Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dark and Ugly

The female doctor with us is tall, very lean, blonde and pretty. She didn't bring a suitcase or even a carry on-- all she thought was necessary was one slim backpack with scrubs inside. The skirt we are required to to bring for church on Sunday will be donated, she says, after she wears it. Susan Dirks is an interesting woman who drops things in ordinary conversation off-handedly such as, "when I was in India..: and "my husband is Zorastrian..."

Susan came into the guest house hours after the rest of us yesterday. She spent the day in the clinic that is tucked under the guest house. Stupidly, I was admiring the people who were lined up at the clinic by 7:30AM, their children, their picturesque-ness. I even asked if I could take pictures. One woman had the sense to tell me no. I was a little offended--what do you mean, no?? It didn't sink in until later that day that HELLO-- these people are sick. Would I welcome snap shots, waiting in Med-Express when I didn't feel good? Thankfully, the truck came to cart us to the school and I was eclipsed to do my part of this mission. Susan, stethoscope around her neck and blue-scrubbed, went to do hers.

She joined Doctor Judith, the harried and too busy Haitian doctor who works in the clinic every day. People have to make a two dollar donation to be seen, so they bring great numbers of family members to all be seen together. Most walk very far for the treatments the clinic is able to offer. At mid-day, Susan snacked on a power bar between patients. When she finally rejoins us, most of us have been relaxing for an hour or more.

Someone asks, "Has it been bad? Anybody have any serious problems?" Susan nods her head. One woman has terrible breast cancer, broadly metastasized. "What can be done for her?" someone asks. Susan shurgs, her face sad. "Pain meds."

We are all silent for a moment, digesting this. No saviour will come for this woman, by accident of her bad geographic luck. Once we are gone, will there be any more medication to help her ease pain? How can a person stand the kind of pain that must come from a body being overtaken by cancer cells?

The Hillman Cancer Centare and the new Chidlren's Hospital hae never seemed so precious. Susan tells us that she aslo diagnosed a baby as blind today. Her mother walked miles because the child's movement seemed off-- clumsy. Now she knows why.

There is no medicine in the clinic today. There is some ibuprofen and a pirate's treasure trove of plastic tubing and syringes. But limited antibiotics. No real pain medicine.

We sat in a circle last night, digesting the glorious beef stew with ginger dumplings and root vegetables Marie Estelle made for us-- and the stories of our experiences. Each woman told about her day and her feelings. Some of us-- especially me-- are facing our inadequacies. Why the hell are we here? Susan wonders what real good can come of her time with the 60 patients she saw yesterday. How do you send a woman filled with cancer home with ibuprofen and feel as if you did any good? Mostly she dispensed comfort.

I wonder aloud, how could I have brought duffles full of paint when the clinic's medical stock is so depleted?? What the hell was I thinking?? I suggest we trash our plans to do stories and art at the school and go into Port-au-Prince in search of medicine for the clinic. It must be such an outlandish (and most likely) impossible task that the rest of the group doesn't consider it. Is there medicine there to buy? Could we as a group afford it, get it, bring it back? We continue to share our thoughts.

Many of us feel frustrated. We are coping in different ways. The needs that we are seeing are so overwhelming that we all feel like Susan: facing a dragon with a feather in our hands. Some of us have lashed out at others. Some of us, like me, have clowned, gossiped, sniped and withdrawn. They are all ways to cope with the crumbling ground beneath your toes as you stare into the long, dark abyss of human need we are glimpsing.

I have to stagger at the thought of trying to articulate my experience as a guest teacher-artist at the school yesterday. Mothers pick up their sons from school in America, and after their little boy has buckled up, Mom puts her arm on the passenger side seat, twists around, smiling and asks, "How was your day?" The little boy looks out the window. "Fine," he says. It's all he has. There is too much to say, and no energy to say it. It is impossible at that moment to try to relive and retell all the moments of interpersonal power-play and minute-by-minute success and failure, the bullying in line, the brisk attitude of the lunch lady you look up at from the lunch line, the jokes the teachers make in the hall, the way your best friend wouldn't play with you at recess, the math you didn't understand.

We arrived at the school with the idea that we'd organize the five duffles of art supplies we brought and get set up and ready for today-- Thursday-- the day we would start our program. My idea had been to read the children Karen Lynn William's Painted Dreams. The story is about Ti Marie-- little Marie-- who loves art. She draws on the side of her house with brick and charcoal until it is time to help her mother at the market place. Ti Marie's mother's market stall is unlucky-- they have a hard time selling their vegetables and the family struggles to survive. Ti Marie loves to watch the bocor-- voudou priest, busy at his easel with his paints. She dreams of having enough money to use real paints and a sparkling white easel. That evening, she steals some almost-used up paint tubes from the bocor's trash. She makes her way to the market stall and paints a scene of a beautiful world-- huge food, colorful birds and butterflies, tall trees.

The next morning, as Ti Marie and her mother approach their stall, an enormous crowd has gathered. People from the countryside have come to see this amazing painting, and they stay to buy all of Mama's vegetables. Ti Marie's talent and imagination have brought strength to her family.

We brought four hundred quilt squares with us and a hundred bottles of bright acrylic paint. We have satin ribbon, sequins, glitter, fabric, floss, needles and thread, beads. We want to invite children to create their "magic world" like Ti Marie on a quilt square. Our idea is to bring the quilt squares back to Pittsburgh to digitally photograph and finally sew together. We'll send the quilts back to the school to brighten and inspire the children.

Yesterday, our set-up day, was chaotic. The storage room had no shelves to organize things on-- so our duffles cool their heels on the cement floor. We dashed from classroom to classroom, singing songs, making pony bead bracelets and trying to do the work of getting the lay of the land and establishing trust, anticipation, happiness.

We did that, I think. Lots of smiles, songs learned, happiness. I danced a sixth grade boy off his feet, to the delight of his classmates. The sounds of Hineh Mah Tov-- a Hebrew song that means "How good and sweet it is to be together as friends!" rang throughout the school after we left. The children tried to teach me "Papa Abraham," one of their songs, but I failed. Only the first kreoyl line remains.

All to the good-- but here's the problem. There are over fifty kids crushed against each other in some of the classrooms. The floor is dirty cement. Their "desks" are a single skinny wooden board that runs the length of the benches they are squeezed on to. The board is slanted downward.

You can't paint when you can't move your elbows. You can't sew on beads when your workspace is slanted toward the floor. You can't spread out with a white canvas quilt square to the floor when it is covered in mud. We decided last night to welcome one class of 67 to their "playground"-- an uninspiring mud and cement flat in front of the school. And guess what? This morning there is torrential rain.

It's almost funny. I am starting to wonder if Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Tiger Emperor, striped with scars from the slave master's whip, who personally went village to village with a machete, killing the remaining French men, women and children after his successful revolution, is bringing revenge on this group of well-intentioned white women. Good intentions without antibiotics and medical knowledge sucks.

I am wondering if my mission-- to bring stories and art to these children-- is a milquetoast, white bread, first-world stupid stupid stupid blunder. And then I think of the one little girl in the class of fifty one who was sad-- we didn't know why. Twenty minutes into our thirty minute class, she started to privately cry, silently, covering her face. We had skipped her by mistake. She didn't get pony beads and stretchy cord. She had waited so patiently and so politely. We got her some. But does it mean what we are doing is fun for them? That they like it? That that has meaning?

Who knows? Another white woman with good intentions does not bring light to the eyes here. I am awash in all the dark and ugly things I have inside-- the feeling of impotence, the self-doubt. Vive la Ayiti. Suck it up, buttercup. The mud is sucking, the rain is pouring, and I have a class waiting for me in two hours.


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