I don’t believe much in wasting time analyzing the past, because we can’t change it. I’m much more of a live-in-the-present kind of guy. We make the decisions we make, accept the consequences, and move on. But after 13 years of devoting my entire life to a single place and a specific vision, a little bit of looking in the rear-view mirror is inevitable.
Though when I think of my life in Haiti, I resist the notion of considering it as something that is behind me, but rather as something that is still very much part of my present. This is why it is difficult for me to draw any sort of grand conclusions about my overall time in Haiti. It is not something that will ever remain isolated in time but will continue to reverberate and define every future moment that I live in so many profound and very real ways. I may not be physically living in my house on the hilltop in Mizak anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the living of life in Haiti doesn’t continue for me on different levels. I don’t define my life based on the place that I go to work or the address of my house but my life is defined through the relationships that I have with other people. And the place where my relationships remain the strongest and most meaningful is still Haiti and probably will be for a long time if not forever. So in that way, through those relationships, my life is still being lived very much in Haiti.
Yet we as humans like to think of time in a linear fashion and experience space and geography with only five senses and in only three dimensions, so we look back to gain perspective on where we are and where we’re headed. In this sense, thinking back on my time in Haiti, it’s hard not to question whether it was just a 13 year detour in life or if it was an integral part of my path leading to where I am now and where I hope to be in the future. I have to ask because the decision to go to Haiti originally was intended to be little more than a detour, a temporary divergence that was never meant to be part of a longer term plan. Even as the original six months turned into a year and then two and then five and eventually thirteen, my decision to stay was never the result of any long-term plan but rather just responding to life as it came at me day by day, being that live-in-the-present kind of guy that I am. This is evidenced by the fact that I kept trying to leave Haiti over and over again as I wrote about in my previous post.
During those 13 years, when I would tell people about the life that I lived, I would often get responses such as “Sounds pretty perfect.” “You must really be living The Dream”. And in many ways, life in Haiti was ideal. I lived in a location overflowing with natural beauty, surrounded by mountains, beaches, and waterfalls. I was deeply involved in a culture that is vibrant and full of life and unlike any other on Earth. I was part of a resilient and exciting community whose members love and support each other in remarkable ways. I got to do work that was tremendously fulfilling on creative, social, and personal levels. I was inspired every day and got to do things very much on my own terms.
Of course, life in Haiti wasn’t perfect. All of those wonderful things also came with living in a place that has to contend on a daily basis with poverty, corruption, insecurity, and the international stigmas that come from being “that country”. But those are things that I learned to navigate, I like to think, with a sense of grace and understanding. The one downside that always lingered in the background of living in Haiti, but that I never really addressed consciously, was the fact that, in order to live that life, I was putting my life in the US on hold for however long it may be. I moved to Haiti, essentially, right out of college, and I knew that the day would come that I would have to return to the US and carry on with a life that I had prepared for but never really followed through with because of my decision to move to Haiti.
Haiti blessed me with many things, but one thing that it didn’t really bless me with was career advancement. And career advancement, to Americans, is paramount. Some people decide to take a gap year out of college, but I took a gap 13 years. It’s easy to get back on track if you take one year off, or even two, but after 13 it’s hard not to wonder if getting back on the track is even possible. At what point does the track cease to exist at all?
It could be said that Haiti was my grad school because I learned more through my experience in Haiti than I ever could have in years of grad school. And within the context of Haiti, my career definitely advanced in a very positive way. I mean, I’ve got two separate entries on my resume that read “executive director” and that’s more than most people my age can say. That professional experience, however, doesn’t necessarily translate, at least not in a climb-the-ladder sort of way, to marketable skills for careers back here in the US because it’s so specific. Also, it’s assumed (in large part rightfully so) that I was able to gain those positions mostly because of my privilege and access. So most people look at my resume and read my work experience as little more than “white guy in Haiti”. And I don’t really blame them. I’m fortunate now to have found a place that was willing to look past that and see how my skills and experience really were transferable to the position that they were looking to fill.
Even beyond the professional progress, there were a lot of other things that I had to put on hold in order to live in Haiti, a social life, for example. I invested a lot of time and energy into building a magical and life-affirming social life in Haiti that I treasured throughout my time there, and still do. But when I decided to move back to the States, I couldn’t pack that social life up in a suitcase with me and carry it to South Dakota. No matter where I move, I will never be able to recreate that again. The magic of Haiti makes some things possible that aren’t possible anywhere else.
No one ever said starting over would be easy, and I always knew that that’s what I would one day have to do, start over. I spent 13 years building up relationships, a reputation, and a trajectory that I’m now leaving in limbo while I start over again somewhere else. That experience has informed me and made me into a better person in more ways that I can articulate, yet when it comes to the everyday logistics of living as an American in the United States, I’m having to essentially start from scratch. I know this is an experience that any expat goes through when the time comes for them to return “home” but I don’t think it’s narrow-minded of me to feel like it might be different for me. As any other expat who knew how I lived in Haiti could tell you, I lived more like a Haitian than most. I assimilated to the culture more than most. I maneuvered through the ins and outs of the country differently than most do. So the process of moving back will also hit me differently than it does others.
So, looking back, I have to ask if it was all worth it. The starting over, the making up for lost time, the re-adaptation of a culture, the reconstruction of relationships and social awareness, is it worth everything that I got to live and embrace and know during the 13 years? It’s a question that is natural to ask but not one that is necessary to answer, because no matter what the answer might be it doesn’t change anything. We can’t change the past, only create the future. One thing that I know is that I wouldn’t trade those 13 years for anything. Even the extremely difficult, traumatizing, stressful, and infuriating parts. I can’t change what is past but I can be grateful for it. And I am so, so grateful for every moment that I was allowed to live in Haiti. And I will continue welcome with gratitude every future moment that Haiti continues to give my life whether my feet are upon its soil or not. Its spirit remains in my bones and much of my life remains in its mountains. I hope to live in a way that makes every moment worth it whether they are lived in Haiti, South Dakota, or wherever my path leads next.