A few weeks ago a girl I met and spent some time with shortly after my returning to Haiti in June of last year returned to Haiti herself, and spent four days with me here in Leogane before heading north for a project. I enjoyed the time we spent together, but it was certainly different than before. That was OK with me, but I think it bothered her somewhat, and being a talented and candid writer, she wrote an entry on her blog sparked by the change she saw in our interaction. It is a good entry, and certainly deals with one of the most difficult elements of being here in Haiti for a longer period of time, in which you start to lose faith in the people you're here trying to help, but it missed the mark when it attributed that to the change in me. I don't think that's what caused the shift in me, but it got me thinking nonetheless, so I'd like to take a bit of time to address her entry with an entry of my own.
To start, she was and is right in saying I've changed. I have. I have in respects to how I engaged with her, as I have in respects to how I engage with most everyone and everything. That has been an ongoing process since arriving here for the first time in July of 2010, but it's become most apparent the last few months. Whereas before I tended to lean toward being social and goofy and a bit debaucherous during particularly inspired moments, I now opt to spend the majority of my non-working hours by myself. Whereas before I'd likely visit the local watering hole to drink a few beers with friends, or chat up a pretty volunteer for the simple fun of flirting, I now keep the company of my books more than most other company, and choose to sleep early and often for the simple joy of sleeping. If you didn't know me well, really well, you'd assume something would be amiss there - to those that don't know me that well, and therefore never get an insight into the more quiet, sensitive and uncertain parts of myself, there tends to be the assumption that I am always and forever the loud, charismatic half-man half-boy that takes the external stage. That is certainly part of who I am, but it isn't the whole. It is the half that gets the attention, because it is the half that is seen. There is an internal stage as well, with an entirely different player on it. Very few people here in Haiti have seen that player. I can count them on my fingers: Paddy, Mathilde, Jenni, Leslie, Simon, James, Cassie, Joe, Mariana, Paul. All of them, save Paddy and James, are gone.
Pulling into myself, "shutting down" as she called it, isn't so much a change in my character as it is a change in what parts of my character I'm choosing to engage. Is that a result of Haiti? Yes, in some ways, and no in others. Haiti can certainly be a difficult place to be for a long period of time. By the nature of being foreign here, a blan, there is attention heaped on me constantly by the people - the strangers in the streets calling out to me, the kids with their ribboned hair smiling and waving (which always makes me smile in return), the young men shouting from their motos, the pretty girls quick to tell me they love me in their funny half-English, still unsure of my name, trying to secure a different future. Some of those interactions are light, some fun, some interesting, but most simply fired quickly and without any real substance - repetitions that, taken alone make no impact, but strung together day after day begin to wear. Becoming conversant in Creole is both a blessing and a curse in regards to them. Yes, I like that I can now understand what people say when they talk to (or at) me, but often what they say is frustrating, and stale. "I'm hungry." Yea, I know. At this point, I mask the annoyance with humor. "You're hungry? Me too! Have any food?" That usually surprises them, and sends any others within ear shot into hysterics. "Blan pale Kreyol! Blan grangou!" Yes, I do speak Creole, but no, I'm not actually hungry.
If anything, Haiti has resulted in me seeking my own company for the simple fact that not doing so results in fatigue. That isn't a negative reflection of the country, but rather who I am in the country, and also the conditions I've lived in for the last two years. Remove Haiti entirely and I probably would still have chosen the more removed path as a result of living in Belval Plaza for eighteen months - everything shared, nothing save a tent (which wasn't accessible during the day given the heat) to call your own, to retreat to. There's precious little balance there. Now that I'm in a house, with my own room, with a lock on the door, I'm not surprised in the least that I'm opting to spend the majority of my time there, with the door locked.
Outside of that, I also now have post-Haiti ponderings crashing around in my head daily. My focus, when not on the program I'm here helping to run, is on what is coming next. I've been accepted to study at a great university in London. London holds a lot of significance for me, not simply for the fact that it is a big, busy, modern city (and therefore certainly a dramatic switch-up from Leogane) with a lot of opportunity should I apply myself well, but also because there is someone of special importance to me there. A part of myself has remained reserved for her, and while I have no idea what will come of it, I do know that that too has often given people the wrong impression about my state of mind, about me and where I'm at. I've had many moments since my time with her where I found myself unable to cross a certain level of connection with others. It isn't something I feel embarrassed or ashamed of, if anything it is quite the opposite - I am totally comfortable talking about it, when questions are asked. It seems wrong not to. I appreciate candidness. Besides, it doesn't have anything to do with those others I might find myself with. Indeed, I've met and gotten close to some people that, had the situation been different, I could easily see myself going further with. But it hasn't played out that way yet, and I can see how that limitation could be interpreted as some general malaise - the byproduct of being in this environment, sad (and sometimes hopeless) that it often is.
But the truth is, I'm not lost in some malaise. I'm not shut down. I'm not burned out. I'm simply quiet. I'm still. I'm thinking. I'm reading and writing letters and driving unknown roads on the weekends for the simple joy of going somewhere new, and for the simple joy of driving itself. I'm contemplating my future. I'm saving my energy for when it is needed. I'm saving my money for when it is needed. Am I a hermit? Perhaps a bit, but I assure you, if you put on a great drum and bass track with some volume behind it, you'll soon find me bouncing around, smiling. That isn't something a shut down, shuttered person would do. The broken don't dance. I'm not broken. Not yet any way. And you know what? If I do break, there's something in that I'm OK with. Breaking allows you time and space to examine the now-scattered aspects of who you are, of what kind of life you are living. It allows vision to see parts otherwise hidden. There's a lot of beauty in that, because, blessed with that opportunity, and the clarity it often brings to those who see it for what it is, a life can be remade to resemble something closer to authentic. I've broken before. I wouldn't change those experiences for anything. If Haiti does end up breaking me, not opening me, not shifting me, but truly breaking me, well, we'll see what comes of it eh? But that hasn't happened yet, and I don't see it happening before I leave. I'm at home here now. I'm used to this. It's a strange home, but it is my home. I've had moments of weakness, and those moments have certainly exposed and allowed parts of myself often overlooked to take a larger role in defining who I am, but I haven't broken. Haiti has made me stronger than it has weak.