Leaves of Grass
There are certain things every immigrant avoids in order to stay healthy. Mentally, healthy that is. Certain portraits one cannot let to gaze upon us; certain books are better not awakened; certain songs are better not be hummed.
This is a lesson I learned by trial and error: the best way to learn sometimes. And I discovered I was not alone on my believing when four years ago I made a copy of a Mercedes Sosa CD for a Cuban friend of mine. We had just met each other, so we were still on very polite terms. She thanked me for the gesture, she promised she would treasure the present, but apologized in advance saying she would never play it, or otherwise she would drawn in her own tears of nostalgia.
Her comment suprised me. Even when it is true that Mercedes Sosa is dearly loved in Cuba, her music does not particularly represent the motherland we left behind. Gently inquiring - as gently as a geek can inquire – I asked her which of the songs would be the one with the power of making her so sad. She replied saying that all of them – we Cubans don’t know of middle grounds – but that in particular “Todo Cambia” was very difficult to listen without getting misty eyes.
Her comment made me think about the feelings this song arouse on me. I knew this song talked to me deeply, although I was not quite sure what the topic of the conversation was.
I remember the first time I heard this song. I was at the time on a boarding school specialized on sciences named after Lenin. Heaven on earth for me, one would think, given my love for everything measureable and reducible to plain logic, but although for most of my classmates their period on this school was one of the best experiences of their adolescence, for me was a harsh one. Even amongst geeks there is such a thing as too geeky. Every social group needs its shooting targets. And young adult archers tend to have very vicious bows.
The situation, of course, can turn worst if besides the science books one keeps a poetry journal, it can turn particularly worst if the journal contains quotations by Walt Whitman, and it can turn dramatically worst if ones poems imply one fancies Whitman’s beard as much as his verses. That would be the equivalent to paint the core of the shooting target with bright red paint.
I was a teenager and I needed a mentor, so there were not enough arrows to make me stop being in love with Walt Whitman. I suffered all of them with the ecstatic patience of a good Saint Sebastian.
The only time I could go home was on the weekends, which were for me a garden of respite from a week of overwhelming social acidity. One of my favorite things to do on Saturday nights, to get my mind off the school and its drama, was to visit a night club at the National Theatre where Rita del Prado, a friend of mine, used to run, together with Alberto Faya, a show devoted to Latin-American music.
It was a very low cost show, but a very imaginative one. Almost everything was handcrafted, from the food and drinks served to the hand written and illustrated programs. Part of the show consisted on guessing the meaning of a ten-line stanza riddle Rita would have composed, a different one every week. As I have always created crafts as a hobby, Rita would ask me very often to create a unique object related to the riddle, and would use it as the present for the winner of the night.
It was a delight to spend the Saturday morning creating the present and then, at the end of the night, to see somebody take it home. The objects usually had poetry embedded: short verses I would have written during the week while ducking and dodging the acid missiles my endearing classmates would so sportingly shoot. Knowing my unsigned verses were hanging on somebody’s wall served as a secret revenge against the idiotic archers. It helped me endure their arrows, even with a sarcastic smile. True, thinking on Whiltman’s beard also helped.
The musicians invited to the show were a mixture of well know performers and budding artists. It was in that show that I first heard the assemble "Fragua", one that I don’t think exists anymore. Their work was not only music, it was living archeology. Their instruments alone were a pleasure to behold, including the most amazing handcrafted pan flutes, rain sticks and even a quijada, a percussion instrument made out of two donkey jawbones bound together, that despite its macabre looks, when pounded, made a very warm rattling sound.
Most of their repertoire was inspired by Mercedes Sosa’s. It was by them that I first heard “Todo Cambia”. The singer had a very velvety voice, deep and soulful. When she sang, the whole night club was transformed and filled with energy, not a bright and happy one, but definitely a humane, warm, and truthful one.
“It all changes” - asserted the song – “the superficial things, and the deep ones as well. The shepherd changes its flock; the bird changes its nest; the lover changes its heart; the elder changes his hair; and see, if everything changes, it’s not that strange I change as well.”
“It all changes.” – reiterated the chorus with an increasing background of guitar and pounding percussion that sounded like a heart bit.
I felt a deep current of meaning ran underneath these lyrics, evidenced by the sorrowful melody and the urgency of the chorus. It was a mixture of surprise and of sad realization, even with a slight tone of apology, the way one apologizes for things one could not do anything to stop. Still, I could not understand what was so painful about changing. This song, for me, was a beautiful sequence of parallelisms that rephrased the well known fact about the mutant nature of the world.
One cannot forget I had a very intense training in materialist philosophy. True, I did not pay too much attention on Marxism class, dreaming instead of Whitman's verses. But nevertheless the materialist concepts were securely hammered in my brain by ten years of education.
“Change is the cradle of progress!”- shouted from the depths of my brain my unconsciousness, dressed as union worker, clad in a greasy overall. – “And you should better be listening to L'Internationale and not to this nostalgic rubbish!” – added brandishing a shiny wrench with his a virile proletarian arm.
I never cared too much for proletarian charm, so I turned to Whitman and asked him to help me clarify the deep sorrow beneath these lyrics. “What is so fascinatingly sad about changing?” – I asked caressing his beard like Thetis caressed Zeus', thinking this would get me a better chance to get the needed answer from him.
But, holding my hand and smiling with a puzzling expression, a mixture of amusement and sadness, Whitman uttered the same and only frustrating phrase every mentor in my life ever offered: “You are too young to understand”.
Brokenhearted, I abandoned Whitman and what I thought was his unwillingness to sip any non vintage wine. A few years after I left my motherland.
“I have been sitting for a fair while inside my barrel” - I thought – “so I guess I could not be blamed for my youngness anymore. Maybe it is time I resource to myself as my own mentor and, stroking my own beard, I listen to this song and try to find what strings of mine and my friend’s hearts it is pulling, or better yet, it is jerking in a non particularly musical way.”
I listened to the song paying attention to its lyrics and soon I started to feel anxiety and distress.
“Why do these poetic images make me feel so uncomfortable?” – I thought, puzzled - “It should be the other way around. Beautiful poetry should sooth the spirit.”
But with every verse I could feel a stronger anxiety, a closer, colder and more asphyxiating one.
Part of it I could recognize was nostalgia. But nostalgia is a softer anguishing feeling, not a piercingly distressing one. By the time the song reached its chorus I was in plain fear. And being the song about changing, it could not be anything else but tropophobia, the fear of change.
The drastic change that a migration process imposes is one of the hardest tasks an immigrant would face. Not knowing middle grounds, as I mentioned before, Cuban immigrants seem to handle the process of changing in two boldly opposite ways: either by jumping into it headlong, blending perfectly with the environment and losing all their identity or by sinking their hills on the sand and resisting adaptation with all the strength they have.
I belong to the second group, the group of the stubborn immigrants. That is one of the reasons there is a rhinoceros at the top of this blog, looking at this seemingly endless post. It is a symbol of stubbornness and anachronism. Coated by alien plates, the stubborn immigrants try to stay loyal to their origins and not to let a single hair to change.
Perhaps it is in hopes that if they stay loyal to their identity, they would not feel the pain of the nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a very heavy weight to carry around, consuming a good fair of energy. And lots of energy are necessary to start a new life.
Or perhaps it is the nostalgia itself the one that feeds the stubbornness, making it feel as a lethally painful danger to let oneself change. The environment might seems so alien that turning into an alien could seem to be the only way to blend in. So, in fear of being transformed and loosing his identity, the stubborn immigrant turns himself into living dusty scrapbook, into a walking safe box of memorabilia, a caricature of his past.
I was not a preserver of my identity when I was back in Cuba. I was just me. I did not live resisting changing my accent, my clothing style or my routines. I did not live by treasuring a way of thinking or of doing things that were a set of anachronisms. I did not defined myself as the mismatching piece of the puzzle.
By turning myself into a stubborn immigrant, by thinking that I was cherishing and protecting who I am, I did exactly – and with a single blow – what I was trying to avoid: I turned myself into a different person. And, may I say, into a different person a little sadder, and a little bitterer, where the term “little” can be conveniently adjusted, just for my ego’s sake.
"Not only that." - sais my proletarian unconsciousness rolling up its dirty sleeves – “You seem to have forgotten that everything changes, even if you want it or not. So, by trying to preserve your memories and manners, by enclosing them in a time-proof capsule, you have suffocated them, you made them stale, you made them rot. And you have started to confuse the fungi growing amongst your possessions with the original treasures you brought along from home.”
“Plain materialistic thought.” – continues my unconsciousness, prosaically scratching its back with the wrench – “I guess you have been stroking the beard of the wrong guy, when ours, after all, was not that bad.”
While walking hidden under my winter coat I see Walt Whitman sitting in a close by café. He waves with a smile and I run to him. I give him the warmest embrace one could give from inside a down stuffed coat. I sit by his side and tell him all about my pains, my fear of changing. Whitman listens and smiles, but I can see he is evidently holding himself from yawning of boredom.
“How can you not sympathize?” – I demand – “I did exactly what you taught me! I celebrated who I am!”.
“Still so young.” - says Whitman with the same expression of twenty years ago, now not so puzzling anymore – “Since when celebrating includes moping around?”
“Listen.” - says Whitman, calmly holding one of my gloved hands – “Don’t look at my beard, or my eyes, or your eyes reflected in mine. This time, just really listen.”
“If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” – says Whitman. And I’m left sitting alone at the café holding a handful of grass leaves on my glove.
I left my motherland because the needed to change things was too imperative. Amongst other things, I needed to leave behind the archers and their omnipresent bows. I left home to be able to love Walt Whitman without being tied to a column and executed in an auto de fé.
But instead of embracing change and building a new live in my new found freedom, I hid myself in a cocoon made out of nostalgic memories that soon was covered by so many sparrow droppings I could hardly see the outside.
The fear of change paralyzed me. I took the initial brave step by leaving behind my motherland but I did not have the courage to let myself arrive.
I am still hovering over Toronto. Maybe it is time to land.