My dreams in Helsinki are never as vivid or as surreal as those when we’re on holiday. But, every once in a while, my subconscious plays a little joke on me as I slumber. This morning, my subconscious decided to remind that I evidently really love gin and need to read some Hemingway again soon. Or, simply, Cuba is on my mind.
Just before waking, I dreamt that I was at some rather random gathering involving sail boats and Christmas trees, neither of which are at all common in my waking world. Amidst the festivities, some of us sat at a rather plain table whilst several of my fellow real-life gin-loving friends waxed poetic and sang the praises of one gin or another.
As a bottle of one of those gins was passed around, I poured myself a rather generous glass. No ice. No tonic. No garnish. Just gin. [NB: As much as I do enjoy a lovely and refreshing gin and tonic on a warm summer afternoon, I’d never ever consider just pouring a full glass! ]
After pouring, I look up and across the table from me sat Papa Hemingway, without his captain’s hat or pipe, but most definitely his snow-white beard and paunch.
Looking on and seemingly otherwise rather bored, what was his reaction to my long pour?
‘Is that all for you, sister, or are you sharing?’
I woke myself up chuckling.
Dream a dream, and make yourself wonder what the hell goes on in that head of yours when you aren’t distracted by all the bloody noise.
I love hummingbirds.
Impossibly small and yet so completely resilient and strong. The first time I caught a glimpse of one flying about and feeding I was mesmerized and enraptured. That child-like delight has never left me upon seeing one of these tiny creatures. My heart always skips a beat when I stumble across a hummingbird seemingly floating in air on its silent and speedy little wings.
Each time we visit Cuba, the best days feature a hummingbird sighting. Spending sufficient time in one spot, we come to know their schedules. One of our best days ever we walked out the front door to find three flitting about and feeding upon the same bush.
This past trip, our hosts’ yard featured multiple hummingbirds, although I was hard-pressed to distinguish between the individual beauties. Witnessing a hummingbird fight for the first time left me utterly speechless and rather more in awe of these fierce, tiny little warriors.
Pancho, as our hosts named him, visited the same flowers each afternoon around 15.00. One day, I was fortunate to have caught these images. As I sat near this particular bush and tried to not move despite my excitement, I heard the whirring of air and wings colliding. Perhaps even more than seeing a hummingbird, being near enough to hear one’s wings was somehow perfect. But, watching one sit idly on a nearby branch in between feeds was even more impressive. I somehow never imaged a hummingbird sitting still.
My patience was rewarded that afternoon. I give you Pancho, the Cuban Emerald.
This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.
Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.
Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.
This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.
There are days when things just flow easily, effortlessly and seamlessly. There are days when everything falls into place.
Today is not that day.
From work to my run to errands and administrative crap, it’s been a chore. A slog through bogs, both literal and figurative.
Helsinki’s skies offer nothing but rain, snow and the darkest of days. And, right now, both of us just want to hibernate, as both an escape from November’s nastiness and because mentally we are spent.
Soon enough, all of this will be a distant memory. We’ll soon be on that long overdue holiday, sleeping soundly and setting aside our gadgets and the daily grind for a stack of books and a lounge in a hammock. And, we’ll face reminders of just how uncomplicated our lives really are here in Finland.
But, until then, we just need to get through each of these days where night is endless and seemingly darker than ever….
Today, it’s all about waiting.
Waiting to start the 2017 addition of the Helsinki Midnight Run. (My start time is 21.25, Helsinki time.)
Waiting to hear how prepared and where are family and friends in Florida are hunkered down and hopefully safe from Irma’s approach. (Last forecast has her hitting the Florida Keys early Sunday morning local time, Sunday afternoon our time.)
And, waiting to learn the fate of those who are currently riding out Irma’s wrath across Cuba.
I hate waiting. For anything. But, waiting on all of this on the same day has me unbelievably restless and anxious and fidgety. And, the weather here appears to reflect my mood rather well — rainy, windy and generally miserable and unsettled.
There’s absolutely nothing we can do from here for those in Florida and Cuba currently either experiencing what I image to be hollowing winds and lashing rain, deafening and terrifying at once. I can’t help but worry about those we’ve met who live far too close to the water’s edge. I can’t help but think of the waves currently crashing over the Malecón, which will likely grow and intensify as Irma follows Cuba’s coast. And, I hope against hope that not too much is washed away.
And, I can’t help but wonder what will remain tomorrow and the day after.
And, then comes Florida, likely to take on the full force or Irma’s terror.
As I sit or pace or try to work and take my mind off Irma’, the faces of those I love flash before my eyes, whether in Cuba or Florida.
And the word that comes to mind is simply, ‘¡cuidate!’
Watching hopelessly from afar as disaster strikes is never easy. When it hits places once called home or where we’ve left pieces of ourselves and our hearts, there’s a certain pain that accompanies the helplessness and sense of loss. It’s akin to grief really.
Harvey affected far too many people, many of whom I love and places I frequented with my beloved grandmother and great aunt as a child. I can’t shake the feeling that a house on Prairie Dr in Eagle Lake, Texas sat sadly inundated with water, thus washing away some of my fondest and happiest of memories with family. The house no longer belongs to us; those memories, however, persist. And, perhaps that’s more important. Still, I love that house and hope it remains standing and dry.
Miraculously perhaps, all those I love in that part of the world, whilst affected, are not themselves lost. They remain safe. They can and are rebuilding, and that alone comforts me as I sit so very far from them.
Now, scarcely two weeks later, here we are again, watching as yet another monster storm tracks towards two places inhabited by family and friends alike, one of which has become a home I long for and fear for. Either Hurricane Irma will hit South Florida, where many of my very much loved and missed in-laws now reside. Or, she will inundate Cuba, that crazy, singular island inhabited by far too many friends and family I’d rather not see forced to endure yet further mayhem.
I can’t imagine the destruction accompanying a storm like Irma on a place I know intimately now, a place which persists on the darkest days here in Helsinki and carries me through the toughest of times. I cannot remove the images of pieces of the Malecón scattered across the roadway after a strong cold front brings ginormous waves for a day or two. Those waves now seem like mere ripples compared to the storm surge of a category 5 hurricane.
How much of that seawall will remain if a storm like Irma strikes? How many of those charming yet crumbling buildings along the Malecón or other parts of the Cuban coast will remain in her wake?
Like those in her potential path, we wait. Please, be merciful, Irma. You’re fucking with the lives of too many people I love.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A good friend of mine (and poet himself) attended a reading by Richard Blanco and had him sign a copy of this little gem of a story for my husband (a Cuban) and I. It was a lovely surprise to receive in the mail. And, one made all the more meaningful for the various connections and parallels with my own little part of the world.
As an immigrant to another country myself, married to a one-time immigrant to the US, there is so much that resonates with me in this particular journey and story. Blanco’s poems are lovely and meaningful. And, I can see now why he was chosen as the inaugural poet.
Aside from the poems and process of being inaugural poet, the more inspiring bit is his devotion and inspiration to making poetry more relevant and visible in contemporary American life in the wake of his experience. Rather than boasting about being selected as inaugural poet, he desires to do good with that voice gained as a result. And, to give voice to all those whom he influenced and inspired with his poem.
We are a country of immigrants, some newer and some far removed from their ancestors who first stepped foot on North American soil. But, the majority of us are from elsewhere. Embracing that unique mixture and shared reality and history is what makes us truly great to my mind. What a fitting way to acknowledge that diversity and shared history through the selection of Blanco as inaugural poet.
I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]
The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.
I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.
I have seen change, however.
My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.
I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in
Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.
None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.
Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.
Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.
More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.
The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.
I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.
November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.
Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.
¡Viva Cuba libre!
I love running. I do. I’m slow, and I have yet to go very far. But, I love running. And, I suspect it loves me. It’s at least good for me.
Last summer after years of stifling the little black dog that barks and growls and nips at my heels and mind from time to time, I made a series of slight adjustments in my behaviour and routines. I’d sunk so low that breathing hurt. Changes were necessary and long overdue.
One of those changes involved recommitting to running regularly. Whilst various forms of exercise obviously carry benefits to one’s mental and physical health, running has always helped me empty my head, meditate on whatever shit floats around up there. Somewhere during those runs, I let go of the garbage that wears me down, both real and imagined. As August turned into September, and September gave way to October and November, regardless of how busy I was or how much I felt unmotivated to lace up and hit the trails, I did. And, it helped. The fog that had clouded my everyday existence slowly dissipated and lifted entirely, and I felt infinitely better as the weeks and months passed.
Running wasn’t so much simply physically beneficial; it was a mental health necessity.
After injuring myself in January whilst running the Malecón in Havana, I was forced to take four painful months off. My ankle healed by late March / early April, but then the flu season hit and, then, I fell and hurt my knees, running to catch a bus of all things. Fast forward to May — four months after my initial injury — and I’m finally getting back into my routine. A few days shy of four weeks back into my running rituals and again the fog is lifting.
This. This is why I run. And, this is why I love running.
I don’t really care how fast I get through a particular route — each run feels like a battle won and conquered at this point. I don’t have any long-term ambitions other than to continue running three or four times a week for as long as my legs will hold up, and hopefully taking part in the Helsinki Midnight Run come September. I won’t win races, but I will stay in the ultimate race — that crazy race called life. Undoubtedly, depression and my little black dog will come barking again from time to time. Whatever I can do to tame him quickly and without too damage to myself or those who love me most, I’ll do. And, I firmly believe that as long as I continue to add miles to my running logs, those visits from the canine beast that haunts me will become fewer and further apart.
I read a story several years ago about an incredibly young 92-year-old woman finishing a marathon. Harriette Thompson, that same woman, just surpassed another milestone by becoming the oldest woman at 94 to complete a half marathon. I won’t break any records, other than those I set for myself. But, I will keep running. For me.