Thoughts On Help

Well, Haiti then.

I don’t know how to process large moments, grand gestures. Once in Los Angeles, I walked into a roomful of 15ish friends gathered for my surprise birthday party and, after becoming startled and then grateful, I promptly accepted a mimosa and hid in the bathroom to take deep breaths for four, five minutes? Startled-and-then-grateful is a wide range of emotions to experience in a short three second span, and my brain needed some down time to recover.

And here I am again, startled-and-then-grateful.

My brain needs some down time to recover.

There is a tendency to accept our experiences as fact, to rely on one frame to tell a story, on one lens to narrate a perspective. This is a limiting way, in the way that we would miss the dance of the kaleidoscope if we looked for just one color. I’m trying not to do that here.

It’s hard.

There is also a tendency to compare our experiences to one another, to help make sense of things, to know the hierarchy of human emotion, to know where we stand, to know how to move forward. To say, I’ve been to third world countries before, so I know what I’m getting into here. I know what to expect. I know what to anticipate. I know this story, I’ve read this book.

This is a limiting way.

I’m trying not to do that here.

It’s not hard.

Haiti is different.

Did you know the cost of living in Haiti is the same as the U.S.? That a 3 bedroom apartment averages $2,250? A pair of jeans is $160? A cappuccino is $3.50?

Do you know the average minimum wage?

Sixty cents an hour.

The reasons are murky and politically-charged, neither of which I have a strong stomach for. And so, I say this:

Startling.

But there are change makers walking among the terra cotta clay soil. There is Nathalie and there is Chandler and there is Shelley and there is Pascale and there is Nick and there are dozens, hundreds more.

And then there is Carly.

Their reasons are heartfelt and soul-charged. And so, I say this:

Grateful.

When we experience the jigsaw puzzle of injustices in this world, it’s natural to search for where we fit. We study our chipboard, jagged edges and wonder what kind of mark we’re making. What picture are we contributing to? Are we the missing piece?

We aren’t.

We are.

I used to rearrange Ken’s tools when we were renovating for our HGTV column. I would “tidy” his workspace, positioning screwdrivers with screwdrivers and wrenches with wrenches, all lined up in a neat little row in his woodshop until one day, he asks me where the downstairs Phillips is.

The downstairs one? I ask.

I keep one downstairs and one upstairs, he says.

I hadn’t thought of that.

My help wasn’t helping.

It is difficult to know what we don’t know.
It is difficult to help where we don’t understand.

So we do something, anything. We wear neon shirts and build orphanages and donate to earthquake relief funds and send rice and paint schools.

But we don’t quite understand the system. We don’t know of the downstairs Phillips.

If I’ve learned anything from a short week in Haiti, it’s that solutions are rarely found when we’re peeking at a distance. They’re often found on the ground, in a valley, amidst the rubble and clay and damp, sweaty earth.

And I’m not there.

But I trust the few who are.

I trust the artisan leaders who, from the ground, saw a problem with the way we viewed fair trade consumer goods. Who encouraged us to change the messaging from “pity purchases” and start buying goods because they’re well-designed, because they’re beautifully stitched, because they’re expertly crafted.

I trust the business owners who, from the ground, saw a problem with the way we viewed men in third world countries. Who encouraged us to rethink what we’ve been told about women empowerment and consider that men need employment, too, and that men want just as badly to provide support, education, leadership to their families.

I trust the designers who, from the ground, saw a problem with access to materials and tools. Who inspired us to employ creativity and resourcefulness in our own work, whether weaving banana leaves or vegetable tanning leather or working in a cubicle from 9-5.

When I start getting itchy to rearrange a few screwdrivers, it helps to consider those on the ground that I trust. People like Carly, who spends her life ensuring she’s closely connected to the artists she works with, who offers hours researching materials and asking questions and sharing her design background to collaborate on products we’d otherwise purchase in Target.

I don’t know what it looks like to help Haiti.

But I know what it looks like to help Carly, and Carly knows what it looks like to help Haiti.

At my surprise birthday party years ago, after the mimosa and the bathroom retreat and the deep breaths, my friend Anna knocks on the door.

Are you OK? she asks.

I tell her that I’m fine, that I need a second. You know me, I say. I’m easily overwhelmed.

She did know me, of course, and so she says just one sentence: Erin, she whispers. There is feta in the kitchen.

After the birthday parties have ended and the Haiti trips are over and the screwdrivers are all placed in their proper order – 1 upstairs, 1 downstairs – I think we’ll realize that, sometimes, help doesn’t look like we think it should.

Sometimes it looks like a tiny, small whisper to someone you understand.
Other times it looks like a tiny, small whisper to someone you don’t.

Sometimes, we’re startled.
Other times, we’re grateful.
But always, always, always, we’re changed.

 

 

 

 

p.s. Biggest of thanks to my sweet friend Michael for all of these snaps. And to Carly for everything else.

  • Thanks for your words, Erin! You reminded me of the book “When Helping Hurts”. People living in these situations are the experts, not us, and often they need long-term economic development, not emergency cash. And I had no idea Haiti’s cost of living is so high! Thanks for sharing.

  • good grief erin … you tug at my heart strings … there is so much of this world that needs ‘help’ that it just feels overwhelming … and as each year passes i try to widen my scope to be aware of the carlys of this world … who need our help to do theirs … blessings to you x

    • The Carlys are a great place to start indeed! (And we’re all Carlys somewhere, isn’t that fascinating?!)

  • Erin,
    You have captured the essence of it all in this post.
    I’m grateful for your kindness and open heart.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and can’t wait to see you again in the near future!

  • Oh, my. I will surely need to read your words a few more times to process. Wow! How? What can we all do? Thank you for your stories of those who have devoted their lives to helping, really helping. So inspiring.

    • Thanks for your kind perspective, Susana! It’s never easy to figure out the best way to help, but I do love the idea of trusting the few who know better than I!

  • Thank you. that was beautifully written. And we need more of this kind if truth telling. Living and working wit the beautiful Haitian people… Janis in Gonaives

  • So very true… we should do more listening and less talking, more lending a hand and less do it my way!! Now Haiti has failed to elect a new president and the second election will be Dec 26th; prices are rising daily for those that struggle at .60 cents per hour or LESS! Pray for Haiti.

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