Dreams, dentists, doorways, and demonic sounds at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning

I.

The dream is ridiculous. I’m walking through a forest with Ender and Flora—Cinder is around, but on the periphery of my dream and my awareness—and I can smell the moistness, freshness, aliveness of the air, and all is good, when suddenly—the whirr of a lawnmower. Not just any lawnmower—a power ride-on mower. You know, the kind of must feel like riding an ATV or something?

I hear it… and then I know IT IS COMING RIGHT FOR US.

And there it is. Possessed, like Christine.

We run.

For reasons that seem ridiculous to me even in the dream, we run on a large, clear, paved path that cuts through the forest. “We’ve got to get into the trees!” I tell the kids and try to pull them off the path. “But it’s easier to run on the asphalt!” whines Flora.

The lawn mower whirrs louder, comes closer.

They finally let me drag them into the woods… and then… we see the world’s largest anthill. It’s not an anthill—it’s an ant-Metropolis. Hills and hills and hills of pine needles. Becoming mounds that are larger than us—larger than the trees.

So of course that’s where we hide.

We crouch down in an enclave between the hills. And, we stay safe and hidden as the lawn mower powers past us.

The ants don’t bite.

Sitting in the curve of the anthill, I am aware I am dreaming. I am aware that hiding from a possessed lawnmower in a giant anthill in the middle of a forest through which cuts a perfectly straight paved path is kind of… ridiculous.

I wake up to the sound of a gas-powered leaf blower in the alley.

At least one mystery, explained.

II.

We have health benefits again, and so—everyone gets to go to the dentist. We are… well, happy’s not the right word. Resigned? We know we gotta.

I schedule all the kids’ cleanings simultaneously, so that the dentist kills only one of our precious spring afternoons.

Cinder: Ugh. I hate the dentist. And you know what I hate the most? The lecture. “You need to brush more. You need to floss better. Blah blah blah.”

Flora is quick to agree.

Flora: I think of myself as a pretty truthful person. But that all goes out the window as soon as I go to the dentist. “Yes, I brush six times a day. Yes, I floss after every meal. Sometimes in-between, just for fun. No, I never ever eat candy or drink pop.”

I laugh.

Ender curls into a fetal ball and cries and refuses to get into the car. I want to curl up into a fetal ball and cry with him. Instead, I cajole.

We go.

We survive.

When we get home, Flora unloads 17 packets of floss from her pockets.

Jane: What the hell?

Flora: See? It starts with a lie. I lie to the dental hygienist, and then I steal the floss. When I become a criminal mastermind, you will know it’s all the dentist’s fault.

I laugh. Although I also kind of want to curl up into a fetal ball and cry.

I hate going to the dentist.

III.

In something I’m writing, there is this phrase… “as I walk into the door.” It takes me about ten minutes of staring at it to realize that should be “as I walk through the door.”

Then I spend twenty minutes pondering if what I meant was “as I walk into the door”… what was I thinking? Was the door closed? Did I smack my face into it? Is that what walking into a door means? “I walk in a door.” “I walk into a door.” “I walk through a door.”

Flora: It’s supposed to me “I walk through the door.”

Jane: You sure?

Flora: Yup.

I think she’s right. Except that I feel as though I walked into the door. My entire face hurts.

Why?

Oh. Dentist.

IV.

I suppose being a responsible adult involves going to the dentist regularly regardless of how little you like it.

But you know… being an adult also involves deciding that you’re not going to be treated like a helpless child when you sit down in that chair.

Dental hygienist: So, do you have any concerns?

Jane: Yes. I’ve been able to vote for more than two decades now. I have three children and an assortment of degrees. I’m, generally speaking, a competent and accomplished person. And I am never, ever, ever going to get any better at my dental hygiene. I will not brush my back teeth more thoroughly. I will not master whatever up-down-circular-left right thing you want to show me this year. I will not floss more regularly or more aggressively. I will do what I’ve always done, and I’ll come back here next time with the same load of plaque and tartar on my teeth. And what I want you to do is clean it off without lecturing me or talking to me as if I’m a simple-minded idiot who doesn’t know how to use a toothbrush. Are we cool with that?

Dental hygienist: …

Jane: You can talk. I just don’t want to be told that I’m brushing my teeth wrong. K?

Dental hygienist: K.

K.

Except for the part where she cried, that went pretty well.

V.

The worst part of going to the dentist—even worse than the lecture and the nurturing of one’s inner liar (“Yes, I floss after every meal!”)—is the sounds.

The drill. The polishing toothbrush. All of it. Awful.

My soon-to-be-made fortune to the person who invents silent dental tools.

Seriously. How hard can that be? Get on it. You WILL make a fortune, even if I don’t.

And after you do that—the silent lawnmower and the silent leaf blower.

In the meantime… if you own a not-so-silent one and live in my neighbourhood? Could you please, please, please NOT operate it at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning?

Please and thank you.

xoxo,

“Jane”

Alternative facts, subjective truth & the emergence of reality deniers

I.

True story:

A Facebook acquaintance shares a link accusing the government of doing something “immoral and corrupt.” It’s a link from one of those sites. You know? Not an actual news outlet, but PeopleAgainstTruthAndRationalThinking.com (btw, that URL is available if you’d like to claim it, you’re welcome). Someone calls her on it—says, um, “The source for this news isn’t real. I don’t think this news is real.” She comments back, “I don’t care. This government is immoral and corrupt and must be stopped.”

I fucking weep.

Truth is no longer just optional, it’s completely unnecessary. Nobody wants to learn, reconsider, reflect. They just want to feed their anger, fuel their demons—find support for what they already think. Facts be damned.

I am purposefully not telling you which level of government, from which region/country, she’s talking about—or which decision—because it doesn’t matter.

Facts don’t matter.

II.

My children devour YouTube vloggers and social memes. I am a killjoy. Deprogram.

“Interesting. What’s the source for that? Is that true or is that his opinion? So is he riffing off actual facts or is he making up shit? Let’s find out.”

“Mom, it’s just funny!”

“But if it’s funny and it’s not true—but it makes people think that it’s true—then… is that right? What do you think?”

Fuck. Has raising critically thinking humans always been this hard, or has the Internet made it exponentially harder?

III.

Not a true story, just my opinion, completely based on anecdotal evidence and unsupported by research or a systematic review of the evidence:

The Internet makes smart people smarter. And it makes dumb people dumber.

Wait. I didn’t mean to say that. Because nobody ever changed anybody’s mind by calling them stupid.

Oh, wait. It doesn’t matter. Nobody actually wants to have their mind changed anymore. Not even smart people.

IV.

Jane: OMFG, the world is ending.

Sean: And this is why we don’t let your Mom watch the news.

Jane: I’m going to bed with Jane Austen. OMFG. Wake me up in two decades. Or after the Apocalypse.

V.

True story:

Ender: My friend said…

Jane: Is it true?

Ender: No! But he said it!

Jane: But is it true?

Ender: He said it!

Jane: But sweetie, you know it isn’t true.

Ender: But he said it!

See?

VI.

So I’m thinking about buying PeopleAgainstTruthAndRationalThinking.com and then setting up a Patreon or crowdfunding campaign to protest or support something or other. Clearly, it doesn’t matter WHAT.

Because facts don’t matter.

Except… of course they do.

They must.

Truth is not optional.

And if the woman who lies for a living tells you that… you KNOW it must be true.

😉

“Jane”

PS I think I coined the term “reality deniers.” D’you think it will take off? Should I trademark it?

A narcissist, a psychopath, and a hypocrite walk into a bar…

I.

Put in a position where I must act either like a social hypocrite or a ruthless bitch without feelings, I don’t even choose the latter—I am the latter because I can’t be the former—and by the way, this convention, this use of latter and former, is so fucking pretentious, I can’t believe I’m using it. Confession: when I encounter it when reading, I always have to scrunch up my forehead, and look carefully—ok, latter refers to… ok, got it… I think… or did I screw it up? Is former before? Former’s before, right? And latter is later? Why didn’t they just say first point, second point? Or parse the sentence differently?

Anyway. My point: I don’t choose to be the ruthless bitch without feelings. I just am one.

Except, of course I’m not. Well. I can be ruthless. But ruthlessness is a characteristic that’s rooted in pretty intense emotions. For me, anyway. And acting ruthless involves looking at the intensity of those emotions… and then cutting a straight ruthless path through them… to the right thing.

The right thing, being, of course, an entirely subjective thing, so let us qualify it as… the right thing for me, the right thing as perceived by me, the important thing in that moment.

The right thing, for short.

II.

Sometimes, I coach Flora on how to do the kind thing instead of the right thing. Because, you know, I want her to do better than me.

Flora: But don’t you think ruthless people are more efficient?

Fucking nailed it, baby. But I don’t think… efficiency… is the thing that’s supposed to make the world go round.

III.

I’m taking lessons in social hypocrisy from a psychopath.

No, seriously. He’s been tested. Not even a borderline psychopath. We’re talking, off-the-charts scores. But, he had a really good mother, who taught him how to… fake it.

Except he doesn’t call it that. He calls it analyzing a social situation and acting appropriately.

Jane: Ok, for the last time, I don’t have that gene.

Psychopath: Neither do I. It’s a socially learned behaviour. Let’s try again.

The lessons are not going well. I think, at least in part… because I’m proud of my INability to engage in that type of behaviour. You know?

Although I do know… white lies make the world go round.

IV.

Ender has that gene. In spades.

Cinder: He’s lying!

Ender: I’m not!

He is… except in his head, he’s just saying the thing everyone wants to hear. Well, not everyone. His parents.

Cinder: Stinking little liar!

Jane: He’s not lying, sweetie, he’s just…

What? Protecting himself? Protecting me. Something like that. It’s not a bad thing, you know. As someone who doesn’t have that ability, I do appreciate it in others.

V.

Except when I don’t.

Jane: And for fuck’s sake, next time? Just tell me—‘I don’t want to—I just really need to be alone.’ Don’t come up with excuses. False excuses have no place between friends.

Her: You’re telling me you wouldn’t have been mad if I had told you the real reason?

Jane: I would have been fucking livid. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on.

Her: You are very scary when you are livid.

Truth.

Jane: I would have been livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: I would have tried to be livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: Ok, I would have probably freaked out at you. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on, and apologized.

Her: …

Jane: What? I am really good at apologizing.

I’m just not that good at social lying.

Which is actually hilarious, because I’m really good at story telling. And you’d think the two would be related.

But they’re not.

VI.

Something else that’s ironic: the psychopath occasionally calls me a hypocrite.

Jane: What the hell? Seriously?

Psychopath: You have completely different expectations of other people than you have of yourself.

Jane: That’s not hypocrisy. That’s common sense. I’m not like other people, so of course I have different expectations of myself.

Psychopath: You might also be a narcissist.

Note to self: when a psychopath calls you a narcissist, it’s even odds whether he’s being casually analytical or coolly manipulative.

In either case, there’s only one right response.

Psychopath: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you upset me!

See? I am not a ruthless bitch without feelings.

Just… ruthless.

xoxo

“Jane”

You: WTF?

Jane: I’m experimenting and practicing.

You: What? Incomprehensibility?

Jane: …

You: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you just don’t understand me!

;P

PS New here? Catch up on the first three series of Postcards from Cuba. Or just browse.

Buddhists make bad artists or is it the other way around?

I.

Feeling out of sorts yet knowing what he should do, he texts me, partly to whine, partly to ask for advice he won’t take.

“I don’t do that anymore,” I tell him, and as I type the words, I decide it’s true. No more advice, gentle or forceful. No more suggestions. No more answers to questions either explicit or manifestly implied. Figure it out on your own.

Also, no more listening to anyone’s whining.

I make that explicit, too.

“In a mood?” he asks.

“Yes. And I like it. I hope it stays permanent.”

We end up talking about religions, gods, and faith—or lack thereof—will, mindfulness, and discipline—or lack thereof—and the relationship between art and suffering, also the connections between inner discipline, the ability to exist in a place of discomfort, and sex and its permutations.

Much better than him whining and me offering solutions and advice he doesn’t really want, won’t implement.

“So what happened?” he asks after a while. “Advice given gone horribly wrong?”

I’d tell you I shrugged, except we were texting, so, well, I couldn’t.

“I’m in a mood,” I say. Tell him a little more and we return to bigger, more interesting topics.

I won’t tell you what I told him about my mood because A. it’s a boring story and B. I’m done telling it now. Its summary and my take-away is that you can’t save people. I used to have a caveat on that—you can’t save people if they’re not willing to save themselves, but now I’ve struck it. You can’t save people. They have to save themselves.

The only help you (I) can offer… I suppose, really, it’s your (my) presence. I’ve quoted Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mantras of Loving Speech at you before, right? This is the most important one:

I’m here for you.

Except when I realize even that doesn’t help you—and it actually harms me—and then, I’m not.

I’m a terrible Buddhist.

It’s ok. I’m not trying to be a good one, or even an indifferent one.

“You’re a pagan,” he says.

I shake my head. (Well, we’re texting, so I actually write, “No, I don’t think so.”)

“I’m an artist,” I say.

Last week, I purposefully did not write about selfishness versus self-care (and, more importantly, versus self-actualization).

Today I will tell you this: a certain amount of selfishness is critical to physical survival and emotional stability… and to making art.

Not too much. An excess of selfishness makes your art meaningless and self-indulgent—unable to reach people, without resonance… and thus pointless.

Not enough selfishness makes your art… non-existent.

I told you, I’m a terrible Buddhist.

But I’m a practicing and producing artist.

II.

I’m still meditating, twice a day, and laying down in savasana most days.

I’m doing it wrong, because instead of infusing me with boundless compassion, it’s giving me cruel clarity.

And also ramping up my productivity… exponentially.

Like, holy fuck.

So… I don’t actually want to do it right, you know?

;P

xoxo

“Jane”

You might want to re-read this: Meditation for writers, “Mom! I need you!” and struggling to stay on that tightrope (but for fuck’s sake, don’t misconstrue it as advice)

Escape from the ashram (an entirely misleading title, but not really)

I.

This was last week:

This was two years ago:

This was seven years ago:

(And fourteen years ago, there was just one of them, and it was all harder, because it was new.)

You send me this:

and we laugh. But then I think… no. No, actually, that’s wrong. For me, anyway. See, without the children, I wouldn’t have written any of the work that really matters to me—the books, the best blog posts, the articles that captured the tension inherent in all aspects of business and life (especially for women, especially for mothers).

More—before children, I did not know how to love. I did not understand what suffering really was.

There’s a quote I’ve intermittently encountered (I haven’t been able to track it back to its source, my apologies) along the nasty lines that for a woman writer, every child is a lost book. It has always made me bridle, and today, I would like to officially say to that originator of the quote and everyone who has since repeated it, as an excuse it keep herself silent: So. Fucking. Wrong.

I do get why they say it, you know. Why they might even believe it. We live in a culture that hasn’t figured out how to value women, motherhood, or creativity—International Women’s Day, the still-enduring lip-service to the Victorian Cult of Motherhood, and adoration of WEALTHY and FAMOUS musicians, painters, and authors notwithstanding. Being a woman-mother-creator is much more difficult in a patriarchy (we’re still one) than being a man-father-creator. Our burden is bigger. And, we’re not supposed to—we’re terrified of being—selfish.

II.

Ender is playing a Lego.com video game on Sean’s laptop at the kitchen table while I sit beside him and work on mine. Flora comes in, to the soundtrack of a Harry Potter audio book. Groggy-eyed, she asks for a kiss and French toast; I ask for fifteen more minutes.

When Cinder trundles down the stairs before noon—well, probably after—I will thank him for doing the dishes before going to bed at 3 a.m. And stand on my tiptoes to kiss his chin, because I can no longer reach his forehead unless he stoops.

And then I will tell him I’ve found a way for him to earn the $50 that’s his heart desire right now.

III.

I don’t actually want to write about the difference between selfishness and self-care (and, more importantly, self-actualization). A. Everyone else is doing it and B. It’s not a paradigm I’m going to shift in that particular way (I have another plan, but it’s a secret, sssshhhh). Instead, I want to tell you how important it is for me that my work be rooted in this messy, crazy, unpredictable, demanding FULL life. In this kitchen. In this family. In this community that throws an extra obligation at me just as I need to hit a critical deadline. In… reality.

Not in an ivory tower or the isolation of a writer’s retreat or an ashram.

Instead: in this child’s need to crawl into my lap at the precise moment that I need both hands to type and all my faculties focused on what it is I am trying to put into words.

Jane: Ender, I love you, but get out of my lap.

Ender: I love you more, and I need Mommy cuddles now.

On some level, I have been fighting this for the past three years. It was three—three-and-a-half, coming up on four!—years ago that I realized the nature of my work had to change. Before, it was enough to me that I was writing for a living. How lucky was I? Writing for a living, and able to be the primary caregiver for my children. Supporting my family, fulfilling my need to be a writer, and being the mother I needed, wanted to be. What more did I need?

Well, as it turns out… there was some stuff… but that’s probably a novel in itself, or even a hefty self-help book (that one of you can write; as I’ve said, I have other plans).

During that transitional time, I spent a lot of time dreaming of month-long writers’ retreats and week-long conferences and government-funded residencies… I substituted them with occasional weekends alone in hotel rooms (or friends’ apartments) and self-created 12-hour writing marathons in cafes and sheesha lounges. I was chasing “the time and space” to really do my work, to give to it the attention and care it deserved—to give it the sort of focused attention I like to give my family… without, of course, short-changing my family…

…but there was only so much time to go around, right?

And so… a fight…

In the last few weeks, something has shifted.

I have long been able to see the value in this tension between the demands of my kids and the demands of my work. Before 2013, though, the demands of my work were mostly externally created. You know? Editor. Client. Magazine deadline. For the past three years—they have been increasingly, and now almost completely, internal. The drive to create, to make, to write this stuff—it’s all mine. It’s nobody else’s fault, demand, responsibility. I want to—I need to do this.

And now I see the tension between my desires and my life’s demands is not just valuable—it’s also critical. Necessary. Essential—it’s who I am, it’s the reason I write what I write.

And what I want to do going forward is not to alleviate this tension, but to continue to grow how my work comes from my life—how I perform it in the middle of life.

Now—this does not mean that I will not make focused time and space for it. I need that 12-hour marathon at least twice a month. That occasional weekend away is part of an equation that then lets me work in hour-long, 15-minute increments the rest of the time. And the week-long writers’ conference—it’s a gift I will continue to give myself whenever I can.

But it’s what I do on the ordinary days, full of mess and chaos and conflicting demands and dentists’ appointments and children fighting and supper burning and “fuck, we’re out of groceries again, am I a bad mother if they eat cereal for supper? Wait—they can’t even do that, because there is no milk” that determines what I make, how I create it… why I write it… and who I am.

This is a good feeling.

I hope it lasts.

III.

This is today:

xoxo

“Jane”

PS This is a disclaimer to mothers of babies and toddlers: My children are aged fourteen, twelve, and seven. They can get their own breakfast. And lunch. The elder two routinely make supper. Everyone’s old enough to do their own laundry, run a vacuum cleaner, take out the garbage and the recycling. There are no little people sucking on my nipples or needing me to change their poopy diapers. The amount of time that I have to give to my work now compared with what I had seven years ago is exponentially bigger.

Like… I can’t even express how much bigger. When they were little, real work only occurred when another adult could tend to their needs, or when they were asleep.

And they so very rarely all slept at the same time.

But all that time—it was like compost, fertilizer, seeds. This time, this current place of—I don’t even know how to express where I am, because it’s not a place of tranquility at all… it’s a place of explosive creativity and drive and celebration of tension, it is so many things, but tranquil, yeah, not so much—this current place-space I’m in has been created by journeying through the demands and exhaustion and challenges of the baby years and the toddler years and all those “I thought it was supposed to get easier, when the fuck is that going to happen” years.

I am still, to be honest, not sure that it gets easier. Parenting, I mean. It’s gets… different. And we get… better (or, in some cases, worse, but that’s also another story).

PS2 POSTCARDS IN CUBA, the final leg, you won’t get to see until the fall or so. Because this final leg of the postcards is very, very different… and I want to deliver it properly. And that takes time. This, incidentally, another shift: I have all the time I need—and I refuse to give myself Internet/social-media induced FOMO/YOLO/DO IT RIGHT NOW! psychosis.

Because… priorities, baby.

PS3 Sometimes, I think Maria Popova and I share a brain: Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence 

Figuratively dying, literally screaming, kinda lecturing

I.

On Monday, I do savasana the proper way.*

It is so fucking boring, I almost die.

Like, literally.

My heartbeat and breath rate slow down to nada.

Also, figuratively.

I am so bored, I think, this is what death must feel like.

(Hey, was that a moment of enlightenment?)

And then I think, fuck, if this is death, then I definitely want to live. FOREVER.

Jane: If you tell me again I’m not doing yoga and meditation right, I’m going to stop talking to you. FOREVER.

Sean: There is no right or wrong. But there is weird.

Well. I don’t mind being weird. But I hate being wrong.

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II.

Flora and I are burning hydrocarbons (sitting in a non-moving but engine-running truck) and listening to Hedley.

Flora: Do you know that this is the censored version? That it’s really supposed to be ‘Fuck that,’ not ‘Forget that’?

Jane: Yup.

Flora: So everyone knows.

Jane: Yup.

Flora: Censorship is so stupid.

Yup. Except…

I’m about to contradict myself. Take a deep breath… inhale through your nose… hold it… exhale in four snotty snorts…

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III.

Racism is stupid.

Sexism is stupid.

Being an ignorant asswipe is stupid.

You know what else is stupid?

Telling people they’re stupid.

Jane: See, nobody ever changed anybody else’s mind by saying, ‘You’re wrong. No, you’re not just wrong, you’re FUCKING STUPID.’

Flora: But some things are just wrong.

Jane: Yes.

Flora: So we’re not supposed to say that they’re wrong?

Jane: No, we can’t ever, ever fall silent, but…**

Why is this so difficult to explain?

16299764_1606280942721798_5284105856021656238_o

IV.

In my newsfeed: all the same things that are in yours. Including an exhortation that sanity lies in surrounding yourself with ‘like-minded people.’

So, um. No.

You: Surrounding yourself with like-minded people is stupid?

Jane: No. But it’s too easy. In fact… it’s cowardly. And it’s not going to change the world, and it’s not where sanity lies.

Do you know where sanity lies?

Sanity lies in not demonizing the Other. And the only way to not demonize the Other is to get to know the Other… and make the Other know you.

I’m not suggesting you love the fucking racists, sexists, homophobes, and assholes.

(BTW, autocorrect changes homophobes to homophones, and I do suggest you love homophones, cause homophones are cool.)

I am suggesting you… like, make them know you. You know? And that means stepping out of your safe bubble of like-minded people. Keep your bubble as your sanctuary and safe place, by all means. But fuck. Look around you. Right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative, if everyone in your life is JUST LIKE YOU… you’re part of the problem.

We’re all part of the problem.

16402681_1603887586294467_2982301685074332754_o

V.

Laying in savasana today I decide yoga and meditation are part of the problem too. A form of escapism slightly more palatable than substance addiction.

Sean: Ok, you really are not doing yoga right.

Jane: I don’t think anybody is doing yoga right, actually. That’s the problem.

So judgemental. I’m trying to find some compassion. It’s hard.

VI.

Jane: So see, I think what we need to do is sit down with the racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and all the other “What the fuck is wrong you”-obes, and…

Flora: Say “What the fuck is wrong with you?” to their faces?

I’m so fucking this up.

Why is this so hard?

Jane: No. I think we just have to say, “Hey. I’m… me. I’m real. Hey. Look at me. I’m a person. I’m a human. I’m a child-parent-worker. I eat. I breathe. In all the essentials, I’m just like you. You’re just like me. I’m looking at you, and I’m trying to see you as real. And I want you to look at me and see me as real.” Do you see? Because it’s  much easier to hate an abstract idea… than a real person…

Flora: And who did the shooter in Quebec City hate? Abstract ideas… or the Muslims he shot?

Why is this so hard?

VII.

Tomorrow, I’m going to lie in savasana properly. As a form of escapism.

And listen to Hedley:

And probably be part of the problem. Because the only way towards a solution I see is so hard. So hard.

I don’t know if I can do it.

And if I can’t do it… the Others won’t, will they? Why should they?

😦

“Jane”

nbtb-figurateively-collage

Photos from Project: Beautiful Things All Around Me 

* How I usually do savasana: American hell, the corpse pose & a murder in a yoga studio

** From Brainpickings: An Anthem Against Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Piercing and Prescient 1914 Protest Poem: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”

American hell, the corpse pose & a murder in a yoga studio

I.

For a family of atheists, we spend a great deal of time discussing hell. I guess mostly as a rhetorical or literary device, a metaphor. But still.

So what happened is they said something and I said something and they said something, and then:

Jane: And that, children, is why you’re all going to American hell.

Flora: Wait—there’s an American hell? How is it different from regular hell?

Jane: It’s like regular hell, except the US flag is burning and Donald Trump is president.

Flora: Isn’t that real America?

Jane: Right. I still keep on hoping it’s all a very bad, bad dream.

Flora: So what’s Canadian hell like?

Cinder: Oh, it’s very chill. You get to go to heaven as soon as you say, ‘I’m sorry.’

Flora: What?

Cinder: Yeah, Canadian hell is reserved only for the people who don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ when they accidentally bump into someone. But once you’re in hell, as soon as you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ you get to go to Canadian heaven.

Flora: Cool.

Cinder: Not really. I mean, if you think Canadian hell is boring, imagine Canadian heaven.

I think the awful moral of that story might be that evil is… interesting.

Disturbed?

Me too.

nbtb-naked-man-cafe

II.

My least favourite part about EVERY yoga/meditation book I have ever read (which, ok, is a grand sample of… three or four. But still):

“While you can meditate anywhere, it is best to create a dedicated space for your practice…”

…followed by instructions on what to put in your beautiful ‘dedicated’ room after you first unclutter it (and then, I suppose, go shopping for all the sustainable-organic-fair-traded crap that should go on your mindfulness altar).

(Wow, I’m a judgemental bitch. I guess I need to meditate more.)

As I read these privileged pronouncements in the kitchen-that-doubles-as-dining-room-triples-as-office-and-is-also-a-pantry, and then pop into the living-room-that-is-also-the-playroom-computer-room-school-room-library-arts-and-crafts-cupboard, then navigate the stairway landing that is also the linen cupboard—and this is all before I go into the hallway-that-is-the walk-in-closet-that-morphs-into-my-writing-space, I don’t feel an awful lot of compassion and connection to these overly privileged Omming people who are solving their life’s problems by sitting on a designer meditation cushion ($425 on sale at Macy’s) on a newly installed hardware floor (tatami mats are nice too) in an empty room in their 5000 square foot weekend beach house.

(So. Judgemental.)

(Rich, privileged people deserve compassion too.)

(Really.)

(But, fuck, sweetheart. It’s really hard to feel your pain and suffering when the amount of money you saved refurbishing your kitchen exceeds my entire annual income.)

(Yes, fine, so fucking judgemental. I’m taking my judgemental, compassionless ass to another yoga class. Sigh. Coming?)

nbtb-do-fish-exist

III.

So I’m laying in savasana—the so-called corpse pose—at the end of my “I’m a little worried it’s a cult because they’re all dressed in white and the teachers wear fucking turbans!” Kundalini yoga class (I’m doing yoga in January instead of writing, which was probably a TERRIBLE idea but more on that anon)—and the teacher is giving us a gong bath (don’t ask), and I’ve got to tell you, I love savasana. The first time I lay in savasana, I came up with a brilliant three paragraph pitch and completely refined AND managed to hold it in my head all the way home until I got to the computer. The third time, I rehearsed in some detail how I was going to break someone’s heart (not real) and then realized I was going to have to break someone’s very real heart and that sucked, but I was okay with that, and while not quite sure whether it was okay to use the script from the not-real heartbreak in the real heartbreaking, I had a definite script for both.

The fifth time I had the best-ever nap and…

Sean: I’m pretty sure you’re doing savasana wrong.

Jane: Baby, I get to lay still with no one asking me for shit for 5, 10, 20 solid minutes? I am not wasting that time NOT thinking.

…after I woke up, I really wanted to write you a long, detailed letter about my bizarre dream, but that, I did not manage to hold in my head until I got home and to the computer. There was a Phoenix in it, though, and some very bizarre Harry Potter-imprinting. Also, at one point, you were the Phoenix, and you very badly wanted some ice cream. Raspberry cardamom ice cream.

(Actually, I don’t know about that. The raspberry cardamom ice cream, I mean. I had some raspberry cardamom ice cream yesterday, and I thought about you as I ate it, so I have now retroactively put it into the dream. Which reminds me, another time that I lay in savasana, I was thinking about retrocausality and how what we do in the present and want from the future actually changes the past, and… but that’s another story. Where was I going with this one?)

(You: You were laying in savasana

Jane: Right. Thank you!)

So I’m laying in savasana and the teacher is giving us a gong bath (ok, fine, since you’ve asked again, what’s happening is she’s beating the gong and it’s causing these fantastic reverberations that are supposed to quiet—stun?—your mind and thrust you deeper and deeper into relaxation and connection-communion with your true self—I’m paraphrasing—but for the record, I did choose the most cult-like yoga class I could possibly find, why the fuck did I do that?) and I’m laying there and I suddenly get this great idea for a murder mystery set in a yoga studio.

The murder itself, of course, takes place during savasana.

I think the murder has to be the teacher.

But… oh…. yes!

I can’t wait to get home to tell the kids.

nbtb-artist-at-work

IV.

Jane: So what do you think?

Flora: Ok, let me recap. Everyone is laying on the floor in corpse pose with their eyes closed. And this loud music…

Jane: Gong.

Flora: …this gong is going the whole time. And so the murderer gets up, and kills the victim, and then gets back into corpse pose.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: And no one sees or hears what happens—because they were all laying there with their eyes closed, and because of the gong.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: But the teacher is beating the gong the whole time.

Jane: Or is she?

Flora: What?

Jane: Ok, two options. One, the teacher is innocent, and she’s so focused on banging the gong that she doesn’t notice what happens. We could even have her with her back to the class. Or beating it with her eyes closed too. Or—the music is played off an iPad or something and the teacher lies down and does the savasana with all the students.

Flora: Or, two, the students think the teacher is beating the gong, but she’s actually playing a track off iTunes, and she murders the victim while everyone else thinks she’s beating the gong.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: Too obvious.

Cinder: Are you going to put a police officer in the yoga class?

Ender: The police officer should be the victim.

Flora: No, the police officer should be the yoga teacher.

Jane: Oh, can you imagine how pissed… he? she?

Flora: He.

Jane: he is? Police officer. AND yoga teacher—all in tune and aware of people’s auras and intentions and energies—and one of his students kills another right behind his back.

This is the point in the conversation at which Sean joins us. And shakes his head.

Jane: Don’t tell me I’m not doing savasana properly.

Sean: I won’t. Just… when you go back to yoga tomorrow? Please remember you IMAGINED all this, and your yoga instructor is neither a murderer nor a police officer…

Jane: She’s… he’s the victim, the victim—the yoga instructor-police officer is the victim! And, on that day, his… partner? Or assistant? is in the class for the first time, and they’re both the crime solver, primary witness, and most likely culprit, and…

I wish I wrote murder mysteries. That one would fucking rock.

nbtb-boas-are-cool

V.

The next time I lay in savasana, I write this post.

But I’m still not writing. Still not writing. This doesn’t count, this never counts.

Why is that?

Hmmm.

VI.

Somewhere, in the space between American hell and Canadian heaven, there is…

Flora: Limbo?

Cinder: Purgatory?

…ordinary, everyday life.

Ommmm.

To end this post, lay down in corpse pose and treat yourself to a gong bath:

xoxo

“Jane”

Magic, yoga, meditation and being the centre of the universe (a 50% deceptive title)

I.

Monday was my father’s birthday, and he was very far away and I could not hug him and love him and thank him. I have loved him with a particular vehemence this week, for all sorts of complicated reasons. Among them, this: I was, I am the center of his universe. Completely. The most important thing ever. And he taught me to expect to be… the most important thing in everyone’s universe.

OK, this has occasionally made me a challenging lover-wife-friend (uhm, employee).

But on the whole, you know what? I’ll take it over the alternatives.

II.

mjc-cinder-with-maggie

True story:

Jane: Cindeeeer! Can you give me my little purse? The pink one? I left it on the table and I don’t want to come into the kitchen in my muddy boots.

Cinder: What’s in it for me?

Jane: My eternal gratitude.

Cinder: I’m sending it by express dog.

Jane: Do. Not. Fucking. Tie. My. Purse. Around… Christ. Why? Why? Why did you tie my purse around the dog?

Cinder: Because it was funny?

Jane: Because you like to antagonize me?

Cinder: That too. Also, with all this yoga and meditation you’ve been doing lately, I believe you need more daily challenges. And that’s MY job.

[insert bad word here]

[delete it, because it’s wrong to call your eldest son an asshole]

[even when he sorta is]

[sigh]

[a loveable, amazing asshole]

[just annoying]

[god, i love him… i love him so much]

III.

Am Reading:

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert—YES! And yes, you should read it too. All of you, any of you. Even if you hated Eat Pray Love—me, I couldn’t make it though that book… first chapter, I wanted to slap Liz upside the face and say, “Stop your fucking whining, privileged white woman. Jeezus, even I’ve suffered more than you.” Um… digression. Point: I did not like Eat Pray Love. I LOVED Big Magic. I ripped through it in a day and a half despite a hundred and one other projects and obligations.

My favourite part:

“Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trusts knows that the outcome does not matter.

The outcome CANNOT matter.”

The outcome cannot matter.

Fuck. That. Is. So. Hard.

But so necessary.

The most important lesson:

“When I finished that novel, it was not a perfect novel, but I still felt it was the best work I’d ever done, and I believed I was a far better writer than I’d been before I began it. I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.

But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new—something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.

Because that is the anthem of my people.

That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.”

My song, too. More or less.

IV.

Am also reading:

Yoga For Real Life by Maya Fiennes, Kundalini Meditation: The Path to Personal Transformation and Creativity by Kathryn McCusker, and A Woman’s Book of Meditation: Discovering the Power of a  Peaceful Mind by Hari Kaur Khalsa

Am re-reading: A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judith Reeves, which is quite fun and useful and playfully inspiring… and also, unintentionally (and it’s clearly me and not the author) depressing (I’m not going to tell you why) (yet).


I am not writing.

This is mostly on purpose…

You: And this blog post is what?

Me: Have we not covered this before? A blog post I can shoot off in 15 minutes while simul-texting with three people is not writing. It’s therapy.

…mostly on purpose. I am trying to reflect, regroup, refocus. Try to listen to that screaming inner child.

BTW, if you think it’s easy to listen to a screaming inner child, you are clearly childless. Those of you who have survived colic, toddler tantrums, and teenage angst know exactly what I mean.

She’s so fucking loud, she’s splitting my eardrums, and I know I’m supposed to love her, but right now? I hate her and I wish she’d move out.

V.

Have tried to read:

Prince Hafiz’s Only Vice by Susanne Carr. I read page one. Then skipped to the last chapter. Spoiler: they got together. True Thing: I really, really, really WISH I had been able to read through the damn thing. How hard could it be? I asked myself. Fucking read it. Enjoy. Relax. Chill.

But I just can’t. Prince Hafiz and his one true vice do NOTHING for me.

On my kitchen table:

Gap Of Time: the Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson. I’m not going to read it. I have opened it and flipped through it half-heartedly. I love Jeanette… I love Shakespeare… but if you’re going to try to one-up Shakespeare, you’ve got to be fucking brilliant. And Jeanette is often brilliant. But this time, she is just… good.

Good enough.

Just not good enough for me to sink into right now. I’m sorry. Jeanette, I’m so sorry. I’m going to try to get Sean to read it, and tell me about it, ok?

Also on my kitchen table:

G.K. Chesterton’s Complete Father Brown. Which I’m re-reading in bits and pieces intermittently to distract myself from the screaming.

(Inner child.)

(In my head.)

(Because listening is hard work.)

VI.

nbtb-notebook-in-red

I’m having a staring contest with something that’s either an idea or a deep-seated neurosis and…

Ender: Mom, can you peel this orange for me?

Jane: I’m busy right now, love, in a bit.

Ender: You’re sitting there staring at the wall!

Jane: I’m thinking!

Ender: Can’t you think while peeling my orange?

It seems like a fair request, right?

It makes me livid.

I peel the orange anyway.

VII.

Sometimes, words—shy words, trite words, words so true they sound clichéd because they have been said in that precise way so often because they are so true (I know exactly I did there, so give your high school English grammar textbook some Fentanyl and don’t resuscitate it until I’m finished)—sometimes, words like to come out only when it’s very dark and very quiet.

Like these words:

My smallest son, tucked
into my right arm pit, a whisper,
“You will never know.”
“Never know what?”
“Never know how much I love you.”
“I know.”
“No. You will never know.”
A kiss. My whisper,
“I love you more.”
“No. I love you more.”
A dark night.
“Impossible.”
“True.”
A heartbeat, rapid,
rhythm of a hummingbird,
breath steady, gentler than a whisper.
A sleep.
Asleep, my smallest son,
In my right arm pit,
I whisper,
“You will never know,”
He answers
with a hummingbird’s snore.

I capture them with my iPhone, left-thumb typing (the right thumb imprisoned under the body of my son).

I think it’s a poem; I call it, “Good Night.”

xoxo

“Jane”

The undocumented year

The book is called Adventures in Love, Life, and Laughter, and it’s the book Ender wants to read at bedtime. He just ‘stole’ it from Flora’s room, where she’s been going to bed with it for weeks. I’m pleased and terrified—the book is a photo-blog combo of Nothing By The Book’s 2011 posts and Sean’s photographs of the children.

“How old was I?” Ender asks as he looks for himself in every picture. “How old was Flora? How old was Cinder?”

“Two,” I say. “You were two. Here, you must be about two a half. Here… mmm, I think it’s just before your third birthday.”

“What’s this story? Read me this story,” he asks, and I do, and sometimes he loves them, and sometimes he cringes. “I never did that!”

You did, my darling, you did, I think.

But I don’t say.

instagram-l-hispeople

I have a book like that for every year, from 2005, through to 2013. I produced them as Christmas gifts for the grandparents and family—and myself—and now I know they are mostly for my children. I didn’t manage to create 2014—it sits on my computer still as an unproofed file—and Flora was so disappointed, I know I must make that book for her, and soon.

Sean put 2015 together for me as a Christmas present—it exists as an electronic file only. We must print it.

And now, 2016 is coming to an end, and I am looking back at it, and realizing my children are about to experience their first undocumented year.

Oh, not exactly, of course. The first three months of the year, the time we spent in Cuba, are documented up-the-wazoo—I’m not finished with the postcards yet—just with Havana. Our time in the fishing village/Varadero bedroom community of Boca de Camarioca is still to be released, over January-February-March 2017—bringing the story full circle and to a close. When I am done, I will put all of that together for the kids into a beautiful book.

But in the nine months of 2016 I’ve spent in Canada, my ‘real time’ posts have been rare and sporadic… and as I look back at the year, I have an eerie sense of an undocumented year. Even my Instagram—my back-up visual documentation (I am a writer: documenting in words is always my first choice) is sparse.

instagram-l-kitchentable

There are very good reasons for this lack of documentation. Producing the Postcards took much more time than just writing a ‘here’s the weird shit my kids said this week’ post takes. And the project felt so important to me, and so urgent: it was a high creative priority. I was also deeply immersed in other writing projects that again were—felt—urgent and important, and I focused my energy on them.

(Priorities, baby!)

And also… more and more often, the children are now my blog co-producers and… censors.

“Don’t write about that,” gets said in my house more and more often.

Actually, it’s more like:

“Don’t you fucking dare write about that!”

Jane: But it’s important!

“That’s why! It’s private!”

instagram-l-4inachair

Important. Private.

If you’ve been following my writing on life-and-parenthood since I became a mother in 2002, you will have noticed that this awareness—my recognition that increasingly, my documentation was invading my children’s privacy, and my struggle with that—has crept up on me slowly. I think it resulted in an unconscious shift, initially, into a more internal perspective. Flora doesn’t want you to know what she said or did, OK—but I have all these FEELINGS about it… and these feelings are my own, and I want to explore them and document them… which makes for a much more introspective, and much less amusing, way of writing than a piece on “House Rule #713, or, why we don’t have a lot of dinner parties.”

Important. Private.

The Internet and social media have created a fascinating world in which we don’t think things are important unless they are shared… and re-shared… and re-shared. Yet, after all… the most important things are… private.

And these too should be documented—for the people they matter to. And not thrown, naked, before the eyes of the world.

I started journaling again, privately, in 2014. I now have dozens (literally: 26 that I see from where I’m sitting right now, and at least two or three more tucked away elsewhere) of notebooks filled with barely legible long-hand that document all the things that are important—and private—to me.

Inside those private journals, there is a sub-body of work that is first drafts of posts, essays, articles, poems, novels.

Art. Which will be shared. After it is refined, revised.

Perhaps, censored, a little. Because… privacy is important. And the only things that are private are the things that are unshared.

So.

My undocumented year—it is not so undocumented, really. But the most important parts of it… they’re private.

And this is a good thing.

I think it’s important to consider that just because something can be shared—said—posted—doesn’t mean it should be. Sometimes, it is enough for a photograph just to be taken. A thought to be had. Written and slipped into a drawer.

Sharing is not an imperative.

It’s a choice—and it should be a conscious choice.

instagram-l-iamsam

*

So. What does this mean for Nothing By The Book in 2017?

I don’t know.

I think my biggest and most important task is to figure out how to document my children’s childhood for them without betraying them—and I can’t tell MY story without telling their story, right? We are so entwined. So that’s a challenge I will need to navigate as I write life.

I am creating and trying to figure out a whole new career at the moment, and that’s fascinating and amazing—but also something that I want to occur completely off the pages of Nothing By The Book. Which creates another censor and strain. How can one write honestly and meaningfully… when there are so many fucking censors involved?

I am also struggling with the nightmare of TOO MUCH CONTENT. As we enter 2017—and Facebook turns 13, Twitter 11, and Instagram 7 (the parallels between the ages of these social media and my children’s ages are hilarious)—we enter a world in which everyone is writing and talking… and too few people are reading and listening. You know this is true. Those of us who ‘produce’ (a telling word) ‘content’ (ditto) scan posts and articles not to understand what is going on but to get material for the shit we’re going to write and say.

This is a dysfunctional situation.

We’re all talking and writing. And there is so much STUFF being thrown at us to read-listen to-watch. TOO MUCH CONTENT. We know this, we feel this, we are overwhelmed… and at the same time, we suffer from that fear-of-missing-out thing… and we’re so rushed and crushed, we talk in acronyms. OMFG. FOMO. YOLO. TTYL.

Ugh.

Every time I release a post… I feel I’m part of the problem.

What would happen… what would happen if I just shut up for a while… and listened?

*

I don’t know.

I don’t even know if I’m capable of shutting up. 😉 Silence is very difficult.

*

instagram-l-leaves

This is very, very important (and not private, so I will tell you):

Before you tell stories, you need to listen.

You need to listen to the people you’re telling the stories about. You need to listen to the people you’re telling the stories for. You need to listen to your inner story teller too. What’s up with her and why does she want to tell this story?

And I think you need to have the courage to ask… is this story worth telling? Worth sharing?

I don’t think the answer is always ‘yes.’

You: It’s my story and I’ll share it if I want to.

Jane: That is, of course, your prerogative, always.

The freedom we are now offered, the extent to which we are able to share ourselves, our lives, our work—our innermost secrets!—is immense.

And powerful.

But.

I don’t know.

instagram-l-tarot

I am talking in circles now, and I am not taking you towards closure.

I should just shut up and listen.

Ender: Read me the book?

Jane: Ok, baby. Which one?

Ender: The one about me and my brother and sister.

Oh boy.

Mixed messages. Mixed messages.

2017, what am I going to do?

Merry All-The-Holidays, and may 2017 bring you many beautiful things… and the occasional gift of silence.

xoxo

“Jane”

Postcards From Cuba

2016 Posts that weren’t Postcards From Cuba

indulgent interlude (May 15, 2016)

journeys, birthdays, gratitude (May 24, 2016)

interlude: a perfectly ordinary monday (June 20, 2016)

Party in purgatory (July 14, 2016)

The price of flow (July 27 2016)

Frida Kahlo was a selfie master (August 10, 2016)

Hate and love, Frida and Hamlet, also, inspiration (August 17, 2016)

Expiration date (August 23, 2016)

Too. Much. Noise. (August 31, 2016)

A passion for learning and for life: unschooling and worldschooling in practice (September 6, 2016)

Proofing, planning, priorities, postcards (November 2, 2016)

STALK–er, connect with–ME:

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Say something PRIVATE:

nothingbythebook at gmail.com

Put your MONEY where your HEART is:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

Good night, Fidel

New York Times: Fidel Castro, Cuban Revolutionary Who Defied US, Dies at 90

Mr. Castro brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere, bedeviled 11 American presidents, and briefly pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. By Anthony De Palma

BBC: Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader of revolution, dies at 90

Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro, one of the world’s longest-serving and most iconic leaders, has died aged 90. By Sarah Rainsford

From the Independent: A Revolution is Not a Bed of Roses, and other Castro quotes

 

From the CBC: Cuban President Raul Castro announced the death of his brother on Cuban state media. He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: “Toward victory, always!”

and from The Globe and Mail: From Trump to Assad, leaders react to Castro’s death

U.S. President Barack Obama offered his condolences to Fidel Castro’s family and added that history would judge Castro’s impact on Cuba and around the world.

“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” Obama said. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

Obama added that during his own presidency he had worked to “put the past behind us,” while working on a future that was built on those things that were in common.

Good night, Fidel.

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: sketchy

For Nancy. From whom Cinder adopted “sketchy.”

Listen:

& read:

I.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Jane: “What?”

Cinder: “If I had to describe Cuba in one word: sketchy. The cars are sketchy. The buildings—not all of them, but too many—are sketchy. The food is sketchy. The buses are sketchy. The playgrounds… sketchy.

We are at a playground. At which I just told Ender to get off the swing, because, um, I saw the screw in the bracket that’s supposed to hold it attached to the upper pole wiggle and wiggle and wiggle…

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Well.

Cinder: “I’m going to ask Flora what she thinks. Hey. If you were going to describe Cuba in one word, what would it be?”

Flora: “Mildly traumatizing.”

Jane: “Is it because of all the dead bird parts in the Metropolitan Parque?”

Flora: “And the run down cemetery you made us walk through. Again.”

Cinder: “That’s two words. One word.”

Flora: “Run-down.”

Jane: “But the experience of a lifetime, right?”

Cinder: “Just keep telling yourself that, Mom.”

2-11-a-kidsoncementthing

II.

We’re walking this crazy loop through a section of our hood where we don’t normally go, and we get lost—mostly on purpose—and end up by the Havana Zoo.

Jane: “No.”

Ender: “But…”

Jane: “Absolutely not. Think about the Aquarium. Quite apart from the fact that the admission price is extortionate, it will make Flora suicidal.”

Flora’s already mildly traumatized, because we went through the Bosque—Havana forest and the Havana Metropolitan Park Natural area—which were wild and beautiful and utterly unkept up and full of garbage and also bird carcasses, what the fuck—and I can’t figure it out until we accidentally interrupt a Santeria ceremony and they’re not sacrificing any chickens, but suddenly, all the feathers and corpses make me think maybe it’s not just cats and vultures and words come out of my mouth, and Flora hates humans.

Flora: “If your stupid religion requires a sacrifice, it should only ever be a human sacrifice, goddammit.”

Jane: “So you’re cool with what the Aztecs were doing then?”

Flora: “Yes. Except for all the llama killing.”

Instead of going into the zoo, I offer to buy them some KFC-style fried chicken. We’re clever now. I order a single serving. “My kids are picky,” I tell the server. “If they like this, I’ll order more.”

Flora: “It’s edible.”

Cinder: “It’s not good.”

Ender: “I don’t think it’s meat.”

Jane: “Is it because you’re thinking about all the bird corpses?”

Cinder: “Well, I wasn’t, but thanks, Mom.”

Jane: “Just drink your Fanta and chew.”

They elect to drink their Fanta and be hungry. I take a bite.

I don’t think it’s meat either. Although—that’s definitely a bone.

2-11-a-sketchydeadrooster

III.

Santeria crash course: Santeria is what happens when Yoruba and other African tribal beliefs meet colonialism and Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the name the Spanish plopped onto the practices they noted among the slaves in the Caribbean. Regla de Ochá or La Regla de Ifá are alternate names for the religion that occurs everywhere in Carribean where colonizers and slaves collided.

Cuba’s version of Santeria is, like everything else about Cuba, uniquely Cuban.

As Vice’s Phil Hill Clarke puts its, “In its earliest days Santeria was an exclusive slave practice — a rejection of the masters’ Catholic saints and the colonial Christian God.”

One of the centers of Santeria in Cuba is the Havana suburb of Regla, but I don’t manage to drag the kids there.

Next time.

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IV.

The colonial period from the standpoint of African slaves may be defined as a time of perseverance. Their world quickly changed. Tribal kings and their families, politicians, business and community leaders all were enslaved and taken to a foreign region of the world. Religious leaders, their relatives and their followers were now slaves. Colonial laws criminalized their religion. They were forced to become baptized and worship a god their ancestors had not known who was surrounded by a pantheon of saints. The early concerns during this period seem to have necessitated a need for individual survival under harsh plantation conditions. A sense of hope was sustaining the internal essence of what today is called Santería, a misnomer (and former pejorative) for the indigenous religion of the Lukumi people of Nigeria. In the heart of their homeland, they had a complex political and social order. They were a sedentary hoe farming cultural group with specialized labor. Their religion, based on the worship of nature, was renamed and documented by their masters. Santería, a pejorative term that characterizes deviant Catholic forms of worshiping saints, has become a common name for the religion. The term santero(a) is used to describe a priest or priestess replacing the traditional term Olorisha as an extension of the deities. The orishas became known as the saints in image of the Catholic pantheon.

— Ernesto Pichardo, CLBA,
Santería in Contemporary Cuba: The individual life and condition of the priesthood

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V.

Our loop takes us past the Ho Chi Minh monument—which is his bust, bronze and conventional, on a marble block—again, conventional. Around it are red poles, roughly shaped into a tent. Part of the monument or a separate public art sculpture?

Cinder: “I don’t get it.”

I explain Ho Chi Minh to them briefly.

Cinder: “No, I mean, the theme of this park. Look, there are all these road signs, right?”

I notice them for the first time, but he’s right—here’s a stop sign, and here’s a yield, and here’s children crossing and…

Cinder: “And the path is painted like a road—see the separating line? So it’s like for kids to bike around in, and learn street signs.”

I nod.

Cinder: “And then… there are the stairs…”

So there are. In the middle of the road.

Cinder: “Sketchy. In a word: sketchy.”

I prefer… not well-thought out.

Like socialism Cubano.

Perhaps socialism itself.

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VI.

Segue: it briefly occurs to me that the problem with socialism is that Karl Marx formulated it at a time when the Industrial Revolution had totally and completely perverted the concept of work, worker… life.

He saw what was happening… and tried to think of a way to make it better.

But he didn’t think… maybe that’s not the way it ought to be at all.

VII.

Old school Castro and the Communists didn’t approve of Santeria or Catholicism or any religion. Religion, you may remember, is the opium of the people and all that.

Perhaps now recognizing that the people need their opium, new school Castro and the post-Communists have stopped actively repressing religion in Cuba. Well, mostly.

As a result, Santeria has undergone a massive renaissance. The BBC reports that it’s Cuba’s most popular religion, and judging by the number of iyabos (initiates), easily recognizable by their all-white costumes, head coverings and beads, the BBC is right.

If you’d like to find out more about Santeria, the aboutsanteria.com site and blog are a good starting point.

Short-hand: there’s more to Santeria than animal sacrifice.

But, that, too.

And the evidence of animal sacrifice causes Flora as much angst as roadkill.

I explain Santeria to the children, in rough outlines.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

Flora: “Very traumatizing. But then, so is much of this trip.”

What? Really? Why?

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VIII.

Barely a hop and a skip away from the Ho Chi Minh monument is a cemetery. Could it be the Chinese cemetery I’ve read about? I think I see Kanji…

Flora: “Seriously, Mom?”

Jane: “How can we not go in? It’s right here.”

Also, I fucking love cemeteries. All those silent stories…

Flora: “Dear Moxy. I have now been in every single cemetery in Havana. I’m sad to report each is full of decrepit graves, and possibly corpses, although most of the crypts look empty. Mom says the removed bodies have been probably removed by officials and not grave robbers.”

Jane: “Aw. You listen to me when I talk.”

It’s the Chinese cemetery. It. Is. So. Cool.

Cinder: “Sketchy.”

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Ingrates.

Jane: “Experience of a lifetime.”

Cinder: “Humour her. Quick. Before she decides to drag us to another animal sacrifice park.”

Flora: “Experience of a lifetime, Mom.”

That’s better.

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*

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: facts of life (and death)

For Jorge. Who most definitely does not have fleas.

You’ll be able to listen soon. Audio production on this postcard went sideways, but I didn’t want to delay sending the text out any longer. I hate breaking my own deadlines. 🙂

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In the meantime… read:

I.

On the way to Market 70—they say, the best stocked supermarket in Havana—we step over a…

Flora: “What is that?”

Jane: “Um, I dunno. A dead something or other.”

Cinder: “It’s a chicken. Well, half a chicken. Look, it’s still got its feathers on.”

Flora: “That’s terrible! That’s awful!”

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Friend to and lover of all animals, even the gross ones, Flora’s been extra-sensitive since the dead cat incident of the previous week (don’t ask) and I see her teetering on the edge of tears, and so…

Jane: “Sweetheart, you know all the chickens we eat were once people…”

…ok, that came out wrong…

Flora: “What?”

Cinder: “You mean we’re cannibals after all?”

Ender: “Chickens are people?”

So what I meant to say is…

…but they know…

…and the point is…

Flora: “I think we’re going to be vegetarian for the rest of our stay in Cuba.”

Cinder: “What, you’ve got something against eating meat that used to be people?”

I’ve always wanted them to eat more lentils.

I just didn’t think it would happen in such a traumatic way.

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II.

Cuba’s stray cats and dogs—and the occasional free range chicken—cause Flora constant angst.

Firstly, “Because they are so cute!” and I won’t let her touch them… or bring them home.

Jane: “Look, ooh, aaah, all you like, but don’t touch them.”

Flora: “But why not?”

Jane: “Because I don’t want you to get fleas. Or lice. Or mange.”

Flora: “Mange?”

On cue, a mangy dog runs up to us.

Jane: “Mange.”

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Secondly, because stray cats and the occasional free range chicken do not co-exist peacefully, and there are the feathers, and the not-fully consumed corpses…

Flora: “Why can’t they just live in peace?”

Cinder: “Don’t think of it as a dead chicken, Flora. Think of it as well-fed cat.”

Jane: “Not helping.”

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Thirdly, because they keep on wandering into traffic…

Flora: “Mom, there’s a dog just running down the street—look, he’s running in-between the cars, there is so much traffic, he will die, we have to call someone!”

I try to convince her that Havana dogs know how to safely cross streets. They clearly don’t—but the drivers don’t seem to speed up and aim for them the way they seem to do for pedestrians, so their chances of survival are good. Plus…

Jane: “We haven’t seen a single carcass, right, honey? So you know they must be all right?”

Why, why did I say that?

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III.

So. Since you’ve asked.

The dead cat incident .

We see a carcass.

Cat, I think.

Not fresh. Been there for days.

Right outside a nearby hotel. Well, not right outside. On the other side of the street. I suspect if it was on the hotel side of the street, it would get cleaned up. As is, it’s far enough away that the hotel disavows responsibility.

Flora freaks.

We avoid the place for days. When we come back…

Cinder: “Cat’s still there. I guess Havana doesn’t have a road kill department.”

Jane: “You’d think the vultures would take care of it.”

Flora: “You are so mean! I can’t believe I’m related to you!”

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IV.

Our landlord has two little dogs, and a beautiful sleek cat that roams the neighbourhood during the day and sleeps in his bed at night.

Ender: “Do you think Jorge has fleas?”

Jane: “Um… probably not.”

Cinder: “Mom? You know how if we die in Cuba in a horrible taxi accident, Dad will never forgive you?”

Jane: “Yes?”

Cinder: “If I get fleas, lice or mange in Cuba, I will never forgive you.”

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That’s fair.

Jane: “Then don’t touch any dogs or cats.”

Ender: “Or Jorge?”

Um…

Jane: “Just wash your hands a lot.”

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 *

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing, and reduces my dependence on American multinational conglomerate corporations:

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2-10-banner

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: a riff on race

For my Marie.

Today’s postcard is brought to you indirectly by an American multinational conglomerate corporation incorporated in New York, and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, which doesn’t exactly know what it is it is funding when it signs my cheques. And… written in February 2016, it seems horribly, horribly relevant today.

Listen:

And read:

I.

There is no class system or racism in Cuba. Read all about it: Castro fixed it all in 1959—a brotherhood and sisterhood of man and all that.

But my landlord is of Spanish descent, and the woman who cleans his house—my house—is Afro-Cuban.

II.

“the absence of the debate on the racial problem already threatens {…} the revolution’s social project”

Esteban Morales Domínguez
the University of Havana

III.

Cinder: “What the hell are you doing, Mom?”

Jane: “The housekeeper is coming tomorrow. I’m cleaning.”

Jorge’s much-too-beautiful housekeeper spends four and a half hours every Saturday cleaning this three-bedroom apartment top to bottom. She’s breathing hard and sweating by the time she’s done. It’s the kind of clean that I promise myself I will give my house every spring… and haven’t done for the past three years. You know? Windows thrown open and polished, every piece of furniture wiped down, every corner dusted…

She does it every week. And on Thursdays, she comes and wipes down the furniture on the verandah, and washes that floors, and the outside stairs.

I love it.

It shames me.

There are some things I won’t let her do.

I make sure the kids clean up their rooms and put everything away, so that all she has to do is change the sheets and mop the floor.

I clean the kitchen counters—so that all she has to do is mop the floor.

I take out the garbage. Because—well, you know, if it was just kitchen garbage? Maybe I’d leave it. But remember—I can’t put toilet paper in the toilet here. And nobody ought to have to take out my poopy bathroom garbage while my legs and arms work.

What would you call that, Fidel? Bourgeoisie guilt?

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IV.

A disproportionate number of the female hustlers—of sex and other things—seem to be Afro-Cuban as well, and almost all of the heterosexual male prostitutes—they wouldn’t call themselves that, but boys, that be the word—are black.

Beautiful, of course.

Escorting aging white women.

Jane: “No, thank you. I’m trying not to be a total cliché.”

When I stumble across the gay section of Playas del’Este, I see that the majority of gay male prostitutes are Latino.

Which in Cuba means white.

All of their customers, of course, are aging white men. Do they think they’re fucking white boys or does Latino for them mean not-white?

Aging fat white men. Jesus.

Flora: “Wow. Speedos. Just never a good idea, hey, Mom?”

Jane: “Yeah. Never.”

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V.

“[T]here is an unstated threat, blacks in Cuba know that whenever you raise race in Cuba, you go to jail.”

Carlos Moore, Miami Herald

VI.

In all the Cuba guide books, phrase books, jintera is translated as a prostitute and jintero as a hustler.

Does this bother you? It really bothers me.

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VII.

Also… if I meet one more tourist who tells me how wonderful it is that the Cubans are colour-blind—that race does not exist to them—I will scream, “Are you fucking blind?” at the top of my lungs.

VIII.

“The term that was used by the police force to refer to citizens who weren’t white was ciudadano con caracteristicas — citizen with characteristics.”

Alexis Romay, a mixed-race Cuban writer

(This statement is from one of the most insightful pieces on Cuba’s non-existent (ha!) racism in an article on the Al Jazeera website.)

IX.

Felicite is done and the house sparkles. I think it takes us about 10 minutes to mess it back up again.

But I know it’s clean under the mess.

Jane: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Felicite: “It is my pleasure.”

But it’s not. It’s her job. A hard, thankless job.

When I tip her, she gets offended. But is also grateful.

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X.

In Canada, my Marie works nights as a janitor, cleaning banks, clinics and what not. When I go to visit her, I help her out so that we have more time to play.

It’s exhausting work. Also, boring. And, kind of thankless, because you know, the next day, you have to do it all over again.

And also… taking out other people’s garbage? Tells you waaay too much about them. And sometimes, makes you hate them.

Jane: “These people are disgusting pigs.”

Marie: “Yup. I think it’s because they hate their jobs.”

Hate their jobs, hate their lives.

And yet, feel mild contempt for the people who clean up after them, at Marie and me. Don’t hide it. I find it fascinating… educational and demeaning (and therefore, so educational).

They’re so much better than we are, don’t you know—because we’re taking out their garbage.

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XI.

There is no class system in Canada. Just look at the surveys. We’re all middle-class—lower-middle, aspiring-middle, upper-middle. Rich, poor, in-between, doesn’t matter: something like 99% of the population self-identifies as middle-class.*

Because there is no class system in Canada.

Except that there is.

xoxo

“Jane”

Bonus Depressing Reading: The Tragedy of Cuban Racism, by Carlos Cabrera Perez, Havana Times (February 9, 2015)**

*I exaggerate, a little.

**Consider the source, always. But. Still.

The audio track for fragment of a love letter of a letter is now up. Wanna listen to it while you read the donation request?

*

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing, and reduces my dependence on American multinational conglomerate corporations:

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& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: fragment of a love letter

Today, you get to be a voyeur…

“…

Do you think that one of the reasons you are “always” good”—if this is indeed true—is because you are very much always—or usually, anyway—in the moment?

This is something I see and value about you—the intensity and focus of your presence in the present.

It seems… effortless. And for me, it is something that requires a great deal of effort. It is easier here, because almost every moment demands my focused presence. I must pay full attention to… crossing the street. Buying bread. Getting on the bus and off the bus. Negotiating with the taxi driver. Fending off the hustler.

Looking at the ruin next to the pampered, newly renovated villa…

Usually, though, my default state—I am here—doing, whatever, walking, cooking—and I am also in three places in the past and planning three things in the future—and that’s just reality, I’m also imagining an assortment of things that never will be—and oh, what if that happened and what if, when she gave her cell phone to that woman on the bus, that woman called not her husband but her drug dealer, and then he had this cell number in his phone, and one day, he calls it, and…

And then I burn supper, walk into a post, elicit a “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” from my kids.

I am fully present, sometimes, when I read poetry. That’s why I like your poets so much. During fabulous sex, but that sometimes requires conscious will…

When I hit “flow” when writing.

Birth, breastfeeding—these were also ultimate events of pure presence..

Rambling now.

But this was a thought I wanted to get down on paper (I will type it later, send it to you) before I blew it out with cigar smoke…

(Sheesha, sometimes, gets me there too. It slows down my head and I can choose to think only one thought –or not to think at all for the space of an inhale-exhale.)

*

the nights here are very noisy

…”

*

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(it’s still the weekend where I am…)

If you’re new to the Postcards from Cuba project, catch up here: POSTCARDS FROM CUBA.

If you’re a returning guest…

A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing:

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“Jane”

 

Proofing, planning, priorities, postcards

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You: Jaaaaane…. Jaaaaane… where are you Jaaaane? Where are my postcards?

Jane: Don’t talk to me. I’m proofing.

I’m almost done, almost done, almost back. You’ll get a tiny postcard this weekend, and over November, we will finish Havana—and then take a break for December… because how cruel would it be, to send you Postcards from Cuba while you’re bracing for a cold Canadian winter? I’m going to wait until January before doing that to you—you can enjoy our frosty December without that cruel taunt.

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In the meantime…

Flora: Mom? When did we stop having lunch? Is that something we’re going to start doing again?

Cinder: I miss lunch. Lunch was good.

Ender: What’s lunch?

Don’t feel too sorry for them. The house is full of food. Also, I have kind neighbours.

Her: Just wanted to let you know, your two littles are here. Can they stay for supper?

Jane: Yes!

Her: Do you want me to send something over for Cinder?

Jane: Yes!

Her: Have you eaten anything today?

Jane: …

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I’ll eat soon.

The house is full of food. Nuts and dried cherries and…

You: What the fuck are you, a squirrel?

…and Sean keeps on coming home with chocolate and cream, and it keeps on disappearing, so I’m pretty sure I’m eating.

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Confession: I love this.

I mean, it’s killing me, and my back and neck are stiff, and I want to claw out my eyes, and the house has descended into a new state of chaos—one of Ender’s friends thought she lost her iPod in our living room the other day, and I looked at the room, and I looked at her, and I sighed, “Well, that’s that then. You’ll have to ask your parents for a new one,” because looking for it would require excavation—and I’m feeling overwhelmed and terrified I will miss all my deadlines… but I love it.

So there you go.

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Remind me of that when I moan about how much I have on my plate right now.

You: You love it.

Jane: I hate you. Shut up.

Or, just bring me chocolate.

*

The real reason I’m writing to you today, though…

You: Because you missed me?

Jane: No, you missed ME. Remember? YOU, I carry around in my head always. We’re never apart.

…is because my silence and the disappearance of the postcards from your in-box is a perfect illustration of the fact that the only way shit happens is… DEADLINES.

So. Beloved.

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Before the end of this weekend, you will get an excerpt from a love letter. To tide you over until next week.

On November 9: a riff on racism.

On November 16: facts of life.

On November 23: sketchy—effectively, the Havana finale.

On November 30: “I miss you today.”

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There.

I have put it down in black and white; I have committed, and it doesn’t matter what else falls onto my plate in November, you will get your postcards.

Deadlines.

The only way anything gets done.

xoxo

“Jane”

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PS Some “from the archives” reading that is very apropos right now:

*

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: ghost

For Mark. Thank you! That was the loveliest, most generous of surprises.

Listen:

& read:

Today, I am a ghost.

I move through the streets of Havana, but I touch nothing and nothing touches me. I am apart—I’m not really here. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that I grip the rusted steel bars of a fence to check whether I’m still corporeal.

I am.

And yet. I’m not really touching them. This cracked sidewalk under my feet isn’t really under my feet.

Two men pass by me and I am sure that if they were closer to me, they would pass through me—and while I move out of the way for the elderly woman burdened with groceries… I think… I don’t have to.

She looks at me and she sees me, but the way she looks at me reinforces that I am not real.

I am a ghost.

Ephemeral, passing through. Here today…

…gone tomorrow.

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They all know this: the people queuing at the Cadeca, the grocery story, the bakery. The people crossing the street, the people crowding around me on the bus, the people selling me bread, milk, vegetables.

I’m here—but I’m not. I will be gone tomorrow.

I can be gone anytime I want to.

I am in my fifth week in Havana now. Were it my fifth month, my fifth year, it would not matter—I am not rooted to this place. I am not chained to it, and so not of it.

Lazaro, the doctor-turned-farmer-turned-taxi-driver, tells me that his greatest worry for Cuba is that too many of the people “worth anything” want to leave.

“That is all they dream of doing,” he says. “What will happen to Cuba if they are all gone?”

I understand his concern, quite acutely and practically. I’m a child of Eastern Europe, which for near 50 years bled its best to the West—I am a child of those who left.

Here, in this struggling country, hammered by history and “geopolitical reality” (“I don’t know how to say that in Spanish,” I tell Lazaro, but I don’t have to; he understands) I am a ghost.

Because I can leave any time I want to—they can’t—I choose to be here—they cannot make that choice…

I have been doing an assortment of things to not live like a tourist. Laundry by hand and flapping in the wind to dry instead of carted to the lavanderia, guaguas and long walks instead of taxis, groceries instead of restaurants.

But it doesn’t matter, none of it matters.

I can be gone tomorrow—I can leave any time I want to. They can’t.

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This meditation on choice, will, volition—will you let me use the word freedom?— has been haunting me as I’m haunting Havana today. I choose to be here—he doesn’t, not really, and she’d be gone tomorrow if she could, “not a single fucking regret,” she says. And even the people who are content to stay—if leaving is not an option, then is staying really a choice?

I realize, suddenly, that I live in a country—and more specifically a city—where virtually everyone makes a conscious choice to come—stay—leave—be.

If I wanted to—I could be gone tomorrow. And so could you.

We choose to stay.

It is not an unconstrained choice that’s equally available to each Canadian, Calgarian. Political freedoms are always constrained by economic realities, and no matter what your political system of choice is, it fucks over the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, always. Look to New Orleans before you get too self-righteous about the failures of Fidelismo.

But me… my family… my neighbours… we are where we are, we live where we live, because we choose to stay.

I find the thought… intoxicating.

So intoxicating, it is as overwhelming and overpowering as my earlier loss of corporality. I get dizzy and I’d sit down for a moment, but the owners of this particular villa do not want passers-by to use their fence as a bench and have lined it with spikes.

I lean my forehead against the stone post of the fence, paint peeling.

We choose to stay.

The most powerful… the most powerful, fascinating, growing places, cities in the world are places where most of the population chooses to come, chooses to stay.

I need to follow this thought places.

Stranger: “Lady? Are you all right?”

Jane: “I’m fine. I’m just thinking.”

Stranger: “About what?”

Well. Choice. Freedom. What life has handed me on a silver platter really, and what it stubbornly refuses you.

Jane: “How beautiful Cuba is. And how kind its people are. And how I hope…”

My Spanish is not good enough to express what is swelling in me, but “Ojala” in Spanish and in Cuban Spanish in particular stands alone.

Stranger: “I hope too.”

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I still feel… unrooted and unreal. In this place. But suddenly, so physically rooted an connected to the home I haven’t been missing, thinking about at all, I think I feel your heart beating inside my chest.

We choose to leave. We choose to stay.

This is intoxicating, an act of such volition, an expression of such freedom…

Do you understand?

*

Series 2 of Postcards from Cuba is brought to you by my creative and chaotic approach to financial planning, my bank’s poor judgement in issuing me a line of credit, and the occasional generous donation by fellow readers. Won’t you contribute as well? A $5 donation makes a difference and helps pay my rent, feed ma’ kids, and keep on writing freely:

PayPal - The safer, easier way to pay online!

& no, you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use the button. Thank you!

“Jane”

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: outtakes from the journal

For Helen. Just because you’ve been on my mind lately.

You asked, “So is this how you wrote all of them? In your journals?”

No. Not exactly. The journals were full of content like this:

Listen (for a just a minute):

& read:

One can’t really write a good /original/ poem about longing. It’s all been done before, said before, cannot really be improved upon, because nothing has changed…

Today, I wrote a piece about exploring Havana as a ghost… which morphed into a meditation on freedom-choice… and then, “fidelismo”… What has happened to this country is so tragic and yet… they are so fucking lucky, and they don’t know it. At all. They don’t see it—they don’t see the other turns their history could have taken, and that as far as suffering goes… there are significantly worse repressions. But…it is too easy to pontificate as an outsider.

So I won’t.

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*

Today’s postcardette is all a teaser for the next feature: GHOST. Stay tuned.

*

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“Jane”

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POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: rip off

For Janine. Who loves to haggle.

As always, listen:

& read:

My first day in Old Havana, a street vendor sells me for $5CUC what a local would think expensive at $5 local pesos (that is, $0.20CUC). She’s a damn clever hustler: she gives Ender a bite of it to taste and he thinks it’s heaven, and she knows I won’t say no—she crams a paper full of chikitos into his hands.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “$5CUC.”

Jane: “Seriously?”

Ender is already eating—but I’m staring at her so incredulously, she presses a second envelope in Flora’s hand.

Vendor: “Two for $5CUC.”

Jane: “That’s still extortionate.”

But, the deal’s done—now Flora’s eating, and I’ve got to get away from the witch before she presses a third package into Cinder’s hands and tells me that one is $5CUC all but itself.

Flora: “Why are you so mad, Mom? Is $5CUC a lot of money?”

So. Here’s the thing. It is and it isn’t, right? At the current conversion rate, $5CUC is about $8 Canadian dollars.

It won’t break me today—and it’s made her day.

But…

OK, the thing is—not even in Paris, Tokyo or Hong Kong, what she sold me would cost $5CUC.

I’m kind of pissed about it for three days before I move. Confirm the price always before reaching for something. Generally practice the act of asking locals from whom I’m not trying to buy something—hey, how much should that cost?

Occasionally, I’ll overpay. Make someone’s day.

For the first couple of weeks, anyway.

By month two? I don’t care about making anyone’s day.

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The street vendors around Parque Fraternidad cater to both Cubans and tourists, and the one with the cart full of cookies and “pastels”—sweets—zeroes in on me and Ender immediately as an easy mark—Ender saying “I’m hungry!” and pulling on my bag being a dead give away.

Vendor: “Treats? Treats? Really delicious. Do you want to try these, sweetie?”

He presses two colourful little bags full of coloured marshmallow like candy into Ender’s hand, and the six-year-old starts to rip them open.

Jane: “Stop!”

I put my hand on the bags—engage in a tug-of-war with Ender—win—put them back.

Jane: “How much?”

Vendor: “One peso.”

Cool. I take out a peso in moneda nacional.

Vendor: “No, no, no–$1CUC.”

Jane: “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Vendor: “What?”

Jane: “I don’t know how to say that in Spanish. You’re fucking kidding me. No fucking way.”

Vendor: “In CUP, $10 per one.”

A CUC is 25 CUP, so he’s not exactly cutting me the real deal here.

Jane: “Here’s $5 CUP. For two. And that’s still extortionate.”

He scowls. Takes the money. Gives me one packet of dime store candy.

Jane: “One?”

Vendor: “For $5CUP? One.”

Jane: “Fine. Thank you.”

Ender grabs the bag from me and tears into it, elated.

Vendor (in Spanish): “Cheap whore.”

Jane (in English): “Motherfucking cocksucker.”

We glower at each other. Not with respect, mind you, just with anger and resentment.

I can hear what he’s thinking. “It’s one fucking dollar to you. Would it kill you to give me one fucking dollar?”

He can’t hear what I’m thinking. Which is, “I am so fucking tired of being ripped off. And yes. It would kill me to give you one fucking dollar. At this point, I think none of you, no one should ever be given anything. It rots and corrupts and I. AM. SO. SICK. OF. ALL. OF. YOU. THINKING. I’M. YOUR. CASH COW!”

Flora: “Mom? Can you please stop staring at him? I’m getting scared.”

We move on, through Parque Central, towards Zuleta. Through a crowd of people trying to sell me tours, taxi rides, and directions to “a great family restaurant.” Through a chorus of “Do you speak English?”

Jane: “Nie, przepraszam, przepraszam. Ani slowa—ani po angielsku, ani po hiszpansku.”

It backfires only once.

Dude: “Russian? You speak Russian?”

But the look I give him in response makes him take two steps back, so it’s all good.

Flora: “Mom? You’re being really rude to all the people today.”

Jane: “I know, sweetheart. I just don’t have any more ‘No, thank you’ left in me today.”

Ok, except maybe for him, wow, eye candy, happiness.

Jane: “No, thank you. And there’s four of us. We wouldn’t fit.”

Bici-cab driver: “My love, you and your beautiful children, I will drive around for free. They’ll fit in the back and you can sit on my lap.”

Jane: “No, thank you. We’re almost where we’re going.”

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We’re going to the Museum of the Revolution. Like most tourist attractions in Cuba, it has two prices—a CUP price for Cubans, which makes it almost free, and a CUC price for tourists. Which is extortionate.

No, really.

Paris and London prices for cut-rate attractions. The equivalent of $15 Canadian to look at a frying pan stolen from a Battista camp and used by the revolutionaries in one of their camps in 1959?

I shamelessly lie about Cinder’s age.

Jane: “Slouch.”

Cinder: “What?”

Jane: “Slouch. I am not paying $8CUC for you. You are 12 and Flora’s 10.”

Cinder: “You are a terrible, terrible role model. We are going to grow up to be morally bankrupt.”

Jane: “Shut up and look short.”

The teller charges me for him anyway. “You need to pay for the eldest if he’s 12,” she says. I nod, fork over $16CUC. Feel ripped off before even going in.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Revolution before, so I know what I’m going to see—and I want to show it to my children. Debrief them a little, but not too much—mostly, this is an experience I want them to have that, at some point in the future, maybe we will go back to. “Remember when we were at the Museum of the Revolution and you saw…” As we move through the rooms, I explain a little about Battista. Castro. Che Guevara. Flora’s already a little in love with ole’ baby face, and who can blame her?

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Cinder loves the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis stories.

We spend a great deal of time looking at four hideous caricatures of Battista, Reagan, and the Bushes in what is officially called—I kid you not—the Cretin’s Corner.

“Thank you, cretin, for causing our revolution,” says the caption under Battista. Regan and Bush the First get, “Thank you, cretin, for helping to strengthen our revolution” and “for helping consolidate our revolution.” Ole W. apparently made the revolution inevitable…

It’s important to be here. I’m willing to pay to be here. And I think it is fair that here—and at every other cultural attraction—I pay more than the Cubans. That’s fair. Absolutely.

But the prices I’m being charged are outrageous. They are a grotesque money grab, and they make me angry.

And I’m sort of a socialist.

I’m not sure I will be a socialist by the end of this trip. It’s wearing on me.

We come out of the Museum with me desperately needing an antidote to propaganda. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Cuban section is literally next door. We walk over—“Taxi?” “No, thank you,” “Restaurant?” “No, thanks,” “Mom, I’m hungry, can we go to a restaurant?” “Baby, we can’t afford to eat in any of the restaurants these guys would take us to.”

We go look at art.

Two things happen. First, the entry to the art museum is $5CUC—which isn’t that much less than $8CUC, is it? Yet, psychologically, that three makes all the difference. I’m perfectly willing to pay $7.50 Canadian to look at art; in fact, I think it’s a great deal. Second, the cashier doesn’t charge me for “12 year old” Cinder. “You don’t have to pay for him,” she says. Adds, “It’s so good of you to bring your children here.”

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The art museum is structurally stunning—modern, bright, beautiful—and we all react to it expansively. Cinder, who doesn’t care much for paintings or sculpture, but who loves buildings, looks at the walls, the ramp, the courtyard. He opts to spend all his time outside. Flora and I move through the galleries in tandem, occasionally losing each other—always drawn back together by Ender. Who’s kind of bored…and then interested: “That is one creepy painting!” I love the mix of… social realism grafted onto pre-revolutionary European aesthetic combined with Afro-Caribbean imagery—and, hey, I bet my favourite Havana graffiti artist, I bet he was influenced by that artist over there, “Flora, come look!”

There’s some revolutionary propaganda art too. We study it in silence.

We all have to pee, but Flora refuses to use the first toilets, on the second floor, we go into. They have no toilet seats, she reports, the door doesn’t lock, and there’s no toilet paper. “I’ll hold it,” she declares, “You know I’m a camel.” Her mother and brothers are not, and I finally convince her to give the ground floor washrooms a try. “There are toilet seats,” I cajole; she succumbs.

The ground floor museum toilet, like most public toilets in Cuba, is operated by a toilet lady. This is a Communist invention, although I understand they can sometimes be found in Paris as well. Whenever I see one, I am 14 years old again and in Communist Poland, shocked to find an elderly woman sitting inside every washroom—doling out a square of toilet paper—and then expecting to be paid for the task.

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Interlude:

It’s 1988. The Berlin Wall hasn’t fallen yet, and using a public toilet in Communist Poland is no easy task for a Canadian child. My eleven-year-old brother spends 20 minutes outside a public toilet trying to figure out whether it is the circle or the triangle that defines the male. Decides to wait to see who goes in or out of which toilet, but as a long-haired headbanger—heavy metal is very big in 1980s Poland—comes into one and out the other—he’s still at a loss. Decides to try the triangle—at 11, he’s already figured out women are curvier than men. Opens the door… comes to face with an old woman… freezes… is about to turn back… when she says:

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

My 11 year-old brother: “What?”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Are you shitting or pissing?”

M11YOB: “I don’t think that’s any of your business!”

He takes her words as an indication that he is indeed in the right men’s toilet (“If it was the women’s she’d tell me to get out, right?” he explains when he tells the story later) and goes into a stall.

Does his thing.

Gropes around for…

M11YOB: “Hey! There’s no toilet paper here!”

Guardian of the Pissoir: “I asked, are you shitting or pissing, didn’t I?”

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Back to our story:

Cinder looks at the two doors. They’re both unmarked, but he sees a urinal within one, makes for it boldly. The toilet lady yells something after him.

Cinder: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. I really have to pee. That’s my Mom.”

I smile. “Mujeres?” I ask.

Guardian of the Pissoir: “Wait, wait, someone just used it, I will get it ready. For two?”

I look at Flora. She flushes. I nod. Two minutes later, she beckons us into the washroom. Hands each of us a napkin folded into a triangle. I send Flora into the first stall. “I’ll guard you,” I promise. “It locks!” she announces, elated. “And there’s a toilet seat!”

The toilet lady points to the other stall. “That one’s ready too,” she says. I go in. Pee. Use my toilet paper. Try to flush. No, of course not—“getting the stall ready” means that this toilet lady needs to fill a bucket with water and manually flush the toilet. Yes, it does.

Ugh.

“I couldn’t flush the toilet,” Flora whispers, and I reassure her that it’s ok, the toilets don’t flush—the attendant will do it. Her eyes go big and round. “That’s disgusting,” she says.

The sink doesn’t work either. The attendant points us to the soap, and then pours water from a bottle over our hands. Dispenses another napkin.

I give her a CUC, don’t question it. I’m not making her day—I’m paying for work I am appalled that a human has to do in 2016.

She was our sink, and she has to flush our urine, my blood, down Havana’s ill-working plumbing.

We make our way back to the Parque Fraternidad area, where we will catch our bus home, in silence. Ender’s tired, Cinder’s hungry, Flora’s processing I’m not sure what. We pass by the candy vendor who’s day I didn’t make.

Vendor: “Hey, sweetie, would you like… oh. It’s you.”

Jane: “Still feel ripped off.”

Vendor: “Bitch.”

Jane: “Hustler.”

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Get on the bus (less than a $1 CUP—I’m overpaying at $0.10 CUC—for the four of us). Go “home” to our non-tourist area, where I buy the children ice cream for $3 CUP a cone, and four mini cheese pizzas for $1.40 CUC.

Pizza girl: “I’m so glad you like these.”

Jane: “This is my favourite place to feed the kids. They love these pizzas. I think it’s your sauce.”

I make her day.

*

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Next week, there will be… ghosts…

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

For the great-grandfather I never knew.

Yesterday, I felt… heavy.

Today… well. Listen:

 

& read:

I.

My great-grandfather Victor was an idealist and a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party. He ripped up his party membership card in 1945—the year, incidentally, that Americans and Western Europeans celebrate as the end of World War II, and Poles also mark as the first year of the 44-year Soviet occupation that followed our “liberation.”

While Americans were popping firecrackers and getting ready to pop out oodles of babies, Poland—much of the war ravaged Eastern and Central Europe—was struggling with food shortages, created as much by the state at that point as by the consequences of the war.

Everything was rationed.

And Party members got more.

My great-grandfather found himself in a queue at a bakery, behind a young mother who asked for a loaf of bread, and got refused

“What’s going on?” he demanded, flashing his Party ID.

“She’s already got her allotment for the week. Today, it’s extra bread, only for party members, sir,” the little man at the bakery window replied.

My great-grandfather ripped up his party ID card on the spot. (My mother, incidentally, and two of her four siblings inherited that impetuousness and temper.)

“That is not Communism,” he told the stogey. “Now sell me two loaves of bread.”

The little man sold him the bread—which my great-grandfather handed to the woman who was just refused food… because she did not belong to the Communist Party.

My father was, for several years, a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party too. His father made him sign up. “You’ll never get anywhere as an engineer if you’re not a party member,” he counseled. By then, it was the 1970s, and there were no idealist Communists left in the party, only opportunists.

More than 40 years later, my mother—who resisted every attempt to enlist her in the party, even though for a medical professional membership was mandatory—brings up this act when she’s fighting with my father and wants to play dirty.

My parents emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1984, mostly as economic/merit immigrants on the point system, with a subtext of “we’re seeking political asylum” in their application.

“We don’t want to raise our children under the Communist system,” my father wrote in response to the question “Why do you want to immigrate to Canada?”

In the 1980s, that was all you had to do to claim political asylum in the Western World if you were white and your government was Communist.

Since the Cuban revolution—and this is a quote from The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act

“the United States is extra willing to accept Cuban citizens who are politically opposed to the Cuban government.”

All Cubans, who made it onto American soil via a barge across the straights of Miami—or an international flight from Bogota or Mexico City—had to do to claim political asylum in the US was touch American soil. The green card was virtually guaranteed a year later… although, it sure as hell helped if you were white. Or at least, you know, very pale mocha.

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II.

At first, I think Cuba killed its experiment with socialism when it introduced the CUC, when it started actively chasing tourists—when it showed its people, “OK, this way of living is good enough for you, but Western tourists, they have higher standards—they need air conditioning and a never-ending buffet table. Flush toilets. Modern buses.

Then I realize—no, it happened earlier, much earlier than that. It happened the first time Fidel Castro decided to keep an expropriated colonial house for himself—or for one of his friends.

9-Ruined Communism CUC

III.

One day, I get lost in the west-end of Havana, a suburb that looks at first like Miami… and then a New Orleans slum.

Suddenly, I’m facing a chain link fence and a swimming pool and tidy little buildings.

“What’s this?” I ask a security guard.

“Vacation houses,” he answers.

“For whom?”

On the left, for the workers of such and such union, and on the right, for the workers of two other unions.

It’s sort of a nice concept, right?

Except… ok, see, another day, walking along the shoreline where Miramar slowly morphs into neighbourhoods tourists never visit, we accidentally “break in” to a recreational complex, reserved for the workers of another union. It’s on a stretch of beach that, pre-1959, used to be dominated by private clubs, casinos.

I’m not sure that “exclusively for United Widget Painters of Havana, Factory 17” is that much of an improvement, really.

But today, I am not a socialist.

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IV.

There’s an old joke one of my uncles told me, back in the 1980s. I can’t remember which post-Stalinist Soviet leader it was about—Khrushchev, maybe, or Andropov? Let’s say it was Khrushchev—he’s the leader most on my mind in Cuba. So. The joke goes: After Khrushchev gets appointed to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he goes in a state-owned, of course, limo to pick up his mother. And he shows her his office, and his private car, and his other private car, and his apartment, and his vacation dacha. She looks at everything very intently, and her eyes get rounder and rounder, and she looks more and more fearful.

He gets pissed.

“What, Mama, don’t you like it?”

“I like it, Nikitka, I like it,” she assures him. “But what are you going to do when they come back?”

“When who comes back?” Khrushchev asks.

“The Communists.”

Ta-da-dum.

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V.

When Lazaro tells me that the nice, new buildings on the right are newly built for members of the army—and points out Raul Castro’s house, “one of his houses”—he does so with resentment that sizzles.

I guess, like me, he’s thinking about the shacks we just saw in which migrants from The Oriente live.

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VI.

“Religion is the opium of the people. … Yes, and music is the opium of the people. … And now economics is the opium of the people; along with patriotism the opium of the people in Italy and Germany. What about sexual intercourse; was that an opium of the people? Of some of the people. Of some of the best of the people. But drink was a sovereign opium of the people, oh, an excellent opium. Although some prefer the radio, another opium of the people, … Along with these went gambling, an opium of the people if there ever was one, one of the oldest. Ambition was another, an opium of the people, along with a belief in any new form of government…

But what was the real one? What was the real, the actual, opium of the people? He knew it very well. It was gone just a little way around the corner in that well-lighted part of his mind that was there after two or more drinks in the evening; that he knew was there (it was not really there of course). What was it? He knew very well. What was it? Of course; bread was the opium of the people.

Bread is the opium of the people.

Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio”

Mercado2VII.

I read Hemingway’s “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio” for the first time here, now, in Havana, in An Anthology of Famous American Stories, put together by the Literature Department of the School of Modern Languages in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Havana in 1953.

1953.

Hemingway is still alive. Living in Cuba, which is ruled by the American-supported dictator Battista.

The edition I’m reading is a second edition, issued in 1975.

I wish I could compare it against the original 1953 edition, because… well, this 1975 edition has the following introduction:

“This anthology of American stories has been edited in our country as teaching material for literature course that are taught at our universities.

The study of each story in those courses includes a profound critical analysis of the historical conditions, class position of the author, and the ideological aspects reflected in the work, in addition to the purely stylistical study of the same.”

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VIII.

I did not expect see so many parallels between Cuba now and the Poland I barely remember from the 1980s.

But they hit me, hammer me constantly.

I am my great-grandfather’s descendant, and I want to do violence to the betrayers of the revolution.

The Castros, first and foremost.

IX.

The security guard at the recreational complex of the United Widget Painters of Havana walks me and the kids off its filthy beach, past the decaying, empty playground and around the beach volleyball court with no net. There’s a line of string demarking the top of the net—blue—and the bottom—yellow.

“There are many good, fun things to do here,” he says. He shows me a cafeteria and an indoor games room.

Then gives me directions to Havana’s “Coney Island.” The beach there, he says, is public.

As I say thank you and wave goodbye, he’s moving slowly towards the complex’s main lobby, the centerpiece of which is a television that’s playing American music videos.

Playgrounds Banner

V.

“Revolution…is no opium. Revolution is a catharsis; an ecstasy which can only be prolonged by tyranny. The opiums are for before and after.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio

*

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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & then roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next week.

“Jane”

POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: heavy

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in-between the essays, there are messy journal entries. Such as this one:

listen:

& read:

Today, the tar from the cigar sits heavy in my lungs. The night is heavy—the air has been heavy all day, and my body feels heavy too—leaden—my mind, my heart as well.

I am suddenly aware of the weight of my… toes—the weight of the life the old man from whom I bought the cigar leads. The weight of the cigar, grasped between two fingers seems immense, and so does the weight of every word I write.

28.i.2016

*

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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & maybe roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next tomorrow, for this week’s feature postcard:

Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

“Jane”