spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
A corner in Old Havana / AlisonR
Vayas donde vayas, alli estaras.* Or so they might say in Cuba.

In airports, on tour buses, in hotels, restaurants, in Havana, Matanzas, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and back at the Copacabana in Havana, I was much the same human being I had been in San Francisco except for swollen feet and ankles. In past travel, I had relied on avoidance-strategies to cope with the strange or disorienting. But this time, bolstered by 55 Tara Brach meditation podcasts, and a budding meditation practice, I was present; I was really there for the pleasant and unpleasant.

I was confused and anxious as we milled around the American Airlines Charter Flight counter at the Miami-Dade airport eager to enter Cuba and whatever awaited us just 90 miles from Key West.

The trip, organized by Global Exchange, was to encourage cultural sharing through choral music. We were a group of 74—the UC Alumni Chorus, Unitarian Universalist choir, 18 or so young Berkeley singers and a few like me who came along for the ride. I could go to rehearsals and performances, encourage the singers, be an appreciative audience or I could stay in an air-conditioned hotel room and read “The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht or listen to any of my Tara Brach talks.

There I was, present with my “All About Me” syndrome as I faced Cuban customs in Havana. Would I be the one among us ordered to open her suitcases? Would I have to explain my reading material? My large assorted collection of generic pills? Would they look askance at a coat lugged into extreme heat and humidity? Would a Cuban TSA tear out the lining in search of contraband? What about the stack of unworn underwear I planned to leave in Cuba as a sign of my goodwill to the people? Could anything be judged nefarious? If I am questioned, will it hold up the tour buses that wait outside Jose Marti Airport?

In fact, one of our group did delay our departure from the airport because in the spirit of goodwill she brought bottles of expired veterinarian medicines into the country, and airport officials were not happy. Finally, after an hour of sitting in the buses, their motors running, the air conditioning spewing perfumed air, we saw a tour guide go back into the terminal to bring Spanish into her side of the discussion to see if that might help her. The rest of us proceeded to the restaurant. Later, when the two joined us, we clapped. From goat to hero in time for lunch.

Because we got back to San Francisco late Friday night and I slept through most of Saturday, this brief account written Sunday can’t explore all I felt, saw and did those 13 days. But let me cover a few experiences, some of which required mindfulness to remain equanimous if travel were not to devolve into travail. For one, toilet paper is a luxury, not to be expected. Sometimes a lady would sit at the opening of the bano and sell pads of toilet paper for a small amount.** One soon learned to be self-sufficient. In fact my roll of Cuban toilet paper continued to serve me even after we had landed back in Miami at the end of the trip. Irony of ironies, my particular airport bathroom stall lacked toilet paper. And with left-over equanimity, I tittered about it.

Present to the dilemma of unpotable local water supplies and the specter of my plastic bottles cluttering the land fills, I developed an emotional attachment to large plastic botellas de agua from which I poured into multiple little botellas for easier transport as I strolled about the various courtyards or hung out in small stifling rooms listening to Arturo or Eliseo, our guides, translate lectures about state-sponsored music education. Did I always care? Was I always hot? Often thirsty? No, yes, yes.

In other posts I want to tell you more about experiencing Cuba as a member of a large tour group. These experiences are too piled up to unpack now and share from a place of response rather than reaction. For now, let me say that old cars do exist in Cuba, but so do newer cars – Fiats, Kia, Hyundai, and I even saw a Prius and a Toyota Corolla or two. The state does own almost everything, but that too is changing.

At about 1 a.m., finally home after a long day in the Miami-Dade airport, a five plus hour flight, and a three-hour time difference, I tried the key to the front door of my building. As the friends who brought me home drove away, I discovered the lock to the building had been changed while I was gone and the key didn’t work. And just then a third-floor neighbor pushed open the door so his darling dog, Cooper, could make his late night foray. Such luck. And so I was home, exhausted but still present with an overwhelming gratitude, or as we say en espanol, gratitud.

*As spoken in English by actor Peter Weller in the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

**About money. Tourists use CUCs, which is the convertible peso. We pronounced it “kooks.” Right now the exchange rate for  $10 is 8.70 CUCs. (On November 8, 1994, the American dollar ceased to be accepted in Cuban retail outlets, leaving the convertible peso as the only currency accepted in many Cuban businesses, according to Wikipedia.)

Dock leaf bug on blades of grass/swan corner
While I am without an internet connection, Kate will post pieces I wrote in the past to speak as credos during service at the Unitarian Universalist church where I served as a Worship Associate.

Like it or not, my worldview is limited. I discovered this years ago during a session of active imagining, which resembles dreaming awake. Seated comfortably, as one might be for meditation, I visualized myself cross-legged on a magic carpet. Then I let go of the image and allowed it to carry me where it would, hoping to fly over the rainbow or at least above the chimney tops. Within seconds after take off, my magic carpet upended. Luckily, I did not fall off. Had my own guided-imagery dumped me, the damage could have been irreparable.

Disappointed by this imaginative limitation; nevertheless I flew on, upside down and close to the ground, peering between blades of grass as random bugs scuttled by. Despite its limits, this outlook characterizes my relationship to things in this world as I make my way without benefit of the “big picture.”

Each day I hope to unearth evidence that what I love, including my place in the universe, loves me back. Some may call this practice superstitious or foolish. For my part, looking for loveliness and conferring meaning feels more like bird watching and unearthing hidden Easter eggs.

In this spirit, I practice emotionally connecting with dogs, usually not purebreds. I want these dogs to know I see them as ultra-kind beings rewarded with a return life to continue giving unconditional love as four-legged rather than two-legged creatures. I have heard “To err is human, to forgive canine.” 

However, I never confuse love for random dogs with the true unselfishness of communities like Rocket Dog Rescue and other organizations dedicated to saving animals.  I honor those groups in more practical ways. Both financial support and doggie eye contact are empowering strategies, though one makes sense and the other does not, and doesn’t have to.

A second place I hope to find answers and reassurances about my place in the universe is everywhere and nowhere in particular. I might search horoscopes, scanning all signs for messages that reinforce a sense of hope or possibility. I am going to need plenty of help if and when I have to battle cruelty and injustice.  Once in Lyman’s chess column above the Cryptoquip in the Chronicle I read these words: “Chess – like other sports – teaches us that defeat is not total or forever. ‘One day you give your opponent a lesson, the next day, he gives you one.’” And there’s Heidi Klum on Project Runway: “One day you’re in, the next day you’re out. Those thoughts resonate.

I gave my sister a thought she could use on a day she felt angry with her life and called to tell me she had lost her voice yelling at god. I said to her “That’s like yelling at a tree.” She found this comment useful and profound and called me back to say so. No evidence has yet been unearthed to support my observation, but isn’t it possible?

Between the possible and the certain runs a practically indiscernible line. I have tried not to cross it. But errors can occur. Take Fact #129 under the lid of the Snapple Diet Iced Tea. That Sunday in the lobby of the Jewish Community Center I alone believed a mosquito has 47 teeth. Skeptically, my friends questioned the accuracy of Snapple lid fact #129. Nevertheless, I told all in earshot what I knew. Whatever disbelief I met, I dismissed. But I had been misinformed; mosquitoes do have teeth but not 47. As a result of googling mosquito teeth, I learn the bottle cap was not gospel. Well, Alison, I mused, next time you find a fact in a bottle cap, pose it as possible not certain.

That seems like an apt lesson in humility for one whose access to information is already limited by a perspective nowhere over the rainbow and certainly not way up high.

Fortunately, the world I love is full of people not like me, who recognize the big picture when they see it or know where to find information about it. For example in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, R. Carlson advises us earth-dwellers to view our trivial concerns against the backdrop of a vast universe wherein we are microscopic dots.

I see the wisdom therein, though contemplating being this insignificant does not increase my hopefulness or sense of empowerment, not the way meeting the eye of a dog in a coffee shop can tune me up for large or small encounters with cruelty and injustice.

Standing on the Side of Love/Justin Valas
While I am without an internet connection, Kate will post pieces I wrote in the past to speak as credos during service at the Unitarian Universalist church where I served as a Worship Associate

It hurts to say so, but I may not be an activist. On the side of love, I don’t stand or march or lie in the street or get arrested. Not that those who do shouldn’t.

I am in awe of the Bernal Heights occupy group that peacefully and with respect, look after the welfare of their neighbors. I, on the other hand, am more apt to be sitting and sipping a double soy latte, though, of course, still on the side of love. And in that spirit, I am “occupying” Starbucks with a diverse cast of coffee drinkers in the Fillmore Center. Here, I make it a point to connect with people who probably wouldn’t see things my way, even if they knew how I saw things.

On any topic, I am not as interested in convincing others of my view, no matter how misguided or wrong they may be, as I am interested in reflecting to them that they are people of consequence who matter.

The Unitarian Universalist principle of every person’s inherent worth and dignity supports me in this. But this is not to say that the homophobe on my right sipping his frappuccino has a good idea going for him. From my perspective, same sex marriage is a human right, and while our opinions are not the same, no bridge can be built between us as people of worth and dignity, unless I am willing to listen and talk to him in a way that bridges the divide.

I try to ask questions that make such a connection possible. People who hold ideas with which I disagree are worth engaging. They are, because if I can be present to them as an interested, accessible human being who is not judgmental, I may make an inroad into their inflexibility.

Sitting next to me is Danny. He is a religious fundamentalist hoping to convince me that we are living in the end times and if we have the right beliefs, we will see Jesus within the next 20 years or so. Or if not, and we die, we will be resurrected because if it can happen once it can happen twice.

Needless to say, I do not agree with Danny. The other morning he brought out notebooks and flipped through page after page of quotations from the Bible and his comments printed in large square letters. He searched for the one quote he was sure would convince me of the imminent reappearance of Jesus, the savior and Son of God. I said, “An interesting perspective and asked him, what his beliefs give him that makes his life better.” By shifting the focus from the beliefs themselves to why he chose to believe them, I hoped to engage him genuinely and not challenge or belittle what obviously matters to him. Eventually, if he asks me what I believe and I tell him, “As little as possible,” we could remain friends and continue to have conversations.

And it isn’t just with strangers that I have had to bridge divides. When I was with my girl friend, Corky, and we went to the movies, we would often disagree about the film. That is, she would disagree with me. My reaction was invariably anger, meaning hurt feelings. To me, her failure to validate my opinion meant I was not a person of consequence to her. Suddenly I looked at my disappointment and feelings and recognized them as familiar. So I didn’t yell, but breathed, sighed and said quietly, “Sorry, you are not at fault. It is never your fault. It will never be your fault.” She thought I was kidding.  But that’s not her fault either. It never was her fault. Because time has passed and we are not together, I realize that fault was never an issue. It is always about remaining open to hearing other opinions and not needing another to validate me.

Perhaps, in some respect, all this sitting does make me an activist – actively seeking to connect from a position of inquiry rather than from an inflexible attachment to my own ideas, willing to listen and bend to better wisdom. Even, as is often the case, it’s not my own.



The oldest, shortest words – “yes” and “no” - are those which require the most thought. -- Phthagoras

Sages, scholars and other bloggers say “yes” is the most powerful word in the world. A “yes” can transform a life. Take for example the “si” I said to a trip to Cuba this month. As a fearful person, “no” is  my go-to response, especially if it means being out of my comfort zone. But in the years since first hearing the Buena Vista Social Club, I have told many who would listen that Cuba was special to me, so now I will travel there. Fear notwithstanding, I choose to say yes.

While saying no to things feels like the safest thing to do, especially when that no is driven by certainty or by fear, one of the first lessons I learned in an improvisation class was the necessity of saying yes to our dialogue partner. Yes allows a dialogue to remain a dialogue and furthers the action. “No” slams the door.  In life as in improv, "yes" encourages connection. Trusting your partner energizes the scene.

My love affair with “yes” was inspired by Irish author James Joyce when at the end of Ulysses, he gives Molly Bloom the stream of consciousness soliloquy of yeses to top all yeses . “And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.”

When I think about life and the yeses I have said before knowing the consequences, I am  amazed at the courage or foolishness that prompted these yeses and in awe of what flowed from them. I said yes to becoming a journalism adviser, yes to moving to San Francisco. And every “yes” became a turning point.

Even when a “yes” later became a "no" I think of that “no” as a “yes” to something else. Sometimes saying “no” can lead to a dead end, particularly when that “no” comes from fear and the need to feel that life is safe and certain. But not always.  A considered “no” can be about boundaries. 

I am remembering the Olivia Cruise to Mexico I agreed to take a year ago March and how I rescinded that “yes.” The “no” to the cruise became a “yes” to putting my needs first. That "yes" took me to unexplored places such as relational therapy which led to mindfulness meditation, a practice that embraces an ongoing "yes" of the heart to the pain of being human.

As John Welwood says, “ You can develop a simple practice of saying yes to yourself each day. Stop for a moment, pay attention to whatever’s going on inside you, and then acknowledge it in a neutral way: ‘yes, this is what’s here.’” A meditative “yes” is not about conjuring the power of positive thinking. Rather it is a willingness to allow what arises, even the pain--especially the pain--to remain and be looked at with awareness, curiosity and mercy.

Tara Brach calls saying yes to the present moment “Radical Acceptance.” She says that we accept “absolutely everything we are feeling about ourselves and our lives by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. By accepting absolutely everything… It means feeling sorrow and pain without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it.  If we are holding back from any part of our experience, if our heart shuts out any part of who we are and what we feel, we are fueling the fears and feelings of separation."

Like Molly Bloom, I say yes, yes, and then again yes.