Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Saturday, January 24, 2009
This photo was taken on June 6, 1958, the day I was baptized. I love this photo. It contains a rich tapestry of cultural, historical and personal details. The humanist in me can spend hours attempting to decipher what it meant to be human to these people at this particular point in time, and, in trying to find the answer, explore the question for my own life. In a sense, studying this photo is a meditation.
I was baptized in one of the oldest churches in Old Havana, Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, which means Holy Christ of the Good Voyage. It was a church founded within the city walls, so that sailors could attend mass and pray before setting off on another sea voyage. Cuba, because of its geographical position, saw a great deal of maritime activity, including pirates, as well as genuine traders, and, because of its natural coastal assets, it provided great harbors for larger vessels, who used it as a stop over on their way to Mexico or South America. This picture shows part of the old church walls and the massive door, that belie the size of the small church.
The photo is comprised mostly of extended family, with a few friends thrown into the mix. In many ways, it's easy to tell that this photo was taken in the 1950's: The hairstyles, the cat's eyes glasses, the singed waist dresses, the plaid shirts the boys are wearing and the mary jane shoes on the little girls are dead giveaways. Then I see veils: My godmother, Mama Lala, with the beautiful white chantilly lace mantilla covering her head, my aunt Olga, with her black veil still draped over her shoulders, just behind my father, a distant relative clutching her handbag and her veil, and finally, behind my Aunt Olga, a second cousin wearing both, cat's eyes glasses and a veil. The new merging with the old.
The men's clothing is also revealing. There are those in suits, like my father, looking so dapper in his white linen suit; my godfather, in a sports jacket, definitely a younger look. And then there are those wearing the "guayabera," the traditional and elegant shirt of the tropics. The guayabera is typically made of white cotton or linen, with vertical pleats running in the front and back, and four pockets in front (to hold guayabas, guavas, which is how it got its name). Cuban housewives would spend endless hours getting those shirts perfectly pressed. But then, it was chic to show a few creases in the back - not enough to look rumpled, but wrinkled enough to show that you didn't care.
So many relatives assembled for this event. I wonder if any of them had an inkling on this day of the turbulent decades that lay ahead for themselves and for their country. I wonder if they realized, that as this family was celebrating an ancient and sacred ritual, their way of life would abruptly come to an end in a few short months. Did they know what was coming? Did they realize the scope of what was happening in Cuba in the months prior to Fidel's revolution? Is there a societal lesson in this photo? What is my lesson? Is the lesson the importance of acknowledging traditions and rites of passage as a way to justify our existence. Or is it not to cling to the past too strongly? Is it simply to live in the moment?
I set aside those thoughts, and, instead, dwell on my mother's scant recollections of this day. She said that she remembers feeling that her energy was finally coming back after the difficult birth, and she remembers feeling happy. As I get older, I make a greater effort to capture memories as feelings, instead of simple impressions or chronological events. It seems my mother managed to learn that trick a lot sooner that I did. Is this, once again, the lesson to be drawn from this photo? To remember to feel and live in the moment?
I think I'm both, an idealist as well as a realist. I believe that it's essential to live in the moment, while acknowledging the importance of personal history in order to understand our actions in the present. What a remarkable way to be reminded of such a basic life lesson, and with so many family members gathered into one photo to impart it! And, don't they all look fine?
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Each day we go about our business, walking
past each other, catching each others' eyes or
not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is
noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn
and din, each one of our ancestors on our
tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing
the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky;
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin.
"We encounter each other in words, words spiny
or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the
will of someone and then others who said, "I
need to see what's on the other side; I know
there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We
walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us
here, who laid the train tracks, raised the
bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices they would
then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self.
"Others by first do no harm, or take no more than
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond
marital, filial, national. Love that casts a
widening pool of light. Love with no need to
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise
song for walking forward in that light.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Our snow covered back yard.
Christmas is over. Where are my helpers?
The candy canes are off the tree, and no one wants to eat them. I guess I'll take them to work tomorrow.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Painting, sculpture, photography, music, writing, oratory . . . I think it's the genius behind any form of art.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Jaifa (pronounced Haifa, like the city in Israel) and I lived catty corner from each other. We took piano lessons together and made our First Communion at the same time. In this picture, we were performing a dance number for a Spring program that our church had organized (Jaifa is the one of the left). We saw each other almost every day since, in Cuba, the hours after dinner were spent chatting with neighbors in their porches. I was the one that went to her house always, because she was not allowed to come to mine. I left Cuba before I was old enough to realize that she was growing up in a very unhappy home.
I had consigned Jaifa to the sweet memories of my childhood, but she re-emerged in my 30's when she came from Cuba and ended up married to my cousin. They lived in Florida, and soon gave birth to a beautiful little boy, whom they named Carlos. I saw her a couple of times during visits and came to the realization that we would never again be close. We had grown up and had become very different people. The innocence of childhood was gone. I did not approve of her, and found it very difficult to be around her so I kept my distance.
Then, in 1992, on a sad October day, after Hurricane Andrew had ravaged the city of Miami, I received a phone call from my family telling me that Jaifa had committed suicide. She drove her car into a canal and drowned herself. Her little boy, Carlos, was asleep in the back seat. He never woke up. The newspapers called her a victim of the stress induced by the hurricane. My relatives never believed it. Perhaps the hurricane was the straw that broke the camel's back, but Jaifa was troubled; it was only a matter of time before she did something outrageous, only no one imagined she would take her own life and that of the son she adored.
The family drama was worthy of a book. Who knows, maybe some day I'll write it. Still, after all the years that have passed since her death, my capricious mind refuses to forget even the tiniest detail of our pre-adolescent relationship. Today would have been her 51st birthday and I wish she was around. I mourn for her and don't know that anything will ever fill the hollow left by her passing.
Wherever you are, Jaifa, I wish you peace. Happy birthday.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Friday, January 9, 2009
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The Three Kings Day is also known as Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word which means “appearance.” The Catholic Church celebrates Epiphany as the first appearance of Christ to the Gentiles. According to Webster's Dictionary, epiphany also means "an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking."
The light of Epiphany is as bright as the star that guided the Magi to the baby Jesus. When we see it, it is so awesome! I pray for a year of epiphanies. May they teach me, and humble me, and guide me through the complicated labyrinth of life.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Today is the 10th day of Christmas, and we are still very much enjoying our Christmas tree. We continue to celebrate this holiday at our house until January 6th, Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The kings, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, are sure to leave small presents for my not-so-little children on this day, honoring the traditions of Cuba, the country of my birth.