreyol), an interesting mix of French, African, and something else I couldn’t make out.  If you have a base in French, it is a bit easier (but not a lot!). Some Haitians do speak French and all children are learning French in school. We were fortunate to have an expert translator, Nadia, traveling with us.

Photo: Nadia (left) and Monette (right)

IMG_1003Nadia helped tremendously, not only interpreting for us, but also explaining Haitian culture and answering our never-ending questions. We had a 2-hour Creole crash course one afternoon, taught by Nadia and another excellent teacher and they must’ve thought we were the thickest people on earth as far as learning Creole! It was a lot of fun – jokes and laughter – some more serious than others, but all of us pretty much hopeless. I found that my main problem with learning and speaking Creole was my confidence (or lack thereof) – I was so afraid to mispronounce or say something stupid, I just kind of froze when spoken to. I’d love to learn more Creole and return to Haiti with a better command of the language, to deepen my experience with and knowledge of the Haitian people.

Haitians

The Haitian people are simply beautiful. I don’t want to overly generalize or romanticize them or their lives, however I truly wasn’t prepared with how gentle, kind, strong and physically and spiritually beautiful Haitians are. You can fall into their eyes and never return. I was constantly thinking that these are a people who have seen too much for too long.

Haitians were the first to successfully fight for their freedom from slavery and ironically and tragically have been paying the price since – struggling to survive, generation after generation, against incredible odds and international trade sanctions, embargos and political obstruction.  They’ve survived the most brutal dictators (Baby Doc anyone?), catastrophic hurricanes, floods, droughts, and the cataclysmic earthquake in January 2010. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere and though the current government isn’t as corrupt and cruel as in the past, it seems mostly ineffectual and dysfunctional. I was talking to Ed Morgan (one of the founders of CHP) one day and mentioned this was my first visit to a 3rd world country. Ed said, no, Carol, Haiti isn’t 3rd world, it’s 4th world. I got what he meant immediately. It’s beyond 3rd world. I’m not even sure Haiti could be called “developing”.

Haitians, including children, work hard every day to survive. Their day begins early, feeding their animals, going to the well for water, and then the children get dressed in clean uniforms to go to school. Haitians mostly live outdoors – cooking, washing, doing laundry, playing, chatting to friends, family – because their dwellings are dark (no electricity, plumping, water) and small. At night they gather around any light and stay up late to socialize: listen to music, talk, make speeches, play soccer (if there’s a generator for light). A cacophony of sound just when we were trying to go to sleep!

There is very little infrastructure, roads are mostly what we would call 4-wheel, no postal delivery (at least not to most of the population), asthma inducing air pollution, very few and nonexistent traffic lights and road signs, potable water, plumbing and electricity mostly non-existent, and sanitation issues, especially in the rural communities. The Haitians are vigilant with sewage contamination of water sources and there had been no cholera epidemics in Haiti in recorded history. Until (again ironically) in October 2010 when UN peacekeepers from Nepal set up camp in the hills above Port au Prince, contaminated a stream, and started a cholera epidemic.  Almost 9,000 Haitians died from cholera in a little over 2 years (2010-2013).

Our Daily Routine at St Paul’s

We awoke each day at 6-6:30 to a cacophony of sounds: roosters crowing, dogs barking, goats bleating, people chatting while they worked on the grounds, in the kitchen. One-by-one, after going into the kitchen to get a cup of Haitian coffee, we would gather on the porch to find out who slept well, who didn’t, who slept through the dog fight during the night, who didn’t.

Every night there would be a serious dog fight. Apparently St. Pauls’ dogs were defending their territory against neighboring packs of Haitian dogs trying to get a pawhold on the St. Pauls territory. The dogs were inbred and all looked alike. They weren’t wild but they weren’t exactly tame. Suffice to say, they were not “pets”. I’m sure the Haitians thought we were crazy for taking photos of all the animals. Look! A chicken with chicks, take a picture! Look! A goat! Where’s my camera? Kind of silly. Are Americans (or just us) so bereft of animals and nature in our daily lives we were moved to take pictures whenever we saw an animal?

After a breakfast of porridge (corn or another grain), bread with Mamba (Haitian spicy peanut butter), sliced papayas, fried plantains, sliced mango, and juice, Teresa would let us know what our “Fantasy Plan” was for the Day. “Fantasy” because in Haiti, plans often change quickly depending what was going on. And there’s always “Haitian time” to factor in.

Options included walking down the road to market in Petit Trou (about a 45-min walk depending on who Teresa or Marti stopped to talk to!), visiting other nearby markets, going for a hike in the hills to see CHP water wells, going to the beach (not to swim), Creole lessons, visiting the medical clinic in Petit Trou (in partnership with Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health), visiting the beach-front cemetery. Our intention was to mix with the community and to communicate as best we could with anyone who wanted to interact with us. We interacted various ways with the Haitian community, stopped to chat with villagers along the way, visited a school in the hills, purchased stuff at the markets, met so many precious children and women and men in the villages and hills. The women were shyer than the men. The children were endlessly curious about us. I kept wondering what we must look like to them – Martians? Most of the kids liked having their picture taken and then looking at the photos on our phones.

After we got our marching orders for the day, we would convene on the dorm porch for a meeting where Bruce or Becky would lead us in a Gospel reading and meditation and where we would take a moment to reflect on our thoughts and feelings about what we were experiencing in Haiti. An example of one of our daily spiritual reflections was the story of the Monkey and the Fish.


How the Monkeys Saved the Fish

The rainy season that year had been the strongest ever and the river had broken its banks. There were floods everywhere and the animals were all running up into the hills. The floods came so fast that many drowned except the lucky monkeys who used their proverbial agility to climb up into the treetops. They looked down on the surface of the water where the fish were swimming and gracefully jumping out of the water as if they were the only ones enjoying the devastating flood.

One of the monkeys saw the fish and shouted to his companion: “Look down, my friend, look at those poor creatures. They are going to drown. Do you see how they struggle in the water?” “Yes,” said the other monkey. “What a pity! Probably they were late in escaping to the hills because they seem to have no legs. How can we save them?” “I think we must do something. Let’s go close to the edge of the flood where the water is not deep enough to cover us, and we can help them to get out.”

So the monkeys did just that. They started catching the fish, but not without difficulty. One by one, they brought them out of the water and put them carefully on the dry land. After a short time there was a pile of fish lying on the grass motionless. One of the monkeys said, “Do you see? They were tired, but now they are just sleeping and resting. Had it not been for us, my friend, all these poor people without legs would have drowned.”

The other monkey said: “They were trying to escape from us because they could not understand our good intentions. But when they wake up they will be very grateful because we have brought them salvation.” (Traditional Tanzanian Folktale)


So what were we there for?  It was clear we weren’t there as missionaries, i.e., to convert Haitians or to “save Haiti” or “heal Haiti”. We weren’t there to pick them up and take them up in the trees with us, to save them from themselves. We were there for an intangible and unmeasurable reason: to invest time into building relationships and getting to know the people in a naturalistic, unforced, authentic way – as much as we could in a week’s time.

To be present, to listen and learn. What are Haitians telling us with regard to their lives, do they want to be invested in St. Pauls and how do they want to be invested? How do they want us to be invested in their lives? Do they want us in their lives? What do they want and need most? And all that, of course, takes time, sensitivity, intuition, and presence of mind. Gentleness. Love. God’s grace. Our mission on this trip, to “build and strengthen relationship”, was difficult for those who have been coming to St. Paul’s/Petit Trou over the years with a specific job “to do”. Something tangible. It was difficult to just “be” rather than “do”. I think those of us who were there for the first time (Amy, Janet, Sharon, myself) had an easier time of just “being there” without doing, than those who have always had a specific role at St. Paul’s.  Especially Marti and Pam, who’ve been coming on medical missions over the years.

One afternoon (some of us) went over to where 2 men had just killed 2 goats and we watched them prepare the goats (luckily we got there right after the slaughter). It was fascinating to watch the ancient and respectful process of preparing the goats after slaughter. It was an art, a dance, and an honorable and beautiful skill. It was life. It was our dinner that evening.

Haitian Women

Holy Moly. These women are beautiful.

IMG_0964The lovely Monette (left).

The stature of the girls and women in Haiti was one of the first things I noticed when riding through the streets of Port au Prince. They are regal with pride in their posture and the way they walk. I want to learn to walk that way! I realized though that it’s too late for me, for us, to learn how to do that. The only way they learn this is to grow up learning to balance heavier and heavier (and heavier) loads on their heads – baskets and plastic containers full  of everything from fruit, water, grains, beans, coffee, drinks to charcoal, wood, bamboo, and sugar cane – and walk short and great distances balancing those loads. Starting from a young age and throughout their lives. Amazing. And why not? They only have two arms (why haven’t we evolved with 4 arms, I wonder?) and no transportation. Of course one would use one’s head to go from point A to point B with a load to carry. It’s mostly the women, but some men also carry loads this way. It seemed the men mostly used donkeys and horses to carry their loads.

At St. Paul’s, the women in the kitchen cooked 3 meals a day for 20-25 people, so when they weren’t cooking, they were cleaning, when they weren’t cleaning they were preparing food, an endless loop from early morning to late night. They worked effortlessly cooking outside over charcoal or in the kitchen with a gas stove. There was limited refrigeration (intermittent generator for electricity) so our meals were truly farm-to-table, not the elitist, expensive farm-to-table restaurants you find in Boulder, but the kind that 90% of the world’s poorest cook. If they killed a goat, we had goat that day, if they killed a chicken, we had chicken.

The women spent hours preparing vegetables, cooking legumes and grains. We ate mostly carbs, fruit and a little protein (fresh fish, chicken, goat).  We were served Cuban beans and rice (du riz a legim), legim (thick vegetable & bean soup), an eggplant dish (yummy and spicy), yams, hominy stew, grits (breakfast), pikliz (pickled cabbage, carrot, onion, peppers), kasav (bread made out of cassava), pumpkin soup,  and bread with Mamba. Yum. Haitian hot sauce was always on the table, a tasty addition to most of the dishes. The food was delicious, meals beautifully prepared and presented. The only dish I passed on was boiled and fried goat blood (looked like fried ground beef to me). Yeah, just couldn’t make myself try that one.

It seemed I always left the table a little hungry because the portions had to be smaller than what we (Americans) are used to. There were a lot of people to feed, and we were all sensitive to taking small portions so everyone could have something. This was very different for me – to always be aware that there wasn’t enough food for everyone to dish up all they wanted to eat. Not a big deal at all, just noted.

I actually felt ashamed of myself when I, at the very first meal, took more than my share (accidentally) and then felt like I wanted more. Make friends with your hunger (a daily mantra).

IMG_0643After dinner we would bring chairs from inside to put outside under the stars, drink a Prestige (Haitian beer) or 3 fingers of really tasty Haitian rum to talk about what we had seen and felt during that day’s adventures. The night sky was a carpet of black velvet, dotted with diamonds – the Milky Way a silvery necklace adorning the sky. Breathtaking. I couldn’t get enough of craning my neck upwards. What a gift to us who rarely see the Milky Way or the beautiful India inky blackness of the night sky without light pollution dulling and hiding the stars. The sky was one of the many unexpected gifts of Haiti.

25th Anniversary Celebration of CHP

Friday morning we woke up to a beehive of activity. People were busy with last minute preparations for evening’s celebration and the Feast on Saturday. Sewing, cooking, sweeping, cleaning, decorating the grounds (with paper flowers, ribbons, fantastic and beautiful tortoise shells on trees) and church. Kids were running around helping where they could, playing with each other, dogs were barking, chickens clucking, goats bleating. We helped where we could and got out of the way otherwise.

We celebrated on Friday evening, with a slide show presentation of the history of CHP, looking back on 25 years. The Bishop and Fr. Abiade (St. Paul’s wonderful priest) spoke as well as members of the CHP community from Colorado. There was a big turn-out from Petit Trou – you could tell the event was a Big Deal to everyone.  At intermission wine was uncorked and snacks were served to all. Music was played and chattering began. Lots of love and bonding. After the ceremony we gathered at the church for a night of singing and a comedy from a troup who came from Port au Prince. Apparently it was really funny because everyone was rolling with laughter! A fun night of delightful music, singing, comedy.

The Feast of St. Paul’s

Saturday morning after breakfast we got dressed up and went to the church. There was a long and grand procession starting outside with visiting choirs, children who were being confirmed, Deacons, Priests (Haiti and Colorado), and the Bishop. People from the village were arriving by foot, donkeys, scooters, horses and a wheelchair (Joel). The Haitians were spectacularly dressed and beautiful. We couldn’t even compete in the fashion show – don’t even try, pale-faces! The children were dressed in formal wear – girls in dresses, boys in suits. Blindingly beautiful.

Once we were all in the sanctuary, the service began. After the first hour, I felt like I was in a trance. The heat, the people singing, the voices, the service spoken in Creole, watching the people, watching the people watch us, and finally at the end of the 2-hour service, a procession of singing and slowly dancing young people, bringing in the bounties of their lives to be blessed at the altar. I was moved to tears as they slowly processed in with fruits, vegetables, plants, a rooster, two goats – all in a remarkably beautiful display of Thanksgiving for the gifts in their lives. I’ve never witnessed such a beautiful ceremony and I am honored and grateful to have been given the opportunity to be there.

CHP25 (151 of 302)-XLDuring the service I was sitting next to two boys who I gradually became friends with. They were very shy but clearly interested in who I was. And then eventually a little girl from a row up made her way over to stare at me and then sit in my lap. She was adorable and I think we fell a little bit in love. These memories I cherish.

IMG_0919Fr. Abiade, his wife, and mother-in-law (who took care of their sweet daughter, Abji) did an amazing job, working hard to manage and coordinate all the myriad of details for the celebration and feast. They had been working and planning for months leading up to this week employing many from Petit Trou and surrounding district. Hats off!

IMG_0585x

Fahter Abiade and Abji (left)


Drought

I’ve spoken a lot about the beauty of Haiti – the people, the landscape, geography, Caribbean, vegetation, the simple but difficult life. The part that is the hardest for me to talk about is the poverty and drought. It’s heartbreaking to see how skinny the animals are, how dry many of the rivers are, the cracked earth dying of thirst, and how many adults and children are hungry and malnourished. It’s hard to talk about because it’s hard to process the reality in Haiti and know the solution. January is the driest month, right before the Monsoon rains come in March, but this year has been particularly dry – no measurable rain for 3 months in many large areas of Haiti (the mountains do get rain occasionally, in January). In the week we were there it sprinkled one stormy day (the storm passed us by) and really wasn’t that humid. On the positive side, that meant few mosquitos and it wasn’t as hot and humid as anticipated. On the negative side, it meant a bleak reality for an already food insecure nation. Haiti needs rain – for the crops, the animals, the people. Pray for rain in Haiti.

IMG_0679Leaving Haiti

The week was short and I really wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted just a few more days, at least. I can see how many of the CHP volunteers keep returning to Haiti. It gets under your skin. Marti, one of our traveling companions who has been coming to Haiti for 25 years, wants to retire in Haiti and even has a house picked out in Petit Trou. Most everyone knows Marti and she knows everyone. They love her as much as she loves them. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

We did the reverse trip to Port-au-Prince as we had the week earlier. The adventure of bouncing along the coastal highway with our luggage on top and horn blaring was again an adventure. Bruce did an outstanding job driving and our Haitian guides (through PaP) were needed and got us to the airport unscathed. It was a whirlwind day. We stayed Sunday night at the Palm Hotel in Port au Prince. Our vehicles entered a compound through a locked gate and we were prisoners in paradise for one night. There was a pool, hot running water for showers, comfortable beds, a restaurant, poolside bar. It felt strange and a bit uncomfortable, but we managed to succumb to the luxury, knowing we were only there for a short while.

The next morning we had a lazy, delicious (omelet bar) breakfast by the pool before heading to the airport. After we checked luggage and made it through security, we had time to buy some duty-free souvenirs at the airport: Mamba, 5-star Barbancourt Rhum, vanilla, hot sauce, and Haitian art. We made it to Miami, through customs and security (twice – or was it three times?), and barely made our flight. We had a short layover and it took a long time to get through all the bureaucracy of a major international airport. What a trip that was. We didn’t have time to eat so we drank our dinner on the plane (courtesy of our nice AA flight attendant!). We arrived in Denver late that night, mentally and physically unprepared for the frigid -0 degrees and snow. I had not taken any warm clothes, so Amy’s husband, John, brought me some sweats and a jacket to wear home. Bless him!

Returning to the land of too many choices

We had talked about re-entering our lives from a week in Haiti. From those who had done the re-entry process before, they warned us first-timers that it doesn’t get easier. They warned us about a feeling of “dis-location” rather than one of disconnectedness (ala jetlag).  More like a cultural dis-location.

After getting in late Monday night, I awoke on Tuesday morning to a stillness and quietness that was unsettling. The snow and cold had muffled the world and I immediately missed the sound of “life” – the sounds of the roosters, dogs, goats, people. I felt empty – dislocated. The sky was white/gray (clouds), not a sunny blue. The world, my life, seemed colorless, drab, and empty. I cried.

Later, I gently got myself together and realized I needed to go to the store for a few staples. Without much thought I went to King Soopers. As soon as I entered the large double doors I was hit with the enormous abundance in my life. I stopped and stood there – feeling a panic attack coming on. I made myself grab a small basket and put imaginary blinders on to grab bananas, milk, bread, honey. I was fighting back tears and was noticeably upset. I noticed people looking at me but made it out of the store before breaking down.

How does one re-enter after spending 4 months in India, I wondered. Or one who comes here from Haiti, Africa – other 3rd and 4th world countries? There must be a million “coming to America” immigrant stories. I want to hear them.

From our perspective the Haitians have so little, yet so much. They are rich in what we lack.  And we are rich in what they lack. It’s an ironic dichotomy. They are connected to nature in a way we aren’t. They live predominantly outdoors, we live mostly indoors. I envy them this. They have a strong community while many Americans are isolated from community. They don’t have the distractions of the electronic world that isolates us. They have extended family, where most of us live alone without an extended family. They have the sounds of nature. I know I am drawing vastly large generalities to make a point. ALL Americans aren’t disconnected and isolated, just as all Haitians aren’t living in paradise.  Haitians live with malnourishment, generation after generation, which leads to many health problems, disease, an early death.

How can WE have so damn much food, so many choices – TOO many choices – while others starve just a few hundred miles from the US border? How can that BE? I don’t understand and never will, how there can be such disparity between those who have nothing and those who have too much. Just by being born in America, we are the recipient of this abundance. It’s so unfair. It made me angry and still does.

These are the questions that plagued me when I returned from Haiti and I still think about.

Returning also meant that our friends wanted to hear about our experience in Haiti. Words failed and a feeble description became inadequate while the listener’s eyes glazed over and they lost interest. Unlike other travel adventures, going to Haiti affects you on so many levels (emotional, mental, spiritual), that the experience and details are difficult to convey in words.

When we said goodbye to Fr. Abiade, he told us in his characteristically wise, sweet and calm way that “we have to leave so we can return.”

Indeed we do.

IMG_0616xMore photos from our trip

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To Spanx® or not to Spanx®?

How many of you have taken the Spanx plunge? I hadn’t until recently when after standing in church I felt my upper thighs rubbing together.  I was so horrified, instead of thinking about Jesus, I was thinking about my fat thighs and what the hell I was going to do about it. I know, I know. I’m not normally so self absorbed, but this was serious!  It was all I could do to keep calm and carry on.

I could diet and exercise, but that could take YEARS and in the meantime I’d have to suffer the rub. I could get liposuction, but that’s expensive and health insurance doesn’t cover cosmetic surgery (where’s the justice?).  Plus it makes me throw up a little in my mouth to even think about it. Talk about Pink Slime. Yuck. Shapewear is a much more reasonable choice when presented with the alternatives.

When I first saw Spanx, my mind immediately drifted to girdles. Yikes. When I was a teenager in the ‘60s, we wore girdles without even asking why.  I was 14 and skinny so why did I have to wear a girdle?  Because everyone else did. Those were the Dark Ages, before it was acceptable to Question Authority, before panty hose, before The Pill.  Girdles were used ostensibly to have something to pin our hose to. Of course, no one admitted they were really post-19th C chastity belts, as it was next to impossible to put a hand down there much less get a girdle off (in the back seat of the old Chevy) before the sun came up. I remember my boyfriend popping my behind once and yelping like he had hurt his hand, my butt was so hard – like a brick, he said. We were the Stepford Teens born of Stepford Wives.

So after years of walking quickly by the Spanx  display in department stores and Coldwater Creek and thinking, wow what a great idea.  Whoever thought of that was a genius and quite likely very rich by now. But not for me.  Keep walking.

Then I turned 60 and the thigh rubbing and dreaded midriff thickening began.  What a weird word, “midriff”.  Does the etymology stem from continental drift, ala ‘mid-section drift’?  And “thickening” is a genteel term to indicate the disappearance of a waist and the appearance of a belly – in a woman of a certain age – right around the Tropic of Capricorn. As we get older, it’s all about geography, isn’t it?  Hills, dales, weathered landscapes and gravity.

So there I was in the depressing room trying on Spanx.  And let me tell you right now, it was *not* a pretty picture.  Even worse than trying on bathing suits. Let’s just say the lighting was very bad. Why do they use those million-watt bulbs in women’s dressing rooms?  Hint to retailers: you will sell a lot more goods if you use candlelight or 15-watt bulbs in your dressing rooms.  I was imagining a security camera aimed at me trying on these getups with a gaggle of security officers upstairs laughing their butts off as I almost fell on the floor trying to pull up those undergarments. One, a torso crusher, had about 20 tiny hook and eyes I couldn’t even begin to hook. Must’ve been called the “Scarlett O’Hara”.

I finally found one that held all my parts together snugly with nothing rubbing or wondering off the reservation. AND, I could still breathe! Everything was in place just as God intended. I did have a muffin top thing happening in the northern latitude, but nothing I couldn’t gain some control over. Things in the southern latitudes were doing just fine.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, though, those lung crushing undergarments are expensive (although there is a  generic brand that is less expensive and just as good). The difference between expensive Spanx® and the less expensive copy-cat brand is that Spanx® has a handy little opening at the crotch (south of the Equator) and the generic doesn’t.  Pretty clever and maybe worth the extra $20. Especially for women of a certain age.

I went with the generic brand.

Spanx

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