This piece was originally written for submission to an online magazine prompting authors to reflect on the power of simplicity. As I was writing my reflections on the seemingly simple days that make up my life in Haiti, I realized how problematic much of what I said was. With that understanding I tried to provide some more context to my experiences and this piece became a call for myself and others to recognize the simplicity in our own lives, be grateful for it and do something with it if we can.
With just over a month left to go of my year in Haiti, I admit I’ve started fantasizing about life in the US. Part of me cannot wait to have the choice of Mexican, Thai, Indian and Italian food. My body revels at the thought of being to walk around my small town anytime I want, anywhere I want without fear of chastisement or assaults. Part of me is dying for consistent electricity, water access and internet.
And then there’s another part that remembers what it was like to go home last time I was abroad.
Many people who spend a long period of time abroad and return to the US have a common “grocery store experience” when they return. I’ve seen stories similar to mine all over the internet. The expat returns home and excitedly enters a grocery store knowing that anything they could possibly want is behind the automatic doors. Inside, rather than satiated excitement they feel anxious looking at the shelves and aisles carrying more brands and choices than anyone could possibly need. The wasted plastic on all of that packaging is disconcerting. They think about all the people they left behind and what they could do with the food that is just sitting there ready to be taken home.
When I returned from India I had that experience. It didn’t hit me until I got back home with my bags and stood at the front door of my house looking for my keys. I started to cry and I had no idea why. The experience was just overwhelming. Excess is not simple, it’s complicated.
There’s something to be said for the simplicity of my life here. We get the same small onions, heads of garlic, fresh peppers, white rice and potatoes every week and we learn to appreciate those tastes. Sometimes we are creative with our recipes, but the ingredients are always the same. When a group brings down an American food we’ve been craving (greyer and asiago cheeses for anyone making a list) we are especially grateful for the change.
Not being able to frequently leave the property here gives us time to read and play with the kids. It forces us to make our own fun. Sometimes I sketch or watch movies in the evenings. A few nights ago we watched the movie, Wild. In it Cheryl Strayed remembers something her mother used to say: “There is a sunrise and a sunset every day. You can choose to be present for them or not.”
From the roof of where I live, I can see that sunrise and sunset. For a few weeks now I’ve forgotten it, but I’m once again reminded that simplicity opens up new opportunities for us to see and experience life. I will try to take advantage of my last month of simplicity here, before I return to the schedules and meetings of American life.
It’s important, though, to realize how problematic it is to talk about simplicity in other countries, especially in the developing world. I want to acknowledge that I am speaking about simplicity from the perspective of an American expat with the financial stability to come and go from this country as I please. Most of the people who live in Haiti do not have that privilege. Their lives may seem simple to an outsider, at times, but the struggles that they face daily are more complicated and real than any I will face in my life. What is a simple life for me—with my white, American privilege—is anything but for them.
Yesterday a 22-year-old man came by with a 4-month old baby. I held the baby as he cried for food. The baby’s mother left shortly after he was born. The man had only an elementary school education and couldn’t find work. It was clear he hadn’t bathed the baby in some time and the baby hadn’t eaten in at least a day. His eyes filled with tears and he put his head in his hands as he asked our staff what to do. He didn’t want to leave his son behind, but he knew his baby’s life would be better here. He wanted to stay by his side, but he knew there was nothing he could do to support him. Last night, baby Ferlando moved into our village with the other kids.
It’s easy for me to call my life here simple because of spotty electricity. But on the other side of that coin, there is a Haitian woman whose business is selling meat. When the electricity goes out, so do her refrigerators and her business is destroyed in one fell swoop. All means of making money for her family vanish.
It is critical for me to recognize the simplicity and privilege I have in my daily life no matter where I am. I am not saddled with visa issues as I try to get out of my country for a better life, I am not pregnant with a child I cannot support, I am not trying to get enough food for my family to survive. Because of that, I know my life is more simple than most.
That doesn’t mean that my “grocery store experience” isn’t valid or that the things I struggle with are meaningless. It does mean that part of my responsibility to myself and my community is to recognize that gift of simplicity and make changes that benefit those without it. It’s all about what we choose to do with the time we are given. And for many of us with financial stability, a job, a healthy family and mobility that means doing something with those whose lives society has not made simple. Enjoy the sunrise and the sunset, be grateful for that quiet time in your life and allow it to put your life into some context.
You don’t need to go halfway around the world for any of this. There are food pantries, homeless shelters, and after school education programs for our less privileged brothers and sisters right in our own backyards. No matter where that yard is. If you have any level of simplicity in your life now’s the time to do something with it.