No Great Things

Everyone wants to do something great.


Teachers, youth ministers, doctors, soldiers, businessmen, college students,  social justice advocates, pro-life advocates… we´re all out to do something great.   We´re going to change lives or fight for justice or save souls or be really successful and live in a penthouse in New York City dressed like a Mad Men throwback and die a millionaire. 
 
We want to be somebody, and ever since my generation´s been kids we´ve been told that we should change the world.  

At heart, I think each of us wants to change the world – I think that a recent article suggesting that we´re more materialistic than people thought has more to do with the rubble of a job market than anything – we care more about money because many of us are starting out with elite educations and two meals a day with canned soup for dinner every night – it´s easy not to care about money when you´ve never had to care about money, and I think we´re just in the school of hard knocks trying to balance ¨being great¨ with living comfortably and knowing we can provide for our future families.  


It´s now been nearly 6 months since I climbed on a plane to leave the United States to follow my dream of spending at least a year serving the poor in developing nations.  I´ve worked for organizations whose vision looks great on paper and, if anything, would seem to embody ¨doing great things.¨ 

The problem with setting out to ¨do something great¨is that what one is usually setting out to do is to try to fill out the ideal we´ve cast for ourselves.  I suppose we all have our own special ideal that particularly tempts us, but for me (and I suspect for many women) the ideal is Savior.  

Let me share an encounter that I had in Haiti.

I learned from one of my Haitian friends that there is a disturbing trend growing in Haiti, due to the influx of development aid handled only by white Americans – kids are learning that their only value is to look pathetic. 

What I mean is that Americans travel to Haiti expecting it to be ¨just like on TV!¨ where they are supposed to come and save the children by ¨oh, I just want to adopt them all!¨ They come anticipating the flies, the squalor, the cute children so dreadfully dirty, the barbaric nature of those godless Black men who don´t know how to handle their own country. 

And they have money in their hands.

They give the money to the kids that fulfill that ideal in their heads – the dirtiest children, the ones who grab their hands and cry ¨Oh, don´t go!¨ 

What´s the problem?  The problem is that in Haiti, people are poor, but they are not dirty.  

Even the poorest of the poor take a pride and dignity in their homes, in their santitation, in keeping what little they have clean and presentable.  It´s what they have left, their dignity, and every Sunday they come out wearing their Sunday best.

But Americans come, and they see a kid wearing a nicely cleaned shirt, and they say ¨You´re not poor.  Why are you asking for money?¨ and the kid goes home dignified but still starving.

So bit by bit, the kids learn to let go of their dignity.  When they hear that white people are coming to their village, the mothers tell their children to go make themselves dirty so that maybe they can get a treat.  They teach them the lines – ¨don´t go¨ – and how to pose for pictures… the poorest areas always had the kids who were used to posing for pictures.  And I always saw, in the background, perhaps standing in a doorway with her arms crossed, a mother watching somberly, brows furrowed.  Watched her kids learn to degrade themselves just so they could get enough to eat that day, watched them get rid of the only thing they had left, their dignity. 

Americans treated the children like beggars, not like human beings.  They were a 30-second commercial on TV that they get to pose with on Facebook, not separate individuals with their own lives and complexities.  And the children learned that, in order to eat, they had to act like beggars, and not human beings.  There is a growing rage among Haitians as they watch this happen to their children. 

I tried to explain to visiting nurses from the US that they should be careful how they give money – they should give it as a reward for singing a pretty song, or helping them with something, not because the children look dirty.  Money ascribes value, and when you give money to kids because they´re dirty, you teach them that it´s valuable to be undignified.  You teach them to act like beggars, and not like children.  That there was a disturbing trend where kids were learning to be undignified and act like beggars, instead of feeling valuable and empowered for their gifts. 


Their reaction was vehement and overwhelming, although not to my face.   They were enraged.  How could the children be anything other than what we have been conditioned to see – pathetic?  They believed that I was calling the children beggars, that I must be this devastatingly coldhearted person to suggest that the money should not be freely handed out to everyone.  In their worldview, they were the Saviors, and the Haitian children were the Pathetic Being Saved, and anyone who suggested otherwise was Evil.  


We all want to do something great. 

But in reality, there is no such thing as doing something great. 

If you set out to do something great – whether that´s to be a Savior, or a Self-Made Man, or a Freedom Fighter – you just end up blind.

People who are genuinely nice people, who genuinely want to help other people, can cause really bad things to happen if they get lost in a pursuit of greatness.   In order to believe that we are great, we have to construct a whole world in which we are superior and everyone else is inferior – which necessarily leads to degrading the dignity of the people around us.   Everything is reduced to an ideal, an idea, with each person given their roles to play – Savior and Saved, Hardworking and Lazy, Tough-Minded and Weak, Justice Fighter and the Indifferent.  

After awhile, it gets to a point where if any of  this structure is shown to be false – if victims can be cruel, if kindness can be misguided, if pity can be degrading – we flip out.  Why do we flip out?  Because the farce is almost blown – the structure is shown to be unsound.  We almost have to see ourselves as we are – simply imperfect.  And that´s what most of us are running from, I think. 

One of my favorite professors once told our class that most marriages fail for a simple reason – an inability to just see the other person and love the other person, as they are, and be satisfied.   Not to love an ideal of what they could be, or what we wish they are, but simply as they are, period.  To see past categories and ideals, and simply to meet the other person, in a way that can only be done through a humble love. 

Mother Teresa famously said, ¨There are no great things; there are only small things, done with great love.¨

These are the strangers in my life that have impacted me the most profoundly: my first-grade lunch lady.  My elementary school nurse.  My middle school bus driver. The woman at UVA who swiped people´s meal cards for lunch.

Why?  

Because the lunch lady gave me free pizza every friday while my mom was dying, so I wouldn´t be the only kid in the lunchroom who couldn´t have pizza because we were paying for her operations, and sat with me during lunch hour because I was too preoccupied and sad to have conversations with the other kids. 

Because my elementary school nurse figured out that my constant stomach aches just meant that I needed someone to talk to, and made sure to be there whenever I needed her. 

Because my middle school bus driver didn´t put up with bullies, made everyone feel specially loved, and treated us all to pizza just because she liked us. 

Because Cathy the Cardswiper knew each face behind the cards that she swiped, and always had words of encouragement for everyone.  She let me go in early on frigid mornings after I´d had to stand in formation for ROTC for 2 hours and couldn´t feel my toes so I could have a cup of coffee and a hot breakfast.  She´d evangelize by saying ¨Don´t worry baby, I know Jesus is gonna take care of you,¨ and every student at UVA knew her name. 

Isn´t that funny?

Small things.  Great love.   Don´t get distracted.  It´s the only way we can really do anything worthwhile, I think.

That´s it.  

Happy Lent.

Peace,

Meg 


P.S. Today is, appropriately, the Feast of the Annunciation or, alternatively, the Feast of Christ’s Conception!!  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and you will conceive and bear a Son, and He shall be called Emmanuel.”    Mary’s Canticle, her prayer upon receiving the angel Gabriel, is particularly fitting for today’s reflection, so if you’d like, perhaps you can take a moment and pray it with me:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of His arm
He has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of His servant Israel,
for He has remembered His promise of mercy
The promise He made to our fathers
To Abraham and his children forever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

Mother Mary, Tabernacle of Grace, pray for us!

A Week in Annette: Visiting Refugees, Experiencing Cholera

So much has happened this week that I’m having a hard time deciding what to say. For every word written there are 10 more left unsaid – I really feel regret that I won’t be able to capture every instant. Some life, and some death, and a lot of in between.

To begin, I’ll briefly say that there was a lot of walking. I use the word “walking” loosely here, since I really mean a combination of extreme climbing, slipping, maneuvering rocks, and eventually collapsing. We weaved through the mountains, forded rivers, and scaled boulders, with the goal of meeting with refugees who came to Annette after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince over one year ago. It was exhausting and technically difficult, but even when I was puffing and sweating and cringing at the taste of the Clorox I used to purify my water, I can say that I was always happy.

But there was fear. I say that not because I really felt fear, but I knew in my mind that I actually was afraid. The day before we left, it rained all day. I knew that this meant that cholera would spike, especially in remote villages. Last time it rained, the village of Castillon (not far from Annette) lost 7 people in one night – the rain washed infected mud into the drinking water. I’ve written about cholera before, but just to revisit: it’s a pretty terrifying disease that, once contracted, can kill you in 6 hours. It causes your body to flush gallons of water out of your system at a time, first from diarrhea, and later from vomiting. It is especially deadly for people with compromised immune systems – which of course puts most people in rural Haiti at high risk. (The UN is currently being sued for introducing the pandemic into the population). It must be immediately treated with doxycycline and rehydration solution, at which point there is a decent chance of survival. I always carry a bag of rehydration mix and extra doxycycline in my travel bag for any time I travel into the mountains.

I’ll give you a few scenes in flashes, because for some reason I’m having difficulty articulating it all at once:

* * *
We were all sitting on our small wooden chairs, under the yellow glow of the solar-powered lights that had been charging on top of the latrines all day. We’d finished our dinner (they offered me a congealed red substance that turned out to be goat’s blood, which I politely declined, and took rice and beans instead). All of the health agents were telling jokes very fast in Creole, and I was doing my best to keep up. Michel Louis, one of the nurses, had a booming laugh, and everyone leaned in when he spoke. I was sitting in the doorway. I glanced over, and I noticed that one of the health agents, Romulus, was sitting on the outside, leaning against the wall in his chair, looking very distraught. Our eyes met, and he stood up quickly and disappeared off the side of the porch. I returned my attention to the lighted room until I decided that I should get some rest for my hike the next day. I walked into the adjacent room and arranged my blankets on the bed mat on the cement floor (we all slept in a row, we seven, and it was a snug fit). I drifted to sleep.

I was awakened some time later, I’m not sure when, but I thought it was morning. Everyone was shouting, some people were laughing, and I realized that everyone was coming to bed. The last thing I remember before closing my eyes was thinking that they were saying the word “Cholera, cholera” over and over.

The sun rose, and so did I. We ate some bread and sweet coffee for breakfast, and I gathered my things. Romulus was sitting on the front porch, I noticed that sweat was pouring down his face. Michel Louis told me that Romulus thought he has cholera, but he’s not sure. He took some doxycyline already, he said.

We finish breakfast. Romulus got up and staggered over to the latrine. Without opening the door, he got violently sick on the grass. And then again. And again. I heard Michel Louis curse behind me.

We all stared, worried.
“You said he already took doxycyline?” I asked.
“I think so,” Michel Louis said. “Romulus, eske ou te pran doxycycline deja?”
Romulus replied, and Michel Louis translated: “No, he actually didn’t. He couldn’t find any.”
“He couldn’t find any?”
“No.”
“I have some,” I gasped suddenly. “I have extra.”
I ducked into my room and returned with the small bag of the precious pills. I counted them out – one, two, three. Romulus took them all at once, with water. He collapsed on a chair on the porch and leaned his head back against the wall.
I saw the plastic gallon I had carried up, in case of emergency, filled with some liquid. “Is that rehydration solution?”
“Yes.”
He wasn’t drinking.
We remained there on the porch, and the minutes ticked by, him sitting, sweat pouring down his face, leaning against the cement wall. Me, standing, staring out at the road. A five hour walk to the nearest village, plus another 4 hours to the nearest hospital, if a car managed to get there in time, I calculated. Nine hours.
“You should drink more,” I said in Creole, as firmly as I could, although I’m afraid it came out fainter than I intended.
He picked up a Sprite bottle and took an unconvincing swig.
Two gallons right away, I’d heard.
“You need to finish that right now,” I said.
He finished the Sprite bottle, and refilled it with more solution.
I felt infuriatingly calm. I knew that I needed to be pushing him harder to drink more, I should be yelling. But I didn’t know how much water we had. We were an hour’s walk from the nearest water source.
The mule arrived, with a small bustle of people behind it. He would ride the mule to Castillon. They strapped the plastic gallon to the mule. He staggered out onto the grass, and climbed on a rock to mount. When the mule shuffled out of the way, he looked utterly defeated. He took heavy, sliding steps after it until it stopped. He mounted, stooped over its neck, and disappeared around the corner.

We hiked all day, me and Ricardo and our guide, the village’s health agent (a man with a bright smile and carved features that softened when he observed children). So absorbed was I in the technical difficulty of descending the muddy mountainside sprinkled with jagged rocks that I couldn’t think of anything but the present. We descended to a small river, and forded it, and visited several houses. Of them all, one sticks out powerfully in my mind. A girl, twenty-three (my age), with her small child of 3 years old. They came from Port-au-Prince after the earthquake and stayed with the old woman there. Our job is to document who stayed and who went, whether they know how to recognize and respond to cholera, and the quality of their living conditions. They invited us into their home – cement walls, tin roof. There was a single mattress in one corner, it took up about a quarter of the house. Myself and the girl were sitting on the mattress. The child was staring at me – I was the first white person she’d ever seen. Ricardo was speaking rapidly. I watched the girl. Her eyes were half-lidded, not particularly focused on anything, although I saw the spark of intelligence there. Occasionally they would settle on her child, and focus, and she would smile.

“Are you going back to Port-au-Prince?” Ricardo asked.
“No.” The girl muttered.
“Why not?”
“Because it is not good there.”
“Why is it not good?”
She inhaled quickly. “It’s no good! It’s no good!” She was getting upset.
The older woman murmured something to Ricardo, and he repeated it to me: “She’s not right in the head. Since the earthquake, she hasn’t been right in the head.”
I looked at her, and I had a feeling that she understood this exchange. I wished I could be a counselor, and live here, and get to know her, and draw her out. I felt she wasn’t all gone, just hidden. Perhaps I am wrong. But I would have liked to find out. But I have no counseling degree, or arrangements to stay, and I can’t do everything. I wondered how many refugees were in need of counseling that was not available.

Her eyes were fixed on the same spot, just above the floor, half lidded. A breeze caught the bright cloth draped over the doorway and blew it inward, and the girl sat there, hands folded palm-up in her lap, head tilted downward, and I felt that I wanted to take a picture to capture the inscrutable expression there, but that a camera would somehow offend her. But the image inscribed itself upon my memory, and I resolved to write it here.

We continued this work for several hours, before returning to the post in the afternoon. I was feeling invigorated from the hard walk and the fresh air, and was all in all in generally good spirits to be returning to our friends back at post.

We were greeted with a somber face that came out to meet us in the yard.
“Romulus fell off his mule. He was too weak to ride. Someone found a stretcher. They’ll carry him to Castillon.”
And again, inside: “Jackson is driving from Jeremie to meet him in Castillon.” This was good news. Jackson is a nurse, and was valedictorian of his class. He had stayed behind. If anyone was capable of dealing with this, it would be him.

I had the strangest sensation that, perhaps a moment or two away, a fear was lurking. The image of Romulus tumbling off of his mule on that steep mountainside, into the mud, wondering if he was going to die – I deflected it. The briefest thought, the what-if – I deflected that, too. I walked into the house, sat down on my mat, and stared straight ahead. Ricardo joined me soon.

“I should’ve been meaner,” I said. “Angrier.” I had a growing awareness that my desire to be nice, to be polite, to be quiet, could have serious consequences here. “I knew he had to drink more rehydration solution. I should have made him.”

That night, we hear: Jackson met him in Castillon and gave him three bags of IV fluid right away before driving him to the hospital. They tested him: it was cholera. He had gotten doxycycline just in time. He would be okay.

* * *

The next day was the hardest yet. No one had slept the night before. Every time someone relieved themselves in the bucket on the floor, someone would wake up and joke loudly that the person had cholera, which I found to be more disconcerting than funny at 2 in the morning after a long hike. Around 3am they all just gave in and sat up, shouting jokes at each other until the sun came up and at 5am I staggered, pale-faced, to leave them behind (they would be sitting all day, I thought crossly) for another day of hiking. It was the hardest day yet, so difficult that it was recommended that I not go – they were afraid that I would, literally fall off the mountain. But I insisted, and off we went. Descend, descend, descend, and try not to slip. Ford a river. Visit a house. Ford back across. Then we ascended a monstrous peak, two hours of straight climbing, a route that literally cut straight up the mountain at nearly 70 degrees. More houses, more interviews. Some people had gone to market for the day – they weren’t there. I knew I should’ve felt frustrated, but I was just tired. The mountains were beautiful, and the air was fresh. My water had been boiled to be sanitized and I could tell – it tasted like old smoke. In that heat, I hardly noticed.

I returned, and collapsed on my mat. I thought that that spot on the floor was literally the most comfortable bed I’d ever been on. I didn’t move for at least 15 minutes, until I finally reminded myself that I did know how to move my legs, and I even wiggled my toes to prove it. The Haitian women gathered at the door and tsk’ed, saying that I should not have walked so far. I stayed, unmoving.

The health agents were walking to another village. Ricardo and I were staying one more night, and meeting them the next afternoon.

After dinner I walked out onto the front porch. The health agent gestured over to the latrine.

“Moun kolera” – that man has cholera.

I looked closer – on a stretcher on the ground, a gaunt man lay unmoving. A single wrist, no wider than a pencil, hung at an odd angle over the side. I wondered if I should discreetly take a picture, to show it to the world. I decided that would be a pretty callous thing to do. His eyes were sunken in. I could see it from across the yard. He was severely dehydrated.

“Did he get doxycycline?” I asked the health agent.

“I gave him some already,” he replied.

It was more important for him to drink, I knew. If he didn’t drink now, he was going to die. But for some reason I couldn’t move – it felt like one of those dreams where you’re running in slow motion – so I stared. Time stretched out. I became aware that everyone present was staring, as though watching a car wreck in slow motion. I found myself staring at his chest, as though afraid that soon it would stop rising and falling.

He sat up suddenly, and I started. He opened his mouth and let out a small moan: “Diarrhea.”

His caretaker helped him stand, and he staggered into the latrine. I heard Ricardo let out a defeated breath.

“He should be drinking more,” I said to Ricardo.
“Yes,” he said.
Do something. Do something. Do something.
You’re not a nurse. You’re not in charge. You can’t disempower the people who will be here all the time.
If you don’t do something, you are going to regret it.

The man left the latrine, stumbled, and collapsed face-first on the stretcher. I walked over the the man’s caretaker. He was violently washing his hands.

“He needs to drink more,” I said in Creole. “If he doesn’t, he’s going to die.”

“Yes,” the man agreed. He continued to wash his hands.

“He needs to drink that whole gallon.”

“Yes,” the caretaker agreed again. Scrub, scrub, scrub.

Why am I so calm? Why is everyone so calm?! Get angry! Be rude! Why can’t you be rude?! It was like a slow-motion nightmare.

The man in the stretcher fixed his hollow eyes on me. His wrist flopped out, his palm turned skyward, and then – he was gesturing for me to come closer.

I brushed past the caretaker and approached with trepidation, feeling as though I was approaching someone’s deathbed. What could he want? What would he ask? For water? Food? I bent down. I was terrifyingly undisturbed, perfectly composed.

Photo.” He rasped. A request just like one of a child I would pass on the road.

I had the strangest sensation in that moment. It was as though somewhere, on the exact opposite side of the world, there was a girl with my name, and face, and memories, who suddenly broke down sobbing and laughing at the same time.

But not me, and not here. Although I am vaguely aware of having cried out that single word back to him, as though struck: “Photo?!” But a moment later I was recomposed.

“First you need to finish this.” I gestured at the gallon of water by his side, nearly empty. They only had one more.

He blinked slowly, and then weakly lifted it to his lips. He gulped once, and then set it back down.

“No. You need to finish it,” I said.

He fixed his eyes on mine. “I am finished.” His voice was firm. His eyes rolled back in his head and he sunk back down. “Now take my picture.”

If it had been possible for me to remain there all night, coaxing him to take sip after sip, I would have done so. But never, for the life of me, could I have shouted at that man, could I have done anything other than what he asked me in that moment. It seemed that to do otherwise would be to deny the last simple request of a dying man. I lifted the camera. Click. I showed it to him. And I’ve attached it here.

The health agent called to me. We had to leave to go to his house before sundown, we had to leave now. I straightened and turned to see everyone in the yard staring at me. I walked quickly to the house and gathered my things, and we left.

* * *

That’s all I can share tonight, I think.

But I will leave you with this: the next morning, I awoke in total darkness in the health agent’s house, to the quiet murmur of voices next door. I listened more closely and realized that the whole family was gathered around an oil lamp in the living room, praying before sunrise. The voices were quiet, but somehow filled me with a deep and quiet peace.

“Others have cars, or airplanes, or money, but we subsist by the grace of God, and on His grace alone we live,” they murmured.

As I write it now, I feel the indignance that some of you may feel to hear such a prayer after witnessing such suffering. But who are we to deride their faith, they, who live here, who see death every day? There was something so simple, and so beautiful, about the way the light glowed between the cracks of the door, listening to that small family sitting on their floor and praying together. There is something ineffable and unspeakable about the mysteries here, that I cannot capture, and I am sorry that I cannot do so. But I hope that you will take my word for it – it was good and simple and beautiful in the way that all things strive to be good and simple and beautiful, and that is the most I can say.

And I can leave you with this, too: when we returned to Jeremie at the end of the week, we stopped by Romulus’ house and waited anxiously to see him. And then – he burst out of his front door, grinning widely, hands out to either side. He ducked in the window and gave everyone fist pumps, and everyone in the car couldn’t stop smiling. His mother came out, practically in tears, and just kept saying “Thank you, thank you so much,” over and over. She met my eyes a couple of times and gave me such a look that I wondered if Romulus had told her that the American had given him the medicine. I felt a lump in my throat. Cholera used to be a death sentence, but her son was alive. We knew what to do, and all of us, from calling the mule, to the ones who carried the stretcher, to Jackson driving four hours to give him IVs, to the cholera treatment centers that HHF had established – we had saved her son. I couldn’t stop smiling all the way back to my house, and it was the closest I’d come to tears all week.

I’ll leave you there. Thanks for reading.

mt

“I Don’t Think You’ll Find What You’re Looking For in Haiti”

Friends,

In summary of this week: My much-anticipated travel into the mountains has been regrettably postponed until Monday, since All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are national holidays. In addition to employees taking the day off, I think it’s also unwise to go into the mountains, due to the widespread voodoo practices on these days – at the strike of 11:00, 11:15, 11:30, 11:45, and midnight on October 30th-31st I heard the sound of rockets and the sound of hypnotic beating drums wafting through my bedroom window.

Voodoo is a secret society here, although there are rumors that practitioners are very dangerous (one legend says that voodoo priests can fly, but only when they are flying to kill, and another that they steal the souls of the deceased, reconstruct their bodies, and sell the zombies as exceptionally hardworking slaves). The latter legend makes me concerned that voodoo is a cover for a black market slave industry – either way, Halloween here in Haiti is far more creepy than Halloween in cozy little UVA, and all in all I’m satisfied to wait until Monday for my trip into the mountains.

The week has proved to become a good one for thinking, as many of my work hours are spent compensating for the lack of Clervil, whose data entry spot is temporarily vacant, by entering data on earthquake refugees into their computerized system that may or may not have been encoded around the time the printing press was invented.

So, on the bright side, this veritable desert of creativity has nudged me to finally venture into the realm of reflections (particularly, of the Catholic Worker variety). It is appropriately timed, considering (as my friend Barbara astutely prophesied) I have found myself in that position where the honeymoon has started to fade, and I’ve begun to feel uncomfortable with areas of my life that, you know, still aren’t perfect.

Before leaving UVA, I visited one of my professors, Professor Bouchard, a man of remarkable intelligence and insight. I still remember him peering intently across his desk at me from behind his thick glasses. (For some reason I always imagine his gray hair somewhat askew, sticking out wildly on either side of his head, although I think in real life he’s better groomed). He has a speech impediment, which I’m sure has deceived many people into believing that he is not, in fact, probably the most brilliant man they’ve met in their life.

“What are you expecting to find, in Haiti?”

He was tilting back in his chair, with every air of a careless man, except that indefinable sense that you get with some people that he was very focused indeed.

For whatever reason, I found myself temporarily at a loss for words. I had been prepared to answer an academic question from an academic adviser, but I had a feeling that he wasn’t asking an academic question at all.

He put his hands behind his head, smiling. “Whatever you think you’re going to find, I don’t think you’ll find it… there.”

I gathered myself and replied something to the effect that, since my thesis is going to be about exploring different theologies of the poor – surrender and empowerment – I thought it would make sense to share some of those experiences with the poor instead of sitting in my ivory tower writing about it.

The rest of the conversation escapes me, because oddly enough, in memory, the conversation that followed seems all tangled up in my own reflections on his statement since. Every now and then his words, or just a flash of his smile as he rubbed his gray hair, will flit across my mind and I’ll feel some cross between uncertainty and a sense that there’s something there that I need to discover – and keep discovering. “Whatever you think you’re going to find, you won’t find it… there.”

It wasn’t a discouragement. He was going somewhere else. He’s a phenomenologist, that is, a person who ascribes to a philosophy of experience. I believe he was getting at something closer to the following:

“Though I might travel afar, I will meet only what I carry with me, for every man is a mirror. We see only ourselves reflected in those around us. Their attitudes and actions are only a reflection of our own. The whole world and its condition has its counterparts within us all. Turn the gaze inward. Correct yourself and your world will change.”
~ Kristen Zambucka

No matter where I go, Haiti or elsewhere, I always carry myself with me. The answer for any big questions are never in a place, although a place can provide experiences that, when combined with the ideal internal state, can produce fireworks. I am sure that if Mother Teresa spent the rest of her life in a convent in Europe, she would have been quite a holy, saintly, and wonderful person, simply because of who she was. But you put her in Calcutta, and she’s on fire. Likewise, I’m sure there are many people serving the poor in places like Calcutta who are proud, rude, and self-centered. The first step is to align our interior life with God. The second step is to go where He calls us. You can’t skip step A, and then compensate for that spiritual restlessness by flying to another country (or switching careers or making a big life decision, whatever). It doesn’t work like that.

Events that happen to us are different than Experiences we have. Experience refers to the connection between our mind and the external world. Events refer to the actual things that happened independent of us. Since each of us have different minds, we each have different experiences of the world. Dark minds lead one to see the world / their lives as a dark place, hopeful minds see their lives as a hopeful place, etc. Each mind interprets each event differently. Also, we control our own minds and thought patterns, and therefore we can control, to some extent, everything that “happens to” us in our entire life.

We only see Beauty if we’ve already allowed Beauty to take root in our souls, if we’ve contemplated on it, experienced it through music or a laughing baby, a deep prayer, or a good hot drink by a fire with friends. We only understand hatred if we’ve allowed hatred to take root in our souls. So – the more we allow GOOD THINGS to take root in our soul, the more we will be able to recognize those good things out in the world, and overlook the bad.

Christians are given a responsibility to conform our souls to Christ. This is good news, because that means that we will start seeing things and experiencing things the way Christ did, which is, of course, the best way they could possibly be seen (I don’t mean that it’s always happy, but that it’s always full of love and purpose). This means that, in a very real way, our own world and experiences become transformed into a Godly world and Godly experiences. The more facets of Christ I allow to enter into my understanding, disposition, relationships, the more facets of Christ I can recognize out in the world.

Right now I’m imagining all of the sensory experiences flowing into us, and our mind is the sort of filter, and God is making sure the filter works well so only good things get into our soul. And so when we look out, from our minds, we see a living Kingdom of God (“those who have eyes, see. those who have ears, listen”). But here’s the kicker. If GOD can live inside of us, and GOD is the creator of the universe – it won’t just be in our heads that everything is more beautiful. Things aren’t just flowing in – God is flowing back out. What we see actually becomes real. We are able to participate in the coming of the Kingdom of God by incarnating Christ’s Love – what Catholic Christians would call our Eucharistic Call.

By treating people as though they are children of God, we awake that child inside of them. By reacting to a tragedy with love, we actually infuse love into that tragedy, and make it resemble a little more closely the mystery of the Resurrected Wounds of Christ. The world around us becomes really transformed – this is not accomplished through material change, but through a realignment of will. And of course I’m saying that we do all of these things – what I mean is that we, as Thomas Merton writes, “Turn our souls to face God,” and the rest takes care of itself. We become animated by grace.

So there you have it. The product of an uneventful week of restlessness and data entry. This has been a very in-my-head update, I hope you don’t mind. But then again – in my head and out in the world are really coextensions of the same thing, aren’t they? It seems that the spiritual journey is no less difficult in Haiti as it is in the US – to keep pressing deeper and deeper, learning how to love. And I suppose, for each of you – we’re all on a journey of some kind – if these Haiti updates have you wondering if you should do anything different with your life, I’d encourage you to understand that, in Charlottesville, in DC, in Yorktown, in Jeremie, wherever you are, we all are stuck with ourselves. And Step A is to open our hearts to grace. Step B, going where you are sent, is important. But it seems that the most important step is Step A, which never really stops. Our first call is always to God, to Love. If you are feeling restless, that seems to be the place to start.

I hope you are all doing well. I miss you terribly. I’ll see some of you for Christmas! Can’t wait. And you’ll have your promised voyage-up-the-mountains-with-10-gallons-of-water-on-my-back story soon. Talk to you later-

Much love,

Meghan

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All thoughts and views are my own and do not represent the views of my employer

Relief Done Right!

Hi friends,

TWO things: First, a very brief update: on Monday I will be traveling to a remote village in the mountains, a four hour hike after the road ends. I’ll be staying at the health agent’s house for the week and will be interviewing earthquake refugees and updating HHF’s population census of the Grand’Anse. So get excited for some good stories!

Secondly, I wanted to send you guys a program that I found that gets my FULL endorsement: it was adopted by the World Food Programme. To respond to the famine in Somalia, they set up a program that helps Kenyan farmers grow more food. Then they purchase the food from the Kenyan farmers to feed refugees in Somalia!

Reasons why this is awesome:

– The charity money’s power is doubled. Instead of the money going to American food corporations, who then donate vast amounts of food that flood the market and put local farmers out of business, this program empowers farmers and strengthens the economy of a fragile nation.

– Relief aid can cause tension in surrounding nations, not least because sometimes those farmers are affected and can’t sell their food at the price they used to. Something we’ve found here in Haiti is that selective aid sometimes fosters jealousy, and so it needs to be done carefully (hence why HHF provides aid based on the recommendation of health agents, who are native to each village, and gives houses based on village consensus). WFP’s new program, however, helps the economy of surrounding nation, which builds solidarity and a sense of responsibility instead of being divisive.

-In particular, Kenya and Somalia don’t get along. Kenya just sent forces across the border to aid the US in keeping the peace – a Somalian militia has been wreaking terror over the area. Numerous studies link food insecurity with spikes in violence. Moreover, Kenya is Christian while Somalia is Muslim, something insurgents have used in their propaganda. Providing food from Kenya to feed those in Somalia could discourage another generation from joining the insurgency and improve relations between the countries.

– Overhead costs are reduced, because it costs much less to transport the food from Kenya to Somalia than to fly it from the US to Somalia.

-It’s more eco-friendly! Planes are gas-guzzlers – 2.4 gallons per nautical mile. US -> Somalia= 6795.7 Nautical Miles. That’s 16,310 gallons of gas per food shipment…

– Bill Gates gave it his approval – he recently gave a talk on how central it is to empower farmers when dealing with food aid.

When you give to charity, give wisely! Look for programs that foster empowerment, employ local residents, and are sustainable. Instead of fostering cycles of dependence upon foreign aid, our aid money can nudge these nations toward eliminating hunger altogether.

Here’s WFP’s description of their program: http://wfp.tumblr.com/post/11947624439/buying-food-from-small-farmers-kenya

Have a great day!

Meg

On Smiling, or, Advice from an Earthquake Survivor

~ Clervil’s story has been told with Clervil’s permission ~

“You like Bob Marley?”

(Except he said “Bobe Mahlee” instead of “Bob Marley”)

I looked across the table at Clervil’s grinning face. “I like him all right,” I shrugged, smiling.

“Ahhhhhh,” he stretched his arms out, leaning back in the kitchen chair, smiling bigger. “I looove Bob Marley. He is… so great. He tell me, that you should not worry so much. You know, you cannot please everybody. Somebody is always going to be dissatisfied. You should not worry. You should just be happy and do your thing. Dat’s how I roll.”

I grinned. “That’s how you roll? Where did you learn that?”

“David taught me,” he said, pleased. David was a long-term volunteer from last year. “But sometime, you know. people don’ like that I am always happy. You know, I always laugh. Always! Always laugh.”

“Yes,” I said, “and when people see you, they always smile.”

“Ahh, yes. I love that. I don’t have no enemies. I always laughing. They say here, if you always laughing, “ou toujou gen den yo ou deyo” – you always have your teeth out. And me, yes. I always have my teeth out. An’ when things get worse, I laugh more. Like after the earthquake.”

He paused for a brief second. I remembered how he was in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake. He was in front of the national palace when it hit, walking down the street. He told me how he stared as the whole palace collapsed right in front of him. He and his friend Leon caught a bus from Port-au-Prince to their hometown Jeremie. He had two years of university left, but he wouldn’t go back.

He blinked slowly and looked at the ceiling, smile still lingering, although fading. “Like after the earthquake, people say, you should not smile. They get angry. They say, ‘How can you? How can you smile? Don’t you know this is terrible?’ But I could not stop smiling. After the earthquake, I just walk around, listen to my Bob Marley.”

“Were you listening to Bob Marley when the earthquake hit?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember which song?”

“Yes. It was ‘Zimbabwe’.” He leaned forward and raised his eyebrows, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Every man gotta right to decide his – own destiny. And in this judgment there is – no partiality. So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle, ‘Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.”

“Those are the words to the song?”

“Yes. I was – I was listening to this.” His smile, though present, seemed faint and somehow distant. “You see, it was exams when the earthquake hit. And to get ready for exams, we would all study together. I am a good student, it is very easy for me to understand what the teacher is saying, so I help my classmates. We all help each other. If one person understand something, they explain to someone else. If one person has money, they go buy food for everyone else. And we study together all day like that. Dat’s how we roll.” He flashed a big smile and giggled.

“On Thursday, we had all day to study. So we all decide to meet in front of the palace. And we were there, all day, until almost five o’clock. And then we all say that we are finished for the day, and we all go home. And I waited until everyone else was gone, because I was helping someone. Then I left. I was walking down the street. And then – it hit. And I was listening to this, yes. And the whole ground – moving up and down. And we could not stand up so we lay down on the ground, and it was like – waves on the road. And then – ah! We see the wall over there fall down. And then – the palace. Pshhh. Fall down. And I was listening to this.”

“Where did you stay afterwards?”

“Ah. I sleep on the street. Some people go back in they house. But the earthquake was still coming. I stay out on the street. A lot of people did not want to go back inside.”

“For how long?” I asked.

“For…. ah, three days. Yes. For three days we slept out on the street. And there was a man, down the street, he died in his house. And after three days there was a smell. Yes.” He blinked and looked down at the table. His smile had faded. “And then we left. We did not want to take a boat, because the last time we took a boat a man tried to steal my laptop, so my father did not want me to go to the wharf ever again. My father, he call me on the phone. He was so glad I was alive. But my uncle, he died. He was a security guard for the man who collected taxes in Port-au-Prince. And that man lived, but my uncle died. My father tell me this. Yes. But then me and Boss Leon found a car to take back to Jeremie. And we come back.”

“And you haven’t gone back since?”

“No. But I think it is time to go back.”

“You’re going back?!” I asked, surprised.

“Yes. I talked with Sister Mary Anne. She told me that it would be a good thing to finish my school in computer science, so I can get a good job afterward.”

“Aren’t you in law school?” He had just started a week before.

“Yes, but, a lot of people go to law school but can’t find a job. But in computer science, anywhere in the world you can find a job. And a lot of my friends are back at school in Port-au-Prince. At school, I have so many friends. I always help them with their work. It is easy for me to understand what the teacher is saying, so I always help out my classmates. And they now are offering to help me.” He paused. “And if Sr. Mary Anne want me to go to school, I will do it.” He looked thoughtful.

“Will you be in the same place as before?” I asked.

“Oh no, no. The school fell down. We will be in a big tent.”

“A big tent?”

“Yes, a big – big tent. But I will be so happy to see my friends.” He smiled big again. “It is good to be with them.”

“You really do always smile,” I said.

“Yes. If something happen that make me sad, I just do not think about this thing. They say being sad make you old. Smiling keep you young. I should not waste time being so sad.”

“There are people who could learn a lot from you,” I said. “You have a lot of wisdom.”

“Yes, maybe,” he said. “I learn it from my father and my mother. And my sister, she is the same way. You see her, and she is always smiling. So great.” He sighed and leaned back contentedly. “Well, I should go before it get too late. I leave for Port-au-Prince this week, I need to get ready.”

I visited Castillon for three days this week. Last week, the village lost seven people in one night to cholera. We went to remind people to clean their water, wash their hands, rehydrate and get doxycycline if they get cholera, and I was able to help with prenatal checkups. I walked through the village and talked with an eleven-year-old girl I met the last time I visited – she had a bad gash in her foot from wearing broken sandals and stepping on a rock, and she told me that both of her parents had died from cholera. I got her name and promised to look for her the next time I come to Castillon. I met an old woman who was Catholic and told me to go to confession every month. I even met people who’d heard of my Charlottesville parish’s sister parish, St. Michel in Saltadere, which is a long ways from here. I learned about Haitian belief in voodoo and zombies, and heard some great stories. It was a fulfilling but tiring trip.

After a long, bumpy, five hour drive, I came home to find a living room full of Haitians grinning at me. Patti and Connie had hosted a going-away party for Clervil. It was awesome. They pulled out the guitar and started playing music (Boss Leon sang a song about how they’re going to miss Clervil, even though he eats too much, Clervil belted out “Vini avek mwen!” or “Come with me!”, making up the words as he went along, and Abimayel, the actor, put on a skit for everyone). I couldn’t stop smiling. When iTunes came on, Clervil walked over to the laptop and scrolled through the songs, before finally choosing one: Zimbabwe.

“Ahhhhh!!!!” He yelled, grinning widely, arms in the air, dancing in the living room and singing loudly. “Every man gotta right to decide his – own destiny! And in this judgment there is – no partiality!” I grinned, caught in the energy, and jumped up, dancing. He started jumping straight up and down, hands in the air, and everyone in the room was shouting the song: “So arm in arms, with arms – we’ll fight this little struggle, ‘Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble! And Brother, you’re right, you’re right, You’re right, you’re right, you’re – so right! We gon’ fight, we’ll have to fight, We gonna fight (we gon’ fight), fight for our rights!”

Later that night, after everyone went home and we’d finished cleaning up I sat over the kitchen table with my friend. “He’s interesting, that one. I like the way he lives. You notice he chose that song, the one he was listening to during the earthquake, to play today? He loves it. It’s like it means something.”

“Yeah.”

I thought about what it must be like, to never think about things that worry you. I wondered if he would ever have to really face or process what happened in Port-au-Prince a year ago, and then I wondered what “processing” even means.

I have a scar the size of a pencil eraser near my left ankle, round and pink. The doctors say that I nicked it, maybe shaving, and when my body tried to heal it, for some reason it never felt that it was healed enough. It keeps trying to heal it, over and over, and every time it builds up scar tissue. The whole reason I have this scar is because my body is trying so hard to heal that it actually makes the scar grow. I wondered how often I do that – or how often we all do that, with whatever our own baggage is – making a small hurt into a scar, processing over and over how we should’ve done things differently, trying to fix it, but ending up more hurt just because we spent so much energy trying to make it right. I thought about the song that Clervil was listening to as he watched the national palace collapse, as he felt the whole world crashing around him, and how he turned it up and jumped up dancing, yelling the lyrics on the top of his lungs. There’s something about that that I’m not sure I will ever understand, but I feel ineffable respect for it, whatever it is. I am coming to understand that I have a lot to learn from this country, and these people, about what it means to survive, but even more, about what it means to live in the first place.

Here’s the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozLHwHcXIvk

And here’s Clervil (left) and Boss Leon (right)
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Peace!

Meg

Cholera continues to rise

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The views expressed on this site are my own and do not represent the views of my employer.
In the case of cholera, as in any emergency medical situation, professional medical attention should be sought immediately. I am not a doctor, and any advice posted here does not represent the professional medical opinion of myself or my employer. Moreover, the statistics referenced have not been verified by a third party.

Seven people died from cholera last night in Castillon, a remote village in the mountains surrounding Jeremie, Haiti. Following the outbreak last year, HHF has held public health seminars and training sessions for cholera response. However, Castillon’s isolation from any hospital likely played a part in Castillon’s high mortality rate.

A health agent counts doxycycline tablets
A health agent counts doxycycline tablets for distribution. The prescribed treatment for cholera is: three tablets of doxycycline taken immediately and immediately drinking six liters of clean water mixed with rehydration solution (six spoonfuls of sugar and one spoonful of salt per gallon, ideally mixed with a banana for potassium). Water can be purified by adding a 5 drops of Clorox per gallon and waiting for thirty minutes. Steady rehydration and moving to a cholera focal point is necessary.

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Ti Louis (seated), a Haitian public health coordinator for HHF, meets with health agents to discuss a response plan.

Castillon is the village I visited overnight and the location I wrote about in my first blog post. I was documenting a public health program on responsible sexuality, through a girls soccer club. This is the people of Castillon rushing the field after their team scored a goal in the soccer final.

I am scheduled to visit Castillon for three days next week. Health agents are debating whether that should happen.

Sound of Rain, Part II – A Theology of Suffering

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The views expressed on this site are my own and do not represent the views of my employer

Hey everyone,

Before moving on to the next post, I’ve heard that “Sound of Rain”, the blog post describing maternal mortality in Haiti, felt incomplete. Some of you wanted a success story; some of you wanted a piece of wisdom to take away from it, or a path to move forward on. There was a general sense of, but what is the point, if this is it? Isn’t this series supposed to be about how everything has a purpose? This seems… a bit purposeless, senseless – I feel like I’ve been broken down, and I want to be built back up. I want to know where to go next.

SO, if this I-Don’t-Know-Where-To-Go-ness describes how you felt after this last e-mail, please read on. If you were just fine, thank you, just hang around til the next update, which will be a much lighter piece 🙂

So here goes: (this is actually way harder than I thought it would be. These are just my thoughts – take them at face value and decide for yourself if you think they’re true).

“I don’t know where to go from here” could mean two things. It could mean, “I don’t know what to do now,” (i.e. how can I stop this injustice from happening any more?) or it could mean, on a deeper level, “I don’t know what to believe, now.” (i.e. you told me this story, but there doesn’t seem to be any hope in it, any wisdom in it, and I’m not sure where to go spiritually from here. I just feel doubt).

Both of these reactions are linked at their root – a desire to resist suffering. We want to resist suffering in the world by fighting causes of oppression. We want to resist suffering in our hearts by understanding the hope behind it, the purpose, the bigger plan. This is natural, since we were made for a perfect world, and will never feel at home in a broken world.

BUT

As for not knowing what to do now, I can’t tell you what to do, or it’s not yours. My job is to tell you the story, in the hope that, in some of you, it will plant a seed. That desire, planted in your hearts, could then grow in the shape of your gifts, your talents, and your abilities, to express itself in a way unique to your life. For instance, one of you took this story, and after sitting in its discomfort, decided to choose “Maternal Mortality in Developing Nations and Prospective Solutions” as a topic on a med school project and presented it to a board of gynecologists. AWESOME, right? That’s something I could never have thought of. Some of you perhaps donated out of your household budgets. Some of you might have had conversations with each other about some of the thoughts I wrote down here. Some of you will let your hearts be changed a little bit. Some of you will forget about this for a few years, but maybe down the road it’ll make a difference in a something small. I can’t tell you what to do with this, because each of you will react differently to this – the point is that you react somehow. That’s all.

As for the desire to see the bigger plan or the purpose in this kind of suffering: I can’t tell you that either, mostly because I just don’t think that a simple, clean theological answer to the problem of suffering in the world actually exists. The broken nature of suffering itself renders a “clean” answer impossible. The closest things we have to an answer to the problem of suffering are the Resurrected Wounds of Christ… which, although beautiful, are far from clean, and far from simple.

This is actually one of the reasons I chose the name “Logos Became Flesh” for this blog. The opening lines of the Gospel of John talk about how Christ, the Son of God, became Man. They say, “In the Beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. And the Logos became Flesh, and dwelt among us.”

“Logos” is usually translated “Word”, representing Christ – Christ as the Living Word uttered by God the Father. (“And the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us…”)

But “Logos” can be translated not only as “Word” but, among many other things, “Question” or “Expectation” or “Plea”…

Jesus Christ, fully Human and fully Divine, is the cry of suffering of the world. He is the world’s one giant question mark: our “Daddy, Daddy, why have you forsaken Me?”

And Jesus Christ, Resurrected, is the Word that the Father speaks to humanity: “Just wait and hope. All things will be fulfilled, and every abyss of suffering will pour out glory.”

We, on earth, are in the odd position of anticipation of our Resurrection with Christ, and participation in the Cross with Christ and His people. I suspect we shall one day find that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are just opposite infinities of glory, fully redeemed and fully beautiful.

But as for now, I think the experience of living in Christ can be the experience of one long, stretched out, question. (St. Augustine called our experience of suffering distentia, that is, being stretched across time, in our closest imitation of infinity). When we ask God Why?! we have to just accept that there will likely be no clear response from the clouds – or perhaps the response is already ringing, and we just don’t have ears to hear it yet.

When we hear stories about senseless suffering, I think the best we can do is cast it forward before God as an enfleshed, enduring expectation, or enduring plea. Perhaps we will get glimpses of the grace that turns suffering inside out, in mini-Resurrections or redemptions in our earthly life. But I doubt that any of us will see the whole picture until we get to the other side of suffering.

And we have to be okay that – with not understanding, with not being able to fix it or assert control over it. It just – is. That’s hope, at least for me. Just accepting, plainly, without glamor, that it will be, and that is all.

In the meantime, we are called to bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Sometimes the burdens aren’t equal – but that’s just Love, isn’t it? Love has to do with helplessness – helplessly giving, helplessly receiving. We are helpless in the face of grace, knowing that we can’t ever repay it. We are helpless in the face of suffering, knowing that we can’t ever love enough to alleviate it. But that inequality is where we learn how to love.

Thomas Before the Resurrected Christ

Alright folks. It’s past midnight and the rain is crashing on my tin roof as I huddle on my bed under this cascading white mosquito net. Tomorrow I get to lay out plans to hike out with a translator to some really remote villages to meet with earthquake refugees. I’m excited! I’ve got made ten gallons’ worth of rehydration solution today, and I’ve got my malaria/cholera/typhoid meds all packed. Don’t leave for a bit though, warming up with shorter day trips before I graduate to week-longs. But for now – my pillow beckons!

Talk to you soon-

Meg

Responding to Cholera

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This morning, HHF got a call informing us that there has been a spike in cholera, as a result of heavy rain washing pollution into water sources. The cholera outbreak last year happened right after the heavy rains of Hurrican Tomas. The health agents jumped into action, putting together cholera response kits for distribution:

The kits include oral rehydration solution (individual and bulk packets), eyedroppers (for precise measurement of Clorox to purify water), water purification tablets, latex gloves, and scrubbing brushes.

Since the cholera outbreak last December, HHF has held public health seminars in dozens of remote mountain villages and established Cholera Treatment Centers (CTCs) in multiple villages. Since cholera can kill someone within 6 hours, it is important to IMMEDIATELY rehydrate and, if possible, couple with doxycyline.

This girl was waiting at a wharf in Haiti. She is leaning against a tap-tap, a double-decker bus that shuttles people to Port-au-Prince. Our car was parked in front of the tap-tap, and as we climbed in the back I turned around and snapped this picture.