Sailing to Havana
On the Texas coast, easterlies mean rain, but southeast winds whisper tropical promises. Building in like the trades, they rise after noon to blow every hint of land – burning fields, greening trees, fresh-plowed earth – back upon itself until dusk, when they quieten again. Shaking off the lassitude of winter, sailors tack into the southerlies, working their way forward against their steady call. Along the coastal plain, gusty west winds fill with pelicans and spoonbills, and empty the bays before dying away as quickly as they came.
But no matter the season, it is the north wind that delights. With its restless, gypsy-like dance across the waters, it promises an irresistable bit of temperate pleasure in the midst of summer’s oppressive calms. When the wind blows freely from the north without a hint of easting, steady and unwavering as a well-trimmed craft, every sailor who has known the incomparable pleasures of long, offshore reaches begins to stand at windows or walk to doors. Looking to the south, sniffing the air, letting the mind unwind its coils of responsibility, commitment and routine as casually as lines flipped from a cleat, they begin to dream. With a well-found vessel and a few provisions, with fuel and water and the proper navigation tools, the course would be clear. Passing down the Ship Channel, through the jetties and out toward blue water, leaving the tanker anchorage, the safety fairway, Heald Bank and the Flower Gardens behind, there would be only wind, water and a destination. Set the course at 117 degrees true, make adjustments as you must, and in six days, or seven, you would be in Havana Harbor. Seven hundred thirty-five nautical miles on the rhumb line, she’s only a long reach away on a steady norther.
In a perfect world, I would be gone: yielding to temptations I hardly can bear. My open window faces north, scooping up the breezes. My wind chimes, tenor in range, tuned to an Aeolian scale, ring only on winds from NW to NE. Tonight they are singing due North and my heart echoes their sound: restless, with a slightly minor stirring. Given time and a boat, I could find my way to Havana. Laid up against the wall at Marina Hemingway, I would walk El Malecon, using my new, rudimentary Spanish to ask, “Can you help me find Yoani Sanchez?”
Finding Yoani Sanchez
It is, of course, a fantasy. There is much more than water that separates Galveston from Havana, and a few hundred miles of ocean are more easily overcome than the twin realities of geopolitical obstinance and dictatorial whim. The thought of sailing away to Havana Harbor, tying up and walking over to visit Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez clearly falls into the realm of fantasy. Recognized as such, it stands as a powerful reminder that Yoani Sanchez herself is not a metaphor, a symbol, a blank screen upon which we can project our own fantasies about the oppressed Third World writer.
Yoani Sanchez is real, as her people are real. At this very moment, she is in Havana, living her life as you peacefully sit at your computer and read these words. Perhaps she is reading. Perhaps she is wondering where to find a bicycle chain, or pondering the mysterious messages painted on the broken windows of the city. Perhaps she is taking one of the unusual red and blue buses which sit at the side of the road outside her window or perhaps (one can only hope) she is pouring her son a scarce and luxurious glass of milk. Soon, she will be writing again, using the power of human language to bring to a world’s notice the abuse of political power.
Despite the fact that I don’t know her culture, can’t speak her language and barely comprehend the nature of the government which constrains her life, I have come to know enough of Yoani Sanchez in past months that any thought of focusing on other things leaves me with an irrational sense of betrayal, of abandoning a friend. A friend or two of my own say, “You can’t be responsible for everyone. Think how many unfortunate and oppressed people exist whom you don’t know: the refugees, the prisoners, the disappeared and violated.”
And that is true. There are many I don’t know, millions of people whose circumstances nearly defy description and whose lives are lived out in hopelessness and fear. There was a time when I knew nothing of Yoani Sanchez. I knew little of her country and even less about her people. But now, I know. I’ve taken my bite of this particular apple, and so I find myself accountable for my response. The difficult question, of course, is the nature of my response.
However distasteful we may find it, the truth is that we are embedded in history, and it takes time for things to work themselves out. In difficult and complex circumstances, the longings of the human heart can meet the limits of life in a clash of suffocating force. When that happens, allowing time to pass, allowing the next step to reveal itself, is difficult. It is tempting to become impatient, and even easier to experience helplessness, anxiety and frustration. The urge to take control, to force a turning of events simply in order to resolve the tension – the urge to DO something – can be irresistible. It’s a generally unhelpful response, particularly since, when no other obvious solution exists, the temptation to resolve tension simply by turning away can be strong.
Restless in the wind and feeling the call of the water, still haunted by Yoani Sanchez and uncertain which next step to take, I found myself impelled to Galveston’s shore. Walking the edge of the same water that laps against El Malecon so many worlds away, I remembered other days when there was nothing more to do: times when clear thought dissolved into a blur of confusion, and every action proved ineffectual. Seeing those days in memory, I saw my solution as well. Turning my gaze from the south, from the expanse of water and the impossible journey it represented, I turned instead to the north, to the little seaside town and St. Mary, Star of the Sea.
I am not a Catholic, and whether Yoani Sanchez’ beliefs are Catholic, I have no way of knowing. But in the cathedrals of the world it is faith that matters, not definitions, and Yoani Sanchez is a person of deep and abiding faith. She also is a person of words, and surely understands the silence that is the necessary partner of words: the seedbed that allows them to take root and flourish, the frame that surrounds their images.
In a cathedral, it is the silence that comes first. Sitting near Mary, Star of the Sea, or Anthony, or Patrick, with their banks of votives and calm, impassive gazes focused beyond the horizon of time, silence begins to permeate the soul. As the silence grows complete, as mind and heart are stilled by the unutterable presence of eternity, I rise and take a taper, and light a candle for Yoani Sanchez. There is no need for specific prayer, no need for words to fill the silence. The silence itself is prayer, and comfort, enough.
As I watch the flame, a mysterious wind sends ripples of grief through my heart like a rising wind will ruffle the waters. But the wind lays, and the heart calms, and the grief stands revealed for what it is: a profound experience of the truth that to be human is to be limited. The promise and the pain of faith is understanding that those limits will be overcome, but only in due time, and by a power other than our own.
I stand a moment longer, watching the flame, hearing the silence, feeling the grief ebb away. As I turn toward the sunlight streaming in through the open door at the end of the nave, as I begin my long walk through the flickering shadows toward re-engagement and life, there is no need to look back.
Yoani Sanchez is safe.