‘Just be where you are’

I’m not particularly co-ordinated. Anyone who has spent any time at all with me knows that I’m prone to trip over non-existent cracks in the sidewalk or crash into walls randomly (and repeatedly) or spill giant cups of coffee all over the place for no apparent reason much to my mortification. After first checking for broken bones, laughter typically ensues because I am just that talented clumsy.

Perhaps because of this awkwardness, I’ve never really enjoyed yoga. Until last autumn, that is. After a friend sang the praises of one particular yoga instructor offering Ashtanga in English at the university gym at a time that suited my schedule, I decided to give it a go. I loved it, immediately and rather unexpected, and went as often as my schedule would allow. As mortifying and humiliating as the course by highlighting just how much less flexible I’ve become in the last… several decades, I thoroughly enjoyed those 75 minutes of focusing on one thing—not falling over. Or falling over gracefully.

My schedule this year so far hasn’t allowed me to resume classes with this particular brilliant yogi, but her words ring in my ears at the most seemingly random and yet appropriate times. Rather than attempt to get an entire class of 40 individuals to do various poses exactly the same, she would say, ‘Be where you are’.

Just be where you are.

This unlikely spillover benefit and phrase is so eloquently simple and something I firmly believe I needed to hear. Perhaps that’s why it continues to pop into my mind from time to time all these months later. In so many ways, this phrase helped me obsess less over all sorts and just get on with the task or goal at hand. Those who know me well, know that this is not a simple task.

As a perfectionist in all things in life, I often put far, far too much pressure on myself to do better than my best. Better than I know I’m capable of just to push myself that bit further. I know it’s infuriated and exacerbated more than a few mentors, colleagues, friends and family members. And, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has hinted that my mediocre far exceeds the expectations of most. I suspect know all too well that that drive to perform above and beyond what I expect of myself has lead to more than one bout of burn-out in my professional life. My perfectionism in all things has also lead to more than one work-in-progress remaining unfinished.

Just be where you are.

I continue to need this message. Perhaps I’ve adopted it as a personal mantra. Regardless, it appears to be helping. I am less stressed these days, even if I am absurdly busy. Oddly, my productivity seems to have exploded. I’m no longer concerned with always going faster as I build my running endurance; I’m just focused on building that endurance. I no longer care if I spill the occasional cup of coffee, as long as it doesn’t spoil my beloved Marimekko frocks.

I am content with being that work-in-progress that remains unfinished, although completing tasks to deadline even if less than perfect takes precedence over perfection. A quiet and calm focus has emerged recently, and those various to-do lists seem less burdensome and more manageable. Oddly, I look forward to those lists rather than dreading them.

This is where I am, and I rather like this place. And, hopefully, I’ll be back on the yoga matt with my favourite yogi before too long.

The Keys to Cuba

I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]

The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.

I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.

I have seen change, however.

My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.

I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.

None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.

Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.

Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.

More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.

The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.

I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.

November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.

Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.

¡Viva Cuba libre!

The Keys to Cuba_Dec 2016

I have no idea what the title of this piece is, but it was incredible. Hundreds of keys arranged in the shape of Cuba. Investigating it are Pedro the Philosopher and Martica the Marvellous. On display at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, December 2016.

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible ThingsFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My introduction to Jenny Lawson began with Beyoncé, the Giant Metal Chicken. Need I say more?

I loved this book. And, I love The Bloggess for simply being her wonderfully wacky self. Several chapters in this particular book resonated with me quite deeply, largely because of her brutal honesty and clarity in writing about her own mental illness. Anyone who has struggled with that voice in their head will know how pernicious it can be. But, in her writing, she makes the reality of living with and dealing with those highs and lows a little more accessible for those who love someone battling the nonsense in their head. And, for that alone, I am grateful to her.

We’re all a little weird. We’re all incredibly quirky. And, we’re all equally wonderful in our uniqueness, whether we struggle with health issues or not. And, when we can, we should all be furiously happy.

And, we should plant giant metal chickens all over place, because why the hell not?!

Giant chickens for the masses

An army of metal chickens spotted in Menton, France, Spring 2014.

 

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Loving

Flashback to June 2005.

Little did I know that a meet-up with a rather crazy lovely Cuban from an online forum of Moscow expats would become so meaningful and life-changing. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew prompted a private message, and an invitation to chat about and swap music. (This was the third bit of music he and I virtually bonded over, the other two discussions consisted of gushing over Alison Kraus and Union Station and all things bluegrass, and, naturally, waxing silly and paying tribute to the Grateful Dead.) We didn’t keep track of the specific date when we met for the first time (at which point neither one of us was thinking anything other than ‘new friend with whom to geek out over music’). Nor did we really make note of our first ‘date’, which wasn’t intended as a date, but ended up sparking ‘something’.

But, thanks to Google, we can trace it back. How fitting that our first date / non-date fell on 12 June, a rather significant date for far more important reasons.

The decision in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated laws criminalising mixed-race marriages, fell on 12 June 1967. Prior to that case, mixed race couples in the US were rare. More significantly and perhaps why they were so rare, prior to Loving, mixed-race couples who defied laws (and cultural norms) and wed faced jail time and prison sentences along with being ostracised from their community and outrage from their families and friends.  The laws changed, but attitudes persisted. Mixed-race couples continued to face rather unwelcome words and glances, if not outright discrimination and recrimination, some of which persist today. Today’s reality is certainly better than the era of the 1950s and 1960s, but that uneasiness continues today, at a time when 17% of newly married couples in the US involve individuals from various ethnic backgrounds.

The New York Times paid tribute to the Lovings along with other mixed-race couples on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. It serves as a stark reminder that even today it isn’t easy for couples claiming various backgrounds who fall in love with someone ‘different’ from them. Different from their community. Different in terms of how they look and what they ‘know’.

The Cuban and I are lucky, I suppose. We don’t look that different from one another despite coming from completely opposing worlds. Middle America / Texas hill country versus Havana, Cuba. At times, we both marvel that we have anything in common at all let alone that we even met. But, given how similar we look given our fair complexions and lighter coloured eyes, we are still not free from those long-held notions of who should marry whom. It’s exceedingly rare amongst our circles, thankfully. But, given our respective backgrounds, we have felt the assumptions others make about us. We have experienced stereotypes and some rather odd statements regarding our relationship and marriage, and its validity in the eyes of some. I can’t help but wonder what we’d experience if we weren’t living in Europe.

We may be living out our relationship 50 years from that landmark case. In some respects, we in the US are nowhere on truly becoming tolerant and, well, loving. For everyone. Even if we have come far from jailing mixed-race couples, there is still further to go.

Love is love. And it is a beautiful thing in whatever form it takes. Maybe we should spend a little more time loving and little less time deciding who may love whom.

just-us_malecon.jpg

Just the two of us being us on holiday. The Malecón, La Habana, Cuba. January 2017

I love running

I love running. I do. I’m slow, and I have yet to go very far. But, I love running. And, I suspect it loves me. It’s at least good for me.

Last summer after years of stifling the little black dog that barks and growls and nips at my heels and mind from time to time, I made a series of slight adjustments in my behaviour and routines. I’d sunk so low that breathing hurt. Changes were necessary and long overdue.

One of those changes involved recommitting to running regularly. Whilst various forms of exercise obviously carry benefits to one’s mental and physical health, running has always helped me empty my head, meditate on whatever shit floats around up there. Somewhere during those runs, I let go of the garbage that wears me down, both real and imagined. As August turned into September, and September gave way to October and November, regardless of how busy I was or how much I felt unmotivated to lace up and hit the trails, I did. And, it helped. The fog that had clouded my everyday existence slowly dissipated and lifted entirely, and I felt infinitely better as the weeks and months passed.

Running wasn’t so much simply physically beneficial; it was a mental health necessity.

After injuring myself in January whilst running the Malecón in Havana, I was forced to take four painful months off. My ankle healed by late March / early April, but then the flu season hit and, then, I fell and hurt my knees, running to catch a bus of all things. Fast forward to May — four months after my initial injury — and I’m finally getting back into my routine. A few days shy of four weeks back into my running rituals and again the fog is lifting.

This. This is why I run. And, this is why I love running.

I don’t really care how fast I get through a particular route — each run feels like a battle won and conquered at this point. I don’t have any long-term ambitions other than to continue running three or four times a week for as long as my legs will hold up, and hopefully taking part in the Helsinki Midnight Run come September. I won’t win races, but I will stay in the ultimate race — that crazy race called life. Undoubtedly, depression and my little black dog will come barking again from time to time. Whatever I can do to tame him quickly and without too damage to myself or those who love me most, I’ll do. And, I firmly believe that as long as I continue to add miles to my running logs, those visits from the canine beast that haunts me will become fewer and further apart.

I read a story several years ago about an incredibly young 92-year-old woman finishing a marathon. Harriette Thompson, that same woman, just surpassed another milestone by becoming the oldest woman at 94 to complete a half marathon. I won’t break any records, other than those I set for myself. But, I will keep running. For me.

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Summer ‘schedule’

Summer. That glorious time of year when the days are long, the birds sing loudly and the sun stays high in the Northern sky for more hours than you can imagine. I welcome summer and the glorious green and long days. But, I also dread it.

I’ve never been good at managing my time in the absence of a schedule. I need structure; I need a plan. If there is no plan, I’ll make one simply to ease the inevitable anxiety of not having a plan. When we’re on holiday and not confined by the schedules of work or others, I force my husband to come up with a ‘plan’ even if it goes to hell within days if not hours. Planning relaxes me.

As absurd as it sounds, I keep three calendars on my desk. These are separate from my weekly to-do list(s), which complement my electronic calendar and to-do lists which annoyingly pop-up on various devices reminding me to procrastinate another half hour. [Just writing that out makes me cringe at how absurd it all is. But, well, what can I say? I like my calendars and lists and procrastinating.]

It’s a relief to be free from my lecturing schedule at the University of Helsinki. With the end of my classes last week, Monday morning—day before yesterday—brought a bit of weirdness and a mild panic. Seeing so few items on my calendar and to do list this week left me somewhat disoriented and bereft. In fact, my deadlines for Tuesday this week were all met before 9 am on Monday, representing perhaps the first time in months I’ve delivered early rather than late.

This is not to say that I don’t have things to fill my time. Just the opposite in fact. As a freelance contractor, I’ll never not panic when I have no work in the pipeline. Alas, this summer is already proving vastly different from last. And, this is a very good thing. But, all of those others things I’ve put off for far too long also await.

June is booked. Even if I wanted to take on more work, I cannot. The rest of this week is oddly devoid of deadlines. Yet, my to-do lists are filled with various items simply prioritised as ‘ASAP’ or ‘eventually’. This is where I typically struggle. I need a ‘complete by’ date. For everything. The most pressing issue aside from cleaning my desk and the windows (yes, those are on my to-do list) involves sorting through multiple assignments my students sent during the last month or so, and which have sat patiently in my inbox. (I’m a weebit behind—don’t judge; my students worked entirely too hard!) But, without my own self-imposed deadline of ‘the next class meeting’ procrastination takes over. Little by little, I review their work and send feedback. I will get through my inbox and back to zero. And, I will endeavour to do better next year.

But, distractions and ‘other stuff’ seem so much more pressing or necessary.

So, scheduling. I must schedule when I work on my inbox. And, then, when I can, go for a run (ideally every other day) and clean my sodding windows. Spend a bit time daily peripatetically bonding with my husband. And, sort through all of the other things I want and need to do this summer.

It’s only 12 weeks; but, those 12 weeks leave me restless and somewhat unsteady, particularly without milestones and goals and a plan. I need a plan. My summer schedule may be less structured than that during the academic year, but the structure it takes will either leave me desperate for a schedule or empowered by it. And, I’m determined to be empowered come the end of August. [Where does that fall on my to-do list?]

Calendar

One of three calendars I keep — this is my master class schedule / academic calendar calendar from several years ago. 

Let’s figure this shit out…

The image below came up when I typed ‘I will not be terrorised’ into Google this morning. And, it couldn’t be more perfect.

I don’t have a solution to any of the world’s problems or crises or ills or pains. Most days, just sorting out my own to-do lists is an exercise in futility. But, I believe in humanity as much as I believe in anything. I believe in the goodness each individual possesses. Whether they choose to do good or bad with it is another issue. I believe fundamentally, we as individuals have more in common. Before we choose to highlight our difference. I believe collectively we are far, far better than we are alone.

Can we please stop killing one another? Can we please stop demonising one another? Can we please stop terrorising one another?

Portland. Kabul. Baghdad. London.

Different places; one species; same pain. Can we please figure this shit out and stop?

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Warsan Shire