38 Seconds

Every morning I walk like this around the pond,
thinking: if the doors of my heart ever close,
I am as good as dead
Mary Oliver “Landscape”

I was inspired by a reading by Patricia Smith as part of ‘ An Evening of Witness for Water’ at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. She read 34 – a poem describing her experiences in the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans. As I listened, a door opened inside my memory. I was flooded with emotion and images from my six trips to Haiti following the earthquake of January 2010. Stories told and images seen after the earthquake, called Gadou Gadou in Creole because of the omnipresent ominous sound heard from within the earth right before the shaking began, continue to haunt me.

No story that I told or heard compares to the living story unfolding continuously, in the aftermath. To write is an attempt to seduce a sense of sense into something vast and uncategorizable: the horror and the beauty. One day I asked how long the earthquake lasted? “38 seconds.” I began to count to 38 slowly. Most of the images are from my visits months later. But always, the less than one minute event, the power of the earth, and the love affair I have with people and place, haunt me.

Some comments are from the OFEDA women (you can read about them and their stories and photos on www.OFEDAHaiti.wordpress.com). They are a cooperative group of women (aged 19 – 84) in the Rues des Freres camp, who have met since January 2010 every Sunday to support each other – gathering outside under a tree or in the temporary school room behind Ecole Nationale in Port au Prince. Their stories vacillated from despair and frustration to an abiding sense of joy and appreciation for being alive and being together.

Arrival at Port au Prince airport, June 2010, the first time in Haiti, there was a band playing songs dedicated to Erzulie, Goddess of Love. They had been welcoming tourists and Haitians way for years. The music, however, sounded heavy – a shadow of forgotten joy without the smiling, beguiling carefree Caribbean mood. None of us were tourists. I smelled dust and felt confused not knowing how not to smile. Respecting the atmosphere I avoided making eye contact with the musicians and nodded instead. I walked onto athe bus that would take us to customs past piles of metal and garbage. A Haitian woman was talking behind me to a young woman with a blonde ponytail wearing a Jesus Saves T Shirt:
“Yes. I was here. I heard the earth groan before it shook –
groan like a giant crying.
Then my house began to move.
 She was quiet.
“ It is no longer standing,” she added.
“Where are you going to stay?”
“With a friend.”

Mica, a Haitian artist, serving as our translator and arts teacher with kids in the Camp, suddenly starting telling me about the day of the earthquake. We were stuck in traffic driving from Pietenville. I had known her for a year, and she had never talked about that day.
“The ground turned to water. It was moving up and down like waves.
Buildings fell one after another like a deck of cards when the shaking stopped.
I was trying to get home when I saw a woman leaning on a man. I don’t think she realized that she had lost her leg.”

“My dog saved my life. I followed him out of the building.” A woman explained at lunch in the beautiful garden of a Middle Eastern restaurant decorated with metal sculptures, Haitian paintings, and a wood sign that said ‘Beirut.’
“When he turned, I turned. I kept my eyes on the dog.
Often, the other direction, the way I might have gone,
was the place where everything collapsed a moment later.”

The Bougainvilleas were blossoming everywhere. Flamboyant red flowers climbing over ruins and peering through fences defying destruction. “ I should learn to live like these flowers.”

A woman in the camp said, “We slept in the ravine on Rues des Freres, where the bridge collapsed, for three nights. There were hundreds of people. Our condition was worse than pigs. Every aftershock was a terror. I want to live in the camp with other women. My son comes here everyday to be with young people. But I am still living there with my husband’s family. They don’t want to move far from their house. It is too damaged to remain inside. Each time there is a big rain the tarps of the roof of our tent are washed away. Can you get me a new tarp?”

“Of course there were incredible scenes of people helping each other everywhere.
People digging with their hands for those who might still be alive.
I saw a man’s head between two slabs of concrete.
He was alive. His eyes were open. Another man stopped. Just stopped. And touched the man’s brow gently
to comfort him. Comfort.
I forgot and felt at peace for that moment.”

“I fell down when The earth opened on the road.
But a hand lifted me back to safety just as the ground was closing again.
I knew the man, but never had a chance to thank him. I haven’t seen him again.
I kept running to get home – for hours. There were so many people on the street.
I didn’t notice until later that my knee was cut open.”

A UN Aid worker described his experience:
“When the sun rose the next morning we were alive.
It was extraordinary. All over the city I could hear people singing.
Prayers. ‘We are not alone,’ I thought. The entire city seemed to be singing.
Hundreds of people were on their knees.”
I listened to him imagining that after the quake, when the buildings tumbled, the earth became a huge cathedral.

“I keep wondering if my mother is still under the rubble.
If she will push her way out and come home. I dream that she is trying to
call me on her cell phone. After the eighth day we gave up hope,
but I didn’t stop dreaming.”

“I bumped into my sister – destiny.
At first we started laughing.
Then we walked without a word until we came to a place where there were many people gathered behind a wall.
We had nowhere else to go. Nowhere to go. Nowhere.
We have been living in these tents behind the wall for nearly two years. “

The girls’ writing class had ended early. So, I took the five of them to my apartment for sandwiches, to wait for the driver who was late – somewhere cool. They sat primly in the living room eating. I knew this was the first time they had been out of the camp in 16 months. One girl went into the bathroom. Soon another followed, and another. I heard squeals and laughter. All of them were there together for a long time. I knocked on the door. Water was everywhere. They were washing, wildly bathing and toweling each other dry in a trance of hysterical bliss. I said, “Just clean up a bit when you are finished,” and closed the door. I was uncertain if I had made things worse by bringing them to the apartment. Then, one girl came out asking for a drink of water. She walked with me into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, she asked, “Is that a refrigerator?” She pointed to a bowl of fruit. I took out the three plums. The girls sat back down on the chairs. This time, they shared the plums with a fury, passing them around for bites, devouring them, juices sliding down their chins. They chewed on the pits. No one spoke on the ride back to the camp.

You asked me if there was anything I liked about life in the camp. I am not happy, but my life is better than it was.
I like living with others. It is hard, but I didn’t knew I could do so many things. Yhe first nights we sat outside, making a fire, sharing our food, retelling the same stories of our lives over and over. I had forgotten how good it was to be together. But I don’t want to live here forever. I want to go back to a house and to work.”

“I went back to see if the plants were alive.
All the furniture was tossed around like broken toys.
But the plants were flowering in one room that was not damaged.
I dragged them out of the house risking walls falling, and
put them up in the garden.
I go back sometimes to water them.”
That evening I thought about my only danger in the garden of our house in Belleville was being hit by a falling mango. A gardener watered the grass and flowers morning and evening.

A good-looking man was seated, bare-chested and muscled, on a hill of rubble between two tents on a plateau of sand and tarps in the middle of a hot afternoon. He was playing guitar. A small girl in a pale blue sundress was dancing nearby to the rhythm, her arms were swaying slowly like a bird in water. Spontaneously I leaned out the window of the van and applauded.
He bowed, smiling, as if he was performing in a concert hall. Then he waved.

As we drove, I looked out the window. Always rows of women selling everything, or groups of people sauntering along with patterned piles of pharmaceutical, batteries, stockings or bottles of water balanced on their heads. Occasionally someone was asleep on top of their goods. I saw a tall woman dressed in an impeccable white dress and high heels stepping through mud and trash, remnants of fruit skins and plastic bags, untouched. She was a vision of dignity and female magic. Our car moved slowly passed piles of mangoes and vegetables, second hand clothing hanging on walls next to rows of sandals in every size and color waiting for someone to buy. Or not. Then I watched a seven year old girl in a school uniform, shaping a picture with her finger on a piece of cardboard.. more precious than a blank white paper. Her concentration was riveting. She seemed to be creating in her own ocean of silence.

“The boys starting playing soccer in the alley way immediately.
where the school had been. They used a half deflated soccer ball.
‘Where did you get that?’ I called out.
‘I found it,’ answered my son absorbed in the game in the middle of our troubles.
I saw he was wearing only one shoe.”

Two other men, side by side, walking. Each one carrying potted green plants in their hands and a tray with a tall flowering plant on their heads. These moving gardens were chatting across the street from the camp on Place Boyer.

Every day the same large pipes and pieces of metal stick out like a forlorn airplane after a crash landing on the side of the road. I worry about chidren returning from school passing beneath it. In time, the top of the building has turned into a rusted bird stopped in the middle of flight. Months later, I noticed the rubble had been cleared. But no one had mended the bird’s broken wing.

“An old woman on our street opened up a church in the alley –
between houses. She put pieces of wood on stones and made us
some chairs. Does God hear our voices? We don’t know. We prayed anyway.”

Another day, A friend revealed,
“ I dreamed about the earthquake many times before it happened.
Even that morning I wanted to leave work early. I felt something.
I used to own a small store. I sold cosmetics and clothing.
My coworkers said, “Why do you want to leave?”
I couldn’t explain. But I started to sing under my breath,
‘God is everywhere.’ Then it started.”

She pointed to the sky. It was clear and blue. Hardly a cloud.
“ In the moments after the earthquake the sky was missing.
Everything was dust and smoke and grey,
I feared the city had vanished.”


“I still sleep in a tent on the roof of my house. I am afraid.”

One day, driving towards Carrefour, the wind blew open a cloth door in front of a house. Two goats were roaming in the grass with a rooster nearby. A man and a woman were seated on either side of a table covered with a flowered plastic tablecloth, having a conversation, drinking cups of tea.

On the next turn onto a busy street, my translator tapped me on the shoulder. She pointed to a woman’s body on a bench covered. Her face was covered with a white cloth. “Cholera.” she whispered. I had mentioned earlier that I didn’t see any evidence of cholera although I knew it was everywhere. A line of people stood watching from a distance. Our car moved on. I heard the ambulance.

Months later, arriving again In Haiti at the same airport, I walked down the same steps towards the bus to customs. The same band was playing. This time the music was lively. The musicians were smiling. I still looked away, uncertain how to respond. Still no one was arriving for a vacation . The same heat. The same crowds. The same lines. The same half built terminal. But the piles of metal were gone. The old women wearing heels and hats were on line. Outside, the driver recognized me. I had not succumbed to the scam of having someone carry my bag from the building for $10.00. We talked like friends in half bad English and half bad French. Leavinb, I noticed that lots of trash had been cleared. I saw two cows in a field munching. There seemed to be less merchants on the roads, but just as many second hand shoes.

On the hillside above Boudin Street, where the craftspeople leave their paintings out all night in the rain on metal fences, there is a mountain side of ramshackle broken houses. As if someone just shaved off the front walls. In one room hung a red shirt on a hanger on a yellow closet; for a long time. Then it was gone. The hanger and the shirt were gone. At night from my hotel window I could see lights and fires from homes where people had returned. Recovery.

We had been talking to a woman in front of her tent. A child walked between tarps carrying a bucket of water half her size. She stopped for a second, put down the bucket, and smiled at us. Then, we heard her ‘step-mother’ yelling at her to hurry. The child’s face grew serious. She lifted the bucket. My friend tried to help her. The girl froze, tense, fiercely refusing assistance. She picked up the bucket and kept walking. The mother shouted again. We walked away hoping she wouldn’t be beaten for stopping to talk to us.

An elderly man hangs up hand sewn Vevers ( brilliantly colored sequin embroidered voodun flags ) with hearts, swords, snakes and symbols on a stone wall every morning near the Villa Creole Hotel. I admired them when I walked with a friendly bellman -who spoke English. One morning the man asked me if I liked the vevers? He was not selling them to me, he remarked. I was very interested. He began telling me about the different gods and goddesses, the significance of the white egg and the red heart, the snake and other symbols – describing pathways… crossroads…. leading inside and out from this world to the other.

At an OFEDA meeting, I asked the women about their one year celebration:what they had enjoyed? A small woman boldly pushed to the front of the room and told me it had been too serious. She wanted more dancing. The other women, scoffed. Without thinking, I stood up and said, “Let’s dance.” She and I began to dance. The other women burst into song, giggling, until we were all dancing with partners in the school room between makeshift desks.
“How was that?” I asked her

“Life goes on somehow. I don’t concentrate on misery.”
The Haitian woman in her African headscarf and long earrings had been a dancer, returned from Canada days before the earthquake We spoke as we walked to Le Giant, a large grocery where most expats shop. For the experience, I tried to purchase a mango from a woman merchant sitting on the edge of the gutter between five other women selling vegetables.
She said in English, “ten dollars!”
I said, “ Je vous donne deux dollars.” (I give you two dollars)
She turned away saying, “Twelve dollars.”
I wanted to explain that if she sold ten mangoes for ten dollars there would be lots of sales. She could make money. But, I couldn’t think fast enough in French. She was not paying attention to me, anyway. Then I noticed her pride,and beautiful skirt, straight back. I gave up my foolish logic and entered the air-conditioned grocery.

“I was in commerce since I was eight years old.
I worked in the market besides my mother”
She was a business woman. Her mothr sold rice and beans.
while she sold sweet cakes.
“Sometimes we made a few goudes. That is how she sent us to school and paid the rent.
I would like to do that again, but I can’t afford to buy the goods for sale.’

“ I have seven children. I lost my husband. What can I do? “
She carried a metal soup pot with hot sugary strong coffee on her head. On the tray there were cups and a can of more sugar. She wiped a dirty cup with her scarf and offered me sweet thick coffee. I drank. “Merci. Merci,” I repeated not thinking about cholera or bacteria but enjoying the gift.

“When I was a little girl in our village I loved to play in the river with my friends.
We swam and played with stones and twigs.
I wanted to be a singer. But I followed a boy to Port au Prince when I was fourteen and never went back to the village. He disappeared when I was pregnant.
I have his child. I still love him.
Love is the most important thing in the world.
I would like to go to school.
I asked if she still liked to sing?
She sang me a song. “That is beautiful.”
“I wrote the song,” she said.

“Why do you attend the OFEDA meetings every week? You Walk for an hour to the camp in the heat?“
I asked a woman
She said, “Women meeting together gives us strength.”

In the late afternoons, in July the blue sky all of a sudden turns dark with grey clouds. The palm trees started to bend in the wind. The first drops of the daily monsoon begins to fall. I gathered my notebooks and recording equipment. I folded up the plastic chair to crry it back to the single tent where the women meet, girls dance, and health information is shared. The young men continued their soccer game in the downpour,regardless. Women sat under trees or on the porches of the school buildings – perhaps for conversation – perhaps to get out of the rain. It was time for me to leave before it got dark. A small boy put his hand in mine saying “Tippingee.” It was the name of a story I had told the children months before. I promised myself not to forget to do that when I return.

One day walking through random rows of tents, we came across a young woman taking a bath – pouring water from a tin bowl on the ground. She was outside skillfully wrapped in a green towel, revealing nothing. Smiling, she posed for photos saying, “I owned a beauty parlor.” She loved seeing the photos. Later, not recalling her name we referred to her as ‘Beauty.’ We searched for Beauty and heard she had left the camp.

“ I am thirteen years old. I love to dance. Watch me!”
She dances with other girls, in perfect synchronization to a song recorded on an old battery run cell phone.
“I love Rhiaaaaannooooon” she calls out, exaggerating her words.
The words of the song in English are implanted in memory. She is miming the glamour,the gestures, her hips swaying, her feet beating the rhythm of the music on the plastic tarp floor. IN that moment,we could have been anywhere.
Young boys stood outside , watching. They knew better than to enter this female space.

“My grandmother told stories. She practiced voodun ,
but we don’t speak about that any more. My family is Christian.
I could tell you a story about twins. But I don’t speak about those things.
Oh. I remember….. There was one story about a King who had three daughters.
A fruit tree grew in front of his palace. Well, I don’t remember anymore. I am too old.
The earthquake took away my memories.”
“Please remember,” I urged.
Later she told me the whole story and sang me a song.
“Only the man who could discover the names of the princesses could marry one of them. The most ugly man found out their names. He climbed the tree and hid – listening to the girls who talked beneath him. He was ugly, but smart. The King was angry. But he had to keep his word. So the girls washed that man clean. He was actually handsome.”
“Where did you hear that story?”
“ Outside a house when was a child. There was a funeral indoors.
We were told stories and kept entertained to keep the ghosts away.”

“I ran home to see if my house was still standing.
Was anyone alive? I didn’t know for days that my husband had
survived. God is good, even if he forgot us for a while.”

I turned around at the airport, departing, December 2010,to look at the hillside. My eyes welled up with tears. The blue sky, the mountain of palm trees, the tents in the distance, the sound of children’s voices asking when I would come back, which story I would tell. My baggage of memories, images, and weather filled me. The man checking passports at a folding table saw my tears, “You must be happy to leave!” I answered, “I am crying because I am sad to leave. This place, where the world split open I feel alive. …something new can be born.” He stamped my passport. I knew I would be haunted by faces and tears, and the endless litanies of frustration and hope. He leaned toward me as “Some people say this earthquake was the signal that starts the new world. “ A woman said, “there are ancient caves under Haiti with petroglyphs.” But the pushing and chaos took all my attention as I held tight to a woven bag bursting with metal sculptures, papers and sequined bottles I was carrying home.

Then, the sadness returned. Tender, sweet joy – unbearably sad.

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