I’m sitting with my back to the grove when the sound of heavy wingbeats in the tops of the spruces makes me look around, and seeing nothing, get up and edge my way in between the trees. The intricate skeletons of recently dead boughs snap loudly whenever I try to diverge from the rudimentary path. I crane my neck peering into the shadowy tops of the 40-foot trees which I helped my parents plant when I was a boy. How could they already have grown so full of secrets?
The greatest natural disaster-related humanitarian crisis in a generation, and I have written exactly nothing about it. But this is a place for personal essays and poems, and what do I know of Haiti? Everything is second-hand at best: the Haitian woman in Japan back in 1985 with whom I shared a mailbox and some confessions of homesickness; the Anglo-American friend who joined a Vodun congregation in New Jersey and was ridden by Ghede, orisha of the crossroads. A smattering of histories and ethnographies. The vague sense that if Toussaint had never been exiled, Haiti might have kept its topsoil and some of its forests. An immense sense of guilt, as an American, for my country’s share of blame in its immiseration.
A few days ago, I read Newsweek‘s latest cover story, “Why Haiti Matters,” and felt my stomach turn. It did little but recycle platitudes about America as a force for good: Haiti matters, we are led to believe, because it gives us a chance to show “the character of our country.” The author is Barack Obama.
He does at least quote Qoheleth — wisest voice in the Old Testament — toward the end of the essay:
In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That “time and chance” happen to us all. But it is also in these moments, when we are brought face to face with our own fragility, that we rediscover our common humanity. We look into the eyes of another and see ourselves.
O.K., Mr. President, I’ll give you that. I’ve kept my silence in part because I know all too well the moralizing impulse of my Protestant heritage. Try as I might to anathematize Pat Robertson for his ignorant, victim-blaming remarks, I recognize the temptation, even as an agnostic, to make the world make sense, to pretend that life is or could be fair — or at least redeemable. To accept that it isn’t makes us into monsters, does it not? But the view of God or gods as unpredictable and sometimes violent — that Old Testament and animist view that progressives love to decry — comports more easily with observable reality than any pablum about God as infinite goodness. Even for me to put on my secular humanist hat and declare, as I did on Identica and Twitter last week, that tectonic activity is the price we pay for life on earth seems unduly glib, offensive to the memory of the earthquake’s victims. Their deaths were were not some kind of sacrifice. Stop it! Stop trying to explain. Live with the questions. Make your peace with the unknowable as best you can.
It’s a little past 4:00 o’clock, but the January sun is low and just minutes from dropping behind the ridge. The feathery shadows seem full of possibility now, and I see a picture in every direction where before there was nothing but branches blocking my way. This is the way. I steady the camera in the dim light by holding it out in front of me so the strap is stretched taut from the back of my neck: there’s far less tremor in my trunk than in my limbs. Some kind of large owl — barred, great-horned, long-eared — is hiding in these pictures, I’m sure of it. It’s waiting for darkness so it can begin to see.