This week we have a special guest post from Frederick Pence, a man I’m lucky enough to call a friend. In this post Fred eloquently writes about coming to the crossroads of the known security and the unknown mystery in the island nation of Cuba. Be sure to check out his site on Medium at medium.com/@fpence
How I Rediscovered Writing in Cuba
by Frederick Pence
The ballerina took position. She and a boy in a shoddy white shirt performed for our tour group. It was a brilliant but flawed, imperfect attempt. Their training must have been limited but it won me. Instantly. It was the most fearless thing I’d ever witnessed. The sharp edges of the plastic chair dug in my leg, grounding the electricity of the performance.
We were in the lunchroom of the Escuela Primaria Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias in Havana. There were bars on the windows. Each one had an iron semicircle on one side and from it, straight bars diverged. To me, looked like a sunrise. There was no glass and we could hear trucks outside shifting gears and could smell grey smoke.
They danced in circles, involute, the boy pursuing the girl, the music from an old cd player, tinny and irresolute, she kicked too soon or too late, something didn’t look right about it, but it flowed, and was intentional, inspired. They exhibited love for their art, integrity and solemn yet compassionate looks as they bridged two disparate cultures.
I didn’t know what I was in for on this trip and I wasn’t expecting revelation. In fact I began to dread it as the departure time drew near. However, In the Caribbean in December, in Havana, between the seawall called the Malecon and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, I separated from my fear and remembered my true self.
I was on a cultural exchange trip and spent a week in Havana and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. I was overweight, forty, and mostly on the straight and narrow. I was at a mysterious crossroads, in the middle of life, mostly getting by. No crisis here, just perpetual awareness of being in the middle of everything, secure but unchallenged.
I had doubts about the trip as the plane descended. It was a hectic week. I’d just submitted my portfolio for a writing class the previous day and was barely caught up with work before we left. My goal was to have a culturally significant vacation as opposed to a less experiential week at the beach.
I chose Cuba for its mystique as an orphan of the west, embargoed, embattled and maligned. Bleak. It is miniscule compared to the US but the largest island in the Caribbean. A giant in it’s class, dismissed by the surrounding world which outpaces it. Cuba waits.
A skylight was leaking at the Havana airport and a bucket on the verge of overflow caught the drips. A grimy white towel encircled it to absorb spillage. I bounced around in a crowd of people at customs. Our guide rushed to help us find luggage and completed a head count. Spanish signs with spotty LED lights tacked to splintering plywood boards advertised tours.
I wiped sweat from my neck and took in the scene. Families wept good byes, held each other for desperate seconds and departed on unknown journeys. Everything smelled of leather, tobacco leaves and old books. It permeated Havana.
I learned what it was to be without all the extras. Being without familiar technology, fast food, or exposure to pop culture was a part of it, and interesting on the surface. However, I realized the impact of living in a society where arguably most of our worth is judged by material wealth, prestige or status based on a job or education. I felt a temporary forbearance on my identity.
I was forcibly disengaged from constructs and everything non-essential. Back in Philly I was a college graduate, a car owner, taxpayer, credit score gazer, employee and many other things. In Havana those labels and numbers had no meaning. They dissolved at the border. Some people get this effect from psychedelics, they call it the death of the ego. My brain is me, my thoughts, my heart and lungs are me. My social security number and Visa card? No, at least not here.
Havana and Light
Havana is not a bright city at night. It glows like a vintage bulb. On the second night we ate at a paladar; a restaurant run in someone’s home. Four stories up. Wood tables, close together on an open deck surrounded by an iron rail. When the wind picked up I knew it would be problematic. We were forty feet skyward and the ocean wasn’t far away. I wondered if the tablecloth would stay in place.
However, the servers walked out with neatly folded lengths of clean white fabric. They tied them first to the rails around the deck, then to fasteners in the ceiling. They absorbed the wind flow with hypnotic waves: inhaling, exhaling, reflecting candlelight throughout. We were a star on a tree. Yellow, lambent shining alone four stories high in the middle of Havana.
I understand this place now. I thought. I see how it works. Problems become solutions; It’s a culture of adaptation.
I spoke later in the day with a boxer at a market in Old Havana. He spoke of his excitement at the possibility of tourists, commerce and conversation. He was young, unsophisticated. I felt protective of him. He asked me for chocolate. I didn’t have any. We talked about boxing.
There are no professional rankings in Cuba. he said.
I have nowhere to go.
I wanted to spend the day with just him, asking questions, what his life was, where and how he lived, what was a person’s life like here without the ambition of money and status programmed into them from an early age? He was unconcerned by the fact that his ambition could not take him to a title in his profession. He accepted this. There was an understanding between him and circumstance. If he chose this path, he wouldn’t be allowed an opportunity at the highest titles regardless of his talent.
Later, in the hotel I felt trapped in the room. I needed the night. I was compelled to continue to engage this new world. I went to the ground floor, walked through the lobby and into the courtyard. The coffee stand and bar in the corner were open 24 hours. Neon sign. Glow. I ordered an Americano, strong and sickly sweet. Classic Cuba, concentrating everything together for efficiency and effect. I sat and wrote without stopping for about seventeen pages.
Something was churning, at work, activated and quaking inside. I sat in the courtyard, writing, envisioning, thinking. After an hour, from sheer mental exhaustion, I had to stand. I arched my back, stretched and walked to the middle of the courtyard. To the left I saw a little cove and went over to check it out. The Malecon was in front of me a few hundred feet away and the hotel kitchen, closed for the night and dark inside, was behind. I watched the cars pass and listened to the ocean.
Bracing myself on a tree, I felt an influx of awareness of everything I am as a person. I have no belief in the supernatural, I’m not claiming anything magic happened but something changed for me. Here was a peaceful remembrance of my love of expression through words and language. I felt the disparity between pure pursuit and prescribed poison I’d swallowed many years ago.
Writing used to be part of who I was, a sort of bandage keeping me together through social failings and my search for identity. It was the unique fabric of my connection to the world. I betrayed it in a quest for security. I had to reclaim it. My mind overflowed like the bucket in the airport, but the the moon was my skylight and inside my burning renewed.
Something toppled through the trees behind me and hit the ground. It was some kind of fruit or husk or maybe a nut, I really don’t know, but I walked over and picked it up. This little totem felt important to me. It was a snap of acknowledgement from the island. I considered taking it but I left it on the courtyard sand as a return gesture of my own. I didn’t need it. I had my Moveable Feast.
The TSA at the Miami airport welcomed us home. With passport in hand I walked through customs and answered some perfunctory questions. An officer waved me back into America with a cursory glance and I was home. The American Flag on his sagging sleeve signalled the beginning of readjustment to life as I knew it. I checked my phone for the evaluation of my writing portfolio and it was in. The professor noted, in a sentence which has become a bellrope to inspiration when I need it:
If you decide to stick with this, you could probably get really good.
That was the end of the second guessing and search for validation. I received all I needed there in Miami and chose not to question it again. My mantra became
This is attainable.
It was in my hands now. I hadn’t lost this part of myself even as I ignored it for twenty years. I was weary. I walked to the luggage carousel with Cuba ringing in my head. I had planning to do.
I could still see the ballerina spinning while trucks outside chugged street choking smoke and oily air passed through window bars, tense, fluid, swaying like a boxer who dances in a square ring sparring for himself, with no rank and nowhere to go.