Un error in Cuba es un error en America, es un error en la humanidad moderna. Quien se levanta hoy en Cuba se levanta para todos los tiempos.
An error in Cuba is an error in America, is an error in modern humanity. Whoever rises up today in Cuba rises up for all times.
What will happen now, after Fidel? “We will wait, and we will keep our mouths shut.”
“Venice has gondolas. Havana has Chevys.” -H.
We learn Havana by walking it. I and my spouse, H, become pilgrims. The city befriends us as we move through the nuance of the days and the ebb and flow of the city. Mornings in Havana are teeming and purposeful though not frenzied. Days are ripe. Evenings are crepuscular, softened, melodic. And nights are staccato, savory, and optimistic. In the city the energy runs through the streets, eddies around corners and pools in plazas; it rides the wave and spray that batters the Malécon and solidifies in the stern visages that adorn public edifices.
On our arrival we pass under their serious faces: Che and Castro, writ large in the Plaza de la Revolución. José Martí, on the hill. Schoolchildren in uniform march in ranks by the hundreds and wave little flags as we drive by. Martí’s words, in gold, circle the museum at the base of his stature and obelisk and echo throughout the country. They are inscribed everywhere.
We walk a Cuban rosary: bodega, mercado, cafeteria, in endless succession, interspersed with some government buildings, shops, and little parks. The Coca-Cola invasion has not landed here, or rather, it was rejected. Sun leaches all of the American-style anxiety from our bodies and we replace it by weight in diesel fumes. We are all day immersed in people, people people everywhere, in this city of 2.3 million, and the ocean is everywhere as well, its arm drawn around the city. When we draw close to the Malécon, the sea-wall, on the first night, twilight is falling and the children run screaming and laughing through the crumbling arches of the tiled arcades, their flip-flops striking the ground slap-slap-slap-slap.
Our vision is sharp on our first night in Old Havana. Each sight falls fresh and hard. We pass the solitary workman at his scarred wooden desk pulled close to the door for light. His tools are laid out before him as he fixes watches and other small mechanics. The large gold-colored watch on his wrist gleams in the shadows against the grease and the dull blue of his uniform. Illuminated windows and doors frame the Workers, steady and solemn in their purpose. They are closing up shop, counting the till, winding down at the end of the day. The bodegas are still open, dimly lit, with counters and shelves of dark wood and chalkboards with carefully lettered lists of goods. Repurposed water bottles filled with rice and beans, tidy stacks of matchboxes and other goods are evenly spaced on the shelves behind the till.
Further down the labyrinthine street we duck into a bar to eat, hardly more than an alcove. Imagine two restaurant booths placed back to back, their table-ends aligned with the edge of the sidewalk; now remove the tables. That is the bar. We sit on one bench and talk with the people across from us as the crowd hustles past at our elbow. One is a grandmother in a stylish mini-dress who looks impossibly young. She works in a grocery store and lives with her son and young granddaughter who has respiratory illness. Her family left Cuba and she is the one who has stayed. The boyfriend works at a disco tech on the Avenida Principal. They sit next to a British tourist and we share drinks and watch the sudden rain fall.
Our conversation with them is the first of many amongst very friendly people. Yet in the case of both city and people there is a lid on. Part of this is practicality: with such constant proximity, people preserve space in the street. They do not all make eye contact, smile, or greet everyone. No one has books or phones to retreat into- access to wifi is another story altogether- so as they wait in long patient lines for buses and banking and bodegas they do not intrude.
But at the same time, lift the lid a fraction and they are right there, quick to be present. The warmth and graciousness of people that we meet is considerable. Every day people invite us to their homes: the waitress at the sports cafe, the 87 year-old woman we meet by the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg memorial, who recounts her memory of their execution from her childhood: “I will never forget.” She tells us that when we come back we can go to the next block and ask for her by name, and then we can have coffee together. She also tells us, with pride, that she still goes salsa dancing every Sunday afternoon.
We meet two vibrant, wild women at the beach, cousins who take us in, seat us on their lounge chairs, give us rum and dance with us to the booty-shaking percussionist and reggaeton dance party happening nearby. “Dale!” the older sister yells at us as we dance, and points to our hips: Shake it! They are free in dance, in gesture, and in sentiment. One lives abroad, making crepes for tourists to Paris. The other dearly hopes to leave. We ask them both about post-Fidel.
“Fidel was single minded in his vision. It isn’t good or bad, it is just how he was.” She makes a gesture with her hand driving straight as an arrow before her. Her black curly hair tumbles in the wind against an azure sky and sea. “He wanted to do so much with so little. Now you can see: Havana is kind of- destroyed.” Certainly La Habana is worn, even as it is beautiful, rich in color and texture, suffused with warmth.
With Castro’s passing so recent we are curious about its direct effect on people and ask them when we can. When we ask the couple we meet in the bar the first night, she covers her mouth with both hands to dramatize their stance during Cuba’s transition. Then her hands cradle an invisible ball, upending it from one hand to the next, as she tells us: “Cuba without Fidel is a country turned upside-down, like the U.S. without Obama or Venezuela without Chavez.” What about his brother? “Raul is not the same. Fidel, at 90, was sharp. He was always sharp. He was the brain of our country.”
And at our lunch spot, we are told: “Obama came to Cuba, and things have changed for you. Now you can travel more easily. But for us, nothing has changed. We still can’t come to your country. We still can’t leave.”
We hear about Obama’s visit a fair amount, and the most visible result is the new American embassy building on the waterfront. The night before we leave H. glimpses the only U.S. news of our trip. The report is brief and details the billions allocated in the U.S. budget for weaponry, while millions of Americans remain below the poverty line. Images of tanks and warplanes flash across the screen during the report.
It is difficult to discern what is allowed to be said, and that uncertainty on our part says something in and of itself. The limit is real. To a certain point, free expression, art, music, exuberance, but not past a certain point. When I pass punk Cubans I inwardly cheer them on. I want to ask, how is to for you? I can feel unspoken edge.
Art encompasses the edge, here as everywhere. The Cuban art museum, el Museo de Bellas Artes, is a reminder of this, and also a reminder of the un-Americanized nature of this place. I encounter masterpieces unknown to me even in reproduction and learn about their creators, their whole existence sprung upon me in an instant: their names, lives, works, deaths: Angel Acosta Léon, lost at sea, December 5th 1964. I swoon before epic canvasses by painters who have mastered their craft and wedded it to their inner eye. At night in the Fabrica de Artes, a beautiful collage of contemporary visual art and sound situated in a repurposed factory, we feel most free. The National Museum is in Old Havana, mostly constructed in the Sixteenth through Nineteenth centuries, and the Fabrica is in the neighborhood we are staying in, which was built in the Twentieth century. We stay in one of the Casas Particulares, which are like a government-regulated Air B and B, with very kind hosts who look after us conscientiously.
We spend Noche Buena with our hosts, who invite us to join them for a delicious Cuban dinner. The siblings begin cooking at noon for our eight-thirty dinner: two beautiful salads, boniato (Cuban sweet potato), congri (black beans and rice), and pork ribs marinated in lime and salt. We are asked, many times, if we are enjoying ourselves, enjoying our food. They are the warmest and most gracious of hosts. This is in spite of the older brother’s recent back operation. His face is craggy, a mountainside exposed to sun and weather, sharp edges softened, and the pain clouds it over, though he does not say anything, just excuses himself for a moment. The younger sister speaks some english, peppered with “da” and “nyet” from her years in Russia. She translates between the American and Cuban Spanish at the table, and then again into English. I translate between different varieties of English, and then into Spanish. Single phrases take time to travel around the table, without hurry; we all enjoy our time together.
The part of Vedado in which they live is sandwiched between the massive cemetery, a fortress of daffodil-yellow walls that enclose a city of white mausoleums, and the Avenida Principal. Large apartment buildings line the main road, smaller multi-family homes fill the blocks to the north, and in the little section to the south are many smaller, very modest homes with yards utilised as workshops and cafës. We find most of what we need in little businesses throughout the neighborhood.
The liquor store is our source for water. They sell a few beer imports along with the national beer and soda brand. In the glass case there is one plate of cake, and one apple with a large price sticker plastered on. Cardboard six-pack holders are recycled to carry goods, a slot for each selection: beers in two slots, rum in a third, an apple carefully placed into the fourth.
The Licorera is just past Cafe Viso, on the promontory between two busy roads. Every morning the patio is filled with people who sit with nothing on their tables. One night when I go to buy water, the patio is empty and the lights are off, all except for a small glowing aquarium at the back. The blue light silhouettes one man, hunched over in a chair. I think: Old Man and the Sea, modern day.
After I buy water I return by the back road where someone has dropped flats of eggs on the sidewalk. Every day people balance stacks of full flats through the teeming sidewalks or dangle tied stacks of empty ones to be returned to the bodegas whose counters are flanked by square turrets of eggs.
One light is on in the Tienda Cristaleria, one of several religious shops in the neighborhood. This one is shuttered in the morning, but Eliel, the proprietor, is re-painting it by night. The shelves are full of the necessities for Santeria: saints, necklaces, dolls, and other symbols. I notice one of them hanging over the window of a nearby coffee counter, a ceramic plaque of a tongue pierced by a sword: do not speak ill of this place.
Every morning I go to one of the neighbors who sells coffee out of their front door, most often the nearest. The front yard is her shop, with plants enclosing two sides, a railing by the sidewalk, and a veranda along the front of the house. The first floor is elevated from the street and her double doors are thrown open in the morning. Customers step up onto a tiled ledge and place their money and thermos, if they have one, on the wide stone balustrade. The proprietor, a slim Afro-cuban grandmother with a green head scarf and a strong and gentle face, dispenses coffee from a large thermos with an espresso cup as the measure. One cup of strong coffee with sugar costs four cents. Each customer gets their own spoon to stir in the sugar.
People drink their coffee in little glasses as they stand in the yard, and then the cups and spoons are whisked away and plunged into sudsy water. In between customers she coos to her sweet grandbaby, a chubby two-year old boy who cries for his papa.
When I am buying coffee in the morning the street cleaner passes. He wears an ancient-looking plastic back brace that resembles a saddle, off-center on his back. The patina-ed and dusty blue uniform hangs loose on his thin frame. He pushes his cart along the curb slowly and stops to painstakingly scoop, scrape or spear items off the sidewalk with long implements and deposit them in the barrel on his cart. The sidewalks and streets of Havana are pretty clean, with the exception of random potholes that become trash deposits, so that it occasionally looks like the street has been paved in plastic bottles.
Also in the humid mornings, especially after Noche Buena: smell of piss in the streets, acrid, pungeant.
Often, inexplicably we are in a city of men. Boys play in the street. Men buy coffee from the coffee windows and drive the taxis. Fifty cab drivers linger near the national bus station. Plazas and parks are filled with men. When I walk alone they call out to me. When I walk with my spouse they do not. My spouse has been bestowed with the awards of masculinity generated by a traditionally patriarchal culture. Aside from shielding me from catcalls these include: being the primary person spoken to; receiving all bills; and being expected to make decisions for me. Women hold numerous positions of power in the government and compose the majority of the assembly, but in the day to day here all is not equal.
The boys in the street push each other in a big milk-crate cart. They play soccer in the street at twilight and move the goals aside when cars pass. They shoot marbles under a tree in Miramar, an excited crowd of them, age six through sixteen. The girls are less visible unless accompanied by adults. I see the young ones in tow of an adult and the older ones gathered at a plaza amidst the after-school crowd. Are all the other girls at home?
As we go through the streets we ask each other questions. What is allowed? Is public drunkenness legal? Dancing in the street? PDA? Loud conversations? Is it even legal to be gay? None of these are features of street life. All of this raises another of our main questions, which is, is it possible to maintain such a strong sense of collective mission and ideals, for the good of all people, without curtailing dissent, expression, critique, originality, invention, and creativity? Creativity as an adaptation to limits is everywhere here, from the side-hustles and underground economy to the outcroppings of art, but what about creativity that defies, disrupts, or questions?
Creativity in the form of the side-hustle is omnipresent here. On our first day at the bar in Old Havana shopping bags fill the floor at our feet. The couple carries toys they received from family in the U.S. in time for Christmas. The bilingual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle would cost fifty dollars on the black market in Cuba. It is unclear to us what has consequence and what is ignored. Certainly the man from the tobacco factory who tries to sell us cigars out of his apartment is up to something, but the risk must be worth the reward. Not so for street crime, which is startlingly absent. Nothing to complain about, but again, we wonder- how does it come to be so? How severe are penalties?
Both the severity in one instance and the laissez-faire in the other benefit one specific group primarily: tourists. The Cubans incur some reward, and all the risk. As tourists we represent the upper crust in a society that prides itself on crustlessness. Certainly the same wealth disparity present in the U.S. is not evident in Cuba, the visibility of both the destitute and filthy rich. Peoples’ basic needs seem to be more adequately met here: shelter, food, medical care, education. Yet there are still two classes: tourists, and Cubans. They have two currencies, two economies, maybe two applications of law.
A new hobby becomes finding the sea, from wherever we are. One day we find it by walking through the embassy district of Miramar, past Italianate mansions and estates marked Venezuela, Vietnam, Spain, Mexico. We emerge from the quiet, tree-lined streets at Playa 16, a pitted block of concrete with a path and a brilliant blue changing cabana, very different from the beach we went to earlier in the week. One tourist has braved the sharp rocks for a swim, but the locals are clearly there only to sunbathe on walls. Two places on the beach are open: a typical Cuban chicken and beer place, and a tourist restaurant, all gleaming white, with waitstaff in pressed shirts. We order chicken at the Cuban cafe and drank beer and soda and ate ice-cream at a plastic table, looking out at the Atlantic while reggaeton blasts on the patio loudspeaker. After an hour I go back up to the counter to ask about the chicken. The worker looks back over his counter at the silent kitchen. “The cook never came back” he tells me.
We eat late lunch at the tourist restaurant, with gauzy curtains floating, seated on padded chairs surrounded by astroturf. We sip wine as the sun slides through a band of gold and down below the horizon, and then we walk home over the hill through quiet Miramar, past the lush city park that borders the river, over the long concrete bridge and back into the Fifties architecture of Vedado. Even though we pick one side of the road, we still have access to both.
Jennifer Connor can be reached at thehummingwhale at gmail dot com.
To see more photography from Havana by Harper Bishop go to https://www.facebook.com/harpersebishop/media_set?set=a.879987476884.1073741833.100300724&type=3&pnref=story
When Page and I hike in to Bruce Lake in the Delaware State Forest we are welcomed by a host of salamanders, Eastern red-spotted newts, to be precise. They swish their frilly tails and dart over and under rocks and leaves in the sunny shallows of the lake edge. The trees that ring the shore are mostly still bare, with some clusters of hemlock and pine. Opposite us, the western end of the glacial lake thickens into still-brown reeds. One raft filled with a fishing family floats along under the brilliant blue sky, and other than that it is only us. Where we sit the underbrush shields the cove at our backs, and at our feet curves a few feet of pebbly shore. I lie across a flat sunny rock in order to get my face close to the surface. The clarity of the water sharpens the lines of the underwater world where gray, purple, quartz-white, rust-red, and slate-blue pebbles line the bottom and large rocks formed shelfs or roofs for the newts. At first they all disappear under rocks or under the skim of oak leaves and tree flowers and twigs. We wait. Eventually, one emerges to blow a single bubble at the surface like a kiss before changing direction rapidly in what looked like a swimmer’s turn, and then they all return, one at a time.
The tails of the newts are more flat than round, with tissue-y edges on the top and bottom. The tail-swishes are of endless variety. A couple examples: slow undulation, where the salamander is suspended just below the surface, barely moving limbs and toes, as the tail’s curves seamlessly and perfectly reverse themselves. Display mode: big, slow swishes with the tail doubling back on itself in deep folds like ribbon candy, and maybe candy is what the males are hoping they look like.
A greener salamander nips another’s tail and it zips away. There is a large, darker-colored one with a more ragged tail curled up at the bottom, head under a twig and tucked into its side, wagging the tip of its tail like a dog. For a while they are all just floating, moving only as the water moves. We float too. I am sunning like a turtle on a rock and the only sounds, besides some faint highway sound from 84, are little birds rustling in the underbrush. Then, the action begins. The salamanders wrestle, two of them, while the others still float. The large salamander has come up from the bottom and is holding the green’s head with its hind legs. When green breaks free it looks like it is trying to nibble on the other one, and then its head gets grabbed again. They thrash around with big tail motion in the underwater. We can’t tell if they are fighting or mating. Later I read that the males lure other salamanders- largely female but some males too- with pheromones they release from under their tails. Then they grab them with their hind legs and while they have the other salamander in a headlock, they curl back and rub their faces together, a kind of salamander make-out session. Following this they disengage. The male drops a sperm packet into the water and the female may pick it up, or she may pick up one of the others, because the other males in the vicinity throw theirs in too in the hope that she will pick one of theirs up by mistake. Once she picks it up she will fertilize a few eggs, deposit them and leave.
The salamanders in front of us have all gone back into lazy floating mode. It is mesmerizing to watch, inches from the upper surface of salamander-land, as they play and laze. In the open water with the sun on them they shine, as long as my finger, with spindly forearms and hind legs and delicate toes like pointed stars, and their stomachs bulge slightly: amphibian pot-bellies. They are green and dark green and saturated and mottled, with dark speckles that stand out especially on their tails. As I am peering in at one underneath a twig I am arrested by a sudden brilliance. The four tiny red dots along its side have caught the sun and are bearing their fierce redness at me, minuscule but striking. The spots have the precision of a laser and the coloring of fire-glow, and I suddenly see, in those red dots, another friend: the red eft.
I have sometimes crossed paths with the red eft, a magical forest denizen. The red eft is pretty common in the woods here, though I myself have not seen any on this trip. Their whole body is bright orangey-red and they motor through the vast forest terrain with tenacity. They are a glistening streak of color in an otherwise muted forest palette of rock, bark, moss and lichen, a tiny and perfect brush-stroke. Normally the eft stage lasts one to two years, and in that time, the eft seeks a new home before maturing and settling on one breeding ground. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the efts are the newt teenagers- the juveniles- but it does astound me that if it so desires, the Eastern newt has the capability to skip this stage of metamorphosis entirely and go straight to a drab-toned adulthood, keeping only a remnant of red youth.
I have always been magnetically attracted to these creatures that are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it for navigation. They are like little compasses, and while they have several means of receptivity, one possible means includes a bio-accumulated presence of magnetite in their body. Scientists have tried to almost alchemically prove this through a salamander-reduction process and have been unable to offer a final proof either for or against the presence of ferromagnetic material. All they can say is that it seems likely, which seems like a poor profit to place against such research, no gold produced. It seems like it would be in keeping with their attributes, since they are overall such sensitive indicators of environment.
And speaking of a sensitive awareness of environment, towards the end I drop my phone in the lake. What do they think of that? Is it a Gods Must Be Crazy moment? Except, a coke bottle is probably more useful than a dead cell phone. Humanity has de-evolved. It is definitely a my-spouse-will-not-be-happy-with-me moment, although now weeks have passed, and guess what, spouse, who is just hearing about this for the first time: the phone still works! I didn’t even lose the salamander videos. Love you, baby. I am thrilled to the core of my being to have hung out with the salamanders, no less than when I was seven or nine and finding them in my backyard, before they disappeared. I haven’t seen one now in thirty years. Salamander as a symbolic messenger “beckons us to call upon our deepest internal resources to produce the development we require” and is a message that “there is never loss, and to seek out renewal whenever possible.” So, come on, humanity, myself included. That’s a hopeful message, in keeping their more obvious traits; playful, nimble, light-of-touch. They can point the way, with their little magnetic bodies, and we should pay attention.
When the Universe Tells You to Wake Up
-Wake up! I want you to know!
-I want to know. What is it?
-That’s what I want you to know.
Now go back to sleep.
More than Five
Shiro-yoku, forest bathing:
drinking in the forest through
all five senses.
She says: I want more than five.
Hiding under a moss rock.
Hiding in a tear-shaped opening in the boll of a sapling.
Hiding in the knock of two sturdy branches.
Hiding in lichen on a boulder.
Hiding in a spore.
Hiding in a pinecone.
Hiding in muck.
Hiding under a brown leaf.
Hiding under a pebble.
Hiding inside a cracked acorn.
Hiding between two halves of a split stone.
Hiding between two mighty trunks of a conjoined tree.
Hiding in a log.
With all of these places to hide,
why are we so in the open?
It is because we can’t choose,
and leave a piece in each.
Young hemlock waving its branches up and down
not so different from how the toddler goes, with a need to touch everything,
was that you last night who
caught the glistening sky before it fell
and broke on the forest floor?
I have pine in all my pores.
There are needles that have become caught in my clothes
and sap has glued my hair to my cheek.
I have a certain look in my eye
and bark flakes in my teeth.
People call me changed.
When I stand still I sway. When I lay, I fall.
I should use soap, take a shower, scrub harder,
I will, tomorrow,
one more pine bath.
All poems from residency at Cairn Cove Retreat: surrounded by lake and woods, fed and led by savant/creatrix/caretaker Page.
In the modern world we live at the speed of many lifetimes.
We live like a hummingbird beside an oak.
Love is a chemical thing, a puzzlement of nature,
one spandron of one cathedral in a
city of cathedrals where pilgrims gallop through.
The walkers appear slow, last in a
cascade of lives into layers, geologic cake,
your last footprint already fossilized.
We hardly need to reincarnate.
So it seems. My lovely friends
split into parts at the crack of the pace.
Who wants to be lost to the lace of the
wild carrot or lantern of bluebell?
The race is to multiply. Well, if you don’t
try, you may find you are very happy.
You may find you frolic in the seasons.
You may draw a deep breath like
cold water from a well of old, slow time.
draws the most crowds on the harbor cruise,
pays no taxes,
browses flora and deep waters equally,
guards its young, sups on nectar,
bears clumsy grace delicately.
It can name five tragedies of youth lost
and shakes its finfeathers to soul and funk and
minuets. It paints self-representations
by the bouganville.
Uncatalogued by Melville,
defiant, in fact, of the whole cetalogical-ornithological-industrial complex,
the hummingwhale whistles Dixie while empires burn, oil rigs and biochemistry experiments.
It can get in through a keyhole and then destroy every chimp cage within reach of its tail.
Evolutionarily speaking, it refuses to be mythologized,
opting out of the Bestiary of Magical Creatures
as well as its high-school yearbook.
Recruited by the mafia
it went underground
and developed love-interests and web-based social media networks.
Never caught, never seen,
when it finally resurfaced,
the world was gone. Such a thing to lose.
The hummingwhale settled in for long unbroken years
and began to tattoo its entire body with its life story,
high points, lows, offspring legit and not,
herbology of; anatomy of mood, placing the universe,
illustrating in smaller and smaller modes,
dividing and subdividing infinitely,
always to find one more place,
one more division of space to fill.
by Jennifer A. Connor
My apartment is covered in snails, likewise my bookshelf. All that is missing is their tracks. In the medicine cabinet in the morning a snail tells me: why hurry? Two snails face each other by my typewriter. In between them is a tiny music box that plays “What a Wonderful World.” Lift them up, look at their foot, and read: Take your time. On the corner of my desk a blue snail the size of a pencil eraser has been carrying a heart across the polished wooden plain for eons.
I have spent two recent birthdays fashioning snails out of clay with friends. Now they line my sills and stand watch over my porch garden with its mini-rock garden and reflecting pool. A shining glass snail guards the mantel, a gift from the boy at school whose cubby symbol is the snail. In the play yard at school I crouch by the Black-Eyed Susans with small children. We carefully reach into the densest, wettest, darkest undergrowth in search of snails. One day a little girl brought me snail whose shell she had pried off out of curiosity and it died on my desk. When I myself was young my mother and grandmother sang to me: Shellakie Shallakie Bookie, come out of your shell, the British are comin’ to get ye. The snail here was the Irish resistance. When my grandmother was little, the young men of her house and village had to disappear when authorities were rounding up suspected resistance fighters. My grandfather, as a boy, had to help dig holes for them to hide in.
On my bookshelf the amazing, surprising Virginia Woolf short story on this subject; Gertrude Stein has something too within her voluminous works; and Lewis Thompson, in his The Medusa and the Snail, writes a disappointingly brief snail treatment.
When I first acknowledged a minor snail obsession I lived in the Bay Area where it practically rained snails. We regularly rounded up the snails in the community garden and put them on Snail Island, a patch of grass where the only place to go was up the lone tree, not a natural place for an earth-loving creature unless they have that horrible snail-zombie disease where a parasite makes them climb a tree- I don’t like to think about it. Clumps of them gathered forlornly on tree branches. It was gardener versus snail but in looking back I find it kind of heartbreaking.
Now that I am living back in the east yellow nautilus shells collect in more reasonable numbers in the garden, a lovely gift to find. I prefer to see them in spades rather than in droves.
Unless, of course, I go to snail world, as I just did. On an amble in the city I found myself unexpectedly transported to an underwater realm of miniscule industrious black snails, many young ones with just a beginner baby toenail of a shell and elders whose gnarled shells go round and round. I look in from above and marvel at their mysterious and busy lives, lives which are entirely spent cleaning the fuzz from the mud and each other in a shallow puddle, on an abandoned dirt road, on the outskirts of the city, bordered by swamp and train tracks, none of which they will be cognizant of though they feel the thrum of the trains drum in their muscle-y bodies.
Cicadas hum in the row of stunted trees dividing road from swamp. Here is snail world, over there, bird land. In the distance the road finds its way to an abandoned warehouse. Its other end parallels the tracks where they disappear under a bridge that is seamed with a broad pipeline. On either side, everywhere, walls of chirping grasses that sway in the sun that beats down on us, the humidity that rolls over us, and even so, snail stays cool and dark in its secret world.
These puddles appear every ten feet. Rather than being laid down on the road, they are like windows that have opened, dusty dirt shades all snapped up to reveal jewels, living pictures, in slow motion.
The next day I tell the children about snail world and they hang breathless on every word, as entranced as I was. They listen to a story about nothing, about a puddle in the road. Then they go on to other things, and I do too. Small children may have an affinity for microcosms, being ones themselves. I forget the snails are all around me until they suddenly assert their presence again one morning- I don’t know why. I admit: I am in my own puddle. Sometimes I don’t leave my two block radius, though at other times I fly far and wild. I have dropped these little anchors, these earth-creatures, like sinkers on a lure, their one foot firmly tasting ground, and we are connected as though by invisible lines, although unlike those of Lilliputians, theirs cannot pin me. Instead, they use them to transmit their wise words and news of other worlds.
I met Sue when I lived in Virginia, as part of the community of people in our region who were working to oppose the order of business as usual. As a community we gathered at protests, panels and planning sessions to strategize and support each other in what were always linked struggles- against racism and militarism, NAFTA’s effects abroad and mountaintop removal in our collective backyard. Sue lived in a mountainous, rural area of Virginia where she was pursuing a PhD in ornithology. She had traveled to Argentina to study the populist social movement of early 2000, she had been arrested at the School of the Americas in 2003 for protesting the teaching of torture techniques to U.S. and foreign military, and when I met her, she wanted us all to go occupy a mountaintop to prevent its imminent destruction. She was also a longtime anarchist and activist on women’s rights who had spent a lot of time talking about how women can fight violent patriarchal oppression without resorting to participation in the police state.
In the fall of 2004 I went abroad to hike and farm and eventually I wound up in France, where I hitchhiked to Paris to visit with a friend from Bread and Puppet and celebrate Buy Nothing Day, french-style. On Thanksgiving I got word that Sue Daniels was missing. At first we all thought she had been disappeared by the government. However, it quickly became apparent that she had fallen victim to an even older and more entrenched institution, that of male violence against women.
Sue was murdered by a man who had been her friend and lover and who would not accept the boundaries that she repeatedly set for him. Although people in her community thought of him as a kind and gentle person who would not harm anyone, he scared her enough that she had created a safety net of trusted people to come to her aid in place of the police, because she did not believe in the police. The night before she died she challenged an audience: how do you deal with violence against women in your community? Before he killed her and himself he broke her phone, her one connection to that safety net.
Stalking sounds like a movie or TV drama crime, an invented phrase. Sue’s friend clearly stalked her. It sounds problematic, yet potentially romantic, except maybe someone will be hurt or killed. I think of stalking as a clearly identifiable set of actions by which one person uses the implicit threat of violence in order to control or possess another person. In some ways the storybook romance- a sort of indefatiguable pursuit deaf to the actual interest of the other person, an I-must-have-you pigheaded dedication- is stalkerish, especially in the hands of men. Especially or particularly, because the implicit threat of violence is a tool for keeping the status quo, for keeping power in the hands of the dominant group.
It pains me to say that I have now personally experienced this. I never would have thought that this would be the case. I never would have thought that power could be wielded over me in this way. And then it was.
I put up with it for too long before I finally went to the police. And the ensuing drawn-out and traumatizing legal scenario was all of the worst things I expected, and then some. But I feel like I have won, because I am alive, and I would fight again for my own safety, and again, and however many times it took.
Sue Daniels was a warrior. She fought against all of the social ills of our time, and in the end was killed by male oppression. I could also say she was killed by one man, mentally ill, who had internalized the disease of our culture, but what is the use of oppression if not a mental illness? When I met Sue, I was struck by the force of her presence. I had just read my poem, Botanical Declaration of Liberty, at a campfire in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains, and she came over to tell me that she had liked it. The last time I saw her was in New York City at the Republican National Convention at St. Mark’s, one of the organizing epicenters.
Every year I read or recite this poem in Sue’s memory.
For Sue Daniels
Even the birds lament your absence.
Mountains lift their heads in proud remembrance.
In a clearing at the edge of woods,
ash marks where your cabin stood,
proving what conceals, reveals.
Appalachia, pueblos, the disappeared, chanting at the gate,
Shut it down. Become irate.
Loss is a fist to the sky, a stone by my foot,
voices in the waters, my tongue pressed to dirt.
All of nature cries dusty tears for her daughter,
Then erupts in green laughter, writing in viney script:
You cannot be erased from the earth who loves you.
We live in round, walking all about the holy ground.
I asked H. about the finger once, the misshapen right forefinger of her grandmother’s hand that ended just barely past the third joint whose skin stretched smoothly and seamlessly around the enlarged finger.
“I think she was born with it” H. told me. The finger nestled within her hands when they lay peacefully in her lap on our visits and emerged to expertly unwrap foil from the chocolates proffered each time, extracted from countless stashes in drawers and cabinets. I periodically find them in my pockets, red and gold and purple foil-wrapped packages of Grandma’s abundant love manifested in cocoa butter and sugar.
“I was…sugar water..others… outside playing” she speaks with effort. This month everything has radically changed. These visits aren’t so much an easy source of delight in an ever-present source of love in the world. H’s grandmother becomes confused and fearful, in need of reassurance. Today is one of her better days though her speech still comes more slowly than before and she looks inward as often as she looks outward.
“Grandma! Tell me about your mother! You like to talk about your mom!” H. hollers close to her ear. Sometimes it is not clear: did she not hear, or is she adhering to her own cosmically-attuned inner agenda? Today she periodically, for unknown reasons, says “Vodka!” and looks at us sternly. Earlier in our visit H. described a recent trip with beloved friends and colleagues. Her grandmother listened carefully and then responded, very clearly, “Joyride.”
“Yes, Grandma. It was.” H. said. Grandma has lived a good life with love in her heart for ninety-six years, so it makes sense that she can cut right to the heart of the matter. Though the vodka declarations remain mysterious.
”Did your mother have a sweet tooth too?” I gently yell in her other ear. She wakes from her reverie and a story rolls off of her tongue.
“I was…sugar water…others…playing outside.” She looks down at her finger.
“You were stirring?” I ask.
“Yes, I was stirring. In those days, if you wanted candy, you had to make it. I was watching them play out the window and my finger slipped in- at first they thought I would lose the finger. But they saved it. The doctor lived at the bottom of the hill, so I just ran down the hill, and my sisters told my mother, so she was running right behind me. The doctor cleaned it up and at first they didn’t know if they could save it. I went every day after school.”
“Grandma, I didn’t know that” H. says. We are all looking at her finger now.
“I always used to hide it after that. Then Lisa told me it was my special finger, my baby finger. She told me that every time she came, and now I don’t hide it.”
She begins again. “I had a little girlfriend who had a little boyfriend- a boy who was her friend, five, and he told her to lay her finger down on the ground, so she did, and he chopped it off with an axe. That was worse, it was her thumb, and then she thought that no one would ever love her. But we both had people come into our lives.” Another pause, as she listens inwardly, diffuses, and then re-focuses, right on us. “Maybe this is why you came today. So I can tell you this story and you can know you are loved.” S., who has been manfully fending off tears for several minutes, both laughs and tears up and I do as well. I laugh like this when children unknowingly speak remarkable truths and I try to explain to them that I am not laughing at them, I laugh because of how true it is.
“Holy laughter. That’s what it’s called. Tears and laughter at the same time. It’s good. Sometimes at funerals, you have holy laughter.” At the word funeral H. has to look away. I still have some distance, some reserve. As much as I love her she is not my family. I have not known her my whole life. This does not mean she cannot instantly disarm me, even from this supposed ground of safety. “It’s good you came into her life” she tells me. “You came into her life, and you also came into my life.” She looks right at me. Never underestimate the power of a ninety-pound ninety-six year old grandmother in a wheelchair. Holy laughter, I feel you.
“Grandma!” H. says. Our knees are almost touching, H. and I in chairs and her grandmother in the wheelchair.
“May the circle. Be unbroken” she says with effort again, and then clearly, firmly even: “I had a home and now it is gone, and Jesus is my home, and I hope he takes me home soon.” She speaks assuredly and kindly and now S. has to actually stand up and go examine the phone really closely and cry for a minute because it hurts too much to think about saying goodbye to your favorite person in the world. The phone rings, her daughter checking in, and in a confusion of phone cord and oxygen tube and hospital beeper cord and wheelchair rolling we hug and say goodbye for now.
H. and I leave and I appreciate that we have some time on the road between hospital and home. I don’t see old people very much. I don’t hear these stories anymore. At school we have a book called “Grandmother’s Stories.” The book contains stories of all varieties that are framed by the grandmother telling them. Probably some of the young children in my class still hear true grandmother’s stories, but it is not only the very young who need to hear them. How are we supposed to know how to live when we are not informed by the people among us who can offer us stories framed by almost one hundred years of life experience? I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, told first by her, and then by her children. They were told at her table, over tea and cake, told over our heads, then to us, and now by us. I tell them to the children at my table. I tell my grandmother’s stories of her grandmother.
A sweet tooth, a pot of sugar water, a missing fingertip; a desperate run down the hill, mother trailing after; the rescuing of her finger in later years by her granddaughter, who trims her nails and paints them a different color each time. How we hold each other, how we save each other, how we tell the story.