Serendipity

Many people have been asking how my husband Adam David Miller and I were able to go to Cuba without going in a group. The short answer is magic.

When I asked  Adam where he wanted to go to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, he said without hesitation, “To Cuba!”

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

He then said that he did not want to go illegally, and he did not want to go with a group. Even though I had been to Cuba with a group 15 years ago, I was a bit stumped as to how to do that with the idiotic travel restrictions the US government has placed on its citizens in relation to travel to Cuba. I started researching and trying to get in touch with Cuba sister city projects to see if we could go under the auspices of either the Berkeley or Richmond projects. But we kept running into road blocks—unanswered e-mails, locked doors when we showed up a meetings, etc. and it was looking iffy at best.

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Elise playing didgeridoo in Alameda at an Esoterica event

Then one day (you could say once upon a time…) I was visiting my friend Edie to play some music. And there was a woman there that Edie had recently met, Karen Lee Wald, who looked vaguely familiar to me. After we were introduced, she began talking about her connections to Cuba. At some point I realized that I had actually met her when I went to Cuba since she is a well-known journalist and expert on Cuba, and our group had met with her. I told her that Adam and I wanted to go there. I also explained that I thought maybe I could teach didgeridoo to people there because I am sure that they cannot afford C-PAP machines, the most common treatment for the disease. Since didgeridoo is a natural and cheap alternative that actually ameliorates sleep apnea and is also very good treatment for asthma, I thought it would be a perfect fit for Cuba. She was not only interested in that, but said that she herself used a C-PAP machine and would love to be weaned off of it. We started a trade where I taught her didgeridoo and she helped us set up our trip to Cuba.

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Adam in Karen’s house in Havana reading from Ticket to a community activist

She wasn’t planning to be in Cuba when we wanted to go (January or February) so when she did go in November, 2013, she began making contacts for us, places to stay, drivers, and people to meet. She read Adam’s autobiography, Ticket to Exile and began thinking of many people in Cuba, especially poets and writers who would want to meet Adam. And she kept saying that it would be so much better if she were there when we were to make sure these meetings happened. Finally she wrote and offered to come with us if we would just pay her expenses. To save money, we could stay with her in her house in Havana. What an incredibly generous offer which we, of course, took her up on immediately.

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Film maker Gloria Rolando

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Adam and Pablo Armando Hernandez

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Adam, Elise and Poet Nancy Morales

Karen became our guardian angel, advising us on what to bring, how to document our trip so that we were sure to stay under the exemption to the travel restrictions. And she proceeded to take us under her wing, advise us to go through Cancun, whisk us around Cuba where we met famous poets, writers and artists including poet, Pablo Armando Hernandez; Esteban Morales (expert on race and racism in Cuba), Gloria Rolando (documentary film maker currently working on a project about Haitians in Cuba), poet Nancy Morales, and activist Yolanda Gonzales to name a few. She showed us a side of Cuba that could only be shown by someone who lived there (she raised her kids there starting in the late ‘60’s).

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Karen in the studio of Cuban community artist Fuster.

Talk about serendipity. That seems to have been our mode of transport. Thank you, Karen!

I feel a responsibility to tell the stories of Cuba now that I am back especially since we get such warped reporting here in the States. See the last blog and ones to come.

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Abuelita! Abuelita!

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In the studio of Fuster, community artist extraordinaire. “We think we are wandering through Never-Never Land… until like a thunderbolt, we become unexpectedly aware of the fact that this is a trip to the center of ourselves…” (from Fuster: the Quest for a Dream) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Rodr%C3%ADguez_Fuster

“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.

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view from the roof of the house where we stayed in Santiago.

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.

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Vegetable and fruit vendor singing out, “Ajo, cebollo,” throughout the day.

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.

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Casteneda (left), wife and 100 year old parents and Adam (second from right)

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.)

Living to Breathe

Mask created at a Spiral Gathering

Mask collaboratively created at a Spiral Gathering

While driving, I turned off the radio to let my mind open up to a topic that has been of interest to me lately, didgeridoo and breathing. What came floating into me was this: Many people in Western culture breathe to live instead of living to breathe. My first reaction was that this thought was too radical–what in the world would it mean to live to breathe?

Then the rationale started to come. When we are anxious (according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people), we breathe in a shallow way, taking in the minimum oxygen required to live. It is as if by controlling our breathing, we feel we are controlling the situation. And breathing becomes a means to stay alive, nothing more. We limit air’s entry into us, limiting what comes all the way into us.

But what if?  What if the act of breathing deeply, allowing air into the center of ourselves is actually what connects us with all things? Oxygen, of course, has been produced by the plants and trees and provides us with a connection to the plant world. And then there is the element called argon, an inert gas that we breathe in and out without absorbing. Argon has been around since the atmosphere was first formed and because it is inert, it has been in and out of the lungs of people and animals on this planet for millennium.

In his book The Sacred Balance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki says”Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.” And from the exhalations of dinosaurs, whales, and our grandmothers. Suzuki continues saying, “each breathe is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come… Air is a matrix that joins all life together, past and future as well as present. We inhale our ancestors and exhale into the lungs of our children.”  From the Green Interview–The Most Important Idea in the World – Sunday column, March 20, 2011 http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/most-important-idea-world-sunday-column-march-20-2011

My contribution to this conversation is that this air that we breathe, when we breathe deeply, can help to in-form us, to form us as connected beings. We then have access to the wisdom of the ages at our deepest core. Our culture is so visual that something like air which cannot be seen (unless it is so polluted that it has a color…), is over”looked” as an essential part of our being. But air is in our every cell. When we breathe deeply, we can feel that connection with the unseen that assists us in choosing right action in every moment. Anxiety’s shallow breathing tends to keep us from accessing that support, wisdom and, I might say, love.

When I am teaching didgeridoo and I demonstrate taking that deep breath that activates the diaphragm, I move into a place of great letting go and peace. I am not forcing the breath into my body, I am simply letting go to make space for breath to enter. That deep breath reminds me that I am not an isolated individual having to make it on my own, but am part of a huge matrix of past, present and future that is holding me, supporting me, keeping me from falling. When I take that breath, I know that I am held.

So living to breathe is not a far-fetched an idea; it is actually something to ease into that has the power to change how we stand in relation to this moment, this breath, this life, this planet and all that we encounter here. Try it on and let me know how it fits for you.

The Space Between Us

ScannedImageI was recently introduced to  a new-to-me author, Thrity Umrigar, an Indian-American. I was originally drawn to the title of her novel, The Space Between Us. In my philosophical work, I created the concept of The Between, the space which lies between the dichotomies this culture has created such as men and women, night and day, humans and the environment. The Between offers connection, creativity, and love. However this culture has for the most part amputated this rich and alive part of our lives. See The Emperor Has  Body: Body-Politics in the Between.

Anyway, I loved that first book. Thrity’s astute sensibilities picked up on the very things that interest me about human culture. She sees class, gender, friendship, parenthood with an eye for context, uncovering the underpinnings of culture that push us into places we can’t understand ourselves. I went on to read another of her books and got my step-daughter hooked as well. This week I needed a birthday present for her and went in search of more books by Thrity. I called four bookstores in Berkeley, none of which had her books. Since I was planning a trip up Route 101 anyway, I tried Book Passage in Corte Madera. What an amazing bookstore! They have a huge inventory and what looks to be a thriving author’s reading series. Not only did they have several of her books on hand, but the clerk, who knew her work, was able to suggest to me another author I might like.

I used to find myself in Cody’s on Telegraph quite frequently, but I must admit that I haven’t been in a bookstore in a while. I have gotten in the habit of purchasing used books online from bookstores all over the country. In Book Passages I was reminded of what I had been missing. I saw so many books that caught my eyes; the atmosphere was so pleasant I felt as if I was visiting an old friend. When I found the books I was looking for, as well as another one for my niece for her graduation, I leafed through them as if I had just drunk some kind of love potion. The smell of the books, their loving arrangement in neighborhoods, the familiar feeling of my love of reading, an electricity in the air created by the books themselves and all that went into making them, the friendly clerks who share this love—what an aphrodisiac!

Then in giving the books away, I felt as if I was giving some of that very feeling to my step-daughter. I could have given her the gift on Kindle but since I don’t have one, and I am going to want to borrow the books, I gave her the real thing. I can’t imagine feeling the same feelings if I had given her the books on Kindle. I feel as if I have created a reciprocal relationship with those books; this, even before reading them. I had gone on the first date in the dreamy atmosphere of the bookstore and I had established a loyalty, not just to the author, but to the beauty of the thing itself, the thing that I could smell and feel and rub against my face.

I feel as if I had awakened from a 21st century cyber-dream where I was beginning to wonder if we ever needed to see each other face to face or if e-mail and texting would do fine. Now I remember the value of something that I hadn’t even spoken of before. I hope we can articulate the value of unseen qualities such as touch, smell, and a kind of electric energy before we lose them in more places than bookstores, but surely there, surely there. As Joni Mitchell would say, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…