What You Don’t See

This is a picture I took on a beach in Haiti.

Just out of frame and to my left, is a man trying to sell cheap, plastic souvenirs to tourists. The only non-white people on the beach are the people who are serving drinks or selling things. The beach is attached to a hotel and from the lobby blares loud club music mixed with the sounds of an announcer for a soccer game playing on TV. The tree in front of me is hiding a dock where workers from a small island just off the coast are transported back and forth to their jobs on the mainland. The boats are always full to groaning with day workers who are terrified of the ocean waters.

Words Fail Me

“Are these from Africa?

The woman in the frame store jolted me out of my own little world with that question. I had gone back to Haiti and a little tented art shop near the top of the IDP camp. My hands ran over the framed pictures marveling at how different they looked in frames. In the artist’s tent the pictures on raw canvas are pinned to rope and wood wherever there is space. I had chosen the ones I wanted to buy more than a month before I made the purchase. I finally bought two, one folk art painting of kids playing in the camp, and a larger black and white one, a loose interpretation of Fet Gede (a voodoo celebration I had witnessed). I was wondering if I had made a mistake in framing them after all. Did the frames box in the life of them? Did I like them better frayed around the edges and hung with small wires from rope?

“Pardon?”

“Your pictures. Are they from Africa?”

“Oh. No. They’re from Haiti. I knew the artists.”

“Why were you in Haiti?” (Always the next question.)

But my mind had stopped again on “I knew the artists.” I did know them. They made me a gift of a third painting before I left as a thank you for always bringing people by to see their shop. It seems my mind is always overloaded when the subject of my past three months comes up. Like every conversation opens a tiny hole through which tidal waves of words push to move through.

“I was working with a nonprofit down there for three months.”

“Wow. I have a friend who just got back from Columbia. She said it is awful down there. Truly awful. I imagine Haiti is the same way, with all the earthquakes and hurricanes they have experienced.” And I start to nod my head in agreement. These are such simple quick conversations, I never really want to go into it with people I meet like this. I never feel able to go into it anyway. Besides, she is actually very sweet and is not really looking for deeper information, just being friendly. But then she says the thing that cuts me so deep I have no idea how to respond.

“What is happening down in Haiti is not the work of our Lord; it is the work of the devil for sure. Makes me wonder what is going on down there for them to deserve that.” And, I know she is not really wondering at all. I know she has decided that this nation has brought this upon themselves with their “ungodly” behavior. I have heard this before, unfortunately.

I stumble through some bits of information about slave debt and the monumental task of financing infrastructure under the burden of those conditions. I tell her that the entire world was appalled by their revolt at the time so finding support was impossible. But this rings as hollow in my ears as it must ring in hers.

The truth is closer to a conversation I had with a well-studied international aid worker and friend in Haiti soon after I arrived. He told me there were so many versions of the “truth” in Haiti that there was no sense in placing much stock in any of them, that all we can do is move forward.  But, when I am in back in the car, I cry. My failure to illuminate even a single aspect of Haiti’s worthiness and beauty to this misguided woman is becoming too familiar. And this time the failure comes too close on heels of seeing the faces of friends in the paintings and the memory of sitting on a small hill above the artist’s makeshift gallery watching them paint. I have failed my artist friends and Haiti. I sink into a funk that has become familiar to me ever since I returned home. I just don’t have the words, and that stings.

I met a woman once while working on a documentary shoot above the camp who told me about the days after the earthquake. She told me story after story. She told them to me as if they came unbidden. Like she had to tell them over and over. As if the telling would bring some sense to the world. As I drove home I remembered her story of the singing.

The dust had not even settled in Port au Prince. Aftershocks and trembles were still so common that people refused to sleep inside the buildings, afraid they too would become trapped or worse. Wails punctuated the shouting of people who were finding bodies. Unstable buildings still crashed along every street and in every neighborhood, keeping people wary of even the slightest crack around them. And there was weeping…always weeping. As she became accustomed to those noises, she began to hear singing. She followed the sound, looking for the source of the music. Eventually, she realized that it surrounded her. The people were singing. They were singing hymns. Pouring love, faith and prayers into valleys and hills surrounding Port au Prince. Thousands of voices, singing together. That moment gave her peace and hope. These people were not overcome. They still loved. They still believed. They still had faith.

Maybe I should have told her that story, instead of bringing up slave debts and old policies from governments long ago. That story does not contain the whole truth of Haiti, not by a long shot, but I have yet to find anything that comes as close as one simple story at a time.

sometimes, I play

I am sitting on a wooden work table in a 100 year old mattress factory, listening to a singer songwriter play his original music to this attentive, mellow crowd. People are scattered around the room in chairs placed in front of and around antique industrial sewing machines that used to sew mattresses and now sew bags. The next room is still set up for making mattresses. Frames, drying racks, compression boxes…all look as if someone, just this second, walked away from using them. There are even downy feathers in the wire egg baskets next to the work stations.
Twinkle lights look carelessly thrown up around the rafters, illuminating only enough as the sun sets for me to make out the other faces in the room. We watch the performer sing in front of a backdrop of colorful flags and blankets thrown onto numerous coat hooks behind him. He is lit by a single living room lamp. We are in a still life.

Only Cheryl could have pulled this off…such accidental looking perfection. She labored dearly to make this happen, but it would be impossible to pinpoint precisely what it was that she labored over. Every detail looks that unstudied, a complete lack of fussiness that is impossible given how perfect it all is. As Will Johnson (lead singer of Centro-Matic) sings about dreaming (I’m not making this up), I look over to see her casually perched in a deep window ledge with Paul and Zoe (her truly adorable husband and magical daughter). It’s a picture, of course, but it will not be taken tonight. Because the genius of Cheryl is that she is not trying to look like this, she just does. Her focus is to make magic. And tonight, with soft winds blowing wind through open windows and the occasionally train whistle interrupting the show, she succeeds.

“This is the first time I’ve played a mattress factory.”

Will speaks softly between songs. He is not miked. There is no need. We are a very small, sold out show. He talks and plays and then talks some more. Mostly we just soak him in with everything else. He is so perfectly placed here. He will always be associated with that night for me. And this is a good thing.

Cheryl runs her business from here. It has been in her family since the 50s, when it was actually used as a mattress making factory. These days, Cheryl makes her line of upcycled bags in this old factory. Until recently, she did all of the work herself…from the initial design of each bag to the invisible stitching that holds each one together. She will gladly tell you about how, the moment she needed help in producing the bags, the right people appeared. This is the way with Cheryl.

Tina and I own some of her bags and I am finding two more are calling my name. They are ridiculously underpriced for bags made with as much care as Cheryl puts into them. Carrying mine makes me feel like I am carrying a glamorized version of our collective past. And these bags get noticed.

There are pictures from the show on her website. (click on the photostream at the bottom of the left column)
But not even these gorgeous shots can do justice to that evening. You can also find a link to her catalog here (link in the left column as well). She just finished a show in Houston, so she will have to update her inventory online before you will see what she really has in stock. I am jonesing for a long hair messenger and a canvas bag with a rebellious lining. Both are scene stealers.

Her Morning Elegance

This has not been my favorite week of all time. Very long, tiring and I have had strep. I need something beautiful, soft and surprising to sustain me in these moods.


Lovely.

Reminds me that all that sustains us is not in terms of production, resources and time. We will need the artists to help us remember that there is more. There is always more.

xo