Just some things I’ve written that I like a lot from the past, to put up here for safe keepies before getting into Shakespeare for Dogs: The Next Generation.
That Attempted Blog I Sort-of Kept in Haiti (Summer 2013)
The Orphans Need Me
When I travel, I feel like every thought I have is suddenly relevant. Every experience is worth taking note of. The plane smells like fart, and peanuts. The woman at the end of my row is illiterate and has asked me to fill out her customs forms for her. I love her for this. I’m terrified she’ll speak French at me and figure out I’m an idiot.
The thing about Haiti is that nobody comes here on vacation. No one at the airport booked a flight to Port-au-Prince just ‘cause. I find I’m curious about my fellow travelers’ stories in a way I never usually am. If asked on a flight to Dallas-Ft. Worth what I’m doing in Texas, and I’ll stare back, full of pity for the person who thinks I’d actually spend anymore time than I absolutely have to in Texas. “Nothing,” I say, “It’s just a connecting flight.” Where to? they might ask. The answer is usually either New York or Long Beach, but it doesn’t matter much either way. “Somewhere better,” I reply.
Not so with Port-au-Prince. I want to know everything about everybody. The black families speaking French I freely assume are Haitian, and they instantly become intimidating. Please don’t speak to me in French, I think at them, and it seems to work. I smile like a mute tourist and they let me be. Then there are the old white men in pressed suits, all flying first class or carrying cards that say executive platinum. Businessmen, diplomats, drug traffickers. I couldn’t care less. I lump them all into “Rich people” and I hope no one thinks I’m one of them. There’s the almost white-haired Swedish couple in flowing cotton shirts and glinting silver cross necklaces. The do-gooder missionaries. God be with them. They look like the Targaryens.
But then I see two young French girls in jeans and button downs, with a quiet elegance that seems to come only from not being American. What is their story?
And more to the point, what is mine?
Hearing the boarding announcements in French is somehow what does it. I’m actually doing this. I’m going to fucking Haiti. Whatever information I know to the contrary, no matter how many maps I look at, I still imagine that the Caribbean being in the Gulf of Mexico, and Haiti is somewhere south of Alabama. Wracked by disease and oil spills and probably bears.
I don’t know why I thought I could do this.
But the plane full of other people whose stories I can’t quite figure out is comforting. What are they doing here? Together I think we form this collective of people who don’t have a real niche. Or at least, not an obvious one. I like us. I like being part of this group, even if I’m the only one who knows about it.
No one has yet asked me what I’m doing in Haiti. If they did, I’m not sure what I’d say. “I’m a journalist,” I imagine saying, tossing my hair aside and basking in how cool they’ll think I am. I’m a journalist. Lie. I’m a college student. I’m a journalist intern. I’m supposed to teach people how to use Final Cut and update websites. Like I’m qualified to teach anything.
I don’t really think of myself as Here to Help. I hope I can help somebody do something, but I don’t see myself as someone who came here to Help People. Mostly I came because I was bored, and I couldn’t bear to spend another summer in an office in New York or DC. Haiti? Sure, why the fuck not? But I don’t want to be useless here either. I just don’t imagine that I can do much of anything. Against centuries of colonialism and corruption, and the sheer devastation of the earthquake, I don’t kid myself that I’ll be that important. I’m just looking to have a good time.
I’m reminded of two teenage blonde girls I saw about a week ago. They were standing next to a busy intersection, collecting money for a trip to Haiti. They had large poster board signs colored with bright marker, reading “HELP US GET TO HAITI! THE ORPHANS NEED US!” This was in La Jolla, an affluent part of San Diego someone once described as “a great place for old people and their parents.” I pulled up beside them and chatted, told them about my trip. One of the girls had been to Haiti before, and I asked her what I should expect.
“It’s crazy!” she gushed, “but the people are amazing. Just the joy that they have, amid so much poverty. Their joy is amazing.” I zoned out then, immediately seeing this girl’s face plastered in the middle of a crowd of big-bellied malnourished black children on a college recruiting pamphlet.
“Sarah spent the summer volunteering. With orphans. In Haiti” the magazine ad would say. Underneath would be a pull out quote from Sarah. “Just the joy that they have! They taught me so much!” I drove away shivering.
I hope the people I meet in Haiti will teach me something, mostly because I’m not sure I’m able to teach anyone anything and someone ought to learn something from this experience. I’m just still wondering how the hell I ended up here.
The house I’m staying in is an off-white compound of dormitory-like rooms surrounded by an eight-foot barbed wire fence. It reminds me a bit of the compound where they found Bin Laden, and for some reason this is comforting. My room has air conditioning (score), a bed, and a closet. It’s simple, and I love it.
The first thing I do is break the closet door. Not on purpose, obviously. The lock is jammed and I can’t get the key out. Great, I think. I’ve been in the country five minutes and I already broke something. I settle down to take a nap, made nearly impossible by the sounds of the preschool right outside the building. It seems silly to put down a mosquito net just to lie down for an hour, but if I don’t it keeps hitting me in the face. Plus it makes me feel like a princess.
I wonder if Bin Laden felt like a princess in his compound too. Do they use mosquito nets in Pakistan? This is the kind of thing I have no reason to research, but probably will. In fact, I’ll probably spend a lot more time on it than I will on learning anything about the country I’m actually in.
(Side note: I just rolled over and accidentally pulled down the mosquito net. Ten minutes, and I’ve broken two things. I feel like the UN.)
I know just about nothing about Haiti. I’m about one step above thinking the country’s biggest problem is tigers. I read The Black Jacobins well enough to write a paper on it for a class, and promptly forgot everything it said. None of it is really relevant now, and a lot of it isn’t even strictly true.
Compiled here, for your pleasure, is a comprehensive list of everything I know about Haiti:
- The founding father of Haiti was named Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was a cool black dude a long time ago who led a slave revolution and kicked out the French. There is at least one street (that I have seen) named after him.
- There is a preschool right outside my room and they have chickens.
- I don’t really know if they’re the ones with the chickens, but somebody outside has chickens. Or at least a chicken. Maybe a turkey. Or a kid who makes weird noises.
- It’s hot.
- It’s dusty. Everything’s kind of greyish white. The walls are all painted with advertisements and the cars are all decorated, but the dustiness of it takes over, like a layer of age.
- Everything looks pretty broken.
- Just about everyone speaks Creole, except me.
- Just about everyone speaks bad French, including me.
- The nicer houses are all surrounded by eight-foot-tall barbed wire fences and look kind of like that compound where they found Bin Laden.
- The food is bomb diggity. The water is cholera diggity.
I hope to add to this list as time goes on, but for now, that’s really all I got.
That’s a Wrap, Boys!
At a bar in the Miami Airport at 5 am, something on the TV catches my attention – it’s one of those Army of One join the military commercials. Electric guitar in the background. Men in fatigues carry cardboard boxes across a barren desert landscape, and sexily drip sweat as they hoist their boxes onto the back of a truck.
What caught my attention, though, were the boxes the soldiers were carrying. All rectangular brown cardboard, nondescript in every way, except for the label. “Aid.” Typed on the cardboard in large, friendly Times New Roman. “Aid.” In case you were unsure whether the uniformed hunks were there to help people or not. Spoiler alert: they are!
The sad thing is, I think this is how most Westerners think of aid. Do-gooders carrying boxes to poor, well-intentioned people in the impoverished land of wherever. Haiti had an earthquake? Cambodia had a civil war? Pakistan got firebombed by US drone strikes? Send in the Aid! NGOs carrying cardboard boxes that will Help People. How will they help them? With Aid! What’s in the boxes? Aid! It’s that easy. Just give them aid.
But wait! you might say. That doesn’t make sense- Ssh. Have some Aid.
What gets me about the commercial is how unspecified it is. Not powdered milk, medical supplies, drinking water, smallpox blankets. Just “aid.” Maybe they think it makes a more effective commercial. No one watching a baseball game in Miami at 5 am is going to pay that close attention to the commercial to figure out what the soldiers are doing unless it’s clearly spelled out for them. Delivering aid. Literally making deliveries of boxes of “aid.” The point is that the US Army helps people and looks sexy doing it.
But it’s also one of those trigger things – a nod and a wink saying, “yes, this is just a commercial!” It’s all fake. There’s not even the tiniest chance this is raw footage someone filmed on their iPhone of real soldiers delivering relief to traumatized areas.
I wonder mostly about the casting process. Are these trained actors, or did they put out an ad with real soldiers to save money? What were the auditions like? “Meyers – you may have 4 Purple Hearts, but you’re fat and your missing leg and left eye socket make audiences uncomfortable.”
After a long and grueling process, the army manages to secure 6-8 hunky, racially diverse men to trudge through a dusty desert and deliver boxes of Aid. They’re on set, in costume, and then come the final touches to hair and makeup. Load up the boxes of Aid, and – action, boys! Run like those boxes of Aid are really heavy!
“What’s in here, sir?” Soldier O’Conner asks. “Condoms, mostly,” says the director, “and some packing peanuts.”
They trudge forward through the desert, sweat dripping down their chiseled cheekbones as they wield Aid boxes.
“Looking good, boys!” says the director. “Tighten those pecks, Watkins. Eyes up, smiles. Gorgeous, boys. Remember, you’re Helping People.”
Watkins rolls his eyes at Rogers as they pretend to strain under the weight of the boxes.
“Remember,” says the director, “you’re doing this for America!”
Excuse Me, Don’t You Know That Has Cholera
Last night I woke up to gunshots outside my window. 1, 2, 3, 4, rapidfire and over in a second, but unmistakable. When you’re not prepared for it, it has a weird effect. In the silence that follows every sound is magnified a hundredfold. Every footfall, every dog bark, echoes off the walls like a thunderclap. The thunder doesn’t help matters.
I walk outside, wanting to go down to the kitchen and be around something comforting. Or eat something. Mostly eat something. But my room in the compound is detached from the main house. There are four rooms on the second floor, locked off by another iron gate from the already locked in house. And there, in that moment, I’m a caged animal, trapped and scared and confused and far from home and alone.
And then I lose it. Waves of panic crash over me like they haven’t in years, and my heart is pounding through my throat and up into my brain and I can’t think or feel, fear just takes over. I run my tongue along my teeth, remembering how in the dreams I just woke from they were all crooked and falling out. How many times I turned my teeth in my gums and it hurt so real and I’m scared and alone and crazy and a helpless child.
So I do what any not sane person would do – I start knocking on doors. At one in the morning. In a house full of people I met this morning who already know me only as the outsider in the group. The door is unlocked and I push it open, and a startled med student looks back at me.
It’s awkward, but he’s nice about it. In retrospect it must have been so weird, but at the time it felt so painfully necessary. Just to be close to someone, to feel connected, to not be alone. We sat up and talked for an hour, and after the thunder died down I finally went back to sleep. I don’t remember what we talked about. Travel and helping people and capitalism and movies and Seattle. Even my boyfriends usually want me to fuck off after a couple minutes of panic attacking them, but this guy was so genuinely alright with it.
I remember he said one thing that stuck with me. “Life is doable.” I don’t remember the context, but I like it. Life is doable. And it is. I went back to bed, and drifted into another dream where all my teeth fell out.
Today I went on a tour of the city. This mostly consisted of sitting on the back of a motorcycle and driving past various buildings long enough for them not to make any lasting impression.
“You see?” LouLou, the driver, says as he points out the National Palace.
“Mhmm,” I answer. I don’t see. As a matter of fact, past the fence I can’t see much of anything. A yard, and behind that, not a building. Maybe he’s showing it to me because it was destroyed in the earthquake? I would ask, but his French is even more broken than mine. If I’d actually researched anything about this country before showing up, I’d probably already know the answer. But I didn’t, and I don’t.
I find my days spent for the most part hoping people don’t talk to me. Not that I don’t want to talk to them, it’s just exhausting trying to speak French when the reality is that I really don’t speak French.
My friend Milo from work took me to the Brazilian Cultural Center so I could ask about capoeira classes. He says he wants to learn Portuguese. I try to teach him some things, but it’s difficult to teach one language you don’t really speak in another you speak only marginally better. I feel like the Dos Equis man – She speaks Portuguese, in French. I manage to teach him Bom dia and Tudo bem, but I falter when trying to explain why they’re pronounced the way they are.
“You see,” I start to say, “a d is pronounced like a j, but only when it comes before an i. Or an e, but only when the e sounds like an i. And an m at the end of a word just sounds like you’re nose is stuffed up, but doesn’t really make a noise.” I gave up after J.
My coworker’s daughter came to the office today. If I had to guess, I’d say she was about three, but I know children tend to look younger here. A visible side effect of early poverty and malnourishment, the small stature of so many people. Milo is an inch shorter than me, and must weigh about half of what I do.
Not speaking Creole and being very lazy about my French, I never quite got the girl’s name. For the longest time, she refused to speak back when I talked to her.
“Ça va?” I’d ask, like an overbearing mother to a show poodle. She’d blink at me with confused brown eyes. I can imagine her mind whirring. “What is this strange pinkish creature that looks like my mom but is fatter and has creepy pale skin? Is it some kind of alien?”
I promptly give up on us ever being friends. I turn to Milo. “She doesn’t like me,” I say. He laughs. Then the girl discovers she can open the drawer at my feet, and she does so over and over again. There’s a folder inside, containing some articles on Gender Based Violence..
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I ask, still like I’m talking to a poodle. She laughs louder and louder. She loves me now, the creepy pale alien girl. She finally comes to accept that aliens have names too, and she can’t stop shouting mine. ANNA! AAANNNNAA! BANANA! BANANA ANNA BANANANA! It goes on and on. My smile slides into a grimace and I turn back to my work.
When I say work, I mean my first week “homework.” And by homework, I actually mean homework. I have French grammar exercises. Little fill in the blank sentences like “Valerie goes to bed early tonight so that…” and I have to complete the sentence. After my junior year of high school, I really thought we were past all of this.
But the old habits quickly come back along with my stranger French vocabulary. “Valerie goes to bed early tonight so that tomorrow she can go on a killing spree.” The French word for killing spree is tuelrie, which sounds like a kind of doily. If stopped on the street and asked by a nice old lady if I felt like a tuelrie, I’d probably pack a picnic basket.
The rest of the sentences don’t fare much better.
“Veronique is always in good humor despite her lack of legs.”
“I must spend the day in the garden so that I can bury the bodies.”
“Jean has a vegetable for a penis.”
There are armed guards at the supermarkets here. Stray dogs with two rows of bulging tits that drag on the ground hunt for scraps in the gutter. I saw two tall, thin naked men bathing in the river today. I wanted to lean over and shout “EXCUSE ME DON’T YOU KNOW THAT HAS CHOLERA?” But of course they do. They don’t have a choice.
I do, though. I chose to be here. I can leave at any time, in a country full of people who can’t. It’s amazing how slums look beautiful from far away. The rust on the tops of tin shantytown roofs could be red brick on the coast of Dubrovnik when viewed from an air conditioned room high above the city.
I wore shorts today, which apparently makes people think I’m a prostitute. I burned my leg on the side of the motorcycle. Still we drive around and around, pausing only long enough at each place for none of it to make much impression. The heat, the people, the buildings, the rubble, the poverty.
I’m traumatized by how little I’m traumatized.
White People Tho
Happy belated cake day to me (and my mom.) My logic recently has been – it’s my birthday, I’ll eat six pounds of Hershey’s cookies & cream drops at my work desk if I want to. And then I’ll go home and eat a box of Danish cookies. And then dinner. Because it’s my cake day, and I’m young and alive and abroad and I can.
I haven’t been writing much the past couple of days, not because I’ve been busy, but mostly because there isn’t anything new to say yet. The initial culture-shock wasn’t very shocking, and the interesting things of note have all been said. It’s my first weekend here and honestly, I’m pretty bored. When I’ve traveled before, I’ve either gone with people, or gone to a place where it’s easy to go out and meet people. When I lived in Israel, I’d just put on some music and take a walk, see a movie, go to the beach, go out to dinner. I met tons of people through capoeira and made some really good friends. Here, I can’t even go to capoeira because our driver only works until 7 and the class goes until 8.
It’s easy to make friends when you’re traveling if you’re gregarious and don’t mind latching onto people and hanging on their social calendars for dear life. I’m fine with doing this. But it’s hard to meet people when you’re traveling in a country where you can’t go out by yourself, or at all after dark, and you can’t go to about half the city at all, and you don’t speak the language, and no one speaks English, and most people don’t speak French, and you stick out like a sore, albino thumb everywhere you go.
So I’m sitting on the balcony of the big, fenced in compound, watching people meander around the streets and enjoying the wind and the cool-ish day, trying to entertain myself with our slow internet and itching to travel. It’s not so much that I can’t entertain myself alone. I’m great at wasting whole days watching Netflix and checking Facebook and masturbating. That’s easy. But I could do all of that at home. I’m in a new country, in a part of the world I’ve barely been to. There’s a whole new culture and landscape and so much new food to eat. And I’m cooped up, behind my high walls, alone in a big house with nowhere to go.
According to the internet, there’s actually a lot of fun stuff to do in tha PAP. Bars and restaurants and movie theaters that charge 2$ a ticket. But being a rich white person, I can’t go anywhere without a driver and someone to meet at the other end.
Which brings me to something I’ve been thinking about a lot. White people here. We’re like macadamia nuts in a chocolate cookie – sort of weird looking, hard on the teeth, the part most people eat around. But we’re easy to spot. It’s weird how much seeing white people comforts me here. It feels sick to me, since I usually kind of hate white people. Even weirder because I know most of them work for the UN or some NGO whose work may be helping in a band-aid short term sense but is probably in the long run making Haiti aid-dependent, corrupt, and prey to corporate predators from the global north who capitalize on natural disasters and poverty to deliberately keep Haitian labor cheap and Haitian land exploitable.
But that being said, every time I see a white person I want to say Hi. And I know I’m not the only one. I was out for a walk with a girl who was staying at the house, another American, and we passed a tall French-looking white woman on the road. I looked at her the same way I would anyone else passing me on the sidewalk, and she just grinned at us. And then I realized – we were white. She was white. We were a tiny piece of home in a foreign land, all because of our race. Which isn’t to say there aren’t white Haitians or black foreigners. There just aren’t very many.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might be to travel here if I were black. Would there be the same precaution, the same wariness, the same feeling of being utterly out of place? When I ride down the road on the back of a motorcycle, people stare. A Belgian woman drove me home last night, and the boys in the tap-tap in front of us looked at us like we were two human-size guinea pigs in tutus driving a car. Or something. Not with hostility or with kindness, just strange, almost bewildered curiosity. I have never felt colonialism so deeply. I feel guilty for speaking French, and even worse for speaking English. I am Western arrogance personified.
But when I see others like me, I don’t feel that same hatred or dislike I feel for myself here. I think “PLEASE GOD SPEAK ENGLISH AT ME AND BE MY FRIEND.”
Particularly when I see white people on their own. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. The big groups of white people – students, doctors, missionaries – stare at me even more than the Haitians do. The Haitians are, I think, by and large used to white people invading their country and not ever interacting with them. The white people conglomerations though look shocked. Here I am, some white chick sandwiched between two Haitians on the back of a motorcycle. I just look at them, aware of my Oreo cream filling appearance. They stare at me. We stare and are White at each other.
In the glance between two white people here are so many unspoken questions and curiosities. “What are you doing here? Hello, friend whose work I probably don’t approve of but I love you because you’re so obviously a clueless American like me and maybe if we stick together we’ll look less clueless.” In Europe, this might work. Find a traveling buddy and you’ll be more confident and maybe blend in more. In Haiti.. well, a double-stuffed Oreo still looks like an Oreo.
When I see white people on motorcycles, like me, I really lose it. I hate LouLou for driving so slow when they’re ahead of us.
“AFTER THAT WHITE DUDE!” I want to yell, and we’ll speed off into the sunset, pull up beside the stubbled, cargo panted wonder and I’ll say ” What up.” And we will be best friends.
Which takes me back to the question of what it would be like to come here if I were black. I remember talking to a black woman about traveling in Zambia, I think it was. She was with a student group, lots of white kids, and they got stared at and pointed out wherever they went. But not her. If she dressed normally, no one would know she was foreign until she opened her mouth. An invisible minority. I think it must be both comforting and alienating. Or is it how I feel when I travel somewhere like Italy? That race doesn’t seem to be an issue, because I am in the majority.
And yet – being white in Haiti feels more what I imagine colonial settlers felt like than racial minorities in the US feel like. I’m even more easily trusted by the police and the guards. I remember waiting outside the Brazilian Cultural Center while Milo talked to the guard. The guard was instantly suspicious, wondering what the hell this Haitian journalist was doing at his gate. He tried to explain how he was with a friend who was interested in checking out the cultural center. The guard was having none of it. And then he saw me. I spoke to him quickly in French, saying I do capoeira and I wanted to ask about the classes. And boom, we were let in. He laughed when we left and said “Ayyyy capoeira! Parana eeeeee.”
I laughed and finished the song. “Paranaueeee, paraná!” And we left.
The guards at the grocery stores (did I mention there are armed guards at the grocery stores?) smile and nod at me. Because I am white. And therefore, rich. And therefore, to be protected. I hate it on principle, but the honest truth is my alien status makes me feel safe. If I were black, they would ask me questions. Even in a black country, white people still make the rules and colonialism still persists.
I want to hate it, but I benefit from it.
Really, I just want someone to talk to about it. When I see white people around, I don’t really stare at them with curiosity. I more implore them with my eyes, like a dog caught peeing in the living room. Please, understand me. Let me be part of something. Be my friend.
And then we can go out places together, and maybe travel, and you and I can be interesting expats together and I won’t be stuck in my house writing blog posts that you will never see.
When I was a sophomore in high school I went to India. It was one of those two-week “community service” fiascos, sponsored by my school. The kind of trip where everyone has to buy a whole new wardrobe at REI and comes home complaining that you just can’t get real biryani anywhere here. (Side note: you can in Queens.)
The minute the trip was announced, I had to go. I just did. But I didn’t think about what that entailed much until all the students who were going had a meeting a few weeks before we left. We sat around a big table and talked about what to pack, what to expect, what we were most looking forward to. Most people said they were excited to meet all the kids at the shelter we would be working at.
I blanched and looked at my hands, thinking “We’re working at a shelter?” Somehow I’d forgotten, or, more likely, never bothered to find out in the first place. When they got to me, my mind was racing. “Um, I want to poke an elephant. I want to take one of those stupid Taj Mahal photos where you stand far away and make it look like it’s really tiny sitting on your hand. I want to eat so much curry that I start shitting fireballs.”
“I’m excited for EVERYTHING!” I said, thinking, “Fuck, how long do we have to spend at this shelter?”
Three days, turned out to be the answer. When we left, I sat on the bus next to a boy who stared longingly back over the fields toward the shelter. Under his breath he prayed to the Bus gods, “Break down, break down, break down!” I started fervently praying myself, “Don’t break down, don’t break down, let’s leave already.” In the end, my prayer won out, and we lurched off down a dusty road into the sunrise. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the shelter home. It was fine, actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be. I was just itching to get to the next thing. The Red Fort. The temple where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Sunrise on the Ganges. Later, poor kids. I had my sights set on the next horizon.
I really was excited for India. It seemed exotic and fun, and personally rewarding since around then I was first getting into yoga and Hinduism and meditation. But my desperate desire to see India ran deeper than all of that. I just wanted to be there. I had an itch, and once it got in my mind I had to follow it. I get that sometimes with places. I feel some magnetic pull from inside my stomach that knows.. what exactly? I can’t really place it. Just that there’s something for me there. Anywhere. Wherever.
This was all about the time that I first read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. I bought the audiobook on a whim on iTunes, and used to walk down to Starbucks and eat a vanilla cupcake and stare at the suburban moms in their minivans and slurp my frappuccinos and pretend we were in Florence, or Kathmandu, or wherever. I was fourteen and bored and lazy and lost in suburban San Diego, a place with about as much exoticism as a pancake.
The book came into my life at such a particular time, my own little, commercially successful sign from God. I was just getting into yoga, in the depths of a soul-wracking spiritual search, in love with the idea (if not the reality) of living in Europe, and, to top it all off, gearing up to spend two weeks in India. It broke my heart open. I’d never wanted anything quite like I wanted to live in that book.
I know all of the post-colonial criticism blah blah that’s been levied against Elizabeth Gilbert for writing Eat, Pray, Love, and I’ve levied a lot of it myself. Oh look, privileged white woman goes to end her first world problems among the happy brown people, appropriates Eastern religion, and, for good measure, eats some pasta and fucks a Brazilian gymnast.
I get it. I do.
But I also have absolutely no place to criticize. Because I’m a privileged white girl teeming with first world angst. I’m a California Hindu whose spiritual practice includes shopping at Lululemon. I’m just kinda chilling in the third world, hoping it’ll make me a better, or at least marginally more interesting person. I do yoga. I love pasta. And I love Brazilians. Really, I’m being a hypocrite.
We’re all just selfish. I think it’s about time we all admitted it. No one does anything, not even something altruistic, for anything other than personal gain. Maybe that gain isn’t money or power, you have to gain something from every decision you make. Even if it’s just a sense of moral correctness, self-righteousness, fulfilled duty, or satisfaction. If you don’t get something out of a decision that’s makes it worthwhile, you won’t do it. Ever. Some people’s selfish drive is to feel good by hugging malnourished children. Some people are always running at the horizon to see if the sunrise looks different from the other side of the world. I’m just trying to scratch the itches as they come to me. Or get the sand out of my shoes. Or find myself. Or whatever.
Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, for being in Haiti with only a sketchy idea of why I decided to come here.
The guiding principle of my life seems to be that things just pop into my head. They seem like good ideas at the time, so I do them. I end up spending hundreds of dollars on plane tickets because my gut feels like going somewhere new. That was why I went to India, and I think that’s why I came here. I was itching for something about Haiti, not to save the children and the wetlands and the whales.
I’ve never really had that community service drive. I want to make the world a better place, and that’s not a sound byte; I really, really, really do. But I don’t feel like it comes from a particularly altruistic, charitable place. I want to end war and hunger and corporate abuse and racism and police brutality and rape culture because they make me pissed off and depressed. It’s entirely selfish. The world’s problems make me intolerably angry and I’m compelled, if by nothing more than a desire to end my own mental and emotional suffering, to try and fix them. That’s really it. I wanted to go to India because it sounded exciting.
I wanted to come to Haiti because it seemed more interesting than working in an office in midtown.
The thing I’ve always liked about Eat Pray Love is how selfish it is, and how honestly selfish. Liz Gilbert didn’t go on this adventure to save starving Indians, or build roads in Indonesia, or salvage what’s left of the Italian economy. She just went because she felt like it. It seemed like, well, more fun than working in an office in midtown.
At lunch today, my boss asked me to tell the story of how I found this organization. “Uh, Google?” Really, I just did a Google search for Alternative media in Haiti and this group popped up. So I sent off a résumé and they liked me. And now here I am… Hello…
“Yeah, but why Haiti?” she asked.
“I wanted to improve my French?”
“But they speak French lots of places.”
I could’ve answered something like, “I wanted to help the Haitians overcome poverty and the devastating earthquake and do my part and Help People.” But I didn’t, because that’s not true.
The truth is that I don’t know what drew me here. It’s like I counted back from ten and woke up with a plane ticket to Port-au-Prince. I spun a globe around in my mind until every conceivable possibility of my life was a blur, and then I struck out and I landed on this.
Why Haiti? Why India. Why New Jersey. Why Costco. Why anything. I don’t know. It just popped into my head. It seemed like a good idea at the time. So here I am, still selfish, still restless.
A Healthy Dose of Poverty to Chase Away the Blues
Driving in Port-au-Prince is a bit like playing Tetris. The traffic is bad. All the time. Bumper to bumper cars and UN land cruisers spewing exhaust into the air like exhaling cigarette smoke, and they never seem to move. If you want to get anywhere in less than an hour here, you take a moto.
We’ve got a moto driver for the office named LouLou. Given our language barrier, he and I have never had a real conversation, but I like him more that way. In kind of the same way that I love that hardly anything in the city is labeled. No streets, no buildings. Words get in the way. LouLou is a musician of driving, winding his way between cars and busses and pedestrians like a violin bow through strings. The cars communicate without words. Honking stands in their place, signifying everything.
HONK, coming through!
HONK, move it or lose it.
HONK, don’t kill me.
When we drive through areas crowded with pedestrians, it feels like HONK, make way for the white girl. HONK, new meat coming through.
It doesn’t feel as distant as being in a car. People are in your face, in front of you, but it still feels voyeuristic. Taking in the views, the slums, the faces, I feel like my eyes are camera lenses searching for a photograph in everyone I see. From the back of the moto, they are images, not people. I hate myself for it.
Even worse was driving into the apartment I’m now staying at – a beautiful fenced in complex at the top of a sloping hill. White walls and red tile roofs and climbing green trees and fuchsia bushes of flowers, all sloping down to a tennis court and a crystal clear pool. It feels more like Hawaii than Haiti.
But that’s only from the balcony outside the apartment. Outside the walls, a slum has grown up. USAID tarps stretch like old skin over shantytowns and dozens of women and children sit in the shade of crumbling trees by the side of the road. Three feet away from them is the gate to this paradise. Once you get inside, you can’t see them anymore. That’s the whole idea.
The gate slides open and a boxy Mercedes SUV drives out. It seems almost military, like a Humvee. The driver is an older white guy, who passes the rows of black children on the sidewalk without a second glance. An image of Hitler swims in the back of my mind, passing over a concentration camp, hoards of people he’s helping to keep sick and starving. Of course, I don’t know anything about this man. I just assume from the look of him and where he lives that he must be part of The Man, the nebulous conglomerate of UN and USAID sponsored NGOs that collectively fail to achieve any of their “development” goals and keep this country poor.
But I guess I live here now too. I must also be guilty. It’s almost enough to send me packing back to California, the feeling that just by being here, by my physical body taking up space in this country, I am fueling a culture and a history of degradation and exploitation. As well-intentioned as we start out, it seems that no one ever does any good. Maybe we should all just up and leave, and take our good intentions elsewhere. Like back to our own countries. But I’m almost as much an outsider in the Bronx projects as I am here.
It seems to me there are four ways of looking at poverty when you’re a privileged outsider.
1) Don’t look at it. Spend your time in Petionville and sitting on my balcony, where all you can see are trees and flowers and the edge of a tennis court. Eat mangos and fan yourself with the Nouvelliste. Close your eyes on the sidewalk and get on a plane back home.
2) Look, but don’t see it. Look at the slums, the thin women, the malnourished children, the men digging through the trash, the skinny animals, the sickenlingly brown water. Look at it like a painting – not even a painting. Not even a bad dream. Disassociate words and images from their meanings. These are things happening, and you feel nothing.
3) Look at it, see it, and lose it. I had this moment this morning. For an instant, the veneer cracked and the waves of sheer incomprehension at how this could possibly exist in the world crashed over my head. I slumped in my seat and took it in, pushing off the normalcy and the excuses. I could only stand it for about twelve seconds. I don’t know anyone who can come here without being jaded.
4) I don’t know. I want to believe there’s a magical fourth way of understanding the poverty, and really living in that understanding, without losing it. Maybe it comes from doing meaningful work to change things. But even then, you’d start to lose it, hyped up to an insane rhythm by the immediacy of knowing that while you work, people are starving and dying. I want to believe there’s a way to stay sane without ignoring it all. I just don’t know what it is.
There is another way, I guess, but I don’t think it’s sane. It’s the way I see rich people in the US look at the homeless. They look, they see, and they loathe. The reality of the disparity hits them. They don’t ignore it. They feel it fully, but in the absence of being able to blame themselves, they hate the poor. They hate them because the situation is so horrific and ridiculous that someone must be to blame. They hate the poor because they refuse to hate themselves.
Or maybe, we don’t refuse to hate ourselves, we just can’t. We make excuses, we exempt ourselves from the guilty party even when the rest of the party looks and acts just like us. Not because we don’t believe we are complicit, but because it’s simply hard to hate yourself, to hate everything you’ve done, to hate the life you love to live. But even if you can feel that hatred, what does it even do?
I hoped in coming to Haiti I would learn to hate myself. I would be shocked out of my system, turn around and look at me, and see how privileged and idiotic and materialistic and disgusting I’d become. I’d see before me a hulking, sweaty pig, preoccupied with nothing but it’s own hulking sweatiness. I would be reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose, of gratitude, of the reality of the world. But not only would I understand it – it would somehow shape my life, and my future decisions. I needed something to get under my skin, to touch me in some deeper way. Because what could possibly hurt deeper than the understanding and self-loathing that comes with unfair privilege, colonialism, and complicity in the system that is devastating the lives of millions of people?
I came to Haiti because it was either this or throw myself in front of an oncoming subway. I hoped I could use poverty like a wrecking ball swung into my stomach, to knock the depression and the anxiety and the misery and the selfish preoccupation with my own emptiness out of me. I’d given up on Zoloft and wanted to use other people’s misery as my drug. I wanted to get high. So high I’ll forget that I’m depressed, that I’m empty, that I feel eternally on the brink of finding something that never comes to me.
I may not be a useless development NGO or a greedy corporation, but I’m still a part of this machine. We are the machine that devastates the world – whatever our good intentions may be, we don’t know how not to exploit.
So far, a cholera-ravaged country and an earthquake-ravaged city haven’t done any more for my emotional state than a more traditional SSRI. I still feel compelled to cry spontaneously and fuck strangers and binge eat chocolate to feel alive, and afterwards all I feel is slightly sick and just as empty. All I’ve gotten is a retrospective look at how fucked up that whole impulse was. I’m dying to leave and go twelve different places, to every corner of the earth, searching for whatever I’m missing inside myself and slowly coming to realize I’ll never find it there. Anywhere.
Any yogi, any lama, any wise person at all, would tell me it’s not about where I am, but who I am. It’s an internal problem. It’s my mind and my heart that are making the world empty. The world hasn’t changed. I just have. And it seems so impossibly sick to want for Haiti to fix that for me.
Poverty is not a drug for the wealthy, but we keep treating it like it is one. We’re all high on the feeling of being good people by being here, of sacrificing something by forcing this country to sacrifice its space to us. Maybe it’s time we stop invading other people’s lives because we think Helping Them will help us become better people. When you do something with the wrong intention, no good can come of it.
Entertaining yourself as a foreigner in Haiti is an interesting task.
I’d estimate that I spend about 40% of my waking life here playing Solitaire on my phone. Waiting for footage to log and transfer in Final Cut, waiting for the driver to pick me up, waiting for the sun to rise after another sleepless night of contemplating the purpose of my existence and failing to come up with answers. Sometimes I lock myself in the stinking, sweaty toilet at work for fifteen minutes at a time just to clear a game of Free Cell with my pants down. If I get strange looks back at the office, I just clutch vaguely at my uterus and grimace like I’m pregnant with a mace.
I’m not sure how my obsession with digital card games got started. I’ve never really been into cards. Not the way people are into chess or knife games. I play Spider Solitaire or Pyramids on my phone sometimes, on long plane rides or when waiting for results of an STD test. But I’ve never really liked it. It’s just something to occupy enough of my brain to pass the time comfortably.
I’m starting to worry that all the time I spend playing games on my phone means I’m spending all of my time here trying to kill time. In a way I’d rather not admit, it’s true. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Haiti when you’re a foreigner and you don’t know anybody. It’s not the kind of place you can take yourself out for a night on the town when you’re bored and lonely. There aren’t any Couchsurfing pub crawls where you can pass the night shacked up with an out-of-work British actor tanned to the color of a pleather sofa. Most nights I sit on my porch naked and stare woefully at the pants I should probably put on. Then I turn on some music, pull out my phone, and play solitaire until it’s a reasonable time to go to sleep.
It’s not really killing time, more slowly draining it of its potency until it crawls like an incontinent octogenarian toward its grave. Everything I do to keep from being bored just doubles my boredom until I’m ready to scratch my eyes out with a golf pencil.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I was supposed to be having the adventure of a lifetime. That’s what I signed myself up for, even when everyone I knew told me that wouldn’t be how it was. I ignored them, filled with vague images of mangos and monkeys transplanted from my brief time in India. Mangos and stray animals and cholera and it’ll be life-changing, I told myself. And I won’t be a pussy this time and get scared of meeting people. I will relentlessly text every person I meet until they’re my real friends and I can do all of those cool traveling things people in National Geographic articles do.
So far I have to content myself with sitting on the balcony and going to the occasional creepily class-segregated expat event. Every Thursday, the Oloffson Hotel has a concert night called Ram. I think it’s actually RAM, and it stands for something, but I haven’t been bothered yet to find out what.
According to my friend (and by friend I mean person I met two days ago whose social life I decided to hijack for a night), Ram is something of an institution. It’s been around forever, and expats congregate at it like flies.
The first half of the show is the whitewash circus. The aid workers, the UN crowd, the expats take over the hotel and drink Prestige and speak English at each other. I told a girl in French that I liked her dress, and she yelled back “WHAT? UM, ENGLISH? DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”
I do, in fact, speak English. But being in a non-Anglophone country, it seemed like the wrong language to start with. I should have known better. I knew before she opened her mouth that she was American too, but I didn’t want to give into the ease of speaking English in someone else’s country.
I don’t know who I was trying to impress with my vague ability to communicate in not-English. I don’t speak Creole so I can’t really say I’m not being imperialistic. But assuming people speak English abroad doesn’t sit well with me. It feels itchy and sweaty on my skin, and I want to shake it off every time it touches me.
Around midnight there’s a sort of half time where the band takes a break. Apparently, this is where the scene changes. The expats clear out and the bougie Haitians show up. I’m not sure which one I feel less comfortable at, but either crowd doesn’t sit well with me. I had to take a breather and just sit and comprehend the existence of this place – some rowdy bar party mashing two worlds where we threw down money for drinks like it was nothing, and five minutes away is the edge of another slum.
It’s not something I think I’ll be able to get over – and yet, it’s already something I’ve gotten used to.
That night I got into my first moto accident. I’ve been told it’s unsafe to drink and drive a motorcycle, but I never thought about how stupid it is to drink and ride on the back of one. When it’s 2 am and you’ve been up for 20 hours and drank too much and it’s just finished raining, your moto might hit a small hole in the road, and might tilt, and you, being the drunk tired asshole, might tilt with it. And then keep tilting. And then fall right off onto your ass. This might happen in front of the two new friends you just made and are trying to convince you are a worthwhile human being. You might feel like a bit of a dickhead.
It’s not like I broke anything, but sitting upright still hurts.
Last night I went out with some friends of a friend to a party at a house I’ll be moving to next week. It’s a pretty house, home to half a dozen young expats who all seem to have slightly more purpose here than I do. But it feels like a decent crowd.
From what I gather, Port-au-Prince is a small town for expats. Everyone knows everyone, everyone knows each other’s guest houses and organizations and jobs. Meeting expats is a replay of the first week of college. Where are you from, what are you working on. The real question is “How did you wind up in Haiti?” and I think we all just ask it to feel justified at our own answers.
I met a girl from SIPA at Columbia and we bitched about school over beers, sitting on the patio in this gorgeous house tucked away in Pacot. She said in the house she lives in, there are a few restaveks, which is a nice word for child slaves. A restavek is a child from a poor family sent by their parents to work in a host household where they live and work from dawn until dusk. They do not go to school and they do not get paid. They work as maids, taking care of big houses for richer people in exchange for a roof over their heads and enough food to get by. For a lot of people, that must be more than worth it, but my stomach turns over thinking about it.
My immediate impulse when I heard about the existence of these girls was to make a hard-hitting documentary about it. To publicize their plight so that the world would… do what exactly. This was where I hit a roadblock. The impulse I really had was to take advantage of their situation to further my own career and artistic portfolio and make myself feel like a good person. Making a documentary about these girls will not change anything. The idea died in my head before I even had the chance to speak.
I’m starting to understand it better here. That this is why development and peacekeeping and sustainable growth seems to fail. You come up with an idea, and before you even have the chance to speak it, you know it won’t work. That things will never change. That you’re powerless.
Maybe that’s why we all go get drunk together and ignore the world outside for a while. Because you have to. You can only do what you can, and what you can is almost never much.
But walking by a starving child without turning your head requires you to separate that starving body from the idea that it’s human. We say we have to ignore it most of the time not to go crazy, and I understand that. But when we say ignore it, we mean dehumanize it. We mean ignore the fact that the restavek girl has a name and a face and a favorite color. We are here in this big house because she can’t be. We have interesting jobs in development and interesting expat friends because 80% of the country lives in abject poverty. The thing about privilege is that in order for it to exist, someone has to not have it.
This girl I met says the restavek at her house is eleven years old and enjoys taking selfies with her camera. Everyone likes taking selfies. Everyone likes to check what they look like, remember their face, remember their own humanity. I can sleep at night because I have never seen her picture, and I will never see her face, and I will never attach her situation to the reality of her humanity.
Digicel, Mon Amour
Digicel is the clingy, insecure girlfriend of phone service providers. Straight up, I have never seen a network be so needy before.
Digicel texts me all the time. I mean all the time. I’ll be lying in bed watching porn or whatever and my phone will start buzzing. “Oh Anna,” it beckons, “someone needs to speak with you!”
Hoping it might be one of my glittering circle of friendquaintances, I’ll instantly jump at the thought that maybe someone out there wants to talk to me. I rush to the phone, thinking maybe someone wants to invite me to a groovy house party, or have sex with me, or offer to pay my rent for the next twenty years because I’m such a good person. As I open up the text messages app, my smile will start to spread, anxiously awaiting whatever exciting news I’m about to receive from my dear new lovely friends.
“Pou patisipe nan leve fon pou Ekip Nasyonal la ou ka voye FOOTBALL nan 713 pou bay 25HTG oswa fe yon depo cash nan UNIBANK, SOGEBANK oswa BNC,” Digicel says.
Seriously, Digicel? First of all, I don’t speak Creole, and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Second of all, why are you texting me? You’re my cell phone service provider, not my boyfriend. Calm your tits and figure out your place in my life.
I sigh and go back to my busy schedule of playing Sudoku and watching old episodes of Arrested Development. But I hear the buzzing of a text message again.
Having learned from the past, I’m not quite as hopeful this time. But still, I think, karma and probability pretty much guarantee that it won’t be Digicel again. Someone has to actually want to talk to me this time!
“Ok fek resevwa 67.3 Goud cash back sou appel entanasyonal!” says Digicel.
My heart sinks, and my anger rises. “I don’t speak Creole,” I text back. It doesn’t go through. You can’t talk to Digicel like that.
It’s not that I don’t understand what it’s trying to say. Despite being American, I know what FOOTBALL means, I definitely know what cash back is, and the rest of it is just French when you sound it out. The language isn’t the problem.
It’s the neediness. AT&T was never like this. AT&T may have been an asshole who’d drop my call and never call me back. It might have gone out at weird times and not bothered to warn me ahead of time or keep in touch. It never offered to save me money, get me in on promotional offers, massage my feet. AT&T was a bad boy who didn’t give a flying fuck what I thought and knew I would always take it back no matter how many times it hurt me.
And I kind of liked that. The unknown. The chase. The knowledge that if for any reason I had a problem with my service, I had to take care of it. I could reasonably expect to sit on hold for six hours before being transferred to an office in Delhi where someone who wasn’t really named Bill would fail to solve my problems. I expected to do the work in the relationship. Maybe it wasn’t healthy, but it worked for me. It was all I knew.
Compared to the emotional roller coaster of AT&T, Digicel is just so clingy. After every text I send, a message will buzz on my screen that informs me that if I send only 4 more texts today, I’ll get 50 HTG of something I haven’t yet bothered to translate. A cheerful reminder that I don’t have enough friends to text in the first place. I can read the subtext. “Maybe nobody else wants to talk to you,” Digicel says, “but I’ll never leave you.”
When I miss a call because my service went out, Digicel doesn’t play cool and above it all. It sends me a text after every call informing me of when the missed call occurred and where I can call them back, readily removing the option of ignoring someone and pretending to never have heard from them. After the last time my service dropped an incoming call, I got five text messages telling me the precise time of each call Digicel had caused me to miss.* Five little apologies like kisses on my feet, begging me to stay, that the dropped service was all a terrible mistake, that Digicel really is here for me! I swear! And if you text #120 and send 5 more texts you can save 50 HTG on your next call! With Digicel, you get more for less!
*On a side note, the fact that someone called me five times in the space of twenty minutes is also a bit excessive. But at least it was a human being and not my service provider.
I don’t get why Digicel is so obsessed with me. It’s not like I’m special. Digicel has a veritable monopoly on the entire Haitian cell phone industry. And probably also the rest of the Caribbean, and I think a good portion of Latin America. Why is it so needy?
American service providers are aloof and useless. They make you come to them, and they know your business is secure. There’s more competition in the US, so your service provider knows you chose them. Either you’re intelligent and you have Verizon, or you bought an iPhone before 2012 and you have AT&T. Someone’s grandmother might use Boost Mobile, but it’s not any grandmother you know. You don’t run in those sorts of circles. But whatever plan you choose, it’s secure. Even though there’s more competition, the plans are far more confident. They don’t pester you with constant updates reminding you how wonderful they are. They just let you live, and in the case of AT&T, they occasionally let you make phone calls.
Maybe Digicel knows it’s not the one, and that’s why it won’t leave me alone. It knows it was chosen by default, that my heart really belongs to another. As pathetic as it is to say my heart belongs to AT&T, I’ll admit it proudly. My service provider might as well be my best friend these days, because God knows no one else is calling me.
Hear ye, hear ye, I’m looking for a job in Haiti. I decided not long ago that I want to stay here for the fall.
Which of course prompts the question, why?
I’m not really sure. Part of it is that I genuinely do love being here, as much as I don’t always like it. It’s crazy and fucked up and I feel sort of useless, but at least it’s not New York, and for that, I love it. But I think the real reason I don’t want to leave is that I feel like Haiti might be good for me in some way. I feel like something deeper than my conscious decisions brought me here, and it’s looking for something, and I don’t want to leave until I find it. I feel like unbelievably good things are here, and I want to know them all.
I told someone tonight that I feel too selfish and arrogant about my own “mental health problems” to let them really manifest here. That knowing there are people five minutes from my house who are starving shocked the depression out of me, that I feel more grateful for life and for all the good in it by being here. I’m looking for a job here in the fall, and I want to stay because Haiti is curing my depression.
This was a blatant, balls-out lie. It’s not. I’m as self-absorbed, moping and immature as I always have been and likely ever will be. This blog is not a chronicle of my experiences here, but a place for me to make sense of my own incomprehensible mental agony in the face of an otherwise perfect life.
I want to stay in Haiti because to leave would mean to admit defeat. Defeat not only of my ability to recover, but of the faith I place in spontaneous decisions with no clear mental guidance. I trust my gut over my brain because my brain took a beautiful life and turned it into something miserable, something to avoid, to run from, to seal up inside myself and bury deep at the bottom of my fantasies so that the world behind my eyelids is a stranger to the one in front of me. My brain looks at its incarnation and finds ways to scratch pain out of the walls. My gut still believes in happy endings, in itself, in fate, in God.
If I leave still not having found what I’m looking for, or at least still not knowing, I will have proven that what I believe in is a fairy tale. That the universe is cold and hard and senseless, that people die like flies and decompose into the earth and someday their ashes come back as flowers and that is the most beauty we can hope for. I followed my faith that there is something more down a rabbit hole and I’m in too deep now to climb back out. At least, not with my head held high.
Wiser souls have told me that it’s not about where you are, but your state of mind. That the thing I’m itching for – the feeling of being in the right place at the right time, of doing something worthwhile, of being of use, of having everything that I am match up to the space I occupy – that’s all in your head. It will never fit perfectly in real life, so you have to hold your breath over the itchy parts and settle into what you’ve got.
They must be happier than I am, and I commend them. But I’d far rather kill myself in the search than die by complacency. I’m reminded of a quote, “As in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”
I risk living a lonely, dreary, dreadful life, and I know that. But I will never give up the faith I have in my heart, in my gut, that there is more out there. There is something better. More right, more real, more honest, more tuned to vibrate at the same frequency as I am. I would rather be tuned into something greater than myself than simply happy. Happiness seems such a tiny, inconsequential desire by comparison.
But isn’t it the only thing that matters, after all? And it is something I do not have. I am not happy. I have not been happy for a long time. But I’d rather live my life searching beyond the next horizon yearning for it than settle into misery and accept it as the best I can get.
As long as I have faith that there is more, I will never be happy with what I’ve got.
So to be happy, I have to give up my faith. My belief in the goodness of humanity, in the ability of the world to change for the better, of people to grow, of war to end, of myself to change and grow and make other people happy. I have to give up faith in the belief that I can change people’s lives, maybe even change the world. I have to give up faith that there can be something better, that poverty and capitalist exploitation and hunger and materialism and violence are the only way the world can ever be. Because I search for a cure for those things. I search for a cure to them in the world as I do in myself. And I believe, with every fiber that knits me together, that something better is possible.
My happiness seems such a small price to pay for such a faith. Without it, I would be nothing. I would be dead.
I would rather die searching and never finding than shrivel in complacent contentment.
Headache (Summer 2014)
Where the hell are my tweezers?
This shouldn’t be what I’m thinking at a time like this, but the way I see it, if nothing is the matter, an extra five minutes to pluck my eyebrows won’t hurt. If I am going to die, I’d rather die with plucked eyebrows. Hang the rest. Hang the warnings and the fear and whatever they say on Web MD. I’ll have that eyebrow situation on lock.
I should go. They’re waiting for me. Where are my tweezers? Mental note to find them later. Mental note to make it home. Mental note that this is out of my control now.
It’s 4:35 when I leave my apartment and I’m already supposed to be there five minutes ago. I don’t know where the hospital is, so my best friend Felicity is taking me. Armen, the other best friend, is coming too. These are my guardian angels. My squadron of the concerned. Armen says “I’ll coordinate with Felicity,” like he’s in the FBI and this is some top secret mission. It makes me feel important, but it also makes this feel like a big deal.
When I get to Felicity’s house, they’re already outside. Sitting in the storm drain, smoking cigarettes. I take a picture of them, always with the instant filter, always looking accidental, but keep the cigarette hanging through your teeth just so. I can’t smoke because my lungs hurt, so I just squat down next to them and look at my feet. My feet look normal. Normal is good.
“Should we get going?” someone asks. We collectively nod. Reality has to start sometime.
Now it’s the three of us, driving through the rain in Felicity’s Mini Cooper and this is starting to feel like a road trip. We put on one of the mixes I made for Felicity’s 21st and laugh like nothing is going on. Let’s call this whole thing off, turn around on the 5 and try to drive to San Francisco or Seattle or Anywhere.
This morning was a battle between my determination that Everything Was Okay and the little notice on Web MD saying “If you present with these symptoms, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.”
Yeah, yeah, don’t tell me what to do.
I really didn’t want to go to the hospital today. I told everyone I probably just had the flu, and the rash is just a heat rash from the fever.
Felicity says, “That’s not a thing.”
The rash might be nothing. It might also be a severe allergic reaction to a medication I recently started taking that can cause organ failure and death. About 10% of patients die from it. 100% of everyone dies from something. Neither of these facts makes me feel better. I just focus on how cold I am.
Medication was supposed to put me back in control.
We get to the hospital and they put me in a room, take my temperature, draw some blood, collect some urine. The last time I was in a hospital, I had my period. I didn’t have any underwear and they didn’t have any tampons so they gave me a diaper.
The nurse asks me a bunch of questions. Who am I? Date of Birth? Address? She just wants to check if I’m aware of my surroundings. I am. They’re cold. I’m a balmy 103.4 degrees Fahrenheit, but I try not to think about that.
She asks if I have any special religious practices they should be aware of. I say if I die here, I want a Tibetan sky burial. She laughs the way you might laugh at a racist joke. An uncomfortable chuckle, a Too Soon laugh. She writes my request down on a clipboard.
The television is playing something about Gaza, and more people are dying, and everyone on CNN is acting like Palestinians don’t deserve to be mourned. I set my jaw and try not to get angry. I can’t do anything about that from here, from now, when I’m in the hospital with “We don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
I can tell you what’s wrong with me, for the most part. Virginia Woolf called it her “Headache.” I’m not sure if this started two weeks ago or two years ago, or how it even started at all. But in this case How is a lot like Why, and Why is one of those questions you learn to stop expecting an answer to.
I’ve been to the hospital four times in my life.
Time Number 1. I was five and getting my tonsils out. I remember a light blue hospital bed. I remember coming home, watching something on TV and eating ice cream. They got me a stuffed animal of the cricket from Mulan.
Time Number 2 was five years ago. I was at this same hospital, but I never made it through the doors. I hadn’t slept at all the night before, and it was well into the next day when I passed out on a street corner. I came to a few seconds later convinced I was having a heart attack. My vision was black, my heart was pounding, my fingers were stuck splayed out like a human gecko. I was so cold I thought I might crack. Felicity was there. She said, “Calm down, you’re just having a panic attack.”
I said, “No. I’m definitely dying.”
“You’re having a panic attack.”
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
I nodded. We drove there and I sat down on the grass, and my mom showed up, and I felt better. I watched Confessions of a Shopaholic the next day and tried to recover from the whole ordeal.
It’s August, it’s now. The doctor thinks the chest pain might be a blood clot. They draw some more blood. They give me an X-Ray and a CT scan. I keep making jokes because that’s all I can really do. I can’t have a blanket until my fever comes down, and why do they make hospitals so cold?
I was officially admitted to the hospital a few hours ago and they want me to pee into a plastic bowl to measure my urine. Or something. They stick a bunch of tabs to the skin under my breasts to monitor my heart, or something. They keep falling off because the fever’s breaking and I’m sweaty and rashy and I really want to go home.
It’s 5 am and I’m almost asleep when the nurse comes back to check my vitals. I hate her. I know it’s not your fault, early morning night nurse lady, but right now you’re the symbol of everything that’s wrong in the world. You are The Establishment. I want to sleep, but I can’t. I want to go home, but I can’t. I want to pee into a toilet and not a plastic bowl and I don’t want all these heart monitors stuck to my tits and I want to put my pants on. But I can’t.
I stick my wrist out and think, Check my vital signs. Do I really need to be there for this? Take my brain out and put it in a jar. My brain is half the problem. Can you take me out of my brain? I’m so dramatic sometimes.
It’s last night, and I’m still in the ER and they’re not sure if they need to admit me. Felicity brings me chocolate and we watch Alice in Wonderland until she needs a cigarette. I ask the doctor about fever heat rashes. She says, “That’s not a thing.” I ask about a possible medication reaction. She says that’s what they’re thinking.
The doctor asks me when I started taking the medication. July 21st, two days after Hospital Visit Number 3. Prescription? Lamictal. Dose? Started at 25, bumped up to 50 a week later. And when did the symptoms start (the fever, the swelling, the rash)? Just after that.
“Are you epileptic?” she asks. Lamictal began as an anticonvulsant before they started using it as a mood stabilizer.
“Bipolar,” I say.
Felicity goes outside to smoke and I’m left alone in the room. My fever hasn’t gone down yet. They think I might have a blood clot. I’m crying like I stubbed my toe. People are here with tumors and brain trauma and I’m crying. Children are dying in Gaza and I’m crying. I’d like to think I’m crying for them too, but I’m not and I’m just crying because I’m scared and alone and bored.
The shift clock changes and a new nurse comes in. She has a braid running down one side of her head and earrings that suggest under the scrubs, she smokes weed and goes to raves and stuff.
She wants to see my rash. I show her. She says, “Cool.” She says, “I like your tattoos.” The blood clot tests were negative, and I think, maybe I will have another chance to pluck my eyebrows. She asks why I was on Lamictal, and I tell her like I’m reciting something I had to memorize in high school.
“I had a psychotic episode and kind of tried to kill myself.”
She says, “Kind of?”
She says, “Cool.”
I had a dream and it went like this:
I’m walking up a long path on the side of a cliff. Right next to me is a giant pit in the ground, hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet deep, and I have to walk down this narrow little strip above it. Everyone else around me is running and laughing and doesn’t seem to see the pit at all, but I do and we’re all so close to falling in. So I cling to the wall and edge slowly, carefully, while everyone around me runs right next to the abyss and doesn’t give it a second thought.
It’s July 19th or 20th. Wake up. The clock says: 1:20 am. Call history: blank. Text history: blank. Memory: blank. Throw up.
Throw up again.
Sleeping pills? Pill bottle: empty. Today? No. Three days ago. Memory: 1 item found. Just 2 Ambien, from Mom, to help with insomnia.
Thoughts: 1 item found.
I want to die.
Exit stage left.
Is this real life? Is anything really happening? Is the whole world just a figment of my imagination? Suspension of disbelief.
Call Mom. Call Dad. Informed consent. Let you parents know where you are, if you are, and if you’re likely to not be.
I don’t want to die, I just want to be dead. Getting there is the problem.
Fade to black.
Bath tub. Kitchen knife. I’m watching a movie of myself and nothing is really happening. This isn’t real. Scratch scratch scratch. Too dull. Scratch scratch scratch. I just want to be dead. Scratchy scratch. Scratch.
Kitchen, wearing a towel. Find serrated knife. Doorbell rings. Felicity. Clothes. Cops?
Hospital Visit Number 3. It’s three o’clock in the morning on July 20th, and I’m in the back of a police car with my wrists handcuffed behind me. I think I’ve just tried to kill myself, but I’m not really sure how I got here. Right now, I don’t want to die. I keep telling the cops this was all a misunderstanding. I don’t need a 72-hour psychiatric hold. I’m fine.
I feel shipwrecked. I hunt through my brain again and again for some trauma that could explain away the hurricane that got me here. I think back on all the bad things that have happened to me and there just aren’t enough for this to be someone else’s fault. Ashamed, I find myself envying the abused and the neglected and the bullied. I have nothing to blame but my brain. But myself.
I’m fine, thanks for asking.
I wonder if people used to be this crazy. It seems like everyone I know is on something. Prozac, Lexapro, Seraquil. Map out the alphabet from Abilify to Zoloft. It used to be you weren’t depressed, you weren’t bipolar, you were just rude. You were just eccentric. That’s how you were, and you got to be you.
Now there’s this big separation. A giant gaping hole that separates you from your disease. This is your brain on Bipolar. Notice how it’s not you? You don’t get a say in this. Disease. Breathe. Mental note that this is out of your control.
Now we clinicalize. We clinicalize and we make things anatomy instead of person and symptom instead of emotion. My symptoms are I’m sad. I’m happy. I’m angry. Sometimes I lose touch with reality and slice my arms and legs up with a dull kitchen knife. Flesh wounds, “superficial” they said, barely a cat scratch in the morning. Go figure.
The night of Hospital Visit Number 3, Felicity showed up at my house just before I found the serrated knife. I smiled like I was fine, thanks for asking. I went to my room to put on pajama pants and a tank top. I couldn’t find any clean underwear. A few minutes later, there were cops in my bedroom.
I want to leave, but I can’t. I yell at them to get out of my house. Fuzzy spot. I try to get up and one of the cops pushes me back on the bed. I hate them. I hate everyone. Then the handcuffs come out, and I’m in the back of a police car, and someone says 5150, and I’m in the ER.
The nurse has me fill out a sheet about my Suicide Plan. How effective was it likely to be? Hanging is over 60% effective. Overdose on illegal drugs, 25-50% effective. Slitting your wrists? 6-24%. I laugh and say I don’t have a plan, but if I did, it would be 6% effective. And can I have a tampon?
They don’t have tampons, so she gives me a diaper.
I keep laughing at the nurse saying, I can’t believe I’m wearing a diaper. She laughs too, but we only laugh just enough. Never too much. Enough for them to know I’m okay and on board with everything and my friends really just overreacted and I’m fine, thanks for asking.
I grew up on movies like Girl, Interrupted and Vicky Cristina Barcelona where the crazy people are always hot. They’re more real, more passion, more honesty, more artistry, more sex than anyone sane. Insanity looks like freedom.
For years, I believed everything wrong with me was self-inflicted. I wanted this to happen. The hurricane in my head was just the residual pain of a mental bikini wax. Rip off the hairs of social graces to look more like your idols. More Lisa Rowe. More Tyler Durden. I could stop this if I wanted to, but I worship the wrong gods. I idolize them because I want to be crazy like them, not because they’re crazy like me. I never thought it went the other way.
The thing they don’t tell you in the movies is that none of this is real life.
They broke my 72-hour hold after only about 6 hours. I’d laughed the right amount. I’d stopped speaking a mile a minute. I remembered things. My cuts were superficial. [scratch scratch scratch]. The knife was dull. Everyone was just overreacting, and we could put this all behind us in the morning. A bad Saturday night that nobody needs to talk about ever again.
Driving home, I felt like I could die of embarrassment. But only figuratively, not actually dead die. It’s the morning now and we’re past all of that.
When the shame wore off, I just felt cold. Like my hands were frozen like human geckos. Like Confessions of a Shopaholic was playing. Standing up every five minutes, switching rooms, pacing, shaking. Panic. I don’t need to go to a hospital this time, I know I’m not dying. But I tried to die. I wanted to die. Every fiber of me wanted to die. But I don’t want to die. How can I want so desperately to be alive, but someone in my same body sliced my arms and legs up with a knife?
I’m back inside my dream, standing in the path carved into the cliff, staring into this massive, gaping hole. This is no exquisite abyss of floating stars and dark clouds. It’s just hot, dry, full of rocks to cut you to pieces on the way down, and there’s nothing beautiful or free at the bottom. It’s just a hole you won’t climb out of. I watch Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-winning performance tumble and shatter off the sides of the hole. Tyler Durden. Maria Elena. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. All the sex appeal melts off of it. This isn’t fun anymore. This is just terrifying.
I didn’t want to start medication as a blanket so I wouldn’t have to deal with my problems. To me, it was a way of calming the waters. Getting whatever was brain chemistry taken care of so I could see what else was bubbling up from underneath. Were there traumas I hadn’t dealt with? Underlying psychological issues? Am I just eccentric? Am I just a bad person?
Is this just the new normal?
It seems like everybody’s crazy these days but now you’re not allowed to like yourself for it. Abilify to Zoloft, it’s all just Botox for the personality. Make yourself normal so people will be more comfortable. It’s all for your own benefit, I promise. Who doesn’t want to be loved?
I don’t know if we’re getting crazier, or just more insecure about insanity.
I’m not being fair. Every doctor I’ve had has been very nice. On Hospital Visit Number 4, the second doctor of the night smiles and tells me I have DRESS Syndrome. Very nicely. He probably has kids named Kyle and Jenny and a wife he doesn’t cheat on. Because he’s nice. There are more important things than being nice.
DRESS Syndrome is serious, apparently. Drug Reaction something something blah blah Syndrome. It means I’ll be fine because I caught it early. 10% of people die from it. But I caught it early, and I have to stop taking the Lamictal.
25% of bipolar patients kill themselves. I guess the other 75% die like normal people. The risk is highest right after going off medication. Not one of these statistics is making me feel better. Now they’ll probably start me on Abilify, the top of the alphabet. It’s an anti-psychotic too, which sounds like something I could use, but I can’t start until this DRESS business clears up.
I’m discharged from the hospital the next day. I’m on the mend, but the waters are still uncalm. The causes unknown. The rash is still rashing away all over my upper body like a sunburn with alopecia. I have a diagnosis, but that isn’t the issue. My “Headache” is the issue. Bipolar disorder is degenerative without medication. 25% of bipolar patients kill themselves. [scratch scratch scratch]. I try not to think about that. First my brain tried to kill me, then my medication tried to kill me. I’m not sure how much of it is my fault, but I’ve never been so happy just to be alive.
I keep thinking, I must have done this to myself somehow. Blurred the line between fantasy and reality and now I have to pick up the pieces. I just want to get better. This isn’t fun anymore.
Why am I in this hospital having a potentially fatal reaction to medication I took because I had a potentially fatal reaction to bipolar disorder? Is it just the sodium in my synapses? Am I just a bad person? Is this the new normal? The question, at the heart of this, is Why did all of this happen?
Why is one of those questions you learn to stop expecting an answer to, but that’s not good enough for me.
When you’re sick, nothing is sacred. You pee into a bowl so they can measure fluids. Or whatever. You don’t really need to understand it. Mental note, it’s out of your control now. Take my brain out and put it in a jar.
The nurse who woke me up at 5 am is just doing her job. It’s for my own good. She was supposed to be there at 4. I don’t blame her. She’s nice. They’re all such nice people here. That’s the problem. Blinded by niceness is the problem. Deafness by kind words. Compliance by guilt.
But it’s also fear. I don’t understand well enough what’s going on, so I sit in my hospital bed. With half a mind to sneak into my regular clothes and walk down the hall and out the door and home. But only half a mind. The rest is too scared of the rash that keeps spreading on my body and the fever and how much my lungs hurt and the words Low White Blood Cells and DRESS and Your liver might start to eat itself alive.
My brain wanted to eat me alive two weeks ago. Slice me up into easy pieces. The knife was too dull. The sharper knife wasn’t in the first place I looked. The doorbell rang. That was the difference between me writing this and me dying. Maybe.
Or maybe not. Slitting your wrists is only 6% effective. But it’s more romantic. It looks better in a movie.
Mental note that this is real life now.
You’re on the ledge and the abyss is at your feet, and most people just walk by like there’s solid ground there. Once you see it, you start noticing it everywhere. The veil between madness and sanity, between reality and fantasy, between being and non-being is so much thinner than we like to think of it.
I’m not on medication yet, but I’m starting to see what’s under the water.
To paraphrase Thoreau, when we live in a world that imprisons unjustly, the only place for a just man is in prison. Maybe when we live in a world built on insanity, the only sane thing we can do is become insane ourselves.
Bear with me here.
I’m just trying to understand Why. Why am I so crazy? Why is my whole generation so crazy? So clinicalized? So medicated? When did so many young people start noticing the abyss, and why are so many of us so dangerously close to the edge? I’m not the only person I know who’s attempted suicide, not even close. I know more depressed people than I can count. More anxious people, more survivors, more traumatized. We’re a whole generation with PTSD just from being alive.
Something happened that made me want to die. Whatever I tell myself, I am not separate from my brain. I wrack my memories, my memories, and there’s nothing there worthy of this being not my fault. Nothing bad has happened to me, but something about the world is leaving young people feeling attacked. The best minds of our generation are being destroyed by madness, but we’re also being woken up by it. We’re realizing how insane our whole world is.
Turn the movie off now.
This is real life.
Children are dying in Gaza and people are being tortured in CIA black sites and the middle class is becoming a distant memory and everyone’s done occupying Wall Street, and I’m crying. Because I feel powerless, and alone, and there’s too much horror that I can’t change. If someone with as much privilege as I have, with as few life problems as I have, can still be driven this mad then God help the rest of my generation.
I am not oppressed at all. At no point in my battle with bipolar disorder have I come anything close to being an Oppressed Mental Patient. And yet I still felt that feeling, of being up against something so much more powerful than me that it made me feel broken. Sit back on the bed, let us put the handcuffs on you, get in the car. Pee into a cup. I’m going to draw your blood now. You don’t need to understand; you don’t have a choice. All the while, there’s a television playing footage of bombs and listing casualties and somehow the two get linked in my mind. Somehow being aware of the abyss and being aware of the horrors of the world are the same.
The most depressed people I know are all activists, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There’s something about being overwhelmed by the sheer size of a world you want so desperately to change that makes you aware of your own weakness. I see climate change, I see poverty, I see institutionalized racism and I want to treat it like an illness. I want to medicate it. Reduce it. Make it manageable. But the problem is that this puts it behind a screen, somewhere far off where it can’t affect me. Whatever scenes are missing from my memory, I can’t separate myself from my suicide attempt, and I can’t separate myself from the apparent suicide trajectory of the world. The abyss is right here, and we’re all on the edge.
I don’t think the answer is to ignore it. I think ignoring it is where the problem starts. Choosing not to see what’s there is as mad as seeing what isn’t. Clinicalizing these problems, from war to bipolar disorder, is what makes the insanity thrive. Suicide and war are both human violence. We can’t separate them from humanity.
Our society is madness, and madness is our society. We are getting crazier. The more we try to distance our actions from our systems, our brain from our psychology, ourselves from our bodies, ourselves from each other, the closer we get to the abyss. The more we clinicalize. The more we speak in casualties instead of children. The more we remove ourselves behind TV screens from anything actually real, the more people wind up stepping over the edge. We hide ourselves behind layers and layers of apathy, of medication, of diagnoses, of distance from anything that might make the pain feel real, but it doesn’t stop being real.
Then the reality comes out in weird ways.
Even as insanity. Even as this.
Why I Regret My Elite Education (Fall 2014)
I entered the elite at age five.
From kindergarten to sixth grade, I attended The Rhoades School, a prestigious, private elementary school. In seventh grade, I started at The Bishop’s School, a prestigious, private middle and high school. In 2010, I began college at Barnard College of Columbia University, a prestigious, private college with the double bonus of being both a Seven Sisters and a de-facto college of the Ivy League university. This past winter, I graduated from college with an offer of admission to the London School of Economics (LSE), one of the “most elite” universities in the world.
On the ladder of prestige, I’ve climbed about as far as a 21-year-old can. My classmates have gone on to medical schools and law schools, finance jobs and consulting jobs at the most influential companies in the country. The more globally minded are Fulbright Scholars, the more socially minded are Teaching for America.
Me? I’m living in a trailer on my uncle’s farm in Washington. But like my classmates who WWOOF and backpack through Chile and work in Sierra Leone, I’m only doing it temporarily. This is a gap year, a brief stint of regular life bookended by glittering prestige.
All in all, I have 21 months: December 2013 until September 2015, when I start at LSE. 21 months in 21 years when my life doesn’t have to look good on a résumé. I’m reminded of that line from Fight Club – “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” – but I think, No. Not for me. Because next fall, I’m going to graduate school. I’m not really living in a trailer, I’m sojourning here. I’m not really living on minimum wage, I’m vacationing on it. This has an end-date.
This isn’t real life. My real life comes with a gold sticker stamped Ivy League, stamped Accomplished, stamped Elite.
When we pass through an elite institution, we come to inhabit the elite. Our self-worth becomes tied to our diplomas. I can live in a trailer all I want, but that piece of paper marked Columbia University proves I’m still “better than that.” It proves I am one of the Best and Brightest.
Actually, it proves that I am one of the Richest and Best-Connected.
We the Prestigious are not truly the brightest. We are not even the best-educated. Calling what I got an “elite education” is only a half-truth. Yes, it got me a spot in the elite. No, I did not receive an education.
The Bishop’s Difference
My high school had this tagline, “The Bishop’s Difference.” A catch-all phrase used to highlight how an education from The Bishop’s School sets you apart from the rest. We are the seventeen-year-olds who quote Kierkegaard. We balance three sports, two performing arts groups and a hundred community service projects, speak three languages and still get straight A’s and 2400s on the SAT. We never confuse “your” and “you’re” and we know how to use an Oxford comma. We are a college admissions officer’s wet dream.
We are also some of the most elitist, privileged, “entitled little shits” (to use William Deresiewicz’ term) that the world has ever known.
I’m told I received an incredible education at Bishop’s and I should be grateful. I am not. If I could go back and do it again, I never would have gone to school there. Yes, I met some inspiring teachers, the kind most schools don’t have. I wrote essays on Moby-Dick and learned to speak French and traveled to India.
I also got instilled with a disgusting sense of entitlement and an extremely narrow and warped view of the world. I didn’t meet anyone whose parent wasn’t a doctor, lawyer, banker or business executive. I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t guaranteed success. I didn’t meet anyone poor, and I hardly met anyone black or Latino.
The “Bishop’s Difference” doesn’t mean you’re qualified or intelligent. It means you inhabit a world narrowly sliced from the top tier of the socioeconomic spectrum. You’re surrounded by future world leaders, not because they’re brilliant, but because they were born into the class that keeps recycling itself as the top of the pyramid.
We go to Princeton and Stanford and Williams, we go to UCLA Business School and Harvard Law. We grow up and marry other Princeton and Stanford and Williams graduates, we make six-figure salaries and move into big houses with ocean views just like the ones we grew up in. And the weirdest part of it is that none of us had to learn anything to get there. Our future was set because of our families and our upbringings. Our place in the elite was a birthright, not an achievement.
Pomp and Circumstance
My best friend from college and I both graduated a semester early. I remember her looking at me in our last week of finals and saying, “How the hell did we get here?”
And all I could think was, “Because time passed and we kept breathing.”
Everyone talks about graduating college like an accomplishment, and for some people, it is. For those who had to work their way through it, or pay for their own education. For those whose parents weren’t college-educated, or who had to face insurmountable adversity during their time on campus. For all kinds of people whose stories I don’t know and can’t list, it is a huge accomplishment.
But the percentage of students for whom graduating isn’t really an accomplishment is large, and it’s growing. For me and for people like me, a Columbia University degree was just the next step. An accomplishment like walking is an accomplishment for a baby. Yes, you did it, but you were biologically guaranteed to do it. Your getting here was a matter of when, never if.
It’s four years later. Here’s your diploma.
The only thing you had to do to get here was nothing.
In the spring of my junior year of college, I first flirted with suicide. I was in a period of intense depression, and for the first time I truly wanted to be dead. I wanted to stop existing. I didn’t get so far as to attempt suicide, but oh how I wanted to. I knew there was something skewed in my brain, and I was on the verge of dropping out of school to figure it out and try to heal.
But I never did. I stayed in school, miserable, depressed, and at times suicidal. I graduated eight months later. Congratulations.
Was I strong? Was I able to pull it together? Was it the Bishop’s Difference in me that kept me in school?
Looking back, though it felt like a battle, I did not stay out of strength. I stayed out of fear. I stayed because I was supposed to. I stayed because the possibility of not being prestigious terrified me too much, because this was my born role in the Circle of Class and Privilege. I stayed because I would rather die in the elite than live outside of it.
A Farmer with a Harvard Degree
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I had my first corporate internship. I sat at my desk in my Nordstrom’s pencil skirt and thought, What the hell happened to me?
When I was fifteen and first started looking at colleges, I wanted to study film and philosophy. I wanted to spend my summers at an ashram in India or volunteering for an avant garde theater or working on a farm. I wanted to be all Eat, Pray, Love spiritual, all Moulin Rouge bohemian.
But I found myself in a cubicle, staring at an Excel spreadsheet every day to pad my résumé and make connections. I cried myself to sleep every night that summer, but I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. This was what everyone around me did. This was what you were supposed to do. This was the whole point of every hoop I’d jumped through from age five to now.
What I didn’t realize was that my internship was just another hoop. The more time you spend in elite institutions, the more blind you get to the hoops around you.
And they keep shrinking the hoops on you.
First it’s get good grades, then it’s get good grades in all the right APs, then it’s get into only one of the most selective schools, then it’s get only one of the most selective internships, the best graduate or professional school, the highest-paying job. The list keeps going on. Your idea of success doesn’t just grow up with you. It gets smaller as you get older. You’re on a sidewalk through a field and the path keeps getting narrower, but you’re terrified of stepping on the grass.
An education is supposed to open doors. It’s supposed to give you opportunities. But for every new door opened to us, We the Prestigious force another one shut. Now you can be a lawyer and an investment banker, but God forbid you be a mechanic. You can’t be a masseuse. You can’t be a farmer.
Above all, you can’t be poor.
Of course, you still could, but those things are out in the grass where you don’t dare to tread. You’re conditioned not to want them, to disdain them, to associate with those people only when necessary and never as people. You get your car fixed. You get a massage. You forget where your food comes from. You donate to the poor, you don’t hang out with them.
Why? Because you’re afraid. You’re so cripplingly afraid of stepping off the narrow path to success, of missing a hoop and falling… into what?
Into the rest of the world. Into the void below the Bishop’s Difference, below the Ivy League, below the top of the pyramid. You’re terrified of seeing how skewed your worldview is. You’re terrified of seeing the faces of every person below you and realizing how tenuous your position at the top actually is.
You’re terrified of realizing how much of your life you didn’t actually earn.
I Majored in Unafraid!
When I started college, they had this admissions pamphlet that read, “I Majored in Unafraid!” It was supposed to make you feel empowered, like you were free to explore your education and take new risks. This could not be further from the truth. Everyone I met in college was afraid. Ivy League schools are the most terrified places in the world.
I’m scared too. I’m scared of my life, ending one minute at a time in the void between prestigious commencement and prestigious orientation. I’m scared of drifting, but I’m not sure what it means to be grounded. For as long as I can remember, being grounded was simple: You were either working on your degree or on your résumé. Being grounded meant being tied to a piece of paper.
In the months since I graduated from college, I’ve had the task of unlearning my education. I’m picking apart the priorities I grew into that aren’t mine, the dreams that would actually make me miserable, and the measures of self-worth that value the kinds of people I can’t stand.
In unlearning my education, I’m relearning myself. I’ve had to rediscover the soul that got lost, and the results have been surprising. Namely, that all I did in college was get further away from myself. I want all the same things for my life that I did when I was fifteen. I want to be a writer and an activist because these are the things I love to do. They matter to me even if they don’t get me anywhere else.
But even more surprising, I’ve found that the most important things I want are not things you can put on a résumé. They’re not things you can answer with when someone asks what you’re doing after college. Things like, I want to be a friend and a lover. I want to be good to my parents. I want to be close to my sister. I want to be close to God. I want to love, and grow, and heal, and feel, and be happy.
What I want is to be human, radically and wholly human. The kind of rough-edged humanity that prestigious institutions sand off of you. The kind of humanity I see lost from the faces of the brilliant people I grew up with.
I’ve learned so much more of value from six months of living life than I did in sixteen years of so-called education. And not just about myself. I’ve learned more political science since graduating college than I did getting my political science degree, simply because I have the time now to read widely and think broadly and talk to people. I’ve had the time for all the things you’re supposed to do in college, but never get around to.
But I worry that all of this still reeks of transience. I’m talking the way privileged kids talk after a two-week “community service” trip to Guatemala. In just over a year, I’ll still be going to graduate school at the top of the prestige ladder.
I’m not sure if I’m going to graduate school more out of a genuine desire to study or a crippling fear of losing my status. When asked why I chose LSE, I joke that it was just cheaper than Harvard. This isn’t entirely untrue. I can’t pretend that the elite name wasn’t a huge factor in my choice.
But then again, my decision to go to graduate school was wholly different from my non-decision to go to college. I know exactly what I want to study now and why. I picked the school for its social science focus, for the specificity of the department I could study in, and for professors like Richard Sennett and David Graeber. I also know now to learn outside the walls of the institution. I know to learn not only from my professors and classmates, but from my butchers and baristas. I know not to surround myself with rich people. I know how to value other things.
The elitist impulse is still there, but I think (I hope) this time it’s tempered by an actual desire to learn. I want the thing itself, not the sparkly promises on the other side of the hoop. I want to get an education.
I didn’t get an education before. I got straight A’s and a college degree, but ask me what I learned in college and I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything. I regret that. The only thing I don’t regret was the professor who introduced me to the writings of James C. Scott. Everything else I could have done without.
Call me ungrateful. I am ungrateful.
Tell me there are thousands of kids who would kill for the opportunities I’ve had. That’s exactly my point. Those are the kids who should be getting these opportunities, not me and the people like me.
But those kids didn’t have SAT tutors and parents with six-figure incomes and the Bishop’s Difference. I did, so now I have a Columbia degree. Congratulations.
Now I have the uphill task of unlearning my elitist upbringing in the hopes that I can figure out how to live a life that won’t make me want to kill myself. I have to figure out how to be happy.
In all my years trying to be the smartest and the most accomplished, I almost never thought about happiness. I certainly never thought of it as something to be devoted to, to take time for, to strive for. I never thought about building my soul the way I built my résumé. I think differently now.
I remember crying to my mom one night in college that I was worried about never getting a job. What if I don’t make it? What if I’m a failure?
She said, “You can’t be a failure if you’re happy.”
We the Elite have been conditioned to define success in such narrow terms, but it’s just that: conditioning. We can unlearn it. We can learn something else, a whole new set of values. Education can be an opportunity, but we must stop attaching it to the promise of an elite.
On a systemic level, we must stop charging so much for tuition that school only serves to buy your way into the elite. We have to stop setting standards for merit that can only be met through money. On a personal level, we have to stop being so addicted to status. We have to stop defining success and failure in terms of income and start defining it in terms of happiness. We have to remember that money is a tool, not a goal; a means, not an end, and a means that never directly causes us to be happy. But most of all, we have to stop looking at education as a way to get somewhere, and try the radical task of actually learning.
Assorted Poems (2011-2014)
Firestarter (Fall 2014)
If the zombie apocalypse comes
My only plan is to spend every day watching Jersey Shore until my brain rots and the zombies will pass right by me
But you have a stockpile of canned food
A wind up radio
And a map of every road out of Southern California waiting
In your backpack
Just in case
You had me from the first time you actually made eye contact
Which took you about a month
From the day I asked Does my snoring bother you?
And you said Baby, Oppression bothers me
I want to believe in this
Watch us fall like trapeze artists
But before you get too close
You should know that I chewed through my net
That I am a grenade with my finger stuck through the ring
I am always ticking
I tap on my mind like an egg shell
Cultivating my cracks
Building my destruction
Every forest has to burn at least once
It’s just reincarnation
I have justified a thousand things
Like the lines will just fade in the morning
This is just a cry for help
I’m allowed to fall apart
But when your eyes meet mine like a searchlight in the rubble
I stop looking for escape routes on my wrists
The scars have all faded like lines in wet sand
Put your lips here
Remind me I am a sandcastle
When the tide rolls in
When the rocks kiss the windowpane
I will hold it together
I will practice my survival skills
You make me believe impossible things
Like maybe the morning rises from our palms
When the bad nights come, all we have to do is hold hands
And maybe the world will end if we stop kissing
So let’s never stop kissing
Maybe I can leave rock bottom in the drawer
Maybe you will make me feel enough
When the wolves come out of my throat and start howling
When my head is too heavy to look for anything but storm clouds
You will call me the sun
Remind me I am stronger than the riptide
Tell me I’d look hot with a machete
I am pretty sure zombies aren’t real, but I’ve stopped underestimating monsters
There is always something wicked in the deep
But you will have a flashlight hidden up your sleeve
A swiss army knife
And a photographic memory of every fire escape
For all the shit I give you
You make me feel safe
You make me feel strong
And you and me, we’ve got a world to save
Life lessons from a dead girl (Summer 2014)
1. A gift is just something that was given to you
Not something you asked for
Gold is only precious because someone wanted it
2. There’s a reason you weren’t born with armor
Skin is supposed to be soft
Uncover your veins
Leave your throat open
Close your eyes on the freeway
You weren’t built to be permanent
3. When it happens
The papers will say She died in her sleep
They’ll talk about the people you left behind
Left, like children you forgot on a train platform
You will be old, no matter how young you were
Your name will close around them like a mist they can’t shake
When they think of you, they will think of headstones and flowers
And the things people might say at their funerals
4. They will make you an attraction
Everyone’s favorite dinner conversation
Did you hear what happened? Did you know her?
They’ll list off all the facts:
She was blonde, she was smart, she loved music
Everyone loves music
People die every day who love music
5. You can’t run away from darkness
Everything has to sleep sometime
6. The papers will just say She died in her sleep
They won’t mention the track marks and the needles
And the time you said This was exactly how you’d do it.
No one wants to ask those questions
They’ll say that Ophelia just fell into the river
Like gravity goes more than one way
7. Don’t imagine anyone will fight for you
If you want to keep your head up
Learn to swim
Don’t you realize
No one wants to mourn for you?
They will read your name in the paper like nostalgia
The first on a list of things no one wants to think about but still can’t forget
I’m asking you to remember
That you can leave at any moment
This is a branch that will break if you shake it
No one will stop you from jumping
No one will take the needle out of your hand
No one will love you just because you want them to
8. Waking up is a choice you made this morning
Tomorrow you will get to choose again
9. The papers say I died in my sleep
Killed by gravity, like Ophelia
When I lived at the end of a branch so thin it only took a sigh to break it
Don’t judge me because the water looked calmer than the wind
10. Someday you will find yourself dangling
And I hope you don’t look down
Or you will see my hands reaching
There’s a map to me written on your wrists
I can show you a shortcut
No one will take the razor blade out of your hand
No one will love you just because you need it
They’ll have the headline ready:
She died in her sleep
Everything has to sleep sometime
They’ll tell themselves all kinds of stories
String lights in the gap where your smile used to be
They won’t know where you went
But they know how you got there
They’ll hold each other and cry and say
When things like this happen, it’s no one’s fault
A Love Letter, to New York, from California (2011)
I like the way you shine your shoes
I like the way the your suit looks like the open sky at night
I like you
All cigarette and saxophone
Your eyes are more stars than the sky could offer
And they go on for miles
I like the way your hem is always six inches deep in seawater
I like the way you don’t wear shoes
Your hands are small
You smile more than I do
Maybe that’s because there’s sand between your toes
You are a penny dropped from a skyscraper to make the sidewalk lucky
You are a sunset catching sight of itself in the ocean
You are beautiful
But it could never work
You are the mornings I never wake up for
You are the air I’ve never stopped to breathe
Your hair is the color of the sun
My eyes are the color of a smokestack
I’m too afraid to touch you for fear I’d pollute you
You are the risks I never took
You are the drums I never danced to
My body is a sand lot
But you are a sailboat
I’m afraid if I hold you my hands will turn to anchors
Your smile is a sea I want to swim in
Your hands are streets I want to get lost on
I walk too fast
I talk too much
Your voice is like the first day of summer
I’ve forgotten how it feels to be warm
Hold me through the winter
Without you I’ll freeze
And I don’t know how it feels to be cold
You are clearer than July afternoons
I would only scrape your sky
My lips are sandpaper
Kiss my feet
I like having sand between my toes
In the morning
you will wake up shivering
where he slipped from your body like a sheet you kicked off
Walk down the hall touching the bumps in the wallpaper
Remind yourself how it feels to touch anything but him
Cross out Ithaca on the map
Forget the geography you used to know by heart
spend all day riding the subway and remember how much he hated it
Stop thinking of him every time you see pine trees
They have trees everywhere
Throw his shirts out the window
Destroy everything that used to feel like home
Burn your photos.
Throwing them away will not do it
It will make you feel powerful again
It won’t make him less gone
When order your favorite drink at the bar
Forget how you only fell in love with it when he made it for you
Claim it as your own
Take credit for everything he gave you
Tell his jokes
Flirt with everyone pretty
The first man you go home with will sting like a splinter going in
You will say the wrong name without realizing
Did you forget?
Your body is a postcard that’s already been signed
Your mind is still waiting for the features to morph into his
You will close your eyes and see the wall behind his bed
And his nails digging into your thighs
You will hear him breathing in your ear
Your name, like the only prayer he ever thought would be answered
Your name, it’s just a word
Stop wondering if he thinks of you when he hears a word that rhymes with it
Stop asking yourself questions like
Does he wake up still thinking I might be there?
Does he still wear two earrings in his left ear?
Will the next girl kiss them like I did?
Do they still taste like me?
The answer will never be No
That doesn’t mean he is ever coming back
He is a question you will never stop asking
You will glance over your shoulder for reasons you can’t name
He is a landscape in your rearview mirror you will wake up farther from each day
You’ll forget the way he drank his coffee
You won’t know what cologne he wore
Nothing will smell like him
The news that he’s in town will blow past you like dead leaves
You’ll drive by his house without slowing down
One day, it will just be over
This is not a moment to grieve
Think of lighting a candle to Saint Christopher
the patron saint of travelers and floods
Listen to the rain
Listen to how everything is yours again
The Rick Santorum Guide to Being an American, Chapter 1 (2012)
If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for America
You know America and Jesus have a lot of things in common
They both believe in Respect
Respect your parents
Respect the law
Respect the amendments
Especially the fifth
Jesus didn’t occupy Bethlehem
Jesus said turn the other cheek
Jesus said be quiet
If silence was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for America
You know silence and English have a lot in common
They are both what we should be teaching our children
Our children are the future
We want them to solve problems
Thinking takes silence
Don’t ask when you don’t understand something
They’ll think you’re stupid
Keep your mouth shut
Don’t come on too strong
The weak shall inherit the earth
Get your head out of the stars
Stop looking for answers there
The answers are down here
We’re telling you
Keep quiet or you’ll miss something
We’re trying to make this easy for you
That’s why we have a constitution
Welcome to America
You have the right to choose your own religion
Unless you want to be president
Then you have to be Christian
This is America
We don’t have Muslim presidents
Someday you can be president too
Presidents love Jesus
You have the right to keep and bear arms
Do not let them take away your guns
Without them, you are not American
If guns are good enough for America, they’re good enough for Jesus
They don’t have Jesus in Afghanistan do they?
You know what they do have?
You have the right to remain silent
We will tell you everything you need to know
Fair and balanced
Speaking only gets you into trouble
Everything you say can and will be used against you
Don’t let the government have too much power
Power belongs to the people
Don’t worry, we’ll keep you from getting corrupted
Just don’t give your money to the government
They’ll spend it wrong
Your money is yours
Your money does not belong to the poor
You work hard
You do what you’re told
You’ve earned it
Spend it how you want
Just make sure you spend it
If you don’t you’re a communist and then the Soviets win
We abolished slavery
Say Thank You
No, not Gracias
This is America
This is the land of the free
With freedom comes responsibility
That’s what the liberals want us to be teaching in schools
The liberals want to corrupt our children
Teach abstinence only
Thinking only gets you into trouble
Our children are the future
Keep their heads out of the stars
Don’t let them dream too much
Teach them to be silent
Being silenced builds character
Being silenced was good enough for Jesus
That’s why we made it your God-given right
Do not fight back
Put your hands up where we can see them
No, not your fists
That’s the American way to do it
Don’t make a scene
Don’t talk out of turn
Know your place
Jesus knew his place
His place was on the cross
That’s all we remember him for
That’s all they’ll remember you for
Not your words
You have the right to remain silent
We could take that away if we wanted to but we’re merciful
This is America