We went to Haiti when I was twelve years old. My stepfather, Dan, believed his kids should know the world, that traveling was the most important form education. If it had been up to him we wouldn’t have gone to school. Rather we would have traversed the globe. We went to Haiti because he loved it. He had been both divorced and then remarried (to my mother) there. Their honeymoon was a hike from Kenscoff to Marigot through the mountains. It was unclear if the divorce and the marriage were recognized in the States, but they were recognized by Dan and in turn by us, his ten children, so the rest didn’t really matter.
My mother and Dan on their honeymoon
We went for the month of August and stayed in Port-au-Prince at the Oloffson Hotel. The older kids read The Comedians, all of us learned about Graham Greene.
After a few days, we went to Jacmel, piling into a painted truck with wobbly wheels. It carried us over a mountain pass on a road that the French were constructing but that wasn’t quite finished. We were warned it was too dangerous and that we shouldn’t attempt it. Dan disagreed. Huge ruts, potholes the size of ponds, hairpin turns, sheer drops, no guard rails — no matter. Somehow we’d manage. Dan believed in the impossible always being possible. In the middle of the night we had to give up and retreat, back to Port-au-Prince. The next day we boarded a tiny plane and flew to Jacmel, landing on a grass runway. We stayed in a French colonial house with filigree balconies overlooking the sea. It was owned by Selden Rodman, an art dealer famous for bringing Haitian art to the white world. The ground floor of the house was an art gallery.
Many of us on the Jacmel Veranda
Haitian art was everywhere. And Dan seemed to buy up a good amount of it with money he didn’t have, borrowed from friends and his wealthy first wife: colorful paintings, steel drums flattened and carved into trees and birds and flowers, wood panels describing the Madonna breast-feeding baby Jesus, a pair of lovers. Dan’s idea, you see, was to open a Haitian art gallery himself, in New Hope, Pennsylvania not far from our home.
I remember a dinner in Port-au-Prince with local artists high up in hills above the city in a beautiful home. Names cast about: Gorgue and Gerard Paul and Andre Pierre and Jerome Polycarpe and Audes Saul and Hyppolite and S.E. Bottex — some living, some dead: all possessing a mystery in their art that Rodman described as the crystallization of joy. I remember the crates holding the art that we transported home.
I remember visiting art markets, all of us allowed to choose our own painting.
Sarah chose an extra one, of Eve plucking the apple from the tree while Adam watched. She paid for it herself. The artist was famous, named Cherisme. Even at 16 she had an impeccable eye.
Sarah with her Cherisme in Jacmel
The art was stored in our home, is to this day — hanging on all the walls. The wood carvings, the paintings of Virgin Marys and funeral processions and bright peach-colored flamingos and fish and turkeys, an enormous blue crab, and women carrying baskets of fruit, water in buckets on their heads, of a whole village of people praying outside a church, of festivals, of voodoo ceremonies presided over by voodoo priests, jungle scenes. A screen with blue owls, the repetition making the familiar bird a comforting abstraction. The gallery is now long gone, my stepfather dead. My mother, strapped for cash a few years ago, was told to sell her collection of Haitian art. She refused. “I love it,” she said. “I will not ever let it go.”
But I digress. It was an education Dan, and my mother, wanted to give to us. They wanted us to understand what the world was, that it was much more complicated than the small and safe circumference of our comfortable (if exotic hippie) life in Ringoes, New Jersey. On the streets of Haiti I began to see a world that I had not known before, a world that began to open up my twelve-year-old eyes. I saw people who had walked for miles to sell their food at the market. I saw people disfigured by disease. I saw small children with distended bellies. I saw an old woman die in the road. I saw soldiers with AK47s and learned of the TonTon Macoutes and of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. I began to understand that governments weren’t all the same and that people worked hard and starved anyway. I was told that because the French were defeated by the Haitians so long before, the United States directly benefited, bought a large chunk of the south (the Louisiana Purchase) for next to nothing, pennies per acre, from the French for whom it no longer served. In short, I began to understand that nothing swims isolated and alone in the universe. I landed in the middle of a crazy, beautiful jungle — a world that felt so very far removed from my own, totally unique. But by pulling on a string one could also find a through-line linking Africa and Louisiana and somehow even me.
Dan and my mother wanted us to understand something that is a rare commodity these days — they wanted us to appreciate complexity. They wanted us to know that we are not all the same — know that there is nuance and struggle and tremendous beauty (the falls at Bassins Bleus that you can only get to on horseback — along a palm fringed beach, up jagged switch -backs in a mountain pass), that the world thinks many different things, people live many different ways — some because they can, others because they must. And it was their belief that if we understood this, that our minds would begin to seek complexity and even begin to suspect or distrust simple, reductive views of the world, as compelling as simplicity can be. Travel taught me that our culture, with all it has to offer, all its power and possibility and privilege, is but one small and limited portal on the truth of life’s vast and horrifying and marvelous spectrum.