“Abuelita! Abuelita!” cried the eleven year old autistic Cuban child in heart-wrenching and primal screams for his grandmother as their family boarded our plane from Santiago de Cuba to Havana a couple of weeks ago. Each time the family calmed him down a bit, something such as the plane beginning its taxi would remind him that he was leaving his Abuelita and his wailing would begin again. I don’t know if they were simply returning home to Havana or they were leaving the country.
I can still feel that expression of deep grief and without much effort, I could join in that wailing, maybe not directly for my grandmother but for all those I am connected to and have lost and for deep connection itself, to others and to the land. Leaving Santiago, I felt a kind of bereavement because in such a short time, I had become connected to the neighbors in the neighborhood in which Adam and I had stayed. There we had had time to relax and let the energy of the place seep into our pores (as the sweat seeped out—maybe making room?). Cubans say that Santiago is a place of great hospitality, but what I felt went far beyond that–to love itself and to a sincere looking out for one another. The place welcomed loving without reason, quickly and without reserve. It’s ineffable, yes. But I know it when I feel it and love was running through the streets.
So when I heard the young boy who had no inhibitions about expressing his grief, I could feel my heart break with longing for something that I miss back here in the United States with all of its material wealth. We speak of making sure there is a safety net so that no one hits the ground when bad times befall us. Cuba felt like a place where everyone was already on the ground. They hadn’t fallen there but fought long and hard to get there and to stay there, together. No one is way high up in some World Trade Tower, but everyone is together on the ground, in the squares and the backyards, taking good care of each other and the ground itself. All the resources there on the ground are shared; everyone has a guarantee of food, a place of live, excellent health care and education that seeks out what one is good at and nurtures it, be that engineering, visual art, music, etc.
Looking around here after returning from Cuba, I kept having the sensation of falling. Everything seemed so precarious with shiny surfaces reflecting a Potemkin village.** So much feels like surface- only, temporary and without depth. I contrast that with an honest and creative shabbiness that pervades Cuba, a sincere attempt to live lives as best they can with limited shared resources. They are the first to complain when something is not right there, but very few complain about socialism itself, just ideas to make it work better, with less bureaucracy and more streamlining. In the end, all the tweaking to make it better, rests on the intention that all will share in the wealth of the nation, not just the one percent who will get richer and richer at the expense of everyone else.
It is no small difference between here and there. We, too, are constantly tweaking, but in the end unless we change things radically, we will still be living in a culture based on capitalism, where the primary motivator is greed, and our struggles will still result in environmental destruction and huge disparities among people with some in abject poverty, without the necessities of life: health care, food, education and a place to stay.
A net is a lonely and drafty place to land, though it is better than nothing. Luckily there is a place in the world that has been trying something different for 55 years now and while it is not perfect, it is definitely worth experiencing, if only to give us the knowledge that it does not have to be the way it is in our country. That small island has so much to teach us and because there are so many restrictions on our travel and trade imposed by our own government, we have so few ways of learning them. Maybe it is just too great a threat for our citizens to learn how many things are possible (even in a poor country) if we are looking to the benefit of humanity instead of the benefit of a few ultra-wealthy individuals.
Abuelita! Abuelita! May this deep and ancient sadness find expression so that our home, too, can be one where people are real, watch out for each other, and express our love to each other and to the other beings that live here, on the ground, together.
**(originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. According to the story, Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.)