Día de Valentín con Eligio
What can we learn from people isolated by politics and circumstance for so long? What have they developed inside their already existing culture of Cubanismo that helps them not only survive but thrive in an ever-changing, unpredictable world? What works when outer things do not function? What inner resources do they draw upon in order to flush acceptance, love and joy to the surface? These are lessons available to learn in Cuba from Cubans.
Eligio and I walk down a busy street in Centro Havana. It is Valentine’s Day, and the entire nation, it seems, has stopped short to celebrate. We have just come from wishing his son, and the shoe maker, and the lady next door a happy Día de Valentín. We have hugged and kissed them and shouted and reveled in the street. Valentine’s Day, they tell me when I look confused, is about loving life. “If you can’t love life, you can’t love someone else.” This, by far, is my favorite Valentine’s Day to date. To top it off, we have hot chocolate at a café because everyone else does.
And because everyone is shopping for each other on this day, we decide to buy tea cups, and this is when the day collapses and we need to find a way to repair it. Tea cups are $1.75 in Cuban convertible pesos which is about the equivalent in U.S. dollars. Eligio, like most professors, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, taxi drivers, and teachers, earns $20 a month. He is outraged at the price even though I have offered to pay for the cups; it was my idea to begin with. His were cracked and leaking. The rate at which most Cubans consume coffee combined with the sheer number of people who casually drop by his apartment to talk each day and drink coffee, made the purchase logical. His grumbling is heard by all the customers and by the cashier, who rolls her eyes in agreement and packs up the cups in a makeshift box she creates by taping bits of cardboard together. “Do you have a bag?” he asks. She burrows around for quite some time before producing one. This seems a small victory for him as bags are hard to come by and he will use it later at the vegetable market.
We leave, deflated a bit from our Valentine’s high, though outside on the street, horns are still honking and people are still hugging. As we cross onto the sidewalk, an enormous bus, a medieval caterpillar, creeps up behind us, one wheel lifting the heavy beast onto the edge of the sidewalk. Instinctively, we move over, thinking it an accident, but the bus drifts into our space, the back wheel now fully rolling where our feet should be. “No, no, no, no, no, no!” cries Eligio, edging out of the way. I can’t help but laugh. There is so much to complain about. Yet—I propose – and he listens – that we try to create a different reality by not complaining.
“If we put a different energy out there, do you think we might experience something else?” I ask. But maybe these laws of attraction don’t work in Cuba and like does not produce like. No matter how much positive energy we put into the world, a bus will still climb onto the sidewalk and push us to our edge.
Eligio pauses and considers my query. He knows I’m talking yoga and he wants to agree. “Okay, we choose our lens and change our experience.” he says, and I nod. We keep walking, our sliver of sidewalk eclipsed almost completely by the still-moving vehicle. Just as Eligio passes the door of the bus, the bus stops, sighs loudly, and the door opens, hitting him squarely on the shoulder. “NO, no, no, no, no!” he yells, his mountain of “no’s” a peaking, troughing wave of frustration. He looks at me and there is a held moment between us and I have no idea where it will take us.
At once, we burst out laughing.
“You know that’s because you complained,” I say when I catch my breath. He’s nodding, laughing, smiling, crying, and for the rest of the day, Día de Valentín, he does not complain. There are moments we are both tempted for sure, but each time we think of the bus, we dissolve into fits of laughter, our Cuba now one of our own creation, and all I know is that we feel better laughing.
Eligio speaks of his idea of experience. “These are vivencias, Sarah. Lived moments. There is no such thing as experience.” He explains that the word experience locks you into a samskaric etching of sensation, feeling, and response, and often a fear that things will be relived in exactly the same way. Vivencia is a more freeing concept. It connotes the possibility of newness. Each lived moment is just that, a moment. One can never really live that time again exactly the way it was; so, by definition, each moment carries with it the potential for a completely novel understanding.
My mind wraps around this concept. How liberating it would be to simply not expect things to be the same as they’ve been in the past, even if they look like they’re heading in the same direction. Is this concept uniquely Cuban or does it come from Eligio’s thirty years of yoga practice, a place he’s arrived out of the necessity in order to believe in the possibility of change? And then there is the bus, and his loud and forceful lament in the face of inequity: No, this can’t be, again!
Without the constant bombardment of information from television, cell phones, and computers, there is space and time to arrive in each moment. There is no lack of connection nor a sense of loss for not having access to devices; rather, devices become words, gestures, shared circumstances, and, of course, coffee.