Archive for the ‘The Cuban Revolution’ Category

Last week, my mother spent a couple of days with me, and since my Michigan days when both mom and dad would stay with me for weeks, I love her visits.  In my turf, unlike when she is in hers, she operates within adult boundaries, hers and mine. At home, her inner child has full discretion and when mine is awakened, it becomes a playground brawl.

We chatted in the morning about our family and ancestral histories, reminiscing about her parents and grandparents. From the little she remembers, we are descendants of Basques.  You may have heard about them at different times in the news for terrorists acts against Spain because they want independence. Huh, it makes sense why this French guy once called me an “emotional terrorist”.  I also learned a family secret that gripped tightly for decades has now been released by a less vigilant aging mind. It turns out, that my grandfather, Juan, was in jail for 20 months for shooting a man during an argument.  As she tells the story, the father of the man he shot, let’s call him “Justo”, later said that had he known my grandfather was such an upstanding man, he would not have had him prosecuted.  As the story goes, while in jail, Juan arranged to send  some medicine to Justo’s younger son, who was ill.  Truth, or fiction?  I choose to believe that it is true because my grandfather was a magnanimous and service-oriented man, or at least, that is what I grew up hearing.

I realize that I have spent my life not listening to my mother.  Although she brought me into this world, she became part of the wallpaper of my life. She was background noise and an obligation, kind of like taxes.  As much as I cry that I was invisible to my family, she was invisible to me. When I was younger I bemoaned her not being there for me—all I remember is my father’s, at first indulging and, as I grew up, possessive, overbearing, and suffocating love.  Growing up, I felt that she loved my father best; yet, although he wanted her to leave Cuba with him during the early days of The Revolution, she would not leave us behind. And, when my accomplishments were never enough for my father’s demands that I fulfill his aborted dreams, to my mother I was always enough.

When I was leaving for my first quarter at Chicago, I remember her saying that although most people would be more than satisfied with what I had, I was leaving it all to go for more. Although I realize now that I could have construed her statement as a criticism (like, aren’t you ever happy?), I experienced it as an affirmation. This is not to say that she did not have her own dreams of becoming a journalist and of, literally, climbing mountains; but unlike my father, she did not impose her dreams on me. The funny thing is that I unconsciously took it upon myself to climb the summits her sex, culture, and history prevented her from climbing.  Wait, whose dreams have I been living?


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Be careful of what you ask for!  Don’t say I haven’t warned you.  I asked for an open heart, and I got one, literally; I asked to feel, and I am itching!  To clarify, my teacher, Chetana,  taught me the heart chakra is associated with feeling, and when we are working on issues, we may experience them on the skin level, as the body holds our memories.  Having lived most of my life in my mind, I have often been oblivious that, as one body worker told me years ago, I have a body attached to my head.  I often need reminding of this fact, and the Universe provides me with reminders (e.g., open-heart surgery).   Thanks, Universe!  I must warn you, though, that this entry may trigger your Entomophobia (bug phobia), or may give you one, if you don’t already have one.

My story begins in Massachusetts, on October 28, when I accompanied my husband, his rowing partner and his wife to the Head of the Charles Regatta.  I was ambivalent about going, due to my separation anxiety, but I challenged myself venture out of my comfort zone.  We stayed at a Quality Inn that was clean and had the best breakfast I’d seen in similar establishments.  The weather was fall-like pleasant, and although my husband and his rowing partner did not do well, I enjoyed the company.  On the way home, stopping at a Subway to eat dinner, I start itching on my forearm.  Of course, I start scratching, thinking that I have become allergic to the tight, wool sweater I am wearing, and I wonder whether I will have to get rid of all my sweaters, if that is the case.  We ate and got back on the road.  But by the time I got home, my forearms were covered with bright crimson red, itchy welts.  Closer inspection revealed welts on my arms, and one on my neck.  Then the dizzying realization hit me.  I had been attacked by, yes, BED BUGS!  These miniature bloodsuckers had strategically bitten me wherever they found a prominent vein; my husband, of course, was untouched.  I say, of course, because this was the second time that I was attacked by these hideous creatures and he’d  been spared.   Why me?

Being chomped on by bed bugs is bad enough, but then there is the terrifying question about whether they ‘hitchhiked’ home with you.  PANIC!  If you have been living in this country, you may know that with a 5,000 percent increase in recent years, we are experiencing a bed bug epidemic.  Further, these pests are resilient, and difficult to eradicate.   More PANIC.  Okay, so what to do, except put all the clothes we took on the trip in the laundry, wrap the luggage in a plastic bag, and pull out the Belleruth Naperstek guided imagery to help me sleep, so that I won’t be up all night wondering if they are going to attack me again.  Although I fell asleep, I was a sharp sting on my leg awakened me.  I scratched, turned over, decided not to panic, and went back to sleep.  When I awoke the next morning, the side of my left hand and my left ankle had red, itchy, bites that were smaller and different from my previous bites.  Fleas!  More itching and no scratching to avoid infection.

Once again, I washed all the bedding in the house, my clothes, our dog’s bedding, vacuuming and more vacuuming, extensive internet searches about bed bug annihilation, and depression.  I began to take it personally.  Why were they only attacking me?  I envisioned being  completely isolated because no one would want to visit a bed bug infested house, marked by a giant red CONDEMNED sign.  Although Google is replete with resources and gadgets to decimate them—-steamers are supposed to work the best—I decided to call professional exterminators.  Add financial terror to the equation.  After going through all the options, and, of course, the only one they guaranteed for 90 days cost an estimated $3700 hundred dollars, my depression was morphing into despair.  I marveled that my fear and anxiety were greater than when I was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.  I felt trapped, forsaken, and forlorn, and I allowed myself to feel those feelings.  After all, I was getting what I asked for— to feel.  But in the midst of my suffering, I could hear the voice of Byron Katie whispering to me,

“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.”

In retrospect, I was so anguished because I could not even escape to my bed for my refuge, my all time favorite escape.  I had absolutely no place to run because if I moved to another bed, the bed bugs would follow!  Seriously.  I felt physically and emotionally ambushed by bugs I could not see—in part, because they were not there.  (As I write this, I am scratching my head, and having flashbacks of head lice when I was in elementary school while my sister was spared.)  Memories of other times I’d felt in danger also flooded me—like when Sweet Money was abusing our dog and stealing my money and my car, and when I was a child in Cuba, and a gunfight ensued right outside our bedroom window.  My diagnosis was another stunning blow.  But the bed bugs were not my only triggers; at around the same, a woman I know who was diagnosed with a defective valve was preparing for surgery at the same hospital where I had my mine; the frozen grief melted once again, and I cried enough tears to wash away  colonies of bed bugs and flies.  I’d finally unleashed the tears I could not shed when I was diagnosed, out of fear that if I did, I would fall apart before the surgeons got to me.

Spiritually, I wondered what bed bugs and fleas had come to teach me. Between the washing and the crying, I cleansed my inner and outer spaces, and I began to feel relief.  Both the tears and the bites subsided, though the fading scars and phantom itching remains.  But, I admit that I am still afraid I will be bitten again when I least expect it.   At those times,  I remind myself of my friend Eric’s wise counsel when I cried to him that, I’ve always seen the world as unsafe, and even more so now.   “Although the world is unsafe, perhaps you can learn to feel safe in it,” he told me.  I am trying.  So what did the bed bugs teach me?  They taught me that fear can be so much more terrifying than reality, that I can handle whatever comes my way, and that it is time to stop hiding in my bed!

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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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Well, it looks like my Thursday blog has become my Sunday blog.  I have been so busy this summer with friends visiting and working on the research project on ambiguous loss among older Cubans, that the weekend seems to be the only time I can write.   Yet, there are so many things going on, that I really should be writing every day, just to keep up.  Don’t worry, I won’t.  Seriously, after two years of hibernation, change in my life is accelerating.   More, in later blogs; but, now, I want to write about separation anxiety disorder (ASAD), which, according to researchers, occurs in about 7% of adults.  A condition traditionally recognized in children, more recently, it has been diagnosed in adults.  People who suffer from ASAD experience strong anxiety about leaving home or significant others, worrying that something terrible is going to happen to their loved one.

Although I would not say that my anxiety is so excessive, that I am incapacitated, I nevertheless become anxious when leaving home, and especially when I go on vacation, as I am now.  Is this why I don’t like planning vacations or trips until the last minute, and why packing is painful, especially now that airlines are charging for baggage?  Car trips are the best because I can take everything I can possibly need to allay my anxiety. Because I have had limited forays outside my fortress for the past two years; I am wondering whether I have social anxiety, as I once suspected, or ASAD.  That I am able to effectively socially engage seems to point to ASAD.   It may be that, my anxiety is less about interacting with people and more about separating from significant attachment figures, to use psychological jargon.

By the way, people who suffer from this anxiety disorder have been overprotected as children, as I was after migrating from Cuba in 1961.  Although in rural Cuba, I played outside, and wandered to the corner store by myself at age four, once migrating, until adolescence, we were cloistered within our apartment.  And, forget about dating or sleepovers.  Yet, prior to the revolution, I didn’t even have the usual separation anxiety that small children have.  On the contrary, I loved spending vacations with aunts, without my parents.   As I write this, I feel relieved that I am able to recognize and identify the source of my anxiety, because awareness helps me to manage it, instead of it managing me.

But, sadly, this time, my anxiety about leaving home is also reality-based.  I am concerned that Sweet Money may be thinking of breaking into the house.  I have not written about him in a while, because part of me has been denying his/our situation.  It seems that within addictions, denial is contagious.  Temporarily homeless again, he asked to stay with us while the family he lives with went to Florida after the father died of cancer last month.  When we said he couldn’t, he was curious about our vacation schedule.  Although he may be just casually asking, given his past record of theft and breaking in and out of our home, I can’t help feeling paranoid about sharing information with him—even when we have friends watching the house and our animal companions.    Despite the co-mingling of past and current anxieties, I am determined to vanish them by staying in the present moment—especially when tomorrow is our 13th anniversary!

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“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
Pema Chödrön

This morning, I awoke to a familiar feeling—-dread and fear.  The fear is that I will have done something wrong and someone will be angry and disappointed with me.  This is likely based on my childhood, as we were constantly disappointing my father, when he was alive, and, now, my mother.  I also fear that something terrible is going to happen—that I will be obliterated.  I suppose that this goes back to my Cuban refugee roots.  Something terrible did happen and our life, as we knew it, was destroyed.  I have always felt anxious but now I can see how much of it may be attributed to my migration history.

In another blog I wrote about having to hide in a trench beneath my parents’ bed because guns were firing outside.  Ironically, to escape the turmoil in Cuba we eventually sought refuge in the crime-ridden streets of the South Bronx.  Any sense of safety and security was shattered, both in Cuba and our new country.  Lately, speaking to older Cubans who left the country in their late teens or early twenties, about their migration experiences, validates the turmoil I still struggle with.  They tell stories of families fearing for their men, who were persecuted or thrown in jail without valid charges, and teens walking over the dead bodies of their peers.  In those days, Castro represented the promise of social justice and democracy, and some of the people we’ve spoken to admit that they supported his victory with funds and arms.   But shortly after coming to power, he also turned against those who supported him and a reign of oppression and executions ensued, my father narrowly escaping.   Overnight, private property became the property of the state—whether you had much or little, it was either taken by the government or abandoned while fleeing the new reign of terror.  Some men aligned with Castro not for political ideals but to gain status and power, and wearing the uniform of the new regime, killed because they could.   Cuba traded one dictator and traitor for another—one who refuses to step down after fifty years.

But how does this all translate to my present day life?  Well, I wonder if it explains my lethargy, or lack of motivation to “succeed”, not just at tenure but at anything material.  When I was at Michigan, and people were clamoring for tenure, I remember thinking, so what if I don’t get tenure, I lost much more during the Revolution.  Come to think of it, the underlying message seems to be that, why fight for anything if it can be taken away arbitrarily.  It may not be an exaggeration that tenure decisions could be reminiscent of revolutionary tribunals.  Indeed, according to my former dean, the tenure process is akin to a game of Russian Roulette.   But when I am feeling down on myself, which seems to be a lot, lately, I conclude that I am just not that motivated.  Period.  That is when my Greek Chorus flings “Slacker” epithets at me.  Then I counter with, I did get a doctorate, which requires inordinate motivation.  And the answer is that, no one can take my PhD away from me.  They can take tenure or my job away, but not my knowledge, my degrees, or my spiritual development, which I have been beyond motivated to do.  I use to say that, if rank and tenure were granted for spiritual work, I would be an endowed full professor.  Speaking of tenure, yesterday, I reconnected with a woman I met when I was interviewing an Ivy League University in the early 1990’s; she was on the faculty then but had not gotten tenure.  Thank God she didn’t!  What a loss it would have been to the Hispanic community.  That woman, who did not cut it at that top University, went on to become a health commissioner and to develop a multi-million dollar, multi-service agency, just to name two of her extraordinary accomplishments.



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