There are personal things going on, the usual and the unusual--worries about jobs, sendings out of manuscripts, working in the garden, coordinating poetry gigs in schools, attempting another rewrite of my play--but mostly I am thinking about Haiti, reading the Times reporting on Haiti, imagining the streets of Haiti--which were poor when I visited them, in 1982, and are now unimaginable.
The front page of the New York Times is "Haiti in Ruins," accompanied by some of the most heartbreaking photos I have ever seen. Haiti was always in ruins. I've never seen slums like the slums of Port-au-Prince, children playing in alleys running with sewage, people living in shacks and huts with dirt floors and chickens clucking on the crowded streets in the middle of a crowded city.
When people are poor in America they still have lots of stuff. You can be poor here, financially, and still have things, possessions, because there is so much excess in this country that it's possible to live pretty well on other people's cast-offs and throw-aways. In Haiti I saw people who really had nothing, whose clothes were rags, whose children were naked. I saw women who could and did carry a bucket of water or a load of washing or a big bundle of sticks on top of their heads and walk barefoot like that, over miles of steep rocky mountain paths, and I witnessed men whose skinny muscles looked like ropes, men harnessed to sledges like beasts of burden, whose work was to pull enormous loads until their veins exploded.
I saw crippled people in Haiti who had no wheelchairs and were carried around on the backs of their friends and relatives. I met women who had borne fifteen children and buried half of them. I smelled the burning dung they used to cook with when they could not get wood.
It's hard to imagine Haiti worse off than when I saw it in 1982, and yet I know things have gotten dramatically worse since then. And now this earthquake. I don't know what to do, other than give money and hope it helps. What I keep with me about Haiti and Haitians more than the material poverty is the spirit of the place. it's a place of trauma and survival and imagination.
Haitians live deeply in their belief in magic. It's all they have. They are people of imagination, people who make cupcakes out of dirt when they are hungry, and tell stories, and paint pictures. The place is exploding with creative talent born of desperation and spirituality and hunger. A potent mix. If we could find a way to export that--to the benefit of the people themselves--then we would have a solution for Haiti.
Haiti's great natural resource is her people. Their warmth and compassion and pain and ingenuity and songs and stories. Their sense of aesthetics and their elegance and grace under pressure. I worked at Haitian refugee centers in Miami and in Boston for years, teaching ESL and doing low-level social work. I learned much more from them than I ever taught.