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Archive for the ‘Frozen Grief’ Category

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes 
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!…

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. 

 ~Rumi

Resistance is so devious!  Now that I started meditating twice a day again, it convinced me that I don’t need to journal (and blog) even though writing deepens my consciousness and feeds my soul; and I fell for it! I have not written in days and I feel it.   It’s not that I am not having insights and writing ideas—on the contrary; but I allow myself to be distracted by excuses and, supposedly, being “responsible”.  Not only that, but a study of my own process would help me be more compassionate about others’ resistances.  But resistance is also insidious and unimaginably perseverant.  It does not give up, and I am not going to feed it, at least for now, by spending my entire time writing session writing about it.   Okay, this is freaky and an example of resistance’s chicanery. A Steven Pressfield quote disappeared from the page even though I am using track changes!  In the War of Art, Pressfield writes that “[t] he more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. Know what he is talking about?

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I have had a lifelong pattern of avoidance and procrastination, like waiting to write this blog post at the last minute, and not responding to comments immediately, though both soothe my heart.   It’s not surprising, then, that it has taken me almost fifty years to deal with my feelings about having left Cuba.  To be honest, I didn’t think I had any feelings about it.  Although I went into therapy when I was 19 to deal with my adolescent cross-cultural angst, I attributed all my woes to my father’s old world, chauvinistic attitude.  Everything was his fault.  Any interest I had in Cuba was purely intellectual, and, indeed, I went back for a doctorate to study Cubans.  Despite my best intentions, it became easier to write a different dissertation on an existing data set than to collect my own data.  Looking back, I may never have finished, since data collection is so costly and time-consuming.  Twenty-five years later, I am doing the research on Cubans I set out to do back then.  It seems that not only did I have to do spiritual work to get me to a place where I can explore my Cuba wounds, but I also had to wait for my friend Rocío to start and change careers so that she could do this research with me.   I am ready now, but it is not easy—especially since I feel like a part of my affective life has been dormant for a half-century.

On Wednesday, we conducted two interviews that further thawed my frozen grief.  We interviewed Dr. F., a recently retired 85-year-old Cuban internist, turned psychiatrist after migrating to the US, and his 81-year-old wife.  At first, their story was like all the other stories— they were politically oppressed in Cuba, came to this country without money, and were forced to start from scratch to rebuild their lives again.  But unlike the others, who may have lost or almost lost a grown child, this couple had lost two of four children.  Their only daughter was stricken with a brain tumor while she was a pre-med student at John Hopkins University, dying at the age of 20.  Her mother, who had always sewn her dresses, made the dress she was buried in.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for this mother.  They lost their second child almost three years ago, at the age of 47, again to cancer.   Yet, they go on, as they did after losing almost everything the first time.  I say almost, because they had each other and their two children even though they were torn away from their country and their extended family.

That afternoon, we interviewed a woman who was reluctant to talk with us because she had nothing important to say but gave us a textbook definition of ambiguous loss. Mrs. V. was embarrassed to tell us her story, claiming that her long-deceased husband would have so much more to tell us.  But she finally did talk to us, sharing that for the first ten years she spent in this country, she would physically celebrate holidays, like Christmas Eve with her family in NJ, but mentally, she was in Cuba.  She would not only recollect memories of years gone by, but she imagined how her parents and siblings were spending the holidays.  According to Pauline Boss, she was experiencing a Type One Ambiguous Loss , where she was physically absent from Cuba, but psychologically present.   When her parents died, she wore neutral colors for years as a symbol of her grief, following a cultural custom known as “luto”, and sixteen years later, her husband’s clothes remain untouched.

Their grief collided with mine, and I cried myself to sleep that night for my losses and theirs.  I cried for my father, who died six years ago October 2nd, and whose story I would never get, because it did not seem important at the time, and for the Cubans we’d met that day, who lost their motherland during their youth and spent a lifetime in exile, longing to return to the paradise they did not know they had until they lost it.

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For the first time since I started blogging in October, I skipped a week.  Did you notice?  Since I last wrote, I took a second trip to Miami (I almost said Cuba), Sweet Money may be going back to rehab, my aunt is still alive, Oprah did her last show, and a cousin had a heart attack and five stints put in.  It’s been a busy two weeks!    Although I could not create the mental, emotional, and physical space to write, I missed it on all levels.  And, whenever I stop writing, there is always the fear that I won’t be able to get started again.  But, here I am writing; I remind myself that to write, you must show up.

This time, I went to Miami for an annual event called Cuba Nostalgia, “a journey back in time for those who remember the island’s glamorous times – and for those who never experienced them.”  Through exhibits, live, music, food, and memorabilia, we were transported to a world that, now, only exists in elderly Cuban’s memories—which is why my friend, a fellow Cuban, and I went to interview ten people who left the island as young adults, during the early days of the Revolution.  My fear is that, these people are going to die, like my father did, and we will not know their stories.

Social Science research on Cuban-Americans focuses on the big picture, mostly the success story of Cuban enclaves, but there is very little on the heroic stories of people whom overnight were stripped of everything, whether rich, or poor—like the woman whose father owned the largest textile company in Cuba and her father-in-law owned several banks.   And, the woman who, at 21, with limited education, migrated from rural Cuba on her own to escape the oppression that imploded on the island.  “I felt like I was being pressed into a sandwich (Cuban sandwiches are pressed on a grill, she said several times.    We also spoke to a man who spent five years in jail because of religious persecution.  How foreign these stories are to the life we know in this country.  But they also told a story of a Cuba that was fun, and beautiful, and no one, except one had wanted to leave.  Before Castro came, they were youthful and, mostly, carefree, which adds to the romanticism of their memories.

I was struck by how well dressed people were, whether young or old, no jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers.  Instead, many wore versions of the Cuban linen guayavera, lose shirts, typically worn by men but also fashioned into blouses, dresses, pantsuits, for women in post Castro Miami.   Some young women, however, wore short dresses and three-inch heels.  As a woman of a certain age, I wondered how they could navigate the indoor fairgrounds, or dance, with, to me, horribly uncomfortable shoes.

Of course, there was live music everywhere, as Cuba is known for its music, having given the world the mambo, the cha-cha, and the conga, and The Buena Vista Social Club, just to name a few.   People, mostly seniors, danced up a storm to the music of their youth—music they likely danced to at the famed Tropicana Club in Havana.  The rhythms were so infectious that I danced with a sixty-nine-year-old woman, whom we later interviewed, to the beat of an Afro-Cuban musician who was singing and dancing with his maracas.  But as we and others danced, a woman with a walker, who looked to be in her nineties pushed her way through the dancers to the where the singer was, put down her walker, took the maracas from him, and started playing as she swayed her arthritic hips.  Wow, when I am that old, I want to be just like her!

How did I feel being there?  I can’t say I felt nostalgic for a Cuba that I barely remember, having left a month after turning six; instead, I felt the grief of having been ripped away from a very different life than the one I ended up living, growing up in New York City.  I went from palm-trees, mountains, rivers, tropical, clear-blue beaches, and eighty-degree year-round temperatures, to concrete, cold, and desolation, my environment mirroring my heart after the dismantling of my world, prior to 1959.   I reconnected with a part of me wall-papered over with American culture back in 1961.  It was affirming to be part of a majority for once, surrounded by hundreds of people, just like me— no longer exotic, I was just another Cuban woman.  I also felt an exhilarating sense of pride in my roots, a ubiquitous feeling among Cubans, but growing up, I associated being different with being inferior.  Not anymore.   So, I want to take you to Cuba Nostalgia, the next best thing to being there.  Next May, in Miami?

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Open yourself to the Tao, and trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Mitchell, p. 23).


On Tuesday, I was feeling sad, so I sat down to write to discover what was beneath the sadness; it was related to a talk my friend and I attended on Monday at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  The speaker,  a sociologist named Susan Eckstein presented on her book, The immigrant divide:  How Cuban Americans changed the US and their homeland. Since I’d read the book, I sat and knitted a sock while I listened.  Was I subconsciously distracting myself?  Seated to my left, my friend, an aspiring academic, was furiously taking notes and whispering commentaries.  Shortly after Professor Eckstein began her talk, a middle-age Cuban man interrupted her, challenging one of her arguments.  As is the custom at such events, she asked him to please hold questions and comments until she was done.  I commented to my friend, that he seemed contentious, and she replied that she, too, was feeling that way.  I couldn’t understand why, though I was aware that his defensiveness irritated me.  The man continued to interrupt, and my friend continued her commentary.  When the talk ended, the man was ready to pounce, but he was stopped, this time by the moderator, an older Cuban academic.  I noticed, however, that when another Cuban woman spoke in response to a question asked by the moderator, she, too, sounded angry.  I continued knitting, irritated and embarrassed that, unlike me, Cubans become so emotional whenever the subject comes up.

It is interesting that this talk came a few days after my frozen grief blog (Frozen grief) and that anger and irritability are grief reactions.   Is that why the audience seemed so angry and defensive?  In the past, I have avoided being around Cubans, other than family, and a friend or two, because, ironically, being with my tribe, reminded me that I was perpetually condemned to not belonging.  Not here, where I am always seen as “different”, nor among Cubans, whom I have distanced myself from.  Because frozen grief does not flow, like water does, my feelings took 24 hours to germinate. I awoke feeling restless and melancholy, and this time, I could not distract myself, so I was forced to face my feelings. Shortly after I started writing, a wave of grief assaulted me—-one as deep, or even deeper than when my father died the second time.  I say the second time, because the adoring, and indulgent father of my early life in Cuba died in 1959; the father that greeted me at the airport—the angry, violent, reproaching one, the one eternally scarred by trauma, died in 2005 (More on Parenting).  As I write this, I wonder if I have allowed myself to grieve either of my fathers.  But although my second father died five years ago, his mind preceding his body in death by a year, as he withdrew into silences occasionally interrupted by violent rages precipitated by torturous delusions about infidelity.

Pauline Boss classifies losses where there is a physical presence and a psychological loss as type II ambiguous loss situations (http://www.ambiguousloss.com/four_questions.php).  My indefinite separation from Cuba and the family left behind, technically, constitutes a type I loss because there is psychological presence and a physical absence.  But, did I hold them and Cuba psychologically present?  Not really.  Although my Death and Dying instructor pointed out my losses in that paper that I wrote over thirty years ago, I was occasionally intellectually aware but, mostly, emotionally cut-off from my losses; hence, my irritation with and my retreat from “emotional” Cubans.  Yesterday, almost fifty years later, I wept, and until it comes again, my melancholy lifted.  It is amazing that something as simple as crying (and writing) can erode our feelings of grief.  But, as the Tao reminds us:

Nothing in the world

Is as soft and yielding as water.

Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,

nothing can surpass it.


Finally, The Tao also reminds us that:

If you want to shrink something,

You must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,

You must first allow it to flourish . . .

This is called the subtle perception of the way things are (Mitchell, p.36).


What ambiguous losses in your life are waiting to be grieved?  I am humbled and grateful for any thoughts, feelings, or experiences you are moved to share here.

References

Eckstein, S. E. (2009). The immigrant divide:  How Cuban Americans changed the US and their homeland. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, S. (1994). Tao te ching: A new English version: HarperCollins Publishers.

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