I died that day.
That is what happens when an earthquake destroys what was once your childhood paradise.
When Mother Nature paid a visit to Haiti in 2010, I died inside, as I wondered how many others would die with me that day. But what I did not expect was to also experience the cycle of life: from death would come rebirth, the flow uninterrupted and as constant as the rising and setting sun. Out of that catastrophe emerged a question of identity that had been simmering inside me for decades: where do I belong?
I think all human beings ask this question to some extent, even without knowing it. We have an inherent need for social connectedness, and not just as a means of survival: community is a safety net, a source of stability that allows us to mature and seek our own individual identity as adults. When we do not feel free to share our feelings, emotions, joys, and sorrows in community—whether large or small—we may lose our ability to take risks as we discover ourselves. Worse, we may experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, become stressed and anxious, and inevitably develop physical problems. Hormonal imbalance, which can lead to gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disease, is not uncommon in the absence of community. We need our tribe, a group we can be among and say, “This is my place; these are my people.”
But the average American moves every five years, which means we are constantly uprooting ourselves from community and leaving little pieces of ourselves behind. It is hard to feel whole when your life’s experience is scattered across communities separated by geography or culture. It can feel almost impossible when a whole chunk of your personal story remains behind international borders.
Where do I belong?
I’d started out as a Bahamian-Haitian boy with humble beginnings who came to America on a forty-foot wooden boat. Despite the traumatic cultural shift during my teenage years, I had somehow seamlessly transitioned from the life of an impoverished immigrant to that of an American physician—yet with no real awareness of how much my life and my culture had changed.
The 2010 earthquake forced me to confront the way I’d left pieces of my identity in the Bahamas, Haiti, South Florida, and elsewhere in the United States, and with that came an understanding of why I fit only loosely into American society. I was caught between assimilating fully as an American and trying to negotiate and retain other parts of myself that are indispensable to me: my birthplace in the Bahamas, and Haiti, where I spent twelve years of a simple and decent if checkered childhood.
As I watched the walls of the Haitian palace—the grandest, most iconic building in the country—crumble into a powdery rubble, I finally understood the truth.
No single place exists that has space for the fullness of my identity and experience.
And I could live with that.
Even if I did not belong solely to any of these three places, even if I could not choose one single place among them and call it home, all three places were essential to who I had been and who I would become.
I did not need to seek a physical place to name as my home. If that place did not exist, I could create it myself, forming a tapestry of mixed fabrics from the nooks and crannies of my life and experience. I needed to lay out all the pieces of my life and see how they might be loomed together. Only then could I step back and see the fullest picture; only then could I say I had found my home.
That was the genesis of Twelve Unending Summers: An Immigrant Story.
We all have a need to fully belong, but finding that place is a journey in itself, especially if we must create that place in our minds or on the printed page. Have you considered memoir as a way of self-discovery? How has journaling your own story helped you find wholeness in your life?