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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Integration is making me wait

I am still dealing with my injured foot/ankle and feeling as if I need to tell more stories from the National Parks trip to allow myself to continue to absorb what we encountered in those sacred lands.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (29)

After meeting the Bristle Cone Pines (on a mountain between Mono Lake and Death Valley), our perspective on time had changed. If those trees had survived for 6000 years and they continued to learn and adapt, our bouts with the cold, wind, sun were such specks of sand in a desert. I began to feel the expansion of myself filling in the spaces between the trees and me—we weren’t so different. Maybe I had some Bristle Cone Pine in me and now that I had met them, I could get in touch with that part of myself that was timeless, enduring, and appreciative.

We made our way back down the mountain and continued to Lake Diaz to camp for the night. Lake Diaz was a bit strange and at first it looked like we would be camping right near the road but it turned out that the campsite was in a small oasis on the other side of the lake with trees and stiff breezes. We set up in a sheltered spot, hoping the winds would not blow us away or irritate us too much. There were very few other people there. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (37)

We  cooked and ate our dinner of polenta and soup and then admired the stars before curling up in the little tent and getting much needed sleep (the night before at Tuolumne neither of us slept much at all even though we were warm and cozy, but perhaps because of the excitement of starting such a trip, we couldn’t settle in).

We got going the next morning fairly early again, getting better at breaking camp and stowing our stuff (of which we had too much) in the car and moving out. We were near the entrance to Death Valley and the scenery demanded our constant attention as the terrain changed drastically from moment to moment—stark yet ever-changing desert, rock, mountain, valley, the subtle colors that Death Valley’s elements materialize so beautifully.

Just before we officially entered the park, up on a ridge above the valley, we stopped and Viviane collected larea, a strong anti-cancer plant. These plants were healthy and growing in this most magnificent place. A raven watched our every move as we collected the herbs.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (49)

Then down into the valley where one feels as if one is going back in time. The ancient is what rules the valley—no Congress or President can begin to think they can close or open this park—it wields true power. The sheer drops, the subtle colors, the expanses, the growth of an occasional Joshua Tree and larea plant or sage brush. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (39)Our clocks seem so puny there where so much has happened over such a long period of time. Even the Now cannot hold it. It is a place of yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once.

As we drove time telescoped and microscoped around us, a playground for the atomic and the galactic all at once.

At the Artist’s Drive where the mountains show off strange colors that look like a palette of different colors, strange blues and reds and oranges. Viviane stopped and painted a sketch of the area as I played the didge to it and to different rocks that were strewn about.   I discovered that volcanic rock seemed to have the strongest response (reverb) to my playing. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (62)The hungry winds quickly swallowed up the sounds of the didgeridoo. In such a place where my human form is diminutive and the place ancient and still, some ineffable part of me seeds itself into the surroundings and the boundaries separating me from the land, the animals and those who came before me, soften and spread out like shifting sand.

We were lucky that the temperatures were in the 80’s that day and not into the 90’s or 100’s as they often are. Their record for the summer was 128, six degrees shy of the top heat recorded in the Valley of 134 degrees.

Our timeline did not allow us to stay overnight in Death Valley, and we traveled on through to Tecopa Hot Springs on the south side of Death Valley. The campsite we found was challenging in many ways: gravel under the tent, no picnic table, surrounded by RV’s. But we made the most of soaking in private tubs containing the special mineral laden waters that underlay the area.

At about three in the morning we were disturbed by a drunk man and woman who came by to use the springs and who were noisy and vaguely threatening as they were swearing loudly and just seemed out of control especially to two women lying in a tent, vulnerable and awake. But they finally left without incident, and we tried to resume our night’s sleep. No one in the RV’s seemed to hear them.

The next morning in order to have our breakfast, we carted all of our stuff up to the building in which the hot springs were housed and took over the foyer there to cook. Since it was windy, we also rolled up the tent there and then had a morning soak before heading out for our longest day drive to Holbrook, Arizona, almost at the border to New Mexico.

Our aim was to get to Grants, New Mexico by noon the next day to meet our cohort Connie for her 75th birthday. Look someday for the U-tube video of us singing the song we wrote for Connie, inspired by both Connie and her creative life and by what we had been seeing along the way. It is called She’s a Julep and features a chorus that goes like this:

Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone Pine (repeat).

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind,

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

Standing tall and feeling fine

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

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Summoning Ghosts

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Photo Credit: Cynthia Waters

This week I went to see Summoning Ghosts, the title of a current exhibit at the Oakland Museum. It is the Art of Hung Liu whom some of you may be familiar with if you frequent the Oakland Airport where she has an exhibit called “Going Away, Coming Home.” The exhibit is nothing short of phenomenal and may be one of the best exhibits I have ever seen.

I am particularly drawn to these paintings after a dream I had last week in which I was playing the didgeridoo toward a wall and I knew that on the other side of the wall were people who had died. As I played the wall slowly became a window and I could see that those on the other side were young people. I felt in the dream as if I had been “summoning ghosts.”

One of Liu’s inspirations is using old photographs depicting people who have been forgotten about and whose individuality in their lifetimes was devalued and maybe despised, such as prostitutes or orphan girls. In one instance, she separated the orphan girls out and featured them in individual or smaller groupings and gave them dignity, emphasizing their uniqueness.

Most of those she paints have most likely passed over into the realm of the ancestors. And these “ghosts” who may have suffered greatly in their time on earth are shown in all of their compelling humanity, embodied souls who lived as best they could in the political milieu into which they were born.

One of her most compelling techniques is to allow certain paint drippings to remain in the painting. These drippings signified sweat, tears, a sense of the ancient, and for me the most important was the feeling of gravity in the paintings as the drips were pulled down towards the earth and one had the sense of creatures connected in such a real way to the ground on which they stood. She uses butterflies and birds as a motif and paints circles, maybe to remind us all of the cycles of life.

In this new spring and the season of Easter and Passover, we all ponder the circle of life and death and what is important to us in this place that we are only passing through.

In Adam David Miller’s words from his poem Forever Afternoon:

 “…Life is a wheel of fortune, my life

a gift to be passed around the wheel.

 Do we ask where does the caterpillar

go when it becomes a butterfly?

The caterpillar does not go, it becomes.

Spirit of caterpillar lives in butterfly,

same heart, beating stronger.”

In Part Two of this blog, I will post another excerpt from my novel Between Here and Hereafter.