People buy more books, per capita, in Seattle than anywhere in the United States – one and half times the national average. Although I cannot vouch that they actually read more (since they’re also busy spending more than twice the national average on pinball and video games), I can attest to the warm embrace they give writer’s, even East Coast guys they don’t know.
I am flying out (weather permitting in snowy Boston) to visit my niece and her boys, so decided to contact Seattle’s independent bookstores. Hooray for Elliott Bay Book Company, who scheduled an event for me (February 5, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. if you happen to be in town). I decided to help promotion. The Seattle affiliates of the American Institute of Architects, Architects without Borders and Architects for Humanity all agreed to announce my reading on their calendars. I also sent an opinion piece to The Seattle Times, which they published on January 12, 2015. Perhaps they liked the piece so much because it happens to be about books.
Regardless, I’m looking forward to visit a part of the country I’ve never seen and soak in life among book lovers.
Seattle Public Library
Architect: Rem Koolhaus
Seattle Public Library
Architect: Rem Koolhaus
A Lesson from Haiti’s Forgotten Children
Seattle Times, January 12, 2015
I brought a carton of books to children in Haiti, but they didn’t accept them as I expected. This was back in January 2011, when we were excavating a hillside for Be Like Brit, the orphanage I designed after the 2010 earthquake. As an architect, I understood that the earthquake’s gruesome toll was largely due to shoddy construction and I wanted to lend a hand in reconstruction. Haiti’s exotic history and tragic present was infiltrating my psyche. But I couldn’t know then how Haiti would change my life. Over three years I returned to the Magic Island nineteen times. Eventually, I left my job to supervise construction of the orphanage as well as a school. I penned so many vignettes of this beguiling land that they evolved into a memoir.
My niece and her three boys collected the books I carried to Grand Goave, ten miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter. It was my fourth visit. Time enough to embrace Haiti’s charms and accepting nature. Time enough for a young Haitian to ‘adopt’ me as his blan. Time enough to realize that extreme poverty did not equate with extreme despair. Yet not enough time to fathom the nuanced differences between American culture and our resilient neighbor.
I designed the orphanage for the Gengel family from Rutland, MA, a building to honor their daughter Britney, who died in the earthquake during a service trip to Haiti. We were keen to start excavating the foundation before the quake’s first anniversary, but Haiti-style delays stymied progress. We had to negotiate the site limits with abutters and then stake the road’s path with neighbors. The backhoe we rented from Port-au-Prince was delivered to a different aid group; they claimed it as manna from the heavens. When the machine finally chugged up our hill, more than a week late, I hoisted the books alongside. Construction in Haiti always attracts an audience. I planned to give Goodnight Moon, No Place for Elephants, and Harry the Dirty Dog to children who came to watch us scrape and level dirt.
I gave directions in broad gestures and mangled Creole to the backhoe operator who wore a wool skullcap despite the heat. A quartet of women scurried across the site to snatch roots the bulldozer uncovered; the basic ingredient of charcoal. Wannabe day laborers lounged in a circle; we hired two at $4 a day to hand dig the latrine pit. With construction underway as orderly as Haiti allows, I corralled the dozen or so children under a straggly tree and distributed the books.
I reserved Ferdinand the Bull for Dieunison, the eight-year-old boy who shadowed me every day. Dieunison was a conniving rascal yet useful helper: ever ready to hold the end of a tape measure when I needed a length. One day he’d wear a starched white shirt and stiff pants, the next day rags. He said his mother lived “over there” with a nod toward town, but I never saw her. He was clever and strong, lazy and endearing. To me, all the promise and peril of nine million Haitians were concentrated into his 70 pounds of unpredictable energy.
When we finished Ferdinand I indicated it was Dieunison’s to keep. The boy looked at me in comprehension, and then set it on the pile under the tree. All day long, children looked at the books, but didn’t take any.
Our excavation grew deeper; our book pile remained tall. A child sat cross-legged on the dirt with a volume, pointed out letters and studied pictures. If another child elbowed in, kicking, clawing and screaming ensued. But once finished, he returned the book to the pile.
I thought children with so little would crave possessions, but their interest in the books extended only so far as actually using one. Perhaps they had no place to keep a personal belonging. Owning something can be more burden than pleasure to children who lack their own room, or bed, or even pockets.
After a week our excavation was complete. On the last afternoon I placed a book in each child’s hand and they ran off. In fifteen subsequent visits to Grand Goave, through sweat-soaked days of digging and moonlit nights of concrete, I never laid eyes on those books again.
I don’t ascribe nobility to their disinterest in material possession. But like so many experiences in Haiti, great and small, I appreciated the altered perspective the children gave me. There’s a logical simplicity to claiming something during use, without assuming the burden of ownership.