Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Running in Circles

It is that time of night when all that remains of the firey sun is a faint neon orange band on the horizon, above which are deepening shades of azure to navy blue to black. Someone has taken a pin and stabbed holes in the dark canvass of the sky, and small spots of twinking white light shine through. My feet pound rhythmically on the soft grass below me. I am running in circles in the dark. Literally.

I have always loved running in the dark. If you have never done this, I highly recommend you give it a try. Maybe first try shuffling, or perhaps walking, if you are a bit hesitant about your first full-on face plant into the dirt at your feet. You'll get the hang of it eventually. You will be amazed by the light you discover emitted by the moon and the stars and the occasional humanoid light source. Your eyes will soon adapt, and you will be impressed by the hughs of blue and grey and silver and black that define the world around you. You will be enchanted by blackened profiles now illuminated by the lesser grey of sky and field. Like you are wandering in a photo negative. You will realize that the animal in you knows how to do this, and revels in this.


I like to run to loud, rhythmic music in the dark. I find it cathartic. I admit, this is not an intelligent practice in places like rural Alaska, where large carnivores lie in wait for such nocturnal idiots...er...snacks...or urban America, where carnivores are replaced by bipedal predators. But in many non-threatening places in my life -- winter in Alaska, winter in Antarctica, nighttime in island Maine -- I have run for miles by the light of the moon and stars. The music helps to drown out the gasping whining that I imagine accompanies my running. And I am lost inside a dark, glorious introspection.

Tonight as I run, the palm trees sillouetted against the last band of orange in the western Haitian sky gradually fade, and the black sky descends, overtaken by stars. I am guided by the vague outline that is the soccerfield, and the knowledge that there should be nothing to trip me here. I have a sudden memory of running in the dark of night in winter Maine, and coming upon a deer licking salt from the middle of the road. It was surprised when I came upon it in the dark. As was I. I remember the startled jerk of his body (and mine) as my mittened hand glanced off his flank and he skittered away into the brush aside the road. I wonder what sort of creature I might encounter tonight, here in this field, in this dark Haitian night.

A Seminarian, most likely. There are 200 late-teen to young twenty-something Seminarians studying to be Catholic priests living on this compound that houses our clinic. They have come from around Haiti to study, and live in tents on the grounds of our community. I was somewhat discouraged one day to observe them holding mass, so apparently solemn and rigid and formal in their crisp white shirts and crisp black pants and carefully folded hands-- with my memory of the raucous, loud, lively spirituality that I identify with Haiti. I felt suffocated for them, all folded so stoically into their chairs.

But, never fear. They, I have discovered, like I, seem to morph at this time of night. They gather in a tent alongside my soccer field, and just as the sun goes down, their spirits alight. Inside their canvas shelter, one can suddenly hear the deep beat of a base hand-played drum. Then an accompanying sound -- reminiscent of the hollow, resonating clickety drumming one hears on the street corners of Washington, DC or New Orleans -- when inner city kids pound out dueling rhythms on old white plastic buckets. Suddenly, in the dark, alongside this obscure Haitian soccerfield, a deep, almost tribal drum rhythm pounds aggressively from the tent...as if spiralling from the genetically African DNA of these young Haitian men.

It is stunning.

Entrancing, pounding, drum rhythm, then in unison, 200 deep Haitian male voices begin to chant and sing in beautiful harmony, flowing out into my dark night. A hip mix of African-like rhythmic gregorian chant. I stop running and pull the headphones from my ears. I stand in the dark in the middle of the soccer field.

I am enchanted. This is more than beautiful. It is alive. Somehow primitive. Gutterally human. These are the moments I love most about human beings. The unexpected, artistic, spontaneous surprises. Tonight: the creation of a stunning, unexpectedly joyous noise.

I find myself at the chainlink fence which separates the soccer field from their canvas tent. I slide down to sit on the ground, my back to the fence and their tent, which is now a mere 10 feet away. And I listen. The rhythm of their drums resonates through my chest from behind. I stare up at the now pitch black sky, clustered with stars. And absorb these amazing sound waves.

I guess the thing is, it's been one of those desperate days, when you wonder if there is anything positive in this place called Haiti. The 33 pound 9 year old, malnourished and neglected. The cholera babies. The malaria. The hemorrhaging 22 year old, who was miscarrying, and then suddenly, in front of our eyes, went from 60 breaths a minute (far too fast) to zero breaths a minute (far too slow), instantaneously horrifyingly lifeless.

On some days it just feels like we're bailing a sinking ship with a tea cup. Or just running in circles, with no direction, in the darkness.

Where is the public health system? Where is the 911 system? Why is there no ambulance to call in an emergency? Why are children still starving to death in front of me? Why are young women bleeding to death in front of me? Why are children not getting immunized? Why can I not find a surgeon for my patients in need? Why am I still finding untreated fractures more than a year post earthquake, which have now healed (or failed to heal) into dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous deformity? I know...these "whys" go on ad nauseum, and I can't even stand hearing myself ask the questions any more.

Isn't there anything positive about this place?

Of course there are. Many many many things. I know there is much more to Haiti than the daily medical glimpse that sometimes makes me a cynic, and drives me with my headphones into the night to run in circles. There are many wonderful things about this place.

A figure suddenly looms over me, from above, from the other side of the fence. My encounter. A tall, slender Seminarian.

"Who are you?" he asks me curiously, staring down at my form seated with my legs crossed in front of me in the darkness. I'm not sure how he spotted me here.

"I'm 'Dokta' Barbie from the clinic," I say, pointing across the field.

He smiles, then pointedly, "What are you doing down there?"

I smile back.

"Oh, I'm just listening to you guys. Thanks for the music. It's nice. A beautiful thing."

"You can come in, you know," he gestures to the tent. "You are welcome."

"Thanks," I say. "I think I'll just sit out here and listen for a while."

"Okay, but we are here every night. You are welcome to come in any time."

"Okay," I say. "Thanks a lot. But I'll just sit here for tonight."

"Okay," he shrugs at the wierdness of my presence in the grass in the dark. He smiles again, then waves slightly as he walks away. He lifts up a corner of the tent, revealing a triangle of light. Then disappears behind the dark flap. Back into the sea of deep voices and rhythm.


Amazing what one can discover, when one thinks one is just running alone, in circles, in the dark.

Good night.


  1. This blog makes me very happy for at least two reasons:
    1) You are back in Haiti
    2) You are writing again!
    Thanks for posting Barbie!

  2. You really should write a book. I'd buy it (as would many other folks). I love the way you write (and think).