Timing Is Everything

My mother had a number of sayings through which she did her best to impart wisdom to me growing up. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “A word to the wise is sufficient.” And, while perhaps not as elegantly phrased, still masterful advice: “Timing is everything.”

Had I written this post yesterday, I probably would have been able to number my readers by how many concerned mental-health officials showed up at my office throughout the day. Yesterday, the situation seemed dire.

Though, for the record, mental-health officials in Cuba A) would be incredibly difficult for most of you to contact, B) probably don’t care much about the mental state of an American, and C) couldn’t get past the Marine Security Guard to enter our building.

Honey is traveling this week. He’s been gone for over a week, which has meant two full weekends so far, not to mention the fact that the kiddos are on fall break. Togetherness has been the hallmark of Daddy’s absence. Except when I am at work, some child or another has affixed him- or herself to me throughout every day. This weekend, my favorite moment was when I stretched out on the couch to watch a little TV. Einstein plopped down next to my feet, eventually leaning on the blanket I’d thrown over my legs. Ladybug sidled up and tucked herself into the crook of my elbow. Blossom came in to see where everyone was and claimed the spot behind the bend of my knees, slightly displacing her big brother but unwilling to relinquish being in the middle. We sat there for about 20 minutes before anyone skirmished or lost interest. I loved it.

And yet. This has also been a full 11 days of someone on top of me every single waking moment, and a solid percentage of non-waking moments, too. We are not family bed sleepers. Every kiddo gets a personal bed. This rule has worked well for us. When Daddy travels, though, I swear there must be a subliminal magnet for children emanating from his side of the bed. Of the last 10 nights, 8 of them have found me rolled over upon in the middle of the night by a child I didn’t even realize was in the bed until that moment. It is startling, and sleep is a much more elusive animal once I’ve been startled. Or kicked. Or banished by a rolling child to an area approximately the size of one quarter inch greater than my body.

So by Sunday night, I was living out another of my mother’s famous phrases, rarely but notably employed when I was a child: “I have had it!”

Enough with the toy messes in every single room of this house. Enough with every single light on in this house. Enough with no privacy, no time alone, no sleep. Enough with the bored-kid bickering, or the “just came down from the playdate high” blues. Enough with a new cup of water every single time you people are thirsty. (Really. I washed 16 cups on Saturday alone.)

Let me hasten to add that usually, I find my children delightful. Having more time with them is not a chore, it’s a joy. I would soften that with a sarcastic remark like, “At least in theory,” but I can’t. I really do think they are great people.

Einstein turned 13 not long ago, and despite my serious dread of the teen years, he has flipped me completely. All of a sudden, he seems to have become a companion rather than a child. He’s always impressed others with his conversational abilities; this has not come as a surprise. What has changed is the give-and-take we can have as we discuss things now. Einstein seems willing to listen, not just talk – to engage me in conversation.

Blossom remains a wellspring of crafty ideas, imaginary games, and upbeat chatter. She skillfully bridges the gap between Einstein and Ladybug, able to climb on the roof with her brother, but still willing to play stuffed animals with her sister. I cannot keep track of the quantity of vital interests she has: Legos, reading, dolls, sewing, fencing, reality TV, choreography, creating a video game, and above all, time with her friends and family. Her tender little heart can be disguised by a brusque demeanor at times, but that defense is easily pierced.

Ladybug, at 6, has experienced a sudden onset of a new stage in her life as well. She decided she better learn to read now that everyone else in her class can, and she applies herself with a diligence I’d only previously seen employed in avoidance of learning how to read. She can do more things for herself than any of us had previously made her do; yes, we all coddled her as the baby, but now the baby has her own plans and only takes the coddling in the form of cuddling.

Now, in the course of normal family life, there’s room for me to enjoy these fine qualities and do some course correction on, say, less fine aspects of their behavior. Honey adds a steadiness to our household that we sorely miss when he is away, and he attracts his fair share of the kiddos’ attention. School also provides a valuable routine and social network that generally occupies a huge chunk of their days.

But school is out this week, and so is Daddy, and so we lost our place a bit. And by “we,” I mean unequivocally “they.” The last straw came when they used an object of mine as a blunt force instrument. The object they used was not a hammer. You can imagine the results when the object was used in a hammer-like way.

Sunday night, I cracked. It was too much. I had had it. “It” had been thoroughly had by me. I felt unappreciated, unnoticed and overnoticed at the same time, and taken advantage of. I cried. They cried. I sent them to bed. They, of course, did not stay there. It was not our finest hour.

Honey, bless his heart, chose Sunday night to try to pay me a compliment. He sent me a link to a video in which a woman with a nail in her head complains about her feelings to her boyfriend, who tries to fix the problem by suggesting she remove the nail, only to be told, “It’s not about the nail.” He just needs to listen, he is told. Honey’s point was that he liked having learned to listen to me, not fix me. I, of course, saw the stupid woman with a nail in her head and took great offense at the idea that my problems are stupid and easily fixed, but perpetuated by my own refusal to see the truth clearly.

I may have overreacted slightly to all of this. I may have cried myself to sleep. I may have thought all these years building a family have been for naught if people think of my things as hammers and my problems as nails. I may have decided to become a nun in a silent ecclesiastical order. So yesterday may not have been the best day for me to post. Remember my mother’s advice? “Timing is everything.” (Good one, Mom.)

Today, one day closer to Honey’s return, one day removed from the (fortunately) non-binding middle-of-the-night commitment to vows of silence, poverty, and chastity, I can move through the day with ease again. And I recall with a chuckle the other saying my mother regularly employed as we grew up. Only now can I appreciate the restraint, and wellspring of humor, she must have drawn from for this to be her response to so many of our escapades.

“Help, murder, police! Grandma fell in the grease!”

Find, and Keep, Some “Not The Ones”

If I had just one piece of advice for women in college, it would be this: enjoy how many hundreds of platonic male friendships are available to you. Be sure to choose some guys to be your buddies, and then pay attention to those friendships the way you do to your friendships with your girlfriends. Celebrate their triumphs, listen to their sorrows, laugh together, and above all, welcome their girlfriends into your circle.

These, as it turns out, are the male friendships you will have for a lifetime. These are the easygoing, unself-conscious friendships you make when everyone is looking for a life partner, but no one has found one yet. These are the guys who will like you for yourself, and who you will appreciate for themselves. Men who enter your life at this stage may want to date you, or you may want to date them, but I’m talking about the guys who click with you and become a cross between a brother and a cousin. When a guy like this comes along, take notice. Pay attention. And hold on to these friendships for keeps. I don’t believe in the “When Harry Met Sally” tenet that men and women can never be friends. They can. It’s just that the window of opportunity to form these friendships is fairly short-lived.

I’ve been thinking about dear friends for several weeks, ever since I traveled from Cuba to Alabama and back in three days just to go to a wedding. There was only one person left in the world that I would do such a quick turn-around wedding trip for, the last of the Lee Family, and he got married, and it was a perfect day. His bride has her own version of the Lees. We were all delighted that she embraces us; we promptly began talking up the idea of a weekend retreat for the two groups. There may have even been some good-natured competition over who’s been friends the longest.

But celebrating true love and 20+ years of friendship will get you thinking. The Lees’ friendships gave our lives a richer perspective on the ways of the opposite gender – not the romantic ways, just the everyday life ways. We learned from our boy-Lees what none of the girl-Lees (brotherless, all 3 of us) had had a chance to learn growing up: how to accept and love the fine points, and the quirks, of a guy you would never marry.

In college, since everyone is fair game for a possible romantic entanglement, somehow it takes the awkward edge off of platonic friendships. I know that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but here’s what I mean. If you are still looking for someone to be The One, you are free to hang out with all the great guys who are Not The One, and since they are also looking for The One, they are free to hang out with you. Perhaps from time to time there’s an awkward moment when someone says, “Sooooo… what’s up between you two?” But for the most part, your friendships operate in a zone free of restrictions.

Sure, your close girlfriends are important, and those friendships last a lifetime, too. I would never downplay the importance of my girlfriends (not just the other Lees, but various dear women). They know everything, really beyond everything, and still love me. There’s no replacing them.

Why, then, would my one piece of advice be to find and keep close guy friends?

Here’s why. Once you enter the real adult world, the unspoken rules start to change. People start to get married. They start looking more seriously for a spouse if they have not yet married. More people get married. And then the free, easy platonic friendship zone between men and women starts to close.

Once you promise to have and to hold ’til death do ye part, a subtle shift takes place. Now making friendships with someone of the opposite sex means that your spouse needs to know about the friendship, and preferably even be part of the friendship. I think this is healthy. Certainly if you feel the need to keep the friendship a secret, it may not be just a friendship. Or your marriage may not be based on trust. Either way, secret friendships don’t sit well with me.

Still, when you add a third person to the mix, the dynamic changes. That doesn’t mean the new dynamic is bad, but it is not the same. Now both spouses need to feel that the friendship is valuable and worthwhile. If your friend is also married, then that adds a fourth person to the increasingly complicated situation. Complications are a part of life; I don’t say that we must necessarily avoid them. But it does take the spontaneity out of hanging out with your buddy when you can’t just call and say, “I’m ordering pizza; come over.” Now it’s a double-date to the best pizza place in the city. And that’s if all four of you get along well. If not, sadly, this friendship is not likely to be a long-term one.

Honey and I have been happily married for seventeen years. We trust each other; we each have nights out with our friends. When he’s out, though, he’s with “the guys,” or maybe “the guys and one of their wives.” When I’m out, it’s Girls’ Night Out, or it’s book club. When we go out together, it’s often with couple friends or whole families we get along with. He doesn’t call up a female colleague and go out for a beer. I don’t call a man in our ex-pat community and see if he wants to have dinner. There wouldn’t be anything “wrong” with either of those scenarios. Honey trusts me, and I trust him. But the possible perception of romantic interest is not worth the risk, we find. For us, new friendships with members of the opposite sex are most natural when they are part of a couple we are befriending.

Now, some might say we’re overthinking, or that we’re too rigid. Some might argue that platonic friendships are still possible for married people in their forties. I don’t deny the possibility that in some circumstances, that might be true. For us, though, since we move every couple of years, we don’t have the luxury of being able to let platonic friendships develop slowly over time, deepening naturally and without danger to the marriages involved.

To quote Facebook, “It’s complicated.”

So girls, keep an eye out for some Not The Ones while you’re living it up in your twenties. Grab one and sit together for hours at the top of the campus parking garage with a cold pizza congealing in its box between you. Go kayaking on a river you probably wouldn’t want to fall in. Stop on impulse and test-drive a car you really can’t afford. Ride a bobsled and ask what, specifically, the inherent dangers are before you sign the waiver. Just do it all with a good guy friend. You’ll be so glad you did.

 

 

Converted to Coffee

A long time ago, I promised to tell y’all how I became a coffee drinker, and then I never did.

Growing up, my dad drank coffee, and my mom drank hot tea. I loved smelling the coffee brewing in our house, and as a child, watching it brew in the percolator was fascinating. Do you remember percolators? There was the tiny glass piece in the top (similar to the plastic piece that sits atop the spray bottle of detangler in my bathroom for Ladybug and Blossom) that served as a tube-shaped window to the coffee-brewing process. The water would boil, lurching upward into the top of the percolator, and gurgle! Coffee would fill the glass piece, then recede. I loved that.

But coffee held out its enjoyable brewing process and tantalizing aroma; coffee beckoned, only to bitterly disappoint me, and I mean that in the most literal sense. The bitter taste of coffee did not live up to the anticipation I’d had, visually, audibly, or through its glorious rich smell. I’m sure I struggled through a couple of tastes of coffee, but pretty soon I walked away, with no desire to try again.

Acquired tastes are not really my thing. There are enough things that I like right off the bat that I don’t feel the need to force myself to try to like something I don’t like. I appreciate that nuances of taste exist, that my palate can begin to detect these things in time, that I potentially deny myself the pleasure of enriching my life with the inclusion of a full range of fill-in-the-category (coffee, beer, cigars, what have you). Listen. I get it. I just don’t have time to enrich my life any further. Call me when you’re ready to explore the nuances of chocolate, or cheese, or Sonic ice.

But getting back to coffee, I’ll also confess to a childhood misunderstanding that seems funny now, but just goes to show how children can inadvertently categorize things in an effort to make sense of the world, and how adults cannot possibly anticipate or prevent all the potential misunderstandings out there: watching my parents, I grew up believing that men drink coffee and women drink tea. Once I had tried (and not liked) my daddy’s coffee, well, that just seemed like proof.

And so I became a tea drinker. At Baylor, I was shocked to see so many women partaking of the clearly masculine beverage every morning. (Others may have been shocked that I got all the way to eighteen years of age before questioning an assumption I made during my preschool years.) Over the years, my tea-drinking has aided me greatly in befriending British people. And to this day, I make myself a cup of hot tea every morning.

When I started working, the local staff in out office, a wonderful bunch of people, offered to include me in the morning coffee breaks. I thanked them, but declined. “I don’t drink coffee,” I said, trying not to laugh at the horror on their faces. “I’m a tea drinker,” I added, waving my travel mug at them. They tiptoed away, whispering to themselves. “That’s okay,” I hollered. “I’m used to being an outcast among enthusiasts!”

(No. I didn’t really holler that. But they did kind of whisper about me.)

On my first visit out of the office to a Cuban contact’s home, one of my co-workers accompanied me. Neither Cuban nor American, she was the one in our office who showed me the most about the day-to-day duties of my position. We were greeted warmly by our hosts, and began talking earnestly about the issue at hand. In my focus on being able to follow the rapid Spanish conversation, I didn’t notice the background noises in the kitchen. Until a smiling woman presented me with a choice of tiny steaming cups on a lovely ceramic tray, I didn’t even spare a thought for the source of that familiar and always-pleasant smell.

Time froze. I don’t drink coffee. There are five cups on the tray. We are a group of five. I am new here. Will it be rude to refuse the generosity of people with limited resources? It will.

Smoothly, I thanked our host and picked up the beautiful cup closest to me. Everyone else took one. We drank. I did my best not to pop it back in one bitter shot.

On the way back to the office, my coworker confessed that she’d worried for a moment that she might have to nudge me to take it. We laughed. Back at the office, I made a beeline for the local staff. “Count me in,” I said. “I guess I need to learn to enjoy the nuances of coffee after all.”

Because here in Cuba, what I’m experiencing isn’t just coffee. It’s a welcome, and an acceptance of hospitality. It’s taking a moment together to wait until things cool off just enough to avoid being burned, and it’s enjoying the company of those who are almost burned alongside you. It’s gratitude that, today, we have enough for this to be a luxury, flavored with milk and sugar; it’s remembering the bleak times when this (or a cheaper, imitation blend of soy and who-knows-what, charred in an attempt to taste like this) was breakfast for them. It’s communal sipping from a bitter cup we’ve learned to sweeten.

The subtleties, the richness, the satisfaction that coffee-drinkers promised would be my reward? Yes. They are. My secret is that all those things are mine while I hold the cup and look at the people around me, not when I sip. Five people holding tiny ceramic cups. Colleagues laughing about office craziness. Community activists at a day-long conference. These memories will be all the nuance coffee will ever hold for me. I couldn’t ask it for anything more.

 

 

Overcoming NOMBH, Or Putting Down the Tweezers

It started small. These things do, don’t they?

Right after my 21st birthday, I saw it for the first time, and of course nipped it right in the bud. “21 is much too young for this,” I told myself.

For years, I let myself believe that had been it, that perhaps this reality would never face me down again. Then when Blossom was still in diapers and all of us were doing our best to pull ourselves back together after my sister’s sudden death, it cropped up again.

A lone silvery hair glinted at me in the mirror.

Now, the idea of aging has never frightened me. Probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, for reasons I keep discovering throughout my lifetime, is my friendship with Mrs. Foster, my “fake grandmother.” Getting old never looked scary when done as Mrs. Foster did it. My PawPaw may have been the most joyful person I ever knew, and while he wasn’t as old as Mrs. Foster, he had a good fifty years on me, so to me, he seemed old, and he made it look pretty good right up until Alzheimer’s claimed his memory bit by bit.

And gray hair has appealed to me for years. When I waited tables in college, I had a waitress crush on a regular customer in his late fifties with more than a hint of gray. I would have tipped him to sit in my section, he was so nice to look at, and the gray hair was his best feature. I’ve begged Honey for years to start going gray, even in his twenties, and he has simply refused to. I think he’s growing brown hair on purpose now just to spite me. It certainly couldn’t be mere genetics keeping him dark-haired.

But that one gray hair on my head a few years back got me all stirred up. I plucked that bad boy out with a vengeance. I had a toddler, for crying out loud! No way was I going gray yet! And just like that, I had a policy. Honey: green light to go gray. Me: tweezers at the ready.

Not that I needed them too often. For several more years, only a few white hairs would crop up. We had Ladybug when Blossom turned 4, and so as the mother of an infant, I justified keeping the gray at bay a little longer.

Ironically, though, I find gray hair attractive on women, too. Dear family members who are not at all “old” rock the gray beautifully. Others, who are old, wear it gracefully, reminding me of Proverbs 16:31: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” It just looked so shocking on my head. How had this happened?

Then in my early/mid/late thirties (okay, late thirties, no question about it), I read Anne Kreamer’s book, “Going Gray.” She describes her decision to stop coloring her hair and let the gray grow out. I liked her in the book; I agreed with her that the cost of maintaining color was not a cost I am willing to pay. And, let’s be honest: I’ve never been good enough at girly things like manicures and make-up and hairstyles to be able to commit to coloring my hair, even if we lived in one place all the time. Add our frequent moves to the puzzle, and forget it.  I’d never be able to locate a colorist I could trust readily in every single country where we move. I’d look like that singer from the group Berlin in the 80’s, only not exactly on purpose.

Like this, but not at all stylish.

Like this, but not at all stylish.

Yet, despite my wholehearted admiration of others’ gray and Kraemer’s memoir/guidebook for going gray, I maintained a NIMBY, or perhaps a NOMBH (not on my brunette head) stance.

But Ladybug is six now, and I’m solidly into my forties. Turning forty was so freeing; it let me realize that I’m sufficiently old enough not to give a flying flip about what other people think of me. But hitting my mid-forties brought another realization: I don’t give a flying flip about what I think of me, either!

Why on earth was I fighting gray hair? I love gray hair! I want to see it on the head of Honey, my favorite person alive. I admire it on more heads than I can number. And I am not at all upset by my own age. So far, every decade has been better than the last one.

So on my last birthday, I officially stopped plucking the gray hairs. “Bring it, hair follicles. I’m ready,” I said.

Last week, with my hair pulled up in a ponytail, Honey reached out, touched the side of my head, and smiled. “What?” I asked.

“Nothing. I just hadn’t seen this gray in your hair before.”

Jackpot Winner Laments Inability to Write Bank Overdraft

People never believe me when I say that going to parties is difficult for me. That’s probably because when you see me at a party, nothing looks out of place. I can do the party chatter, and thankfully, my family is chock-full of storytellers, so all I really have to do at a party is drop into my party persona, anecdote-rich and alert to incipient humor in any given situation, and things will probably go fine. I am a good listener, and I try not to dominate conversations. There’s not much about my behavior at parties that indicates any discomfort.

Honestly, though, large gatherings cause me no end of dread. Mingling is just not enjoyable for me, and when it comes to speaking in front of groups, I come as close as I ever anticipate coming to an out-of-body experience. I can almost observe this chatty speaker making a connection with the audience, while my inner self wants to turn to someone and say with disbelief, “Can you believe they actually gave me a microphone and expect me to say something relatable, practical, or interesting?”

(Side note: this only pertains to speaking in front of an audience in English. In my job, I am frequently the representative for my office who needs to make a welcoming speech to gatherings of 15-40 people. In those instances, my few quick, sincere sentences of welcome are spoken, and the mic passed as quickly as possible to someone who can properly conjugate a verb in Spanish without mangling it. It’s become something of a joke with the Cubans who work with me frequently that my introduction speech lasts only as long as it takes to say, “Welcome. Be comfortable. And now, let’s hear from our first speaker.” Which is totally not true. I usually also mention where the bathroom is.)

Let me interject that I don’t doubt my abilities, and I’m not selling myself short. Speaking in front of groups, or interacting at parties, goes reasonably well. I’m not afraid, and I have enough confidence to face an audience.

The dread and the difficulty spring from a different source: my introversion. Being in large groups drains my energy. I like people and recognize the necessity of meeting new ones and maintaining friendships with ones I already know. But for me, it takes a certain level of stored-up energy to be able to be around people, and the source of that energy is time by myself.

As a stay at home mom with the kiddos, finding time alone was doable. Sure, at least one little person was always around, but naptime provided a good chunk of down time for me. The kids also played well together, and that could mean up to twenty uninterrupted minutes of reading time if all went well. Too, they thought of Mommy as a constant presence, so no one ever seemed frantic to get my attention.

More importantly, going to gatherings of other moms seemed like a welcome break from the tasks around the house. Laundry, ironing, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking are necessary; their Sisyphean nature makes mom outings, or even better, real parties, treasured breaks from the routine. Yes, even for an introvert.

Now, though, as a working mom, I talk to people all day long, mostly in Spanish. At home, my beautiful children want my attention, and I want to spend time with them, too. Honey is the love of my life and the person I most love being with in the world. (My confidence in our marriage’s success springs from the first time we went on a week’s vacation together and his presence didn’t drive me crazy one single time all week.) From first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, people make up part of every moment of my days.

Y’all need to know that my job thrills and challenges me, and my family brings me joy and satisfaction. Living in Cuba means we can afford household help. My life is not hard. It is not. This is not a post about first-world problems. Perhaps it sounds like I am complaining. Please know that is not the purpose of this post. I understand on a deep level that somehow, through no merit of my own, I hit the proverbial jackpot. I am grateful, not grumpy, about my life.

This is merely my public way of explaining why my family often goes to weekend events without me. I’m offering an explanation for my glassy eyes after a couple of hours of chit-chat. You are important and interesting to me, readers, and yet I can’t always engage with you well after having written. I like myself, and I need time alone, and I cannot apologize for being who I am.

And yet, if I could, I might change this aspect of my personality. My being an introvert confuses some people who know us, maybe even offends them to a degree, and hurts the feelings of some people who love me. Blossom, for example, wants more of my time and attention. Family members back home deserve more from me. Dear friends do, too. (At least, I think we’re still dear friends. Right, friends? We are, right?) Truly, I would give more of myself to my loved ones if somehow a bank overdraft on energy were possible.

As it stands, though, I try my best to maintain a balance. On Fridays, my day off, I soak up the quiet and recharge for the weekend with my family. This morning, the phone rang. A friend called to see if I was coming to the coffee she’d planned for today. She had planned it with two working moms in mind; we are both off work on Fridays. Her thoughtfulness in planning it touched me when the invitation came. And yet this morning, I forgot that I was supposed to leave the house. After she called, I hustled over there, and we had a delightful time. Nothing could have made me miss being with these fascinating women this morning.

Except maybe another couple of hours by myself.

Toy Handcuffs Aren’t Funny in Cuba

Getting used to anything seems to be an uncanny ability we humans share. Sometimes that works as a strength; other times, you realize you’ve just become deadened to some of the realities around you.

Einstein asked me yesterday, gently and not accusatorily, “Mom, why don’t you blog anymore?” He echoed some dear friends and family members, who have asked the same over the past few months.

“Well, son,” I said, “Some of the stories I’d like to tell aren’t really mine to tell. I learn them from people who trust me to know their stories but not share them in a public forum.” He nodded, and we sat quietly together for a minute or so.

Then I told him more of my reasons, and I’ll tell you, too.

I feel noticed in a malignant way here. I’m not famous in Cuba, don’t misunderstand me. I walk down the streets of Havana and no one bothers me or threatens my safety. But a familiar face or two will often crop up. These are the people assigned to watch me because I’m married to an American employee of the U.S. State Department, and, let’s face it, because I work at the U.S. Interests Section, too. Once, the followers even chose to wave at me from the car next to mine. (Not so subtle, guys, with your government plates and your walkie-talkies.)  (Not that I think you meant to be subtle.)

And the reality of being constantly surveilled turns out to be something you can get used to. At home, I hardly even talk to the ceiling anymore. When we first got here, I talked to the invisible microphones all the time. Knowing that others listen to us in our home is unnerving at first, but in time, you (almost) forget. I don’t talk to them, but I talk around them. We are still careful what we say at home. In Texas this summer, it took me awhile to remember that I could speak freely in friends’ homes about my experiences in Cuba, that the likelihood of their homes being bugged was low.

Some things, however, I cannot even anticipate, so I haven’t gotten used to. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been hardwired into me from the time I was a child, and so I’ll never quite see them in the same way as Cubans do. Perhaps it’s the result of a stubborn streak, or a personality-type preference. Perhaps it’s just the fact that human beings want to be free. Whatever the reason, sometimes a tiny thing will jar me back into the moment, and I realize that I am living in a country whose government is hostile to ours, and that a highly effective campaign against dissension from the party line, against openness of expression, has been waged here for over half a century.

That tiny thing this week was a pair of toy handcuffs hanging from the towel rack in my bathroom.

We moved here with the usual assortment of odd toys: pieces of games that I’m no longer sure we still even own; movie tie-in toys from fast-food places; collections of Legos and Lalaloopsies; wooden cars and trains; dress-up clothes; and buried in there somewhere was a pair of toy handcuffs.

They surfaced from the depths of some drawer or box or basket last week. I noticed them on the floor of the playroom along with what seemed like eight million other things. I didn’t think anything of them. I didn’t think anything of them at all. I didn’t think anything of them at all until I saw them hanging in our bathroom Thursday afternoon when I got home from work, and I realized our sweet housekeeper had seen them and had tactfully hung them where we could put them away, out of the reach of children.

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Because toy handcuffs aren’t funny in Cuba. That’s not even a toy here, I don’t think. In an instant, I felt flushed with empathy for our housekeeper in what must have been her shock that we would allow anything so dangerous near our children.

Handcuffs are all too real here. And, as it turns out, so are mindcuffs.

I haven’t written in almost a year because I don’t want to reveal my private thoughts in an arena in which I am the observed person. That may seem strange for a blogger to say; after all, the whole point of a blog is to express one’s thoughts for others’ consumption, to be observed, noticed, heard.

True. But on my own terms, thanks. It’s taken me this long to figure out what “my own terms” are, where the boundaries will lie for me, and how to fit writing time into a whole new world of paid employment. Plus, this introvert has felt completely overwhelmed by the world of people. While writing is by nature a solitary activity, for me it is not exactly a lone pursuit. When I write, I am mentally pre-engaging with my readers. Extraverts may have a hard time understanding why I love writing, but do not necessarily feel energized by it.

But in that moment of catching a glimpse of the silvery handcuffs gently hanging there in my bathroom, I saw that I sometimes overexaggerate the situation I’m in. Yes, I have given up my comforting time alone at home for a working world. Yes, I get watched by government flunkies, paid to seem menacing. And yes, I should protect the vulnerable people I come across. But the menace to me or my family is mostly shadows, and large shadows can be thrown by very small objects. It’s time to live without thinking these handcuffs are real.

I see the funny side, too, of course, to the toy handcuff situation. It’s funny that a toy that cost either five dollars or five hundred tickets at Chuck E. Cheese (for who knows exactly where these came from?), could cause even a moment of panic. The gentle reminder to keep our restraining apparati in more appropriate places did give me a giggle. So I haven’t lost all perspective on the tension between what we experience here and who I have always been as a person who grew up with freedom of speech. It’s just taken me awhile to try to figure out a balance.

And now, I will write.

Learning Too Much: Where I’ve Been Lately

I haven’t written much here for a couple of months, and I could say the easy thing here and tell y’all that going back to work has thrown our family schedule into chaos. That is true, and yet, it’s not why I haven’t posted. After all, writing on this blog reawakened my love for writing, and I enjoy engaging with family, longtime friends, new online friends, and those who stop in just once. When I love something, I squeeze it in where I can. So my silence here isn’t due to a new busy season of life.

When I started writing this blog, I envisioned it as a place to write down funny kid stories, maybe throwing in a more grown-up opinion piece or two. But to my surprise, what started pouring out were my opinions about issues within the widespread Church, my thoughts on social issues, book reviews (okay, that wasn’t all that surprising), and the occasional kid story. Now, removed from daily doses of American culture, and with my kids all in school, I could say my inspiration sources have dwindled. It’s true that I have remained unaware of several recent Christian kerfuffles (notice the lack of pertinent links to them), and that with the kiddos in school, the kid stories don’t pile up in abundant, bloggable heaps the way they used to. Those excuses don’t really fly, though. I come from a family of storytellers; we can get years of mileage out of almost nothing. I just held my kids spellbound last evening for nearly ten minutes telling the story of Ladybug, at 18 months, asking to watch “Eelo,” and me figuring out that “Eelo” meant “Ariel” from “The Little Mermaid.” (That’s the whole story, by the way. No plot twists. Ten minutes of giggles.) So I’m not out of material.

Here’s the reason: I’m learning too much.

We see propaganda about being "united" and "productive" everywhere. At first, this seemed quaint and ironic. Now, I'm indignant.

We see propaganda about being “united” and “productive” everywhere. At first, this seemed quaint and ironic. Now, I’m indignant.

When we first arrived in Havana, I spent the first couple of months on sensory overload. Everywhere I looked: colors! music! friendly people! an entirely different approach to government/society/life than I’ve ever seen! Cuba was exhilarating! Cuba was new! I knew almost nothing about Cuba! I could write funny little posts about confusing aspects of negotiating our way through a new place, and how I handle the constant surveillance. I could observe and report. I could even dip a toe into somewhat more serious social topics just from what I could see around town.

Now, my new position at work hasn’t taught me anything that’s any kind of state secret. Things get leaked that are way more hush-hush than anything I know or do. I could tell you what I do, and I wouldn’t even have to kill you, to paraphrase the tired joke. So I’m not clamming up because I know something you can’t know.

When I say I am learning too much, it stems from this realization: the Cuban story as I see it is not “the” Cuban story. Each person here has his or her own Cuban story; together they form a much more intricate picture than I ever dreamed of before we got here. I could try to paint myself as an expert on What Cuba Is Like Under (Raul) Castro, but I am not an expert. I wouldn’t even rank myself as a novice yet. I’m a pre-novice. I’m a beginner-in-training. Have you ever heard someone try to speak definitively about a topic, only to realize later that with a couple more pieces of information, you would have recognized the “expert” for the fraud (s)he is? That’s me, right now and maybe for the rest of our tour: the semi-permanent pre-novice.

What I mean by “learning too much” involves the lesson of having respect for the rights of the people I meet at work; I shouldn’t wrest control of telling their stories away from them, especially when I can’t even muster a wider audience for them than I (currently) have. Doing so would make me feel unprofessional, greedy, and callous. No, folks, I cannot rip their stories out of their hands just to give us all a little frisson of feeling that we “understand” life in Cuba.

The people I meet commit their lives to a course of action that, honestly, I think few Americans, few Westerners, can imagine. Forget saying anything about their First Amendment rights; there’s no such thing as free speech for anyone except the state-run news outlets here, and even their “free” speech is predicated on the assumption that employees will report about the Revolution and its leaders in a favorable light. Set the idea of “freedom of speech” aside for a minute. These people are aiming no lower than (untainted by adjectives or quotation marks) Freedom. Many lose jobs; get followed by officials charged with keeping an eye on them; face betrayal from trusted friends; are estranged from friends or family members; get arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. It’s impressive, and it’s weighty.

And their stories are not mine to tell, but they are mine to sit with, for now, at least. I know that moving forward, I will find ways to tell y’all my story, here in Cuba and wherever we end up. It probably won’t take me long to get my writing legs back under me.

In the meantime, please know I haven’t forgotten this place to virtually meet with you. I love writing; I love reading your comments. I’m not too busy; I haven’t hit writer’s block. I’m learning about the scope of the human story, from a Cuban perspective, and the part of that that turns out to be mine is what I’ll share with you, as soon as I can. Thanks for being patient with me, and for encouraging me to keep writing.

And next time, remind me to tell you about my new coffee-drinking habit.

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts:

Have you ever needed to take a step back to more fully assess a situation before expressing your thoughts on it?

Who are some of the most determined people you’ve known? How did that quality irk you or inspire you?