¡Viva la Revolución!

TW: suicide, depression, white fragility, slut shaming, domestic abuse… it’s not a light read.

I do not expect to ever top my 4th of July of 2018.

I didn’t even realize until the following night when I returned to the States, (the fact that it happened innocently, unintentionally, made it all the more persuasive) but I spent that American Independence Day at Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) in Havana, Cuba.

Ellen stands in a doorway to a Juliet balcony on an upper level of the Museo de la Revolución. She's wearing a white summer dress with blue details and tan sandals. Her hair is pinned up, and she has on dangly earrings. Her multiple tattoos are visible and she stands with her arms on the railing behind her; she's not smiling but she looks happy.
July 4, 2018 – Museo de la Revolución

I was visiting with three other women, two of whom (Rachel and Molly) I’d known for over a decade and a third, Lauren, whom those two met in a Facebook ‘women who travel’ group. I had reached out to Rachel [names have been changed] towards the end of May. She lived in Seattle, I in San Diego, and we’d met eons ago when my little brother was in the Army and stationed in Tacoma. They met on mySpace, to give you an idea of how long ago that was. Over the years we’d traveled to the other’s city and stayed together countless times. She was one of the few people with whom I thought I would enjoy traveling internationally, and we’d discussed going to the UK or something like that.

When I reached out to her in May, I didn’t care where we went.

I was barely keeping my head above water during the deepest, darkest depression I’d ever experienced (and I’d experienced it, to varying degrees, since well before puberty). I was getting to the point where I was scared, and needed help, but also didn’t want to scare those around me. So I casually asked Rachel if she could swing a trip… soon.

“Molly and I are going to Cuba in July. Want to join us?”

As obvious a ‘YES!’ as that was, it was still a dilemma. Consider yourself extremely fortunate if you don’t know firsthand how difficult it is to do anything while depressed — especially anything fun or new.

It was while giving a haircut weeks later, still sputtering weak excuses about humidity and uncertainty about drinking water, that I heard the words of encouragement I needed, from a client who traveled near-constantly for work to the likes of India and China. “Just go,” he said. And I did.

The taxi ride from the airport to our casa particular in Havana Vieja was worth the entire trip.

I could not have curated a better change of scenery, which was what I specifically felt I needed. I was 36 years old, had lived all those years in San Diego county, the past 9 in the same ~200 square foot studio apartment, the past 7 working at the same salon… I felt desperately, hopelessly (not quite!) stuck.

And so it is that I came to find myself at Museo de la Revolución on July 4, 2018. I saw my country and its history not from the perspective of an American, as told by Americans, but from that of Cuba. All the atrocities of which I’d heard those big, bad, communist countries accused… “we” did that. “We,” America, was the big baddie. In a US-sanctioned program (Operación Pedro Pan/ Operation Peter Pan), over 14.000 Cuban children were taken [their parents supposedly “agreed” but if that’s true did so under duress and with false information] from Cuba and sent to the US to be adopted or matched with American relatives under the guise of “saving them” (1960-62). In 1971 the CIA intentionally introduced swine flu to the island, which resulted in the forced killing of half a million Cuban pigs. There’s way too much more, but that’ll set the mood.

Radical acceptance is what has, in large part, allowed me to deal with my own depression, and it’s what’s helping me deal with my country’s past and especially present in the midst of both a revolution and a pandemic. It’s a concept popularized in the West by Marsha Linehan, who herself was diagnosed with and has struggled with mental illness, via dialectical behavioral therapy . To quote her, “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things, because you only have to radically accept the moment you’re in, and the past. But you can try to change the next moment.”

I used to loathe, with a seething passion, the phrase “it is what it is.” Not only did I find it obnoxiously, obviously redundant (my canned response is still a sarcastic “isn’t it, though”) but it pissed me off… because I didn’t want to accept what was. I fought, without realizing it, against so much that was beyond my control, thereby depleting my energy into that which I could affect.

I am not celebrating this 4th of July in the manner intended. I am celebrating it through the lens of radical acceptance.

I see nothing to “celebrate” while the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain are still gainfully employed. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of racial injustice and inequality.

I do, however, see a reason to write this, and to keep fighting.

For a country who loves its fierce individualism, we sure do undervalue our power when it comes to affecting real change. I have been seeing two — quite admittedly ridiculously dialectical and exaggerated-for-effect — tropes play out in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. Exhibit A: I’m an American! I have rights! You can’t make me wear a mask! I demand a haircut! I haven’t personally died, so obviously this whole thing is a hoax and I should be free to lob my bean bag towards any corn hole I want. Exhibit B: Can the police stop blatantly murdering Black Americans, at least on camera? And if there’s anyone still listening who hasn’t succumbed to exhaustion, Black trans women (you know, like she who started the whole Pride thing) especially could use our support?? Also the most Native of Americans who are those most likely to die from COVID19???

sigh.

Yesterday I reached out to Lauren (she was the third I didn’t meet until 6am as we gathered to board a plane in North Carolina bound for Cuba). I’d been holding a grudge. For two years. That day in the Museo, Lauren informed me, in what I believe were her first words to me that day, that my “dress [was] completely see through.” She added, to considerable effect: “Maybe that’s why you’re so popular.”

I was popular in Cuba. Rachel commented once while we were walking through Havana Vieja, where we stayed, “Now I know what it’s like to travel with a celebrity” because apparently people were turning and staring (I say ‘apparently’ because in 20 years of being almost 6′ tall, conventionally attractive [I’m still not at all comfortable typing or even thinking that], and increasingly illustrated I have adopted extremely thick blinders to cope with the inherent attention).

And my dress was see through. Not enough to warrant that slut-shame-y comment, but enough that, if you looked closely (I know because I did that morning, debated, and decided if someone cared enough to be upset that I was wearing light-blue-polka-dot-chonies under my white dress in 1000% humidity, they could suck it) yes, it was. I could’ve laughed it off, said “yeah, and what of it, ya big jerk?” and gone about my life. As it is, I unfollowed Lauren not long after our trip and took it as a personal attack on my first gasp of air after my long, deep depression dive — a veritable “fuck you, stay down, and don’t come back up, ya whore.”

When I told Lauren how sorry I was for being so consumed by my own depression to consider what she was going through — in the interest of privacy I will not divulge, save to say her battle was physical as well as emotional [and please do not commend me for any sort of moral aptitude without bearing well in mind the two years, leading up to the just the other day, which I spent filled with resentment] — one of the wonderful things she told me was, “I was jealous of your confidence.”

Oh, the bloody-sweet irony. What she saw as an abundance of self-assuredness was me, to me, trying my darnedest to find a buoy while barely treading water. I guess you never really can truly know what’s happening below the surface: of an individual, or a country.

For me to declare “I LOVE AMERICA.” would be akin to me saying “I loved my family growing up.” There’s the kind of “love” where you cover your bruises and demur any questions with slightly defensive explanations. And there’s the kind of love where you’ve had enough, way more than enough, and you say –as loudly and disruptively as needed — “HEY! I LOVE YOU! AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, I LOVE ME! AND WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS CRAP!”

And that’s how I feel about my country on this, its “Independence Day.”