“My time has come”, the relief worker said, “to talk of many things; of rushed goodbyes and check-in desks and what tomorrow brings”.
Our futures always come too soon – there is never enough time to collect our thoughts and hold on to the present; to understand it before it becomes our past. I have that odd sensation as if time is suspended, as if on 14 March I walked through a door to another world and when I return to the UK it will be as if nothing has changed. As if time has been reversed.
I was due to fly back yesterday but AA to JFK was cancelled. It felt like a stay of execution – an extra day to live in the shadow of my memories. I drove to the airport this morning without my glasses and I wondered if seeing the last of Haiti in soft focus made it any easier to leave. I saw in half-light what I had known face-to-face and it quietened the roar of separation.
Many people talk of their experiences in metaphors and one of the most used and weathered is to talk of aftershocks as a way to cleverly link the earthquake response with reverse culture shock for relief workers. Genius. I don’t what I feel. I’m not sure if I’m capable of feeling, or when I will be. For me it is easier to talk in terms of interruptions.
24/05/2010, Port-au-Prince Airport, Haiti. First draft of this blog post. Ironically, interrupted.
It’s been two months since the fact. 63 days, 14 hours, and 48 minutes to be precise (approximately…). The fact that was British soil, biting wind, familiar strangers, a relived memory – interrupting changed lives. 8.35am, Tuesday 25 May, 2010, Heathrow Airport.
Everyone gets their allotted time. For some it lasts longer than others. Some people get away with talking about their ‘Haiti’ for months or years. One story after another, one ‘magical’ experience after the next. But in this profession it’s shorter than most. You prepare levels of answer; the 20 second ‘elevator pitch’ (Haiti bad, experience good, Haiti improving slowly, me privileged to have been a part of it, me fine now). The most vacuous.
Then there’s the 5 minute brief: (Haiti bad (shelter worst problem), experience good (great team, good work, challenging, learning new things, getting real responsibility), Haiti improving slowly (yes, money is making a difference, yes things are getting done, and yes there are many odds against which it’s happening (no, I don’t list them)) me privileged to have been a part of it (no, I don’t know whether I’ll go into this work long term, yes, I would like to go to another emergency, yes, it’s been difficult adjusting, yes, I’m fine now). Partial substance.
Then there’s the full interest (1 hour plus). I have to work hard at these. People usually want to talk about feelings. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t really ‘do’ feelings. I try to really make use of these though – people don’t often have hours to listen, and in our busy world setting one aside for you and yours is generous. I strive to honour that, and what I say tends to come from the heart. Well, the heartfelt side of the brain at least.
None of this is criticism. It’s life. I do the same. I love people’s experiences; the diversity, the ups, the downs, the life threatening situations, the life saving situations, the things they learned, the things they hated, the way it made them feel, the lives they live now. But after a time they land on my deaf ears. Bottom line: I was not there. I will never have been there. No amount of photo showing, story showing and ‘you just had to be there’ in-jokes will make their experience more alive to me. Or mine to them. So for the most part I smile and nod and have my occasional off day – where I concentrate on looking forward and not back, focus, focus – but generally even those closest to me have begun to say things like ‘you’re looking much better’, and ‘you seem more how you were before’, and even in some cases ‘you really seem back to normal’. Make of the last one what you will…
I have a thing against ‘life-changing experiences’. Generally speaking, I think they’re a load of self-indulgent wallowing. Many people experience things which change their lives (which, incidentally, you don’t need to paint an orphanage in Thailand to fully appreciate), but that is not the same as ‘Life-Changing’ in the style of ‘oh, I’ve had such a *Life-Changing* (hushed tones) experience’…I have seriously little time for people who believe they’ve gone through the latter. I also hate the words ‘change management’. It is usually corporate speak for dealing with things being different. To which my internal response is usually, ‘erm….deal with it’. Which is, on the whole, why it is so painful for me to admit that what I’m processing two months on is how to live with being changed. 24 May Phillida is a different one to 14 March Phillida. Not fundamentally. Not even noticeably it seems. But when I think, my echo does not sound the same. The flight from Miami to Heathrow was my limbo. It was a place where I inhabited neither Haiti nor the UK, where I was neither the old Phillida, nor the new Phillida and no-one much cared either way, shrouded as I was by precious anonymity and over 30,000 feet in the air. I could have simmered there happily – taken off but not yet grounded, neither coming from nor going to – but that’s probably just the side of my brain that refuses to land. (At school I was told off for talking and daydreaming in roughly equal measure).
One of the things I was looking forward to most about going to Haiti was the lease it gave me to legitimately obsess about Haiti all the time. It was my job. And the more I knew, the better I was going to be at it. Turned out I was pretty good at thinking about Haiti; cash-for-work rates, shelter dimensions, latrines per families, beneficiary numbers, grants funded, grants submitted, grants in process, grant allocations, sector plans, sector targets, numbers of displaced, numbers at immediate risk, numbers relocated, relocation sites, numbers fed, WFP budgets, sector budgets, grant budgets, staff numbers, advocacy reports, UN meetings, sub-cluster strategies….And if I had any spare time, I’d be doing everyone a favour if I could just figure out exactly what the hell early recovery is, and what the meetings I was attending actually do. Add in the 90-Day Report where I was given leave to obsess about all parts of the response all of the time, and you have the makings of a highly-trained professional obsesser.
That’s the hardest habit to kick. Granted, it has been successfully infiltrated by Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eastern DRC, the odd bit of Niger, strategy processes and other forms of ‘change management’. But the truth is that over the last two months a good chunk of my energy has been emotionally invested in obsessing Haiti and not in playing forward. And it’s drained me. Without good quantities of sleep, food, and an adequate supply of mindless rom-coms/thrillers/unrealistic dramas/football (delete as appropriate), it’s hard to break the habit.
So yesterday, at the end of a fortifying week off (finally taking my Haiti lieu time…), I resolutely deleted my internet start-up preferences, and removed the Haiti ‘one response’ website, our internal humanitarian affairs website (offering minutely updates of events ‘on the ground’), the Sphere/HAP/DEC websites. Gone reliefweb. Gone alertnet. Gone Government of Haiti Reconstruction Plans. Gone OCHA sitreps. I even sent an ‘unsubscribe me’ e-mail to the helpful man at the Met Office who has been supplying me with daily weather reports for Haiti (which, admittedly, I have never consulted – feeling it easier to just look out the window – but which felt comforting just in case I ever needed to). I feel like a new person.
The game is back on.