Perspective is all about us rather than what we’re looking at. We think we have some right to get involved or to have opinions. We think our vision matters, but it doesn’t.
I arrived in Haiti after an epic earthquake upset her edifice. Soon came cholera to complicate and escalate her horrific crisis. But she'd been ruined long before.
I facilitated coordination of humanitarian operations. I attended many meetings to enhance communication and cooperation between the plethora of organizations, each vying to save the world. I built complex maps and matrices to align the messy multitude of needs and work capacities. I thought I was above each actor's ardent stance and banal bureaucracy.
But compassion gets lost within catastrophe, and I was not immune. Perspective wasn't gloomy; it was narcissistic doom.
By any means
I commanded my tall white Land Cruiser to rumble up hills, over potholes, and through puddles; to wait during important meetings; and to simply fetch me cigarettes. I said "Stop!" and climbed down to stand inside the roadside earthquake fissures. I said "Go!" and sped north to chase the latest case of cholera.
In one day, I saw the country by helicopter, hovering over storm-flooded huts and trees. I surveyed soggy slopes, plastic-polluted seashores, and broken city wells. I blew by tattered camps I'd inspected from the ground.
Variety gave perspective, but my vision was still limited and lacking.
The straight stretch of highway was frozen into waves abutting open cracks in dirt, as if the tarmac held the surface tight while the earth around it was free to rupture. The driver said the road turned into a snake, bouncing cars upon its back.
A little quake shook me awake. I rushed to follow the USGS real-time inquiry. I mapped the epicenter and my bed and showed it to the guards, who humored me. Posting my map to Facebook was blind absurdity.
I reveled in the aftermath. I glorified the aftershocks and rifts, but they terrified the others
The city became rubble in a puff of dust and groans. The palace and the jail, the cathedral and the bridge—all split straight down the center of cement and stone.
To clear it now, strong-backed men must climb the crumpled skeletons of buildings with heavy axes, as no machine can fit. Bit by bit, they slam and crack; they chip crusty concrete from knotted nests of rusty rebar vines. Twenty thousand buckets turning chaos into lines.
Floppy walls and floors become lighter, then they rearrange. The slumped shapes become transparent, no longer giving shade, and finally fade away.
After disaster, how do you know it’s getting back to sane? Learned men spent two days discussing such, when someone said "And if the people build without seismic regulation or constraints?" He was too late.
People find solutions faster than institutions or machines. Scrap pieces of a useful size have been laid aside and sorted into piles. Unbroken bricks have become re-worked walls and floors, and old struts now hold new doors.
Resourceful, shameless families have come back or some remained. Reduced. Reused. Recycled. They’ve been building back their trusted walls in just the way they were before, untamed.
The earthquake has been measured by many standard metrics: Richter, energy, deaths, injury, displacement of people or of earth, monetary value of infrastructure razed.
Observing light off the blinding white rubble changes its direction, phase, superposition, and, of course, interpretation. Putting a number on this scene affects it drastically.
The answer might be forty-two, but without units—without some understanding of the apparatus, of the observation, without a concrete context or scripted scene—any number means less than nothing.
Upon departing, I was mad to see that numbers sliding across the TV screens were half of what I'd seen.
"I, Me, Mine"
George Harrison was the genius: he sings a saccharine waltz, blowing in our ears. We sway along; we love his song. And then he pulls us deftly into hard-rock riffs and screaming, his brash point imposed each time the chorus comes around: "I, I, me, me, mine."
My own soundtrack played on headphones as I sped around and when I sat in traffic. I never understood the multicolored Creole and popular depictions painted on the taxi buses, even with translation, even if I tried. Even though I saw this country from her many sides, I never listened to her sing.