a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Pathways to the spirit

Religion in Cuba is, as I soon found out, a matter of Art...the art of the spirit in its origins, the art of power in its long history, and the art of Arts, amazingly preserved despite the evolution of political upheaval over its five centuries.

From that first morning when I sat solo in the cafe Porton, watching the flower lady across the street slowly bring her offerings...I think they were gladioli...to the front steps of the old Iglesia de la Merced, I began to incorporate the arts of religion into my study of what art means to Cuba, Havana in particular.

As I watched, the waitress asked me if I were on my way to the church?  It's beautiful, she smiled.  Though I had walked past its long south side on my way, I hadn't taken much notice of it.  It's not a noticeable building on the outside; it turns its shoulder away from Calle Merced, though its introit is a wide plaza where ladies spread themselves out to sell their flowers and beads.  I decided to go inside.

Up the steps, the heavy main doors almost do not invite entry, but I followed a man through a smaller portal, and found myself at the back of memory, slipping into a side rear seat.  There was a mass beginning, though one by two people were still coming up the aisles to attend it.  Workers, mostly, by the gear they carried and the uniforms they wore, it was clear that whatever attitudes they normally put on for the street metamorphosed into a single figure of solemnity when they crossed the church's nave (narthex, I think, is the right word, but don't ask me how I know that, and I'm not going to bother looking it up)...head slightly bowed, shoulders forward, eyelids at half mast, they found a seat near a friend, or in a conveniently empty row as near the front as possible without being intrusive.  They were a smallish crowd...perhaps only forty or fifty in a space meant to hold twenty times more.  The priest, standing down by the front row, made himself part of them.

From my seat beside the last pillar, I could view the whole scene to the altar, and, looking left and right, the row of small altars on either side, each nearly as elaborate as the main, and each more interestingly telling its own story of the saint it embodied.  If you grew up in a Catholic church of that order, or have traveled in Europe where the medieval and renaissance churches follow that elaborate plan, you are accustomed to the tour of eyes upward and outward to painted treasures of art, and a tour director inevitably saying a version of, You see how they gave the best of their art to the divine being.

If outside the famous European churches gargoyles, emperors,and edifices like bulwarks pronounced their formidable power, inside was the gilded and marbled spirit meant to inspire inward.  There were no such power figures outside, but inside the Merced was a faint rustle of kneelers and soft whispers of prayer and response, and the cool of the morning, in a wide open, bright space that was yet tomb-like.  I took two surreptitious photos and left, quietly, promising myself I would return at a less ceremonial hour to walk around and take more.  What I saw only slightly had intrigued me...here, too, the art of the narrative in those side altars was so Cuban, so beyond religion, or at least the Eurocentric religion of the usual church.

What I later found, on a second, afternoon visit, confirmed my first impression.  There was indeed a deeper layer of the Cuban in these stories,beginning with the apparent fusion of Christianity and the pantheistic worship and beliefs of the African rites into the Santeria, that rooted Cubans more firmly in a spiritual world that reinvented their arts.

I had on my agenda to see the small Santeria museum, Callejon de Hamel, at the edge of Central Havana, and did, but it was less instructive, frankly, than walking the streets.  The signs of Santeria were all around, on splashes of color and symbol on walls, in white-costumed devotees going about ordinary business in the streets, in small shops where figures, beads, potions and herbs were a brisk commerce.  More publicly, they appeared in the arts in the galleries, in dances for tourists in the plazas, or in grinning poses for tourist photos with cigar in wizened mouth, but it was in the churches that the two held court in a quietly understood union.

It is the dead who inspire the memorial of prayer, ritual, costume, and custom. The Santeria saints are alive and well in the Cuban household and street life.  They are called on for every yearning, plea, emergency.  Altars inspire daily attention.

It is the same in the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, as elaborately sculptured as the famed Parisian cimetieres, where I walk and walk, fascinated by the arts to the dead...the dedications, the family histories, the carefully designed tombs, trying to imagine the stories behind them.  There is a chapel at the center, too, and though its art is also a careful dedication to the saints, it is nothing to the art outside.

Beyond the historic forts, statues of revolutionaries, cannon leavings and museums to the art of war, these are the places of peace, though the stories they memorialized were often tragic.  In one, memorializing a woman who has lost children,  I watch three women...obviously a grandmother, a granddaugher and her mother...come with tears to plea before a memorial which custom associated with fertility, hope, and children's recoveries. The grandmother and granddaughter hang back as the mother goes forth bearing flowers to make her supplication.  In another, one of the largest and most complex, there are stories of the battalion of firefighters who died entering a flaming building whose owner refused to acknowledge that he had stored illegal munitions there.  I could have taken photos all day there, but here are a few:

It is the same everywhere.  We make art as the highest form of memory, of honor, of testimony.  Here are other places of memorial, all beautiful each in their own way, to their own philosophy:

garden of the Greek orthodox church

plaque in the Hostel Raquel

interior courtyard of old mosque

stairway to Russian orthodox church

There is so much more to say about Cuba and its arts.  Perhaps some day I will return to say it.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Sharing art

I wish I had a photo of what this blog is about, but I was too busy having fun to back out of the picture and take one.  Sorry!

Leysis Quesada vera

Claudia Corrales
One afternoon, on my second or third visit to the Raul Corrales photography gallery in Havana (and after I had looked over their portfolios of pieces at least half of which I wished I could take home), Leysis and her colleague Claudia Corrales, granddaughter of the gallery namesake, asked to see what I did, too. "Look at this one," Leysis kept saying in admiration, which made me happy, as it's one of those serendipitous paintings I did on a card to send someone, and always liked...something in the spontaneity of the moment found its way on to the paper that day.  I wish I still had it to send Leysis...

As I flipped through what photos I had on my phone, they mentioned that they too wanted to make books.  Indeed, Leysis said, she had looked on the web for instructions and tried, but, she said, "It was a disaster."  I seriously doubted that, and said so, for so many of the "mistakes" we think we are making when we work turn out to be good ideas we haven't recognized yet.  I was still sighing over what I was learning from their photography, but they were new at bookmaking, and rued the fact that materials like handmade paper were so hard to get.

You can make books out of anything, I told themIt doesn't even have to be paper.   I showed them a few of my fabric and copper samples.  But, they asked, how do you put them together?  Not having anything in the way of materials with me (more's the pity), I took a piece of wrinkled scrap paper from the table, folded it, and with a string began to show them how to sew a simple booklet.  We twisted a few kinds of ordinary paper this way and that, including the waxed paper that protected their photographs, and, I think, a paper clip. I hoped that would give them at least a rudimentary start.  Then I promised I would send some instructions I had saved from Kathy Steinsberger's wonderful workshops; perhaps those would be more useful.  (I wished I could share Kathy herself with them...what a workshop that would be!)

We spent almost an hour, I suspect, in such play, and minute by minute I regretted not having brought my travel art box on this trip with me...I would have gladly left the whole thing with them to work with.  But sharing even an elementary lesson was such a happy collaboration; it was clear that they had enjoyed the idea exchange, too.

Since US/Cuba postal mail may or may not arrive, I sent by email the promised instructions and websites, and received from Leysis this gratifying reply:

"Hola, Rachel...thanks for what you sent, and all the advice.  Claudia is also motivated; we bought materials this week to start seriously.  Claudia made a box and she put some prints inside and sold it...she was so happy.  I was making this small example..."

Leysis Quesada vera, book of dancers

Big hugs, Leysis"

I'd go back to Cuba again any time, just to have another chance at the serendipitous art of that afternoon.  Wouldn't you?

Sunday, June 23, 2019


At the shore this month, June being the time I can return each year, I am this morning waiting for the wireless repair man to show up for his 8 am to 12 pm appointment.  So I don’t miss a faint knock on the door, I’ve posted myself in the front window and set myself the task of writing this (albeit on Word, since I can’t as yet get in to any program that depends on the internet to carry it off).  All such technological appliances have been out since a lightning strike the other night touched very close to the house during one of the quick summer storms that had come and gone all last week. Normally, being unplugged wouldn't bother me a bit...at the shore, it's a treat to be disconnected.  But alas, the reality of work to be done cuts in.

Despite the rainy blotches each day, there was actually plenty of time to play outdoors, though the challenge of gauging the possibilities of a deluge was always present, especially for Joseph and Alexander, who were here too, biking and scootering their way around town for a too-short week.  

Crabbing, miniature golf, amusement park, beach walks, kites that fly (or don’t), ice cream runs, and ocean dips all began with a look to the skies to check the position of the wind and clouds.  We managed a lot of things…the library, games of hunt-and-seek in the dunes and the gazebos, kickball and baseball in the street, and digging in the sand, shoveling stones to make castles and ditches to capture crabs riding in on the waves.

In seriously inclement hours, there were games of chance, puzzles, and the Swedish chef to laugh at (“The Swedish Chef is a professional chef, sort of”, the warning warns only half comically.  "Don't try this at home.").  No matter how many times we have seen his shenanigans, big belly laughs ensue anew.  

And in any weather, morning or night, we build things…we come from, after all, a family of builders.

At the shore, there is always plenty to do, including simply ignoring the weather and walking out into it anyway.

The lightning strike, however, which came only minutes after we had returned from a long walk along the water, scurrying a little as the dark clouds began to chase us, wasn’t something to take lightly.  We were safe in the house by then, true, but though it didn’t affect the electricity or damage any property, it was a reminder that nature pretty much always has the upper hand…a lesson not too long ago learned in these parts by the storm that ravaged the coast here.  You couldn’t tell by today’s strong sun and variegated blue sky, nor from the number of people strolling, biking, running past as I write this, that a natural event like that was uppermost on anybody’s mind.  Still, there are signs here and there…a house abandoned after fire, a few empty lots where stately old homes or small cottages had stood for half a century or more, deteriorating roof tiles sticking up from the sand.

And now, instead of the plants we are used to on dunes and in sandy yards…sedge, sea grass, goldenrod, and rugosa rosa, even the prickly pear, eastern style…arching here and there to hold down the sand against wind and tide, we have new dunes, replaced by an enormous dredging project all last winter, which rise up, huge and barren, to block our view of the water from anywhere but on their apex.  Here are new spindly sprouts planted in rows, like corn, some spans of which are still sparsely new, as it is on the dune hill front of us, and some fuller where they were planted earlier and more deliberately.  

This new scape is strange…and I mean that literally, as in the noun stranger.  In all our 74 years and some here, this isn’t a seascape we’ve ever seen before; indeed, when I arrived at the beginning of the month, its starkness, though still beautiful in its way, reminded me of Sahara hills that legendary nomads roamed, with barely anything to make a shadow over it.

What makes it so startling to the psyche, at least to mine, is that not only in my own memory, but also in black and white photographs hanging in the house, in local cafes and on websites that picture the town’s past, are images of the boardwalk hanging above the sand, sometimes 10 feet above.  As children we ran jumping off it, waiting to feel the temperature below, waiting to traverse a beach that each year changed shape and expanse.  Even in the latest few decades, when the boardwalk finally met the sand for what looked, in a way disappointingly, like forever, there was still the expanse of sand toward the water as our near horizon.  Now the ocean is its own scape far over the mountain of sand we must first climb.

Change is always a waiting game, and I, for one, am waiting to see how long this new configuration against nature’s energy will last, at least in this form.  It is a lot of effort fighting the inevitable, especially when the inevitable isn’t predictable…a bit like trying to stabilize the ever-shifting sands of time.

But wait…now there are umbrellas going up at the foot of our dune, and the children next door (how I wish Alexander were still here to join them!) are dragging chairs, tables, and bottles of something as yet indistinguishable to set up a stand.  Their purpose, whatever their product, is certainly clear.  It turns out to be one of those things each child takes part in at one time or another…a lemonade stand.  Whatever change we wait for in nature’s motion, there is still some stability in the human passages of time.

Once the young sellers are settled in, they begin high-toned hawking, “Water or lemonade! Water or lemonade!”, to the endless parade of potential customers on the boardwalk, fortuitously slowing down now in the increasing heat of the sun.  I watch as they wait, hopeful, for the more generous, kid-minded…and thirsty... to stop and buy.  Their sales pitches are priceless…one little girl offers “free cartwheels” with a purchase…and if you listen carefully you can hear their pleas…”Pennies for...”; this endeavor is apparently a charitable cause.


A few hours later, the wireless technician has come and gone, and the lemonade/water stand put away…success on all fronts.   What do I wait for now?  A little breeze, perhaps, though not much else except for next June to bring Alexander and his dad back to the shore.  It seems that the eternity of the shore is back in its always present tense. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Our man in Havana

Like all good explorers, I had the advantage of advice from those who went before, and a guide who came along to help me see better.

My sister-in-law Jean, along with her sister Pat, had cruised to Havana for a day last February, and sent along the name of a man who had made their few hours in Cuba a whirl of information and sights.  "I think he's a professor of something at the University," Jean told me when she passed along his e-address.  "He was so interesting and knew so much, my head was spinning when we got back to the ship.  We had a great time with him."

I wanted a guide especially because that ambitious itinerary I had set for myself included interviews with artists in small, younger places I might need an introduction to.  Though I am a wanderer by nature, welcome to the surprises and unsuspected discoveries along the way (hence tours frustrate me), I also thought a little help would shorten the time it took me to find the places and people I wanted to meet.  So a few months before I left for Cuba, I began an email conversation with Leonel Quesada vera, to let him know what I had planned for my visit.  In pretty much perfect English (it's what he teaches, Linguistics and Philology), he absorbed my ambitions and went along with them.  "Wow! We're going to be pretty busy," he wrote.

Initially, I thought to hire him for a few hours a day, a few days of the time I was there.  But it became apparent, both before and after my arrival, that his expertise and excellent company was too good to shortchange.  On the second day in Habana Vieja, he arrived just before our meeting time of 10 a.m. at the Blue Doors, where I stayed, and, introducing himself, announced that we would go to the cafe in the Plaza and talk about a plan for the days ahead.  As we walked, he told me he'd been doing some research into the art and artists I'd sent him, and also had arranged a tour of a photography studio, where I could talk to the artists there.

At the cafe, which, by the way, roasted their own beans into superb rich Cuban coffee ("My sister's favorite!" Leonel enthused), we watched the city square open up to school children, workers, and tourists.  Both waiter and guide looked a bit askance when I ordered what I usually drink first thing in the morning:  a cup of hot water with lemon (they didn't have lemon or lime, but the water would do).  Much earlier, tiptoeing past the sleeping apartment, eager to get out into the streets, I'd already had coffee at a little paladar I found a few blocks down Calle Merced, called El Porton, where the young woman who served me and the man who owned it, were happy to see their first customer of the day, and promised that if I came back later, I could have some soup for supper, even though it wasn't on their menu.  They would, they said, be happy to make me anything I wanted.

As I told Leonel the story, he explained how the paladares came to be the places to eat and drink in the city, and, noting that I had written him about my interest in eating locally, he promised that the paladares would be the places we would seek out.  As a guide, he had his own agenda, he said, but he could easily incorporate mine.  "But first," he said, "you need to know our history."  That would be today's excursion, to which I acceded readily.  I, too, like to begin in a city's historical museums and foundations, so that, as other explorations continue, I know where I am and how the city came to be.  He explained the genesis of the city, its 500 year age, and the way the old city is structured.  In the plaza, we looked at the varying architecture, "So little else so widely authentic in the Americas," he claimed, and pointed out  the way to tell the centuries of windows and balconies; the patterns of the railings, it had been long ago decreed, could not duplicated.

He warns me that Havana is not the rest of Cuba:  "Here, people want something from you, but elsewhere it is different and kinder."  And yet it seems to me a universal story.  Most cities are like that:  I think immediately of the man in the Temple bar in Dublin, from Galway, who said exactly the same thing, "Dublin is a mercenary place; the west of Ireland is generous and beautiful."  I smile thinking of the parallel, and also of the fact that, though I had to agree about Dublin, which I would have called indifferent at the time, Havana has been so far pretty kind and open with me.

And so Leonel and I began our getting to know one another, a day by day exchange of experience, histories, family, life stories and views on the world.  Cheerful, knowledgeable, and open to adventure, he was the best treasure I would find in Havana, not only for the sites and people he could bring me to, but for the generation of ideas and slowly put-together pieces of similarities and differences that shaped a vision of Cuba for me.

Leonel wasn't, however, from the city, so he was staying for the week with his brother just outside Havana.  His home was in Matanzas, "City of Bridges," he told me, with a good deal of pride about its recent restoration.

As he described it, I thought the first of many thoughts that, really, I wish I had given more time to this trip so that I could leave Havana and explore the other parts of the island...the Zapata swamp, for another, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba; finding them on the map and reading about them, I realized what I might be missing.  Cuba is a country of many different topologies, histories, cultures, and resources both rich and poor.  Havana is its northwestern center, but it isn't, as Leonel indicated and Guelo and Nilda asserted, the whole like of Cuba,  In hindsight, I feel genuinely stupid for not simply giving up my return airline ticket and taking another week to go into the country further.  But, as everyone tells me, there is always the next time.  (If only...)

It slowly came out that actually Leonel comes from a quite talented family.  You have already seen his sister Leysis' work on this blog; her older daughter, 15, a ballerina at the famous Cuban National Ballet School, had recently won an international competition.  Early in her life, she had been selected to attend the famous ballet school (Cuba is known for ballet) we passed along our way, and there spent both her academic and dance education since.  Another of Leonel's sister and brother were also in other ways creative.  And Leysis' seven-year-old daughter, often posing herself for her mother's fine art, promised (she reminded me of Alexander) to be something the world took notice of, too.

Mother's Day was soon, and the family, except for a sister living in Scandinavia, would be gathering in Matanzas to celebrate the day with their mother.  "We like getting together to cook, with family and friends," Leonel had told me in an early email.  "If you were here, you could join us for my birthday and my mother's."

He was as good as his word about showing me Havana's and Cuba's history first, though we did revisit the galleries I had seen the previous day.  A second look, with a non-artist in tow, drew my attention to other pieces and their significance.  Poignant and replete with subplots we can only guess at, they were now illuminated from their quieter places.

In the next days, we found the Governor's Palace, now the City Museum, full of histories real and mythic.  Leonel pointed to the wooden street just outside and told its story...a governor who couldn't stand the clop of horses' hooves all night outside his windows, or, it was hinted, perhaps it was the governor's wife who complained?

On our way down the wide stone stairs to sit in the courtyard for a while among the cool, lovely greenery and contemplate Columbus' role in the Americas.

Suddenly the peace is interrupted by two men who arrive and spend more time than you would expect chasing a peacock around the thick garden plots.  We asked them what the exercise was all about (the peacock was mostly winning the chase), and were told there would be a concert soon:  no one would appreciate music punctuated by the bird's screeches, so he, like his mate, were going to be removed for a while.

All the while we walked the streets, he pointed out this statue, that harbor, the stories behind buildings and historic figures, parks and buildings.  I found out that he teaches once a week at the University, but, as other Cuban professionals have found, linking to the visitors to Cuba's shores pays bills.  Hence, most of the week (and months of the year) find him touring with people like me, though mostly in groups.  And yet, from his conversation and the way he takes hold of the country's history, people, places, monuments and future and renders it visible to a stranger's sight, that he must be an excellent teacher.

After the day is over, I set out again on my own back to the cafe where early in the morning I had had my coffee.  I was tired, and my airline cold was dragging me a bit, but I promised to return to the soup I knew they would be making just for me.  As I arrived at the tiny Porton paladar, I met the owner's wife (and cook) coming in with groceries. They greeted me enthusiastically.  Once again, I was the only customer, but this time, settling in to my table, I waited for the soup to be cooked, and meanwhile got to enjoy two little girls, Adreanna, 3 or 4 years old, and her cousin Areanna, about 18 months old, romping around back and forth between the stoop and the kitchen while their mothers, the waitress from this morning and her sister, pregnant, drew up the menu for tomorrow on the board outside.  The little girls danced to the Cuban music videos up on the wall, and the little one, discovering the mule head on my cane, danced closer to it until she could reach out for it.  I show her what it is, having to explain what a mule is, but finally one of their mothers says, "Ah!  Mulo!"  And we make believe that the "horse" is talking to them.

When the soup comes it is a huge bowl full of everything...chicken pieces, carrots, celery, onion, pepper and rice in a rich broth...surrounded by cucumber, tomato, a kind of room-temp cheese and a whole peeled banana. Though I don't eat chicken at home, when away, one is grateful for a host's offering.  Still, I can barely eat half the soup...in the Havana heat, it's hard to eat much...but the broth is exactly what I need, and when they ask how it is, I nod, perfecta.

The owner and his wife consult with the waitress a few minutes, then come back to the table to ask if I will come for breakfast in the morning.  I waffle a bit, because breakfast is more like lunch for me, but they offer eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, and hope I will be there.  Cafe? I suggest, and the waitress smiles, Si, con crema!  remembering my morning order.

El Mulo and I get up to leave, and say goodbye.  At the door, Areanna hides in her mother's lap (Adreanna is still skipping in the street), but I wave my cane at her and say, El caballo dice "Adios!", and she smiles.  They help me down the steep, short steps, and I head in a different direction, this time toward the docks and some fishermen, a game of neighborhood soccer, well attended by local residents, parents of the boys, friends and passersby.  I am not finished with the day, I feel, so head up toward the Plaza San Antonio and the Vieja in a roundabout way, finally asking directions of a group of men comparing the virtues of one car over another, to return to my Calle Merced place.

I sleep really well.