Havana Daydreaming

Havana Daydreaming 1 – Watercolor, ink, – 8 x 10.5 inches.

The cab driver at the airport in Havana was confused when I asked him to drive us to O’Reilly Street. My Spanish is pretty good, so his confusion confused me. In a moment all became clear: The driver, and everyone else we later encountered in the city, called the street “O Relly,” without pronouncing the “i.”

The lady in this sketch lived across from us on O Relly St. Drying sheets and clothing outdoors is a daily activity in most of Old Havana. The city radiates light and color, so in my eyes laundry draped over balconies simply added rainbows to the mix. But it was impossible to ignore memories of Switzerland and Lugano, where I lived twice: there you can be fined for hanging out laundry in public view. Playing loud music in public, or anywhere else, is also frowned upon.

In contrast, Havana would not be Cuba without music in the streets, and everywhere else. Spend a few minutes walking and you will be offered tickets to at least 5 or 6 Buena Vista Social Clubs. Do any of those places actually exist? Or are the tickets “chanchullos,” street swindles?

I’ll post more sketches of Havana soon, along with thoughts of music and street scams. Meanwhile, let’s leave the lady on the balcony in peace as she observes life on the street: vendors of mangoes and avocados, cruising DeSotos, Buicks and Chevrolets from the 1950’s, and elderly women in white dresses and turbans smoking cigars. She’ll make sure the laundry is indoors before afternoon storms drench everything. I imagine she’s also hearing guitars and dreaming of rainbows, elsewhere perhaps.

Inspiration and the Tide

The Tide – Oil on canvas – 26 x 32 inches.

In her Nobel Lecture after winning the Prize for Literature in 1996, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska explained how difficult it was to answer questions about inspiration. “Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain to someone else what you don’t understand yourself.”

Her thoughts have given me a lot of comfort, especially when she also remarked, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from from a continuous ‘I don’t know’.”

I don’t know, for example, if the lagoon in this painting still exists in the town where I grew up. In winter we skated on its ice. In summers there were twilight concerts from the circular bandstand; people gathered around the shores to listen, perhaps to dance. Now there’s only a woman banging a drum, a man playing a trumpet, and a monkey on a leash. Does the animal carry a tin cup for donations? I wonder. And from whom?

The girls dancing in a circle also showed up in another image, “Texas Truck,” which I posted on this page recently. Why they appear in this painting, and wearing clothes, I don’t know.

The mood feels slightly ominous, but perhaps it’s only nostalgia, a real or imagined past that nudges us. What sounds could the musicians be making that impel the girls to dance? I don’t know. But like them, I love music. So even though I can’t hear it, I feel like dancing with them.

Inspiration feels like music I can barely hear. So I listen. And listen. And follow it, wherever it might lead me.

A Migrant

A Migrant – Acrylic on canvas – 23 x 32 inches.

Jennie Doherty was 30 years old when she sailed out of Belfast Harbor in 1914. She left her mother and father and a few sisters and brothers in tears; they thought they would never see her again. She was on her way to the other side of the world, to faraway Canada, to help two of her older brothers. Earlier they had also left the family crying when they had migrated from Ireland in search of a better life as homesteaders in Alberta Province.

At the outbreak of World War I, the brothers enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and were shipped off to Belgium to fight the German Army. Jenny stayed behind to manage the farm. Before she died in 1967, she was able to return to Ireland to see for the last time her remaining brothers and sisters. Her soldier brothers did not return to Canada. Their bodies, along with those of hundreds of thousands of other young men, are still lying under the muddy fields of Ypres.

Jenny was no match for winters in Alberta. Like many homesteads in western Canada, the Doherty farm fell apart. So she went to work as a maid in a hotel in Vermilion. Benno Fischer, four years younger than she, was one of the owners. My portrait, from an old photograph, shows her on the day they were married. Their daughter, my mother, was born in August, 1918, only five weeks before the Armistice that ended, in H.G. Wells’ words, “The war that will end war.”

Two days after I was born in June, 1941, Adolph Hitler’s armies invaded Russia. Six months later, bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Today bombs obliterate families in Gaza and Ukraine. Jesus is supposed to have said that the poor are always with us. The rich are with us too, and so are Hitlers. Migrants as well, still searching for better lives.