How we divide

We were making copies using the ditto machine in the teacher’s resource room of our school.

When the teacher’s aide – we kids called “slap jaw” – walked through the intoxicating fumes of the duplicating solvent to talk to us.

She asked us where we were going to high school – we both replied Sullivan. She pulled out her copy of the Gale Echo – our school’s yearly black and white booklet and opened it to the centerfold exposing the pictures of the graduating 8th graders.

Slap jaw thrust the paper and a pen towards me and asked me to autograph my light-greyish picture, saying I would be famous one day.

You were standing next to me, my sister, my desk mate in our “gifted” class, my friend for as long I could remember, our fate sealed by our shared initials R-F-R, your dark-greyish picture next to mine.

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I remember looking at her, looking at you, then looking at her again. Perhaps I had a stupid smile on my face, thinking she just forgot, a simple oversight, she was an old white woman.

I remember that pause – that moment it took slap jaw to realize she should ask for your autograph too, but it was too late. She exposed our differences.

 

Freshman year of high school, I was labeled white for the first time. I’m not white. I’m a child of immigrants.

 

I played basketball in high school.

We played all-white suburban schools outside Chicago. We played all-black south and west side schools in Chicago.

To some, I looked more like suburban white than south side black.

My sisters of basketball.

When I fell in love with a black man from the west side, he told me I wouldn’t be accepted by his people. To his family, friends, and neighbors, I was white.

I remember feeling my love is no different.

 

In high school, I labeled myself a half-breed – something I heard or read someone call a Native American whose parents weren’t both Native.

But was I a half-breed German or a half-breed Cuban? What half of what breed would I be?

30 years later I received my AncestryDNA® results. I remember looking at the colored blobs over parts of the globe where my people came from.

The European continent was aglow in a rainbow of blobs.

90% of my DNA is European Mutt, my ancestors traversed the lands from Spain east towards Poland, from Scandinavia, south to Italy and Greece.

The other 10% comes from the continents of North and South America, Africa, and West Asia (the middle east).screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-7-54-12-am

 

The complicated mess of my DNA is a result of wars, colonization, slavery, revolutions, migration, immigration and everything in between.

My DNA unites, rather than divides.

I may not look like you. Our phenotypes make us look different to each other. But when we look inside we will find our similarities.

 

Aloha

Day 69 – Thanksgiving

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Today I give thanks to this happy couple. My parents – circa 1969 at Banff or Glacier NP. They represent what the United States of America is all about.

A country of compassion.

A country of opportunity.

A country where an economic refugee from Germany and a political refugee from Cuba, could meet, fall in love, get married, and carve out a life and raise a family.

All of that happened in a little neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago called Rogers Park.

They embodied the American Dream.

My dad, a craftsman, opened a business with his brother and my mother went to school to become a registered nurse. It took them a little over 20 years to buy a house, which by that time my brother and I were in college.

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream – if I may use that cliché.

My little nuclear family was a place where two very different cultures collided.

Yes, collided. No melting happened in the pot of my family. Although, you could argue German and Cuban DNA did blend to create my brother and me. But that is another story…

From our little experiment – I am authorized to say the American melting pot is a farce, a fantasy, a disillusioned idea.

What does it mean to melt cultures together?

What does it mean to have no diversity?

What does it mean to have no differing opinions or perspectives?

What if there was only one color in a rainbow? Blue bow? Red bow? Purple bow?

Take a walk in the woods, snorkel around a coral reef, canoe along a river through a rain forest.

In nature there is only diversity. An ecosystem is made up of diverse creatures. From microscopic plankton to huge whales. Life on Earth thrives on biological diversity. Any time one organism takes over a habitat – the ecosystem becomes imbalanced. Disease, mass die-offs, decreased food sources.

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Life on Earth thrives on biological diversity.

Why should it be any different culturally?

In my little family, we didn’t blend cultures. We didn’t create a new culinary genre where  sauerkraut is paired with arroz con pollo, lechon asado, or ropa vieja. Although bistec milanesa or empanisado (breaded steak) was very similar to wienerschnitzel – and this little Cuban/German girl loved both.

Dad never learned how to dance the Cuban son – mom never learned to polka. Neither learned the other’s language. A version of English is what we spoke in our household (although I always say English is my second language).

Dad thought my Cuban family yelled too much. And Mom thought my German family didn’t like her because she was a “darkie.”

For better and worse, my parents stayed together until my Dad’s death in 2013. Despite their outer dysfunction – the communication challenges, the short bouts of yelling, followed by years of silence – deep down inside, they loved each other.

As I approach my late 40s, I have finally realized what my parents gave me.

Cultural sensitivity, an ability to be patient with and understand people with accents, a mysterious morphological make up that allows me access into a diversity of groups, and the consciousness to see the humanity shared by all of us.

So I give thanks for them and for this country that made it all happen.

I only hope I can share their gifts with others.

Aloha!

 

 

Day 58 – Botanical Diversity

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Grounding. Solace.

Alone again, after a great weeklong visit with my brother, I felt pulled to take a walk among plant life. I needed their help to remember how to feel rooted on this Earth. I needed their help to remember the diversity of life. I needed their help to remember that life can happen in dry, desolate, and harsh conditions.

Welcome to Koko Crater Botanical Gardens.

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In this 100,000-year-old crater or tuff cone – created from an ash eruption, a consequence of cold seawater entering the hot Koolau volcanic vent – a botanical garden was created to feature plants from arid areas of the world. Le’ahi (Diamond Head) is another tuff cone or, as my brother and I decided to call tuff cones, volcanic farts (you heard it here first!).

East Oahu – or any Lee or Kona side of an island – the climate is hot and dry. This made Koko Crater a perfect setting for this type of garden.

Although I am a card-carrying biologist, I think any curiously observant human who paused at the absurdity of life in places where water may come every several years, would be in awe at seeing the diversity of plants.

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Diversity in size, shape, color, texture, mechanisms to collect water, flower, fruit, reproduce…  The list is long.

They are all different species, different genus, and different families – and that is just looking at the plants from hot, arid climates. These plants over millions of years have figured out how to take root and survive. But why?

To give us humans something to ponder? Or is it something greater?

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Can it be the will to survive, that encompasses the ability to adapt and thrive no matter how difficult an environment may be or become?

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It is how we got to where we are – and it will be the reason for where we will go…

Sometimes it takes a walk in a garden to remind us of this…

Aloha!

Hurricane Matthew – Cuba

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You probably haven’t heard about the destruction that Hurricane Matthew had on Cuba’s Eastern province of Guantanamo (called Oriente in pre-Castro Cuba).

Despite the renewed relations between Cuba and the U.S. – only Haiti exists as a Caribbean nation worthy of reporting. Maybe because there are already media embedded in Haiti – knowing that at any moment some crisis will occur.IMG_4906_2

Back in January 2010, I was in the northeasternmost town of Cuba, Baracoa, when the deadly earthquake hit Haiti. There was no destruction in Cuba, but my mother and I got to experience a tsunami warning Cuban-style (I write about that in a book I’m writing, stay tuned).

This is the place where my mother is from. This is the place I got to visit and fall in love with back in 2010. This is a place where the people are resilient and the natural beauty off the charts. It is a place that gets hit with hurricanes.

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Thanks to this article by Miami Herald reporter Mimi Whitefield, on the http://www.incubatoday.com website, we now know the devastation to a part of the island I would call home if circumstances were different.

From a distance, I can only send good thoughts and look for an organization that is accepting donations for Cuba. This article is a great start (thank you Casey Suglia of Romper.com). #BaracoaEstamosContigo

I hope you can help too.

 

Pause, Regroup, Go

The pause happened before my 45th birthday last year.

Field trip to Bandelier National Monument.
Field trip to Bandelier National Monument when I was only 43.

Thoughts started badgering me:

What am I doing with my life?

Is this where I want to be?

What have I accomplished?

Is this all there is for me?

I’m almost dead!

My older friends laughed  and called me “youngster” and “silly.”

But I know this restlessness.

I get restless when I need change – not want – but need. For me change is not only an opportunity for growth, it is growth.

The first time I felt this need I was about 12 or 13. I had fallen in love with San Francisco while visiting relatives. Chicago wasn’t my #1 city anymore. I was in love with the Mediterranean climate, the friendly people and the food. Unfortunately, due to my age and other factors, the move wouldn’t happen until I was 21.

City by the Bay

After a few months working at a biotech company, I applied and got accepted to graduate school in the Monterey Bay area just south of SF. I was following my dream of becoming a marine biologist – inspired by Jacques Cousteau.

California was wonderful, I didn’t want to move, but as my graduate career was ending, jobs were hard to find and the techies from Silicon Valley were beginning to make the Monterey Bay area too expensive to live. Through some connections I learned there may be jobs in Seattle – so, at age 25, I moved out of necessity – which is a different kind of need than restlessness.

City by the Sound.

I rolled into Seattle on July 1st, 1996 (yes 20 years ago today!). Life would be good for awhile – but restlessness found me 6 years later, when I was 31. It was a moment in my life where I felt everything stagnated: bought first home, married first guy and got my first permanent job, by age 30.

I lived in the suburbs of Seattle. It felt sterile, isolated, and unfriendly. The marriage began to remind me of my parents marriage.  In short no bueno. I knew there was more to life than what I had and I got out.

While the marriage was ending, I moved from the suburbs of Seattle into the city. A place where I could walk to cafes, to grocery stores and to a beautiful urban park with a lake, trees, and an occasional bald eagle. I felt more comfortable in the city – it reminded me of my city-kid roots.

When I feel restless my first reaction is to runaway and this one was no different.

I wanted to give up:

Everything I was doing

Everything I had accomplished

I wanted to:

Move

Getaway

Leave without a trace…

But that wouldn’t be responsible, it would be a short-lived happiness followed by extreme anxiety.

Third birthday of author...
Third birthday of author…

I needed to regroup, reevaluate, and reassess, my restlessness. I needed to ground my thoughts, take several deep breathes because I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t let down my younger self, and give up on her dreams and aspirations. But what had I not accomplished?

I achieved my goal of moving to Cali and becoming a marine biologist. I spent time at sea studying fishes in Alaska. I now have a great job, I own a house in the city and I have a terrific fiancé.

So what am I to blame this bout of restlessness on?

I look to astrology for answers (cuz sometimes it helps.).  I am a Sagittarrian and Sagittarians are described as travelers, philosophers, and adaptable. In short, I needed a change of scenery, more education and transition my avocation to a vocation.

For education I decided to GO back to school in a discipline complimentary to science, art. My medium is writing and on many levels I have always known I was a writer and have written in some capacity since I was a teenager. For the last 4+ years it has been my avocation. I have taken several writing classes, but they left me wanting more. Finally, I applied to a Masters of Fine Arts program – got in – and hope to graduate with an MFA in creative writing (focus on nonfiction) in 2018.

I’m working on a change of scenery – to a place my younger self wanted to live thanks to a TV show with a hot guy driving a red Ferrari – so I’ll write about it if it happens.

I embraced my feeling of restlessness. I worked to fully understand where they were coming from and I am making changes.  Life feels more fulfilling and I feel less old.

Wedding in Scotland

Why am I getting married in Scotland?

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The farm

I fell in love with an American man whose heritage takes him back to Scotland on both sides of his family. Three generations ago, in the mid-1800s, his mom’s grandfather immigrated from the Orkney Islands to Canada. His dad’s Scottish heritage is a bit murky. All we know is that they came to the U.S. through Ireland before the revolutionary war and ended up in Kentucky.

In 2013, we planned a trip to Scotland to search for the family farm on the Orkney Island of Rousey. Through sideways rain we explored ruins ranging from 5,000 to 100 years old. And, with the help of a local, we found the family farm. The place where generations of his family lived. The trip was blessed by the discovery of a third cousin, whom we bumped into at a local artist coop.

When my love proposed to me atop the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I had no clue where we would get married. Not in Seattle, where we both live, it doesn’t feel like home. Not in Chicago, where I was born, my roots never did go very deep there. And not in Southern California where he was from, let’s just say there are better places for my wedding.

Since leaving Scotland after our brief visit in 2013, I have always wanted to go back. Tears well in my eyes as I recall how touched my love was when viewing his family’s farm. He walked the green slopes overlooking the North Sea in silence, as if communing with his ancestors, thanking them for their sacrifices and gifts. I witnessed a man reconnecting with a heritage he barely knew. A connection that was lost over 100 years ago. I bore witness to a person awakening to the history of his people within his self. It was a very intimate moment.

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Skara Brae

I fell in love with the mystique of the Orkney Islands. This land where Picts, Norse and other people came in search of a new life. To survive despite the harsh climate and rocky shores, they plowed the shallow dirt and somehow fed for generations. Of course some left under unsure circumstances and others left to find a new life in another new world that offered more opportunity and freedoms. I’m sure those who left, did so with heavy hearts because the Orkney Islands beckon you to stay, like the song of the sirens, with her beauty and her secrets.

I am not discounting my heritage with the decision to wed in Scotland. My heritage is skin deep. Both my parents immigrated to the U.S. and I have visited both countries of their birth. Although I continue to explore how I am influenced by my heritage, it is different than discovering it for the first time. My heritage has never been forgotten. Although I love both countries of my heritage, Germany and Cuba, neither of those places have mesmerized me, captured me and beckoned me back like Scotland.

Ok, well one country does, Cuba, but it would actually be a lot more difficult to get married there. Perhaps the honeymoon?

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Instead, my spirit desires to be wed in a land of fairy tales, castles and 4,000+ year old historic sites.

I hope to share my journey as I figure out how to plan a wedding from 4,300 miles away.

Cruising near Cuba

On December 17th, 2014, I was on a cruise ship, sailing to within four miles of the coast of Cuba.Heading to the Windward Passage

I was on a cruise with my mother, my husband and best friend from high school. We just left the Bahamas and were on our way to Ocho Rios Jamaica. I knew the ship would have to travel  through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti to reach Jamaica directly south of Cuba, but I didn’t know how close.

After lunch, while walking laps on the Promenade deck, I thought I saw land. I went to my stateroom to find our latest location, we were close to the Eastern-most tip of Cuba, Punta Maisí.

Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.
Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.

I was familiar with Punta Maisí because it was a place my mother wanted to visit during our trip to Cuba in 2010. Instead we stayed in Baracoa, about 39 miles away. We learned the roads out to the point were really muddy and with potholes large enough to wreck the already battered Lada sedan of our hired driver.

Perhaps now, while cruising along her shores aboard the luxurious MS NOORDAM, we would be able to see the famous lighthouse at Punta Maisí. Her decks providing us with a sturdy platform to view what we couldn’t get to on land.

I spent the day on deck squinting my eyes to see if I could see something I could recognize, I was hoping to see El Yunque – the famous geologic feature in Baracoa that purportedly led Columbus to Cuba’s shores in 1511. Clouds draped the coastline. I imagined I saw the silhouette of mountains.

If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.
If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.

The winter sun was low on the horizon, the fluffy tropical white clouds played tricks with my eyes, but finally as if commanded by my desire to see land, a slight wind picked up and – Land Ho!

My heart filled with pride of seeing my mother’s land, my eyes welled with tears, as if I was seeing a long dead relative, coming back for a brief visit. Cuba!

I continued my laps around the Promenade deck as our ship sailed even closer to Cuba’s shores. Each trip I announced to a clueless, yet curious, fellow passenger who was wondering what land we were passing. “That my friend is the most beautiful island in the world! Cuba!” I was proud of my ancestor’s land, despite her political history, it is a place of amazing natural history and made up of a resilient people.

A tiny white line in the middle of the image - is the lighthouse.
A tiny white line in the middle of the image – is the lighthouse.

The land came closer into view and upon checking our location again, about an hour later, I saw we were only miles off her coast, precisely off Punta Maisí. I squinted some more and thought I saw a lighthouse. I used my Iphone 4s camera to zoom in and steadied my arms on the deck railing. I needed another miracle from the clouds and the wind. My eyes played tricks on me, I thought I could see a small white blip in the distance. I took several images, not really knowing what I was taking a photo of. But on some level, I knew it had to be the lighthouse at Maisí.

IMG_4906_2When I got home after the cruise, I looked at all my photos and did a few searches on Google to determine that yes what I saw was Punta Maisí.

We continued to cruise past Cuba until nightfall. When lights onshore, made me wonder, again, where we were. I wondered if we were near Santiago de Cuba. I thought the lights I saw were from El Morro, the Spanish fort at the mouth of Santiago harbor. But when I looked at our location on the ship’s monitor, we were to the east.

Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.
Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.

I went back on deck and watched the blinking lights of what I thought would have been the runway at Santiago’s airport, the airport my mother and I flew into back in 2010, an airport slightly east of El Morro. My mind was made up, that was Santiago. Then, I saw more flashing lights, to the west of the “runway” past a dark area. I didn’t remember anything on the other side of Santiago’s harbor mouth. Then it came to me. That must be the mouth of Guantanamo Bay and the lights are from the U.S. naval base. I stood there staring into the darkness, imagining the large natural harbor of that bay, thinking about how one of my great-uncles was killed while trying to swim towards freedom and remembering my visit to the town of Guantanamo, in 2010, the place where my mother was born. Then, I had a vision.

“I can imagine our cruise ship sailing into port here.” I blurted to my husband, stunned by the break in silence.

I learned the next day, December 18th, that my vision may one day be a reality, Obama had announced his plans to reestablish relations with Cuba. A future cruise originating in the U.S., could possibly include Cuba on its itinerary. It will be a fabulous economic opportunity for the people of Cuba and an opportunity for cultural exchange for both Cubans and Americans.

Note: After several months of reading a bunch of articles about travel to Cuba, I read about an entrepreneur from Canada who has already established a cruise around Cuba. Wanna go?!