She pressed her nose against the small oval window of the airplane, this window unto the holy, unto a bit of glory, unto a place some say is kin to a certain Hell.
All she could perceive was a slice of Heaven.
“It’s just … beautiful, Mom,” she told me. “More beautiful than you told me. And more beautiful than I ever imagined.”
Within moments, our plane would wing right over the tin and tented shantytowns. These are the jagged quarters of our fellow man, in the midst of a hardscrabble fight with hunger or thirst – some days uncertain who will win. We flew over top of these whole communities heaving with pain. How can a person, I have wondered, make any discernible difference in a country that has become famous by this tagline: “the poorest country in the western Hemisphere.”
Maybe one first step is simply coming to behold the beauty.
And she did.
For this day – her first day in Haiti — Little Lydia Lee saw only the exquisite, and believed only the lovely, and was certain that within those villages — all bones and sagging skin — there would be discernible beauty.
I don’t think I’d ever seen her more certain of anything in her 11 years on Planet Earth – that she wouldn’t have to dig far to excavate beauty. That she might not have to dig at all.
Beauty and homeliness make strange bedfellows in Haiti. But there you have it. If you’ve ever stepped foot in Haiti or watched the news, you’ve seen the ugly part. I don’t have to tell you what hunger and despair look like.
But I wonder, how will these two girls of ours make any sense of this when they see it, not on the living room TV screen, but within inches of their nose? What about when the ugly wants to hold their hand in the coming week?
I had been here 10 months ago. And my husband was here a few months before that. We both knew what to expect. But how do two American children with bulging cupboards and endless cereal choices even begin to process the jutting ribcage, the tin roof, the always-bare feet?
These are the moments when an American parent might second-guess bringing her two kids to a third-world country. But she piles her children into the back of a truck anyway, and the engine belches and rumbles and tears off down a long, cracked road that promises to change you. Haiti becomes a roadside blur of fruit stands and half-dressed toddlers seen at 45 miles per hour.
But she still can’t stop saying it, how beauty is persistent.
“Mom, look! Look!”
It’s not the macabre she sees. It’s something else entirely, and I know she’s not in denial. But this girl can’t stop smiling at it all: How a woman can balance 50 pounds atop her head; how a family’s whole colorful wardrobe is strung out on cactus branches, like an arcing laundry rainbow; backpacked girls in matching uniforms, with fat ribbons curled up in their hair.
“It’s just so beautiful, Mom.”
We both know that we will see things soon enough that will make our hearts twist in our chests. You can’t avoid that. But right now, it’s like she knows she would have missed Haiti entirely if she didn’t pay notice of beauty.
Hours later, we came to see the playground that Lydia had dreamed about for months, that she’d prayed about even longer. It was installed a few weeks before we came, the product of a $6,000 fundraising effort. Her little sister’s basketball court will be installed later.
Our truck climbed up a mountainside, and behold, the playground: a jungle gym, slides, swings, a merry-go-round. We could hear the voices of children, singing in classrooms, clapping. The school cooks stirred pots of rice, enough for 700 children. Both girls would help serve the plates to some of their new friends.
And yes, the girls got to play on that equipment, trying out all the pieces.
I don’t remember much about the way that playground was situated or painted or configured. Because I just kept watching my girls, seeing how they saw. How their hair flew when they ran toward it, tangling with the air, how their eyes opened wide, like they wanted to take more of it in. And how Lydia said it over and over again:
“It’s beautiful, Mom. Just beautiful, Mom.”
And it was. And she was. And they are.