Cuba, Yoga, Love And Writing Memoir With Sarah Shellow

Sarah Shellow headshot 2-2

Listening to Sarah Shellow read from the early versions of her memoir Undocumented–which didn’t have a title at the time–remains a visceral memory. The lighting. The big room. The muffled coughs in the dark. I remember listening because I remember the story of two small objects very clearly. It was two bottles of essential oil. I’m fairly sure one of them was Ginger. In Sarah’s story of leaving Cuba she is in line with her luggage at the airport when she looks up and sees the pain on the face of a man whom she loves and she rushes to him dropping the two small bottles containing the fragrances she wore everyday. Years go by and I can still see the picture it made in my mind when she told the story that night. I can still see that room where we all sat to listen. Good story telling does that, it captures a world of meaning and experience in small images. Good story telling wraps the stick-to-your bones part of the story in a manageable package and gives it to you for keeps. Sarah is a skilled storyteller and a narrator I find easy to trust. The territory of memory can be sly and mutable. Memory reveals new details that may, in fact, alter our entire perception of something we felt certain we understood. A trustworthy narrator will tell you where she got it wrong and be grateful when she gets it right. I trust Sarah Shellow’s voice and the quality of learning and relearning that comes through her work as a storyteller and here in this delicious talk. Sarah’s words and insights always feel both illuminating and calming and I add this talk to a list of recent talks that feel as if they create shift. I feel something very alive in this talk that is such a pleasure to share. Please find more of Sarah Shellow’s hypnotic prose and the insights she collects on her blog: Tidal Basin. Sarah works as a teacher for those who teach writing to young people. She writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. She has just completed her first novel: Slack Tide. Her work has appeared in The Atticus Review, The Pitkin Review and she is currently the editor for Clockhouse. On The Writer In The World  Sarah describes her work as follows: “My memoir, UNDOCUMENTED, is my attempt to reconcile love transmuted by politics and circumstance. I also explore my relationship with the yoga communities in Cuba and our continued efforts to build a bridge between our nations through yoga and meditation. On the cusp of thawing relations between our two countries, UNDOCUMENTED reflects the on-going love affair that exists between the people of the United States and Cuba despite government interference.” Please Enjoy . . .

MICHELLE: In your memoir—Undocumentedyou share the story of a love affair across a forbidden line drawn between the United States and Cuba. What was the primary drive to make—it takes a kind of primal drive to make a memoir happen—what did you need to see in the world; to articulate and put into the world as a result of your experience?

SARAH: I love your first question because it did feel like a primal drive to write the memoir. The funny thing was that the drive appeared before the experience. I had several dear Cuban friends in New York and we all danced Cuban salsa. The more I became integrated into their way of thinking and their approach to life, the more I wanted to go to Cuba. I systematically prepared for the experience by saving money and easing out of my teaching responsibilities—really, making space for the experience to capture me. When I arrived in Cuba, I can honestly say a story unfolded almost cinema graphically. When I fell in love with not only the country but with a Cuban man, it was the longing we shared and the impossibility of the union that then fueled my need to document my experiences. What I felt needed to be put out into the world was an American’s first-hand experience in Cuba because such little information was available due to the embargo and our (the U.S. citizens’) inability to travel to Cuba. I thought there might be misconceptions on both ends. MICHELLE: You’re a writer! You had the desire to live a story before it happened. Of course! What were you writing at the time? When you were dancing with your friends and creating this adventure, what were you working on? SARAH: At the time I went, I was not writing very much. I had been a school teacher for many years, one who loved reading and writing and used writing as a form of self-expression when I had the time. But going to Cuba to write (and that is what I told myself) was my first real promise to myself to pursue my love of writing more seriously. A bit of backstory~ I had already fallen in love with a Cuban, one who remains a dear friend today. For various reasons, our relationship was not moving in the direction of something more permanent. But I had gotten a taste of a new way of being in a relationship, not only with a person, but also with a culture that was different from my own in several ways that were very appealing to me. One thing I learned from my Cuban friends was how to always look for ways to connect with others, even when differences seemed large. I also learned how to laugh despite difficult circumstances — or perhaps even because of them. When I went to Cuba, I don’t think I was looking for love, but perhaps I felt in some ways as if I was coming home. MICHELLE: That is an appealing approach, to look for the connection between ones self and another as the first move. So, you made arrangements to go to Cuba and you were staying with a family? What were your accommodations going to be like and how long were you planning to stay? I’m curious, also, about what you thought you were going to be writing in Cuba? What were you passionate about working on then? SARAH: Here is the question that I’ve both dreamed about answering and been worried about answering since I first went to Cuba in 2003; though with the policies changing, I am less afraid, in a sense, to “out” myself. When I first decided to go to Cuba, I called the Treasury Department who was in charge of enforcing a law that stated that a citizen of the United States could not spend money in Cuba (hence, making it difficult to go there.) I tried very hard to go as an educator and as a writer (a journalist of sorts.) I was told not to bother. So, I had to make a decision. It was very important to me to experience Cubans in Cuba on their terms and in their country. I believed and still do very strongly that people in the world should not be prevented from knowing and understanding each other. I decided to go through a third country. I was quite involved in the yoga community in my town, so I googled “Yoga in Cuba” and came up with a couple of names. One yoga teacher had what is called a “casa particular,” which is a bed and breakfast. I made arrangements to stay with him when I arrived in Havana. It was a wonderful way to enter Cuba, being guided by someone with whom I shared the practice and philosophy of yoga! In Santiago, I was to stay with the friends of a dear friend in Brooklyn. At the last minute, that arrangement fell through and my friend’s brother, who picked me up at the Santiago airport, found a new place for me to stay. I lived with a dear woman, Carmen, who, together with her sister, became my Cuban mamas. I planned on staying for almost three months and was able to do so, gratefully. As far as writing was concerned, there were so many impressions, sensations, feelings, and confusions. I simply let them all into my heart and jotted down notes. I couldn’t keep up with the story that was happening to me and in me, so I recorded it the best I could with phrases and simply decided to let Cuba impress my heart, somewhat like taking a photo, and I would retrieve it all later, which is what ended up happening. MICHELLE: How did the yoga community figure into your experience, tell me a little about that work, especially in terms of meeting Cubans on their own terms as you said you needed to do? SARAH: The yoga practice itself– the act of connecting with my breath and my body and re-membering my essence — all of that practice I’d been doing helped me enter this experience with a sense of calm and ease and what I can only describe now as purpose. I had learned how to keep my heart open and alive, even when things got tough. And one of my favorite teachings, if you will, was this idea of living from the place of the heart–the French word, “coeur” meaning heart and also the root of the word “courage.” I found that Cubans, for the most part, love to talk about everything–philosophy, love, art, everything. Perhaps because there is not the option of buying things and accumulating material wealth as a form of distraction, the conversations tended to be rather deep. My first substantive conversation was that first afternoon on Leo’s balcony, talking about what yoga meant to us and how we saw the world. {This is the conversation excerpted from Undocumented}: “Sarah, how do you imagine this world that we share?” “I imagine being able to talk with anyone I want to know. I imagine us dancing together. I imagine countries making plans to meet like kids after school. What do you see, Leo?” “That the color of our blood when the skin splits open on a thorn is the same red. We share the same miseries, the same joys. Inside, we all want to be happy.” “How do you become happy?” “You are happy. The question is, how do you remember?” “How do you remember?” “You must do something each day that helps you remember. I practice yoga. I imagine hundreds of years ago, some Indian man doing these same postures and remembering his own delight, like a baby discovering his toes. I rediscover myself everyday. I still have to do the laundry, make a juice, buy tomatoes, teach a class, but I am new. Each day, Sarah. Brand new!” “How do you imagine our world, Leo?” “New everyday with possibility. Just because our world looks like this today, doesn’t mean it will look the same tomorrow. If we are new every day, our world is new, too.” “Can we do this together?” “We have to do this together, holding hands down the line into the past with everyone who has done this before, and then we will make a circle around the world starting from right here, Sarah, in Vedado, on this balcony. Here, hold my hand.” {end excerpt}


Havana In The Afternoon

I knew that despite the challenges of daily survival at times in Cuba and the pressure of external circumstances, Leo had found in yoga a freedom of the heart. I think I had found the same thing in my own life. And it was this feeling that we both wanted to share with others. MICHELLE: I love that story. Just that short swath of conversation transports me. I can see it all. And this idea of remembering through the knowledge of, and execution of specific postures makes an inherent sense, an inherent human sense. What did you begin learning about yourself at this time? What really stands in your memory from when you first arrived? SARAH: I think I learned something paradoxical. I learned on an external level that I really didn’t know anything, or at least that is how it felt, because the way things worked in Cuba were so different from what I was used to. At the same time, I learned that I was connecting deeply with, at that point, just one yoga teacher, based on the way each of us had lived our lives with the intention to know ourselves as best we could and to move through the limitations that kept us from being our full selves. What stands out for me was a sense of feeling comfortable; but looking back, I see that was not to last. When I set out on my own to Santiago, I had to learn fast and furiously how to navigate a complicated social system that prior I simply had no experience with. In other words, what I had experienced with my Cuban friends in New York did not in some ways prepare me for the Cuba I found, full of layers of survival skills and ways of relating to foreigners as potential income. I learned quickly that I had been very lucky to make connections with Cubans who would watch out for me. I was quite naive. MICHELLE: An experience of kindness when we have been naive can be a profound realization, it can become its’ own cherished memory. You were working with yoga, on the one hand, to remember and, on the other, to move beyond a limit in the self. Were you practicing yoga everyday? What would you say is a common limit we impose on ourselves? Are there ways we sabotage ourselves that are typical among our human kind? SARAH: I love what you say about kindness and naiveté. Perhaps both are our natural states of being. They exude non-judgment. I think one of the ways we, as humans, limit ourselves is through comparing ourselves to others and then judging others and ourselves. Even the word “other” connotes a sense of inherent difference. I think we are as individuals different from each other but sourced from the same place ultimately. When I remember this, it is easier for me to accept where I am and what I am doing as an important part of my path, rather than trying to walk someone else’s walk. It is easy to feel less than, or more than for that matter, each of those feelings taking us away from our creative essence. In my first trip to Cuba in 2003, I practiced yoga almost every day, but my definition of practice (and yoga!) changed. Leo had an astonishing physical practice of yoga. He was sixty at the time. But his approach to his practice was quite compassionate. He was not competitive with himself it seemed. He did it for the sheer pleasure of the experience, linking movement with breath, getting the mind to settle a bit. There were days we did not touch a yoga mat, but our hearts were open to the experience that was unfolding, and that “being present” became our yoga. In Santiago, I would wake up in Carmen’s house and do a little yoga before breakfast to anchor myself in my body and my breath in order to stay open to what Cuba had to offer that day. The practice served me well like that. MICHELLE: So, you left Havana at some point in the story, you stayed somewhere else? SARAH: I was only in Havana for about a week. I was headed to Santiago on the other end of the island for the majority of my stay. Leo connected me with a few women in Santiago who practiced yoga. He sent word ahead of my arrival, telling them I could teach them. I was actually quite horrified. I had never taught yoga before. Once I met up with Leo’s friends– these wonderful, brave, irreverent women in their sixties– they invited me to an alternative health conference at the hospital. “Green medicine,” they called it. Well, we arrived and took our seats among a group of about 100 doctors. We listened to some amazing presentations about the use of crystals and reiki and herbs. During the five-minute intermission, it was determined that the next presenter was not going to be there, so the ladies must have spoken to one of the officials because I was asked to give a demonstration of the kind of yoga I practiced. I scribbled on my napkin as fast as I could everything I thought I knew about yoga, in Spanish, no less. Needless to say, when I got up on that stage in front of 100 doctors practicing green medicine, I was completely terrified. But the warmth of their responses and the curiosity in their questions kept me going. After that, I “taught” yoga classes to the group of five ladies once a week for the rest of my stay in Santiago. And they taught me how to say the names of different body parts and movements. When I returned to Cuba in 2013, I had the honor of teaching a group of twenty students in a park in Santiago. By then, I had been teaching yoga for 10 years, but I still remembered that my journey had begun in that city. MICHELLE: I love the word unfolding and I love that you truly did practice yoga as support for traversing the daily challenge of being in Cuba. Can you talk more about this opening of the heart, the unfoldment, as part of spiritual practice? SARAH: I think what the physical practice of yoga did for me was to open my body to prepare it for the more subtle and sometimes more ferocious practice of meditation (as sitting still with oneself is “not for the faint of heart,” my meditation teacher says.) I had to melt away some of the physical blockages that accumulate in a life. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe way I understand it is that each time we experience trauma or even joy, the body responds in some way, perhaps tightening, perhaps protecting (the slumped shoulders forward to give shelter to an injured heart.) I saw my body shifting and reorganizing as I did poses that invited me to literally open my heart physically, which later translated into a sense of open-hardheartedness and often fearlessness. I remember daily making the commitment to meet Cuba from that stance. It felt like it was the difference between being bandied about by circumstances versus responding to life from a deep place of connection— connection to myself but also to something bigger, which I hesitate to label because it seems un-labelable, though there exist many names for that energy. MICHELLE: Yes! I love how you worded all of that. It makes sense that we get tossed around by life when we stand outside of our own experience and try to control the environment instead of connecting with it. Yes. I just love your way of telling it. What else does Cuba mean to you from this time there? You have kind strangers and yoga practice, what else are you experiencing? Are you dancing Salsa? 

 SARAH: Ah, salsa! You would think Cuba would be the ideal place to dance Cuban salsa! And believe me, I wanted to! Santiago was the birthplace of son—this rhythm came out of the hills of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On almost every corner, live music the likes of which is hard to imagine would come out of a trio of old men playing guitar, cello, violin, cuatro, you name it. However, as a woman going dancing alone, or even going with other women, I would have been cast as an extranjera (foreigner) trying to pick up a jinetero (a male escort.) When I started spending more time with Ramon, he told me he didn’t dance (though that was relative!) but he graciously took me to listen to music a few times; yet, he was worried, too, that people would think of him as a jinetero. So, we went a couple of times to see his friend, Rosie, play in her all women’s salsa band. Still, I had the itch to dance, and the way I solved that problem was that I took salsa lessons from Maria. Once a week, I would walk 25 minutes to her house near the hills and we would dance on her roof and she would teach me how to really listen to the clave. In a very real way, I was not “allowed” to go dancing in Cuba, unless accompanied by someone I knew. MICHELLE: The music on the corner sounds so dreamy and then here is this reality of gender in a gendered world. It is indeed, very real.   Undocumented is the title of your memoir and I have heard you read parts of it. Your prose is rich and draws the reader/listener into these wide-open scenes. It is unique to find this combination in writing. Rich description kept simple and expansive. I admire your work as a writer very much and I have always admired your spiritual practice. How do the two go together for you? Or one way that writing and spiritual practice relate for you. SARAH: My spiritual practice very much both informs and supports my writing practice. As I mentioned before, the spiritual practice helps me stay open to be impressed by experience, impressed in the sense of being branded, really. And changed. My spiritual practice keeps me malleable, which helps me not too quickly determine a meaning out of a scene, but rather document it as accurately and with as much heart as possible. My spiritual practice, which primarily now is in the form of meditation, informs my writing because when I sit, I clear space for deep listening. Listening to the story that wants to be told. Meditation clears the runway for my work. It helps me sift through the necessary and the unnecessary. I notice that when I meditate, especially before bed, I hear lines from my novel, and now from my memoir. I suspect the practice of meditation creates some sort of channel through which the work is deposited into my awareness. I also have the sense that the story already exists and it is my job to carve it out of language. I think my spiritual practice keeps me wondering, and that helps the story stay alive. There is never this sense that I know exactly what is going on. And I am okay with that. In fact, it keeps me interested in writing.


The Capital

MICHELLE: Ahhh! That is what Michelangelo said of David from the stone, of all his work, that the art existed already and that he merely performed the labor of exposing the artifact itself. Teaching your self to step back from needing a scene to have a specific meaning, that is a writer’s discipline in itself. Deep listening is ‘extra-cultural’ for Americans, so to speak. We have many obstacles to grasping the value of doing that sort of listening. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s a wonderful pursuit and one that we can reflect on more than we do, I think. MICHELLE: In writing Undocumented is there a scene in particular that stands out as an experience that became a different experience as you listened deeply from your memory? SARAH: Yes. When I first wrote scenes, I felt like I was recording them almost like I would with a video recorder. There were sensations and the details of weather and what we all said to each other. But the deeper meaning still lurked somewhere underneath. And then I remember writing a scene about a few pairs of flip flops I bought for $1.99 at Kmart before I left for Cuba. I honestly had no idea why I was writing about flip flops, but it felt relevant and so I went with it. As I followed these flip flops through my memories, two things emerged. One was a story in which I had dragged Ramon out to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to experience some of the wilderness in Cuba. Mind you, he was a city person through and through and would much rather have been at a poetry reading followed by a hearty drink at the local bar. We were staying in the mountains with a friend’s sister who raised goats. I am laughing now because Ramon took it all in stride, but we were surrounded by dogs and cats and goats. We cooked our meals outside, which was where, of course, the facilities were as well. It was quite lovely from my standpoint and he humored me. On our second morning, we left from our friend’s little cabin to hike thirty minutes down the mountain to the sea where we were going to go swimming. (Again, my idea.) I must have felt omnipotent, tucked away in the Cuban forest where no one knew where I was, having this personal experience of paradise. Well, I donned the flip flops and down we went. Many adventures happened at the beach, including getting caught skinny dipping by two spear fishermen (again, a horrified Ramon had predicted that might happen when I made the suggestion), but as we turned to go back up the mountain, it began to rain. Not just rain, but pour. It was what they call an aguacero—a torrential rainstorm that happens out of nowhere. The small dirt path Ramon and I had walked down had now become a raging river, and as I trudged against its ferocious flow in my flip flops, I literally thought I was going to die. Rocks and sticks and eventually large parts of trees, came tearing down that sudden river. And Ramon looked to me for advice because, as he reminded me, I knew about the wilderness. I was wholly unprepared. Those flip flops, in a sense, represented my ignorance. And it was in the middle of writing down this memory that I had the awful realization that I had also “gifted” a pair of these things to my friend, Lydia, in Santiago. Looking back and listening deeply to memory, as you say, I recall the look on her face. I don’t know what I was thinking. Perhaps, I was thinking that Cubans live on so little and appreciate so much and I was trying to imitate that life style, to some extent in the United States, so I offered her a simple pair of shoes. But the truth was, and still is, Cubans in Cuba don’t want flip flops from Kmart. They are deeply elegant people with a strong sense of outward appearance and style and a great deal of class. I had with my gift insulted her sensibility. And it was awkward for her because she wanted to appreciate what I had given her. I learned that only after the fact as I excavated these memories. MICHELLE: What is one custom you hope Americans will embrace as political relationships may now allow us to know one another? SARAH: I hope Americans embrace a kind of presence and depth in conversation that is not stymied by distractions such as cell phones and to-do lists. Most Cubans I have met love telling and re-telling the stories of their lives. These stories seem to connect them to each other (“Remember when…”) I have enjoyed both listening to these stories as well as living into them– creating stories from shared experiences and then re-telling them, often with gales of laughter, when we recall the craziness and beauty of what life hands us. I’ve noticed that each time a story is retold, it is as if the listeners are hearing it for the first time. There is something magical about the way shared stories bind us and make our relationships stronger. So, I hope that Americans embrace a form of listening that requires time, patience, and curiosity, and that we embrace, too, our own ability to become part of stories that will be told again and again, strengthening our connection to one another. MICHELLE: Thank You Sarah– for sharing your light and experiences with us. Find Sarah on Facebook. Twitter. Shewrites And get posts from this blog delivered to your e-mail for more talks with healers and artists! xxo Sarah Shellow headshot 1

About michelleembree
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2 Responses to Cuba, Yoga, Love And Writing Memoir With Sarah Shellow

  1. Pingback: Alumni News: Michelle Embree Interviews Sarah Shellow | The Writer in the World

  2. Pedro pablo says:

    Muy bueno

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