By Ellen Nimmo
Schedule that meeting. Call that friend. Run that errand. Respond to that email. Sign that check. Edit that post. Read that book. Get groceries. Text so and so. Clean the house. Take that class. Get a mentor. Be a mentor. Listen to that podcast. Watch that show. Make that list. Do those tasks. Circle back. Strategize. Communicate. Brainstorm. RSVP. Prepare. Give feedback. Get feedback. Set that alarm. That boundary. That agenda. Eat healthy. Have fun. Travel. Exercise. Achieve. Listen. Teach. Learn. Grow. Fail. Try again. And again. Laugh. Cry. Let it go. Remember. Focus. Get a good night’s sleep. Drink water. Breathe.
Be that good employee. That good neighbor. Daughter. Sister. Spouse. Coworker. Friend. Human.
Write that essay. Give that talk.
Keep all those plates, spinning, spinning, spinning.
Any of that sound familiar? Anyone out there feeling burdened? Anyone out there trying to perform, people please, and control their way through life? Anyone discover plate spinning never ends?
Can I get an Amen?
Last week I heard a startling sound: plates shattering. That noise, the words which accompanied the sound, and the brief description of the traps that so often bind and burden us have been echoing in my mind. Spinning in the chambers of my heart.
Finding yourself in the same spot year after year, day after day, can be demoralizing. Still, I choose. I toil and spin. It’s not that all those things I listed out are bad. On the contrary, many of them are good. But, more often than I realize, all the plates I try to keep spinning are my efforts to save myself and the world around me. Spinning and, in turn, shattering my way into some culturally contrived ideal of the good life.
As ol’ Jethro might say, “What you are doing is not good.”
Jethro was father-in-law to Moses and Moses was falling into the same traps many of us do. He felt he had to keep everything going himself. Plates and all. Jethro saw it for what it was and wisely beckoned Moses to adopt a different approach.
You can read more about all that, and watch a video of a dude breaking plates here, if you want. Either way, this idea, this conundrum of trying so hard to keep all the plates twirling reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago.
Back in 2018 I went with a group to Haiti and was forced to slow down, literally. Traffic jammed in place. Stuck in a standstill, in an eye-opening pause.
“Is there a wreck?” one of my trip mates asked. It was a fair question, but one of simple inexperience. We were moving slowly down the road away from the airport in Port au Prince where we’d just been gathered up. We were there on what was deemed a ‘vision trip’ and I’m now inclined to agree on the cataloguing.
“No way of knowing, until we are there” replied our Haitian guide, Ernst.
The thing about driving in Port au Prince is it’s more like navigating a sea of motorized fish, each one finding its way through towards someplace need is drawing them. Traffic was actually lighter that day we learned; in preparation for Easter much of the city, whose streets and shores still bear the scars of disaster (both natural and manmade), comes to a cessation of sorts, a quieting down, a pause from the normal hustle. But to folks from Midwest USA the sprawling city seemed plenty buzzing with the brightly painted tap-tap taxis swimming in and out of view reminding you to keep your eyes on the art, the heart of Haiti.
It can be confusing to an Americanized soul.
You may remember hearing about the 7.0 earthquake that overwhelmed Haitian lands and peoples back in January of 2010 with another quake reaching a 5.9 on the magnitude scale hitting only 8 days later. This sequence displaced over 1 million Haitians and left around 300,000 dead, devastating families and infrastructure stabilities – further affecting the nation’s economics, government, and so on, and so on.
These happenings in and of themselves are hard, more than hard, but the reality is things in Haiti have been chaotic for some time. Did you know that Haiti is the first nation of former slaves, as well as the poorest (economically speaking), in the Western Hemisphere? After the Haitian Revolution, the slave-revolt which ended colonization in 1804, Haiti had a landslide of dictatorships. Between the years 1804 and 1915 Haiti had over 70 dictators rise to power and fall to it too. The latter year (1915) being the year American troops invaded and set up a military occupation which would last nearly two decades, until 1934.
The climate was rich for the looting and the prevailing powers knew it.
“Bonjou, Bonjou,” a man tapped on the bus window. He motioned towards a bundle of fruit, “Would you like to buy a plantain?” I smiled. I sort of did want to buy a plantain, but I knew better than to cause a stir for our guide and driver by saying so. The bus crept deliberately along as we inched towards a giant roundabout near, my guess, the city’s center. Our friend with the plantains continued walking alongside hoping our answer might adjust with time. Ya miss every shot you don’t take, some watery echo in my brain said. I shuddered and gave him my eyes instead. I see you friend, I wanted him to know. He gave me a genuine, half smile in return and walked on.
The next day was my birthday. March 30th, it was Good Friday in Haiti.
I ate a Twinkie in one bite for my cake and wondered what the hell I was doing there. You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but the rest is more difficult, know what I mean?
The day after, on March 31, we piled back on the bus and traveled towards Léogâne, which happens to be the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. Passing through the Cité Soleil area of Port au Prince, where homes are often roofed with scrap metal, odds and ends making up the adjoining walls. Through the bus windows, a sprawling marketplace. Quieter than normal due to the approaching holiday, the market was still teeming with vendors, shoppers, traffic and steaming with piles of smoldering trash along the roadsides.
The bus floated along at an abnormal, purposeful pace. Slow, extra slow, humbling slow. I noticed the hillsides. The mountains in the distance and more too beyond those I’ve heard. A man with a wheelbarrow marched past my window. In the belly of the barrow lay a rotting pig carcass. My eyes welled up. This is too much. What am I meant to do with all this information? I wanted to do something important. Something that would make an impact. I could feel the helplessness, the weight of reality pressing in. But as we swam slow along our charted route I started to notice bits of bright blue to my right. It was the Caribbean, glittering between the cinder blocks and city-tattered palm trees. I took a breath, started to relax a bit and let a few hot tears roll.
A Jethro all his own, my plate-breaking pal Matt Gordon broke the silence. He asked us to look up. “Look” he said “do you see the kites?” Kites, what kites? Hastily I scanned the sky and was relieved to eventually spy one, then another, then another. I see them! I see them! What’s going on? “It is tradition in Haiti for children to fly kites around Easter, it’s a symbol of hope,” Matt explained.
Hope? I thought about it more. Good grief. Yes! Hope. I wiped my cheek and nodded my head. What a mercy, kites flying high.
We arrived at our destination some time later, a rarely visited “village” (aka orphanage) in Léogâne. Piling out of our fish-tummy bus we met our playmates for the day. Children of all ages crowded around to pick out a friend. After some time passed a little gal about 7, my guess, gave me a chance at being her friend. Oh gladness! She took my hand and we did everything from swinging on the swings and sliding down the slides to skipping, skipping, skipping through the dirtgrass paths. She giggled. I giggled too. I’m not sure she had ever skipped before and oh how the little lady loved to skip. Same here new friend, same here. After we (reader please note it was merely I) grew tired, we sat in the shade for a spell. She smiled at my heavy breath. Well, what now? A boy sat down next to us and, using a single blade of grass, started whistling. Oh how the blade yowled under his expertise! The girl and I looked at each other and grinned. Well, yes that’s an idea, let’s whistle! I got us each a green swath and as the air+grass tickled our lips the efforts were finally made null by our laughter. It was amazing, it was wordless, it was joy.
It was then, I remembered the kites.
A banner of hope flying high on a hot, crowded, chaotic, broken, busy day. You see, I wanted so badly to fix. To control. To manage. To perform and people please a way out of the difficult realities I was witnessing. I still do. And that isn’t all bad. It, in fact, some of it can be quite good. But plate spinning can’t become a way of life, if it does, we’ll simply have the dictator du jour at the helm, whirling the same toxic control day in, day out.
Work must come. Certainly it must, but mustn’t it also be free of the traps which so easily shatter, creating more messes, more problems to whirl and twirl?
Sadly, I still stumble into spinning here at home. But more and more I want to release those good desires, like kites into the wind, held fast by strings of faith. Good desires which seek out flourishing; for myself and for my neighbor, by letting hope rise. Freeing me to move upward, towards loving action and humble prayer. Like kites of hope flying high in the breeze.
As we draw nearer to Easter, I think of the kites once more. The mountains beyond mountains of Haiti. My friend who gently nudged us to “look up.” The little girl who generously shared smiles, skips, and grass-whistles with me. And the words of Jesus come flowing to mind, glittering like bright blue seawater between the cinder blocks and piles of trash, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”