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Vultures & Rocking Chairs

By Berenice Rarig, Dec 7, 2015

This past Sunday morning my face, all fidgety, was glued to my iPad in Perth, Australia, as I waited for Frank and Ariadna (who are 12 hours behind me) to call in. Then finally a ring sounded and there they were, sharing head phones, on a borrowed tablet, in the center square of town, under a flickering street lamp together with 200+ other people struggling to connect to an irascible Internet …

There are numerous ways to immerse in a new culture. Some say it is best to enter through your belly and when you think of Cuba, this seems obvious perhaps … Think of Hemingway marinating in the green freshness of bruised mint leaves getting all friendly-like with the drowsy sweetness of rum in a lanky iced glass while birthing The Old Man And The Sea on a cranky typewriter. And who wouldn’t be more than willing to venture forth with forkfuls of slow roasted pork, crunchy crackling still spitting from a spritzing of limón? Or to explore with a spoon the soft hills of ruby, amethyst and anthracite beans and fields of rice and sticky swamps of mango and papaya?

But for fellow artist Becky Young and me, it is the patterns and rhythms of a culture that draw us in. We need to wrap our hands around its pulsing heart and be bloodied and loved. We need to be vulnerable participants. But even if you are not an artist, thinking of Cuba will conjure repetitive images and thrums. There are the predictable recurrences such as plump, party-coloured 1959 Ford Fairlanes, with loud swearing gears, proudly rumbling down streets and swinging widely around corners. In room-size humidors there are rows and rows of fat Latin cigars and stacks of candy boxes with pasted pictures of pretty, red-lipped women on the lids. And there are velvety clubs and lurid dives with neon signs and peeling paint serving sweaty rumbas and spicy jazz.

Close to the center of the city of Holguín, Cuba, is a small church plant. The church meets in an unobtrusive, faded stucco building hidden behind a large metal graffitied gate and across the street from the cement block bones of a hotel, too late to accommodate the Pope as intended. But there is something exceptional, precious, and rare about this church and it was enough to get me on seven planes (one way) and more than sufficient to convince Becky to leave her work in Texas and Mexico to come with me.

Within this church there are two handfuls of artists who, together with their pastor, Alfredo, have responded to a heart call from God to bless their country with the gospel through their grace-crafted art practices. But presently, their country resides in a crumbling red cardboard box where even short supply is in short supply. And overhead, black vultures swoop and circle ad nauseam. They herald death or rain, we are told. Torn shrouds or rains clouds? Meanwhile, sealed words on important paper are exchanging palaces and rusty locks are being removed from slumbering embassies. And Cuba watches the sky. Torn shrouds or rain clouds?

The rhythms of our experiences with the Cuban artists were not reckoned by things as prosaic as clocks or suns and moons but by the frequency of kisses and the pressing of cheeks and the regularity of fine Cuban coffee, aromatic obsidian served in a jewelry-box-sized tacita (tiny porcelain coffee cup). And as we crawled into each other’s hearts and art; the sounds of rolling and unrolling charcoaled paper, the scraping of closer moving chairs, the air conditioning continually catching its breath, the indulgent clicks of selfies, strings of accented words ending in question marks, bubbles of generous laughter and the salted hum of trembling prayers filled the space. As did the smell of shy paint, an acrid overheating projector bulb, and the sulfur of other unrepentant computer technology, hamburgers not fit for tourists, the orange zing of the only local brand of soft drink, and the magnificent ozone of love with its hope and ideas and a way forward.

Cuban balconies are stitched with rebar and wrought iron to each and every building and hang like bulging pockets on a threadbare overcoat. They are reached by implausible tornado-shaped iron staircases. (Imagine here a combination of birdcage and shark cage but add nice furniture, potted plants, and incandescent lizards.) The balcony on the second floor of Rosabel’s Villa, our government-sanctioned boarding house, allowed Becky and myself to both swing on high and swim in the ebb and flow of our street while we watched for Frank, our artist host, to arrive on his mostly pink, mostly duck-taped, mostly coat-hangered-together bicycle. From here we saw the regular arrival of yellow-bellied drinking water tanks hauled by anorexic horses, the banana and mango man with his wooden handcart and exhausted vocal cords, and his twin, tamale the man; the bicycle taxi with one raw wheel pedaled by a 67-year-old man with bulging calves who has an 18-month-old baby. We counted the undulating umbrellas; some beautiful, some lewd, and watched the old widow across the street hold court on her front stoop, her fine purple hair feathering in the hot breeze. She raises her voice and her hands higher to be heard over her neighbor’s small leathery dog stupidly trying to dig a hole in the pavement.

There were two on our small balcony and at least eight in the rest of the boarding house. Our clandestine glances through wood-slatted windows into dark-tiled rooms while walking down roads, and tippy-toed stares into second, third, and fourth floor balconies revealed many, many more. There were some at the church, too, and at all the homes I visited. Even cafés and restaurants had them. Herds, I’m talking herds, of rocking chairs. And yes, herd is the right word for truly, rocking chairs are like chocolate-eyed cows, chewing and re-chewing cud and hesitant to swallow. It is the mellow furniture of indecision. And Cuba rocks back and forth on its balconies and asks are we here or there? Are we in or out?

Artists, all artists, even artists of faith, are always looking for and sometimes caricatured as the circling vultures, the death or rain, and are unkindly conjured as rocking chairs. Are you here or there? Are you in or out? Many have thought the same of Jesus.

… and before the screen freezes Frank says, “We are here, Queen Bee … and it is raining.”

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READ MORE: Read the companion article, How Artists are Shaping Culture in Cuba, explaining more of the nuts and bolts of MTW's work in Cuba. And please pray for Frank, Ariadna, Hennier, Laritza, Yuneisi, Yamil, Rosa, and their pastor, Alfredo, as they love and gospel their expanding, changing world through the arts.

GET INVOLVED: Learn how you can be involved in the arts through giving to, praying for, or serving with The Make Collective. (NOTE: We have currently been offered a $10,000 matching grant so your donation will be doubled until the end of the year.)

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