sunrise, moonset

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I rushed outside for the sunrise
Winter coat thrown hastily over nightgown
Bare legs braving the frost
Misty fog of warm air rising from the river
Horizon slowly warming, blushing in pearly hues
Welcome to this new day.

I returned slowly, savoring the thought of piping hot coffee
That first cup always tastes the best
Pleasantly surprised by the harvest moon
Lingering as a bright ball of light
Slipping behind bare maple and birch, scruffy cedars and pine.

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Last night at dusk I startled a deer in the cornfield
He snorted and blew, fleeing over stubble
His white tail flying like a flag, he all but flew
Over corn stalks the combine left behind.

Oftentimes it seems life is like the deer
Gone in a flash. What was that? Was it really there?
Sunrise and moonset remind me to breathe
Just breathe.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.
We are merely moving shadows,
   and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
   not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
   My only hope is in you.

Psalm 39:5-7 New Living Translation (NLT)

 

~ René Morley

 

 

psalm 121 for children

The theme for children’s church this month is, “God is always watching over us.”  The preschool curriculum I purchased didn’t quite hit the target — even though most of our kids are ages 2 to 4 it needed a bit more weight.  So I created a very simple version of the psalm with motions to supplement the lesson. Week by week we act it out; I think they are getting it!

PSALM 121 for Children
 
My help comes from God! (Point and look upward)
He made the heavens and earth. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
He guards my steps. (Stomp-walk in place)
He never falls asleep. (Shake head and pointer finger as in “no, no”)
He protects me. (Cross arms over chest, move into crouch for next line)
He keeps me safe. 
He is with me wherever I go. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
God is always watching over me! (Hand over eyes)

I developed two additional crafts for this unit to reinforce the main point: God is always watching over us! The first was created with North Country landscape. I printed several photos on card stock. Children pasted lines of the psalm (numerically ordered) on top of the photo. The second was footprints which will be ready for Father’s Day. We traced in pencil then outlined with a sharpie. They applied paste and glitter. This week at home I’ll apply a cutout of the amplified version of Psalm 121:3, with a small spacer in between to layers to add dimension. Next week children will sign their names to the front.

Both were simple, low cost crafts to reinforce the central message, God is always watching over us. I hope these ideas are useful with your wee ones!

~ René Morley

 

sailing with celestyal

Sailing on Crystal with Celestyal Cruises is a great way to visit Cuba, especially if you are a U.S. citizen and eager; even more if you’d like to explore beyond Havana. The “Authentic Cuba” program ensures you will meet conditions for U.S. cultural exchange. Celestyal is not the only way or necessarily the best way but it is a relatively easy way to explore the largest Caribbean island and archipelago country.

Most Americans seem surprised to hear that “travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited, and U.S. federal regulations restrict travel to Cuba to licensed travelers engaged in certain specified activities.” I.e. It’s illegal for Americans to beach bum in Cuba!  Who knew Old Uncle Sam imposed barriers? I do know Americans who have struck out on their own and more power to them. If you choose to do so, be sure to educate yourself on criteria for the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens may legally travel. You may (or may not) be called to account for your time in Cuba and if so, it’s easy enough to do if sailing with Celestyal.

There are many upsides to sailing with Celestyal, including ease in obtaining Cuban visa and navigating customs and immigration, documentation to satisfy the U.S. government, simplicity in logistics, consistency in accommodations, the assurance of a culturally-rich experience, and a nice variety of Cuban entertainment, food and drink on board.

Evening shows exceeded our expectations, performed by an entirely Cuban staff (in Spanish). They truly put the “singers and dancers” on the big brands to shame! The itinerary was especially good, circumnavigating Cuba with an overnight in Havana and two additional cities, both of which we enjoyed at least as much as Havana. We truly have few complaints.

Celestyal staff told us that 150 to 200 Americans sail weekly with the Authentic Cuba program; in our case that was about half of the guests on board a ship sailing well under capacity. It was a wonderfully diverse international mix. Although this was a small, old ship, it seldom felt too small because it was undersold.

Most of our disappointments in this trip were attributed to restrictions on U.S. citizens imposed by Uncle Sam. For example, we had very little flexibility on shore — literally, just a few hours in Havana.  In addition to highly structured excursions, there were expectations to participate in educational programming at least once daily on ship. We enjoyed the seminars with Professor Arocha and friends on a wide range of topics —  from history and politics to musicology, cigars and rum. These were supplemented by non-program options such as cooking demonstrations with Cuban chefs or mixology. All were terrific. But always, there was at least one more thing we felt obligated to do every day of vacation.

There was no beach time. This is a tough break on a Caribbean vacation! The Isle of Youth was inexplicably removed from the itinerary months after we booked in exchange for $50 on board credit (each). This was reportedly a Cuban government decision, so I guess Uncle Sam is off that hook.

However, I am sincere when I say this was a good trip and we have few substantive complaints. Still, there are a few things you should know before you go.

1. Celestyal sails with an elderly clientele. The average age when we embarked in Montego Bay seemed to be more than 65 years. We felt like spring chickens! New passengers boarded in Havana a few days later and the average dropped by another 5 years or more. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no problem with a gray-haired sailing. It’s just a different experience than we are used to or had anticipated in this instance. There were only two children on board and no evidence of youth programming or accommodations. In truth, I don’t think the U.S. program would work well with children under 10 or 12 as it is so highly structured and intense.

2. Crystal is an aging ship, well-maintained and clean but still a clunker by modern standards. We knew it would be “old school cruising” going in and were not surprised. It is what it is, recently refurbished to add balcony staterooms. (Quite limited, you  must book early.) Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do with a 1990s deck plan. One pool, very small; one tiny hot tub, poorly placed. Social space and entertainment venues are limited.

Our suite on the bow of the ship was comfortable. It had a massive balcony and ample shade. You could only see the ocean while standing at the railing, the walls were so high! Ours was one of two such suites on the ship. The interior did not feel particularly luxurious. The floor plan was rather odd. But it worked. The private “whirlpool” on the deck was a disappointment, a 1980s throwback jacuzzi tub that we filled ourselves … with from a spigot, water tinted brown. Oh, and just so you know, suite guests receive no perks — beyond a few toiletries. Odd and disappointing.

3. Our sailing offered only one dinner seating (contrary to website info) with identical menus in both dining rooms. The quality of the food was acceptable (because we didn’t cook it or clean up after it) but not remarkable. The menu included Cuban fare yet seemed to target the European market, particularly Germans. Both restaurants had open dining (i.e. random, shared table assignments daily). We were not enthused but managed to land a table for two (a rarity) on our first night. Accommodating staff made this “our table” thereafter, which was hugely appreciated.

4. The staff were friendly and mostly competent (a few exceptions) but not highly service-oriented. Service was spotty in general. None were particularly interested in engaging on a personal level. We always try hard to make personal connections with cruise staff but it was strangely difficult on this trip. Most seemed disinterested, distanced. It seems likely that Celestyal also overstates opportunities to interact with Cuban staff as we had to make extra effort to seek those out and they were few and far between in our encounters — beyond the daily seminars. They said 60 Cuban staff were on board but I’m not sure where.

5. In our experience, cruise companies are eager for opportunities to help you feel celebrated; with Celestyal it seemed just the opposite. Between the missing suite perks and weeklong failure to acknowledge our anniversary, I have to admit we were disappointed with Celeystal. It felt oddly discordant for a celebratory sailing. Our general take-away from the service culture and available amenities was that Celestyal has no interest in building brand loyalty. Not a deal breaker but good to know.

6. Celestyal runs like a mom-and-pop shop, which has its charm when you’re not completely frustrated! The website is clunky and incomplete. We felt unsettled from the beginning about what we were getting into, Cuba travel still being quite novel in the U.S.  Call center staff were only vaguely reassuring. Phone lines often went unanswered, no matter the day or time, as did several emails. Positive Cruise Critic reviews encouraged us to trust it would be okay — and it was. It truly was. Yet I spoke with numerous cruisers, many first-timers, on board who had similar perceptions, discomfort, unease. I really don’t know if I would cruise again if this had been our first experience. Fortunately, it’s a blip on our radar.

I made numerous calls to customer support in the months and weeks leading up to our trip and received so many varied responses that it became almost comical. We packed a pile of supplies for Cuban school children based on shopping lists I found online, assured by Celeystal staff that there were plenty of opportunities to donate locally and Havana would be the easiest. Once on board, however, we learned we would not be allowed to disembark with supplies in any quantity. The guest relations staff were incredulous about our experience before boarding. A Cuban employee was dispatched to distribute on our behalf. A disappointing but a acceptable solution.

7. We returned much less refreshed than typical for spring break. “Authentic Cuba” is an intense experience from beginning to end. Still, I must reinforce, we have no regrets! But as our brains were continually grappling with new information and the juxtaposition of communism in the Caribbean, there was no way around this strain. The tours were long, sometimes too long, and there was not enough free time to wander or explore on our own. Tour groups were generally slow, given the average age on board. It’s an adjustment, no matter where you are coming from.

In the grand scheme, our disappointments and frustrations were truly minor given the itinerary. No regrets! Celestyal’s Cuba cruise was an experience we’re happy to recommend. We returned better educated and interested in returning when U.S. restrictions lift. You’ll find many more reviews on Cruise Critic. Do your homework, adjust your expectations, approach the trip as an adventure and sail safely!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

cienfuegos

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South. We entered port Punta Gorda through yet another a long channel opening up into a massive bay. The day was dawning as we approached, too dark to appreciate the small communities and tidy properties scattered along the flat shoreline.

Our itinerary included two projects: Trazos Libres, a neighborhood collective developed by artist Hermes Santiago, and the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos, a group of printmaking artists who work with children with special needs. This was followed by a walking tour of the historical Cienfuegos city center. But first we had to get there.

We boarded our tour bus at the pier in Punta Gorda. Group 5, independents. Saralie was easily our favorite tour guide of the week. She was warm, friendly, and spoke flawless English, providing just the right amount of information at the right time. She was extremely patient with a group that only seemed to slow by the day.

Our bus made a brief stop at Jagua Hotel in Punta Gorda before getting down to city business. This stop must have been a bid for return visitors. Several group members inquired about the rate and seemed hooked, so in that sense it was a success. Indeed, the Jagua seemed lovely at first glance — but buyer beware.

Adjacent to the hotel is a much more interesting property, unfortunately now closed. Saralie recounted how many years ago, an entrepreneurial housekeeper there opened the restrooms for public use. She collected fees and constructed a small restaurant across the street. Her food was so good that Fidel went out of his way to eat there on his triumphal cross-country tour, post-Revolution, headed to Havana. Yet another irony…

Our first stop was at Trazos Libres. The entire street was transformed to a stage and the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out for the occasion of our visit. We were greeted by artists in character as the band played and small girls danced and a grandmother kept close watch. This gift of sunflower and smile made my day.

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The neighborhood was beautiful and warm and welcoming. I just couldn’t stop smiling; I loved this place! I met the artist, Hermes Santiago, and brought home some pottery for my friend, Ana, who was born in Cuba. I interacted briefly with a mama holding a beautiful brown baby; neither of us spoke the other’s language but I knew she understood.

Our next stop was the Graphics Society of Cienfuegos. This is a collective that specializes in various types of printmaking. Their are a number of artists in residence. On any given day, they are working with local children with special needs. I was especially impressed with the many modifications Cubans have made to create art with readily available supplies. For example, sone etch on X-ray film!

The walking tour was pleasant enough if not remarkable. We passed several private restaurants and others clearly state-run. We knew that Cuban media is completely controlled by the government and were interested to pass a newspaper office along the way. We passed by a store that sold imported goods on the CUC (convertible peso) market and another that sold only Cuban-produced goods for CUPs (local pesos; green awning in photo below). Cubans and foreigners can shop in either location with requisite currency but I must admit that neither seemed compelling on a quick scan of display windows. Our tour guide noted that Cubans shop at the local store to make ends meet. For example, a bar of local soap sells at a small small fraction of imported soap.  Cienfuegos was clean and tidy, as every Cuban city we’ve visited has been, despite the occasional rubble.

Our walking tour concluded in the historic city center which was lovely. Public buildings included the Teatro Tomas Terry opera house. As typical in Cuba, we could have paid 5 CUCs for the privilege to take photos inside but we did not. The interior was original, from rows of hard wooden seats to hand-carved Cuban hardwoods and Italian Carrara marble. Saralie noted noted that all big acts touring Cuba play here, even though this is a small venue and Cienfuegos is out of the way. Local Cubans can attend for a nominal fee: power to the people!

We had some time to shop the large craft market and local stores, purchasing coffee and Santiago de Cuba brand rum, a few straw hats, and some small leather purses for the grandgirls. We wished for more time on our own; alas, Group 5 was waiting to return to the pier at Punta Gorda. I had one last opportunity at the pier to spend out my Cuban CUCs. I was pleased to find a set of wooden dominos in a handsome box. We brought home just a few coins and a single paper peso for posterity.

We had great views through our departure sailing of all that we had missed in the dim light of dawn. A few locals here and there waved farewell. As we neared open sea, a large colorful structure came into view. It was impossible to discern its purpose. University? Hospital? Research? Through online maps I determined it to be the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo, remote but conveniently located for diving. Again I say, buyer beware!

We thoroughly enjoyed Cienfuegos and could have spent a lot more time there. When we return, it will be on the short list!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

 

costumes, cathedrals, and old cars

Throughout our tour of Cuba, the U.S. government-approved program required participation in prearranged tours. We’ve no complaints; we understood the deal going in. However, it was important and refreshing to have some free time, too. We only wished there were more of it!

We had flexibility to explore on our own only in Havana. On Monday, we wandered around Old Havana and enjoyed a lovely lunch at la Moneda Cabana. On Monday evening, we enjoyed the Tropicana Cabaret. On Tuesday afternoon we enjoyed another meander around the old city, some shopping, and an old car tour. Each brief experience further endeared this place and these people.

Initially, I’d wavered on purchasing tickets to the Tropicana. The show didn’t start until quite late. It was yet another bus ride. We were running low on energy reserves. But the Hubs urged me on, “You’ll regret it.” He knows me so well. He was right. It was worth it!

This world-renown celebration of Cuban culture did not disappoint. Elaborate costuming, intricate choreography, powerful vocals and Cuban rhythms in a lush tropical venue under the palms and the stars. In a word, fantastic. Loud and proud seventy-five years in the running, this cabaret knows its business. It was conducted completely in Spanish. We hardly noticed.

Our tickets came with prime seating and beverages — much more than we would care to consume. We gifted excess Havana Club Special to a couple of Russian tourists at an adjacent table. They were very appreciative, their rudimentary English much better than my (non-existant) Russian! It was cool to make another international connection.

We were fortunate the weather cleared enough after Tuesday’s programmed tour for an old car excursion late that afternoon. Initially, we’d booked this tour through the ship. It was relatively expensive and, as it turned out, completely unnecessary. Old cars tours are widely available in Havana for 40-50 CUCs per hour. We were relieved the ship canceled our tour and refunded our money due to lack of interest in their extended version. We negotiated independently on the fly for less than one-quarter of the cruise ship price. Granted, it was a shorter but still quite sufficient.

There is no shortage of old cars but we took our time selecting both car and driver. The Hubs was determined for a convertible and we hoped to find a driver who spoke English. Most drivers use a predictable route unless you request otherwise. We didn’t mind as this was an entirely different vantage point from the open back seat of a 1954 Dodge.

The car was in great shape — inside and out — and original except the battery, he claimed. We had no reason to doubt him. Glossy vinyl upholstery in cream with contrast trim was meticulously maintained, covered with clear plastic protector. It was clearly an old car; every time we cleared a corner, the driver’s door swung opened. He nonchalantly reached out to haul it back in as he hand-signaled the turns. There was the distinct smell of exhaust trailing our progress around and about the city. It was never clear if this was from our vehicle or the many others we encountered emanating black smoke. Probably both.

Our driver welcomed questions and supplied frank responses, his perspectives notably different from state-employed guides we’d encountered on programmed excursions. Yes, Cubans are free to travel. But who can afford to? Yes, Cubans receive monthly rations and government paycheck, free childcare, education and healthcare. But it is not nearly enough to live well or thrive. Yes, Cubans may be approved to pursue private enterprise. But taxes and licenses are formidable hurdles.

His wife is a doctor; he is a private businessmen. He is also an expert mechanic, required to keep his car running. (Cubans are the best mechanics, we heard time and again.) They struggle with two children and aging parents. His father worked forty years for the state and receives a measly pension, half the meager current wage.

I asked about leisure activities; for example, how would he spend a day off with his family, just for fun? He seemed confused by the concept of fun, or day off, perhaps both. Did they go to the beach? Perhaps picnic? He hesitated. “It’s expensive.” I was reminded of the privilege of leisure, lost on much of the world.

He supplied ample commentary on the sights we passed. One building he pointed out was an incredibly ugly Russian concrete housing structure with twin towers rising 17 stories. His uncle lived there, he noted. No elevators, by design. Yikes.

One of the most interesting components to our conversation was religion. We drove past the cathedral from which Pope Francis celebrated mass just a few months prior. An enlarged image of the leader of the faith still adorns one side of the structure. It struck me as odd and hopeful at the same time. Nearly every image we saw in public was of a limited selection of national heroes; a few of artists and many of revolutionaries. On the Venezuelan embassy we saw a large poster Hugo Chávez. Comadante, the sign read.

Pope Francis spent several days in Cuba and gave personal audience to Fidel Castro — or vice versa? I’m not sure. Oh, to be a fly on the wall. How powerful to hear the Pope proclaim the gospel to the multitude at Revolution Square, if also an ironic setting.

Our cabbie confirmed that Cubans enjoy freedom of religion and remarked that he is among a minority practicing Catholicism (Christianity) in Cuba. We heard several times how, in deference to their masters, slaves made pretense of worshipping the Christian God while using church time to worship African gods. Most Cubans continue with African traditions.

I’d become somewhat familiar with Santería via Celia Cruz series on Netflix  in advance of our trip; one of her contemporaries became deeply involved. We were exposed to several “saints” up close and personal at the African Cultural Center in Santiago de Cuba. These encounters left me feeling unsettled, uneasy. It seemed dark, foreboding,

In our Caribbean experiences, it’s easy to find hand crafted religious artifacts. Despite several market inquiries, I was disappointed not to locate a Cuban Christian cross. I’ve a small hole on my world of crosses wall, waiting for Cuban completion.

~ Renê Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

another day in havana

We boarded a tour bus at the outset of our second day in Havana. Group 5. Independents. Our half-day itinerary included two primary points of interest: the José Fuster project and a choice between two museums. It was a cloudy and gray morning; a bit “wintry” for Havana, our guide noted. Not to us!

We first made our way to Fusterlandia, driving near to the coast. The guide remarked upon many properties along the way, former social clubs for the rich and famous that were nationalized after the Revolution, open to the public ever since, forevermore. Some, if I understood her correctly, serve as recreational camps for children.

Without exception these facilities looked like tired throwbacks to the 1950s. Also without exception, she extolled the state for the transformation of these properties: power to the people! We passed a circus in the vicinity; it looked deserted and as if it, too, had seen better days. The one exception on our journey was a Russian-owned hotel, gleaming and bustling with business.

There were workers on the shoreline, battling the wind, picking up trash. Maybe it was the season but it was noticeably less clean and tidy in the countryside than in any of the cities we visited.

The José Fuster project is a phenomenal example of visual art for the common good as the entire neighborhood of Jaimanitas, several miles outside of Havana, has been transformed. Fuster’s story is as fascinating as his art is captivating. I was immediately reminded of Antoni Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, equally beautiful and inspiring.

Fuster’s neighbors are an active part of the experience. Many open their homes, selling handcrafts in small shops. Neighborhood residents were milling about as the tour group descended.  Just another day in the life, apparently.

Unfortunately, an elderly member of our group was bitten on the arm by a small stray dog yipping and nipping about. It broke the skin in two ugly gashes. Another group member provided some iodine. The affected lady seemed much less concerned than I would have been, confident in tetanus shot protection.

From Fusterlandia we drove back to Old Havana. It was nice to have an the option between museums of the Revolution or the fine arts. The Hubs had no preference but I was full to the brim of the national heroes.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes holds an expansive collection for an impressive foray into hundreds of years of Cuban expression. It was  a welcome reprieve from group 5, most of whom chose the alternative. Our brains were quite saturated at this point, between daily tours on shore and seminars on ship, so we strolled quite casually from the top to the bottom.

It was mid-afternoon when we finished; just enough time to visit the small cafe in the museum for a Bucanero and quick snack. Here we experienced first-hand the cheap but dismal quality of food in a state-run establishment. We shared a bland small plate and left much of it on the plate. The brew, however, hit the spot!

Group 5 friends returned to the bus with rave reviews about the Revolution museum, located just across the street: win-win.

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

one day in havana


There is much to love and celebrate about Havana. Granted, we were only there for two days — hardly time to develop an informed opinion. And yet. Havana strikes me as a study in contrasts symbolic of Cuba, at least as much as we experienced in our whirlwind circumnavigation of the archipelago.

On one hand, grand old buildings beautifully restored. On the other, crumbling architecture and abject poverty. Tourists careening around corners in neon-bright old cars; dingy and crowded public transportation. Large plazas and ample social space, often with militaristic theming; crowded and humble personal dwellings. Miles of Malecón, the seawall “sofa of the city” where waves roll and crash; dusty and rusty recreational spaces, sunburned dry and brown where fountains lie empty. Security and safety, night and day; blackouts, isolation, poverty, and conditions ripe for crime in any other country. Government laborers toeing the party line; private entrepreneurs creating a new social class. Those were my first impressions.

We entered port early, the sun rising over military vessels as the moon set over the old city. I’d been up for hours, watching the shoreline appear through the moonlight. To get to the pier we navigated another long channel into a perfectly sheltered harbor (map); Cuba seems particularly blessed that way. Cristo de La Habana greeted us from the hillside opposite the Malecón as we sailed slowly on. San Francisco pier alone of the piers in port was nicely restored; the others in decay, almost ruins.

We became acquainted the best way: an Old Havana historical walking tour. This included visits to several city plazas: San Francisco Square (on the backside of the pier), Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square, Old Square, Arms Square. I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to the tour guide’s descriptions of these sites, taken up in the sights, sounds and smells of Habana Vieja — a veritable feast!

Most cruisers returned to the ship for lunch but we were determined not to miss a Habana moment. We meandered through a fascinating book sellers market tucked away on a narrow side street. Old books and books in many languages were on display, most were subjects of the Revolucion. I found an English trade copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and purchased for 5 CUC. It was published in the U.S., a delightful irony, don’t you think? On our tour guide’s advice we returned to the paladare la Moneda Cubana for a lovely celebration (recounted here).

We returned to the pier in time to join the afternoon tour required by our people-to-people program. We boarded the bus with Group 5, the independents. Every bus used throughout our travels was first-rate coach in like-new condition, which is quite a feat in our Caribbean experiences. The explanation is simple: state-owned transportation.

We spent the next few hours in a panoramic tour which means mostly driving by sites of interest in a scramble to fit them all in. We were weary from miles on our feet in the heat, so it was not a huge disappointment. However, iPhone images snapped from the bus leave something to the imagination. We drove through Central Havana and other neighborhoods less accessible by foot. We had some time on the ground at Revolution Square, the largest of public plazas in the city, blacktop steaming in the midday sun. Here the old car taxis line up for tourists, adding a fun element to an otherwise stark stop.

We drove past the Old Capitol Building under renovation (remarkably similar to the U.S. Capitol), the University of Havana, up and down La Rampa, as our guide pointed out the Yara theater and Copelia ice cream parlor, the former a social icon and hub and the latter renown for affordability and modernist architecture, a la Revolucion. She made a big deal out of the Habana Libre, formerly a Hilton, quickly nationalized after the Revolution.

The Habana Libre was only the first of several “excellent” hotels cited by our tour guide which looked to us like 1950s throwbacks in desperate need of renovation. In fact, there were very few Havana hotels that warranted a second look if we were to consider a longer stay. One exception was the Saratoga, sporting a U.S. flag and favored by celebrities. We were quite surprised to see U.S. flags flying in numerous public locations — and not surprisingly at the recently opened U.S. Embassy.

There were multiple references to Ernest Hemingway, morning and afternoon. He seems to be Cuba’s favorite import. The Hotel Ambos Mundos was his residence for a time, we’d passed by on our walking tour as a band played and drinks flowed early in the day. He was also fond of the Floridita. I came to appreciate both the Floridita (lemon) and Hemingway’s Favorite (grapefruit) daiquiris for the crisp and refreshing citrus in the Caribbean heat.

popsOur excursion concluded with a brief stop at an indoor craft market, where selection was poor and prices high. Nonetheless, I purchased children’s baseballs with the Cuban flag for the grands at an exhorbitant price (8 CUC each), uncertain of shopping opportunities ahead. The Hubs was not enthused, considering these just one more in a pile they undoubtedly own. It seemed unique to me but in fact, we found plenty more before we were through at half that price. None with the Cuban flag, so I wasn’t unhappy with my decision. Besides, he was suckered into purchasing a horrible caricature of himself — drawn in sharpie on cheap cardboard — five minutes off the pier. Worse, when the price suddenly doubled to 10 CUC to “support the arts”   he still shelled it out. How can he complain about my baseballs? Ha!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

santiago de cuba

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Sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for Cuba, our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba (map), the provincial capital for a province by the same name. The city is second to Havana in size and stature. It is protected by a deep bay on the easternmost coast of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra range rising in the distance reminds us that this is a wild and untamed region. The province has sheltered rebels and revolutionaries throughout Cuban history. It is also the heart and soul of Cuban-African culture, originating many important traditions and rhythms.

The sun was only thinking about getting up for the day as we approached the shoreline. One loud warning blast from the captain, then another, was enough to shake my sleepies out as I peered over the edge of the bow directly below the bridge. Small fishing boats working close to shore seemed unconcerned by the behemoth bearing down.

We sailed slowly inland past the point, Castillo del Morro imposing even in the dim light of dawn. Several more fishermen were anchored along the increasingly narrow channel, tiny wooden boats dwarfed by our vessel. Conversations in Spanish carried clearly across still water; roosters crowed and a dog or two joined the chorus. A few locals emerged from humble homes clinging precariously to the hillside as we passed. A small, skinny boy in a bright red shirt played alone on an abandoned pier, hopping from one pillar to the next as I held my breath.

We disembarked to a modest port: a long walk across the blacktop to enter a simple, small metal customs building. There was no welcome wagon, i.e. no locals in song or dance as we often experience in port. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be on the ground in Cuba!

Three or four Cuban agents were waiting to examine our documents. They were friendly enough as we surrendered U.S. passport and Cuban visa. I don’t know if any spoke English but we managed okay. The agent stamped my visa in bright pink ink and retained half of it. Upon request, he also stamped my passport. This is a new day for U.S. citizens! Before restored diplomatic relationships under President Obama, most U.S. travelers would avoid a passport stamp. I was proud to do otherwise if also slightly nervous about the questions it might raise clearing U.S. customs and immigration on the return. (Irrational, I hope. I clear customs a lot.) There was one small walk-through scan and one small conveyer scan and not much fuss about either. Huh.

Most of the 200 or so U.S. travelers sailing on Celestyal Cruises were in organized groups traveling together. The Hubs and I were placed on the ‘independents’ bus with about 30 others like us. Normally we avoid bus tours when traveling but we understood the conditions of this program and determined not to complain. The tours were generally good; just a bit much crammed into the day and more quality time with our new best friends than we preferred. By the end of the trip we were ready to be done with the group and the bus — and the infamous national heroes!

In Santiago de Cuba, our itinerary included a city tour with multiple points of interest: Castillo El Morro  (17th century fort, era of pirates and imperialism); Moncado Barracks  (site of Fidel’s failed July 26 Movement and origin of the Revolution), Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center (traditional dance, religion and art), the Patio of the Artisans and Conga Gallery (contemporary Cuban art).

We drove past Revolution Square and I wondered if every Cuban city has one of these? By the time we got to San Juan Hill (site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war and where Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory), I was fried from the sun and information overload. It may not surprise you to learn that Cubans have another name for this conflict but I was puzzled by consistent qualifiers of Roosevelt’s supposed victory. Our final stop was for a taste of famed Santiago de Cuba rum while a band played and a cigar maker demonstrated his art. It was quite chaotic; I was glad to call it a day!

Throughout the day, as the bus made its way around the city, we caught glimpses of Cuban life. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed so very normal for a Saturday. We saw a few old cars and a few horses with carts — both, as we would learn, part of every day transportation across the country. We saw many humble homes and a few grand estates, the latter nationalized to become property of the people. When the Bacardi family fled they abandoned property but took their trademark so Bacardi rum can no longer be produced in Cuba. Their grand home is now an educational enrichment center, replete with small military craft for children to play on.

We saw families out and about everywhere we went. We drove past the Hatuey beer manufacturing plant, a busy bus and train station, and an old amusement park in poor repair. This was the first of several worn and tired outdoor recreational facilities we were to see in our travels. In each case, the local guide extolled the state for providing such wonders for the people.

We also noted a consistent police presence in uniformed officers at regular intervals. None were overtly militaristic or even slightly threatening. If they were carrying weapons, they were discrete. I must admit the nonchalant effect was a surprise!

How to sum up a day in Santiago de Cuba? The museum at Moncado Barracks was fascinating. The cultural center and traditional dance performance truly enlightening. The rum was tasty and very smooth! Glimpses of Cuban life were helpful to level set my assumptions about life in a communist country. But the very best moment of the day occurred early, at el Morro.

Sister sun was wide awake and beaming steadily as we walked the incline, crossed the moat, and entered the cool interior. In the midst of the tour of historical artifacts, an angelic sound rose from below, seeping through the cracks between the wide floor boards to fill the chambers above. We descended the stairs to discover a female quartet, a capella in the chapel. We listened awhile, mesmerized. Just as I began to examine their CD for sale, the Vocal Vidas broke into one of our favorite songs, a multilingual rendition of “Michelle, My Belle.” Sold!

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A few hours after we departed Santiago de Cuba, we sailed past Guantanemo Bay. It was cloudy, the view obscured. Both the U.S. presence on Cuban soil in Guantanemo and hardships imposed by the U.S. Embargo are significant sore spots for Cubans. Who can blame them?

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

crash course cuba

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. Who can argue with this? Medical professionals are an export and health tourism is actually a thing here, so that tells you something. The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

countdown to cuba

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The Hubs and I are celebrating our 35th anniversary in November 2017. We make it a practice to celebrate The Big Ones all year long. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to start with a Cuba cruise in March!

Many people have asked: Why Cuba? Lots of reasons, actually. We’re always looking for new destinations in the Caribbean. This largest island has been tantalizingly close but yet too far until recently, when travel restrictions were lifted enough to become feasible for most U.S.travelers.

By all accounts, Cuba is an amazingly beautiful, warm, and friendly place. Everyone I know personally who has visited has loved their experience. I feel a strong urge to get there before large-scale American tourism gains a foot-hold on the island — or before US policies change and Cuba travel becomes more restrictive again. I especially wanted our spring anniversary trip to be an adventure and Cuba fits the bill!

An air of mystery and intrigue still surround this historically “off-limits” country. I remember well the Cold War era; the prospect of visiting a communist country fascinates me. Cuban people have suffered terribly under a long history of dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations and interventions, including our own. Tourist dollars are critical to an economy significantly impaired by the U.S. embargo. Most Cuban people are very poor and lack access to so many basics we take for granted, like over the counter medicine, vitamins,educational and art resources, or personal care products. This is an opportunity to give back as we stock supplies to distribute on our journey.

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We’re sailing with a small cruise company on a small, old ship with a checkered past (recently refurbished, thankfully!) reminiscent of our first big adventure abroad together in 1992. The entire itinerary is authentic Cuban, a program carefully aligned with U.S. government requirements for cultural exchange. This is not the typical tourist junket (forbidden for US citizens) yet suits me perfectly and the Hubs is game. The educational program on board — think Cuban cooking classes, mixology, dancing lessons, cigar history — and cultural tours on shore plus Cuban visa and other documentation included in the base price makes for very easy trip planning. I am comforted by the option to sleep on ship (as opposed to casa particulares) and thrilled to experience so much of this very large island within a short time.

At the time of booking, there were no direct flights to Havana from the U.S. Fortunately, Celestyal Cruises offers a convenient option to board in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We set sail on a Friday for Santiago de Cuba. After a day at sea, we’ll dock in Havana for an overnight stay to extend our time in the capitol city. We’ll complete our circumnavigation with another day at sea and visit to Cienfuegos before returning to Jamaica. That’s the plan, anyway. I’ll keep you posted on our adventure!

~ René Morley

P.S. The original itinerary included a stop at  Punta  Frances National Park on the south coast of the La Isla de la Juventud, now replaced by a day at sea. <sigh> The “Isle of Youth” was a very nice thought…

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

simple things

We walked the trail last weekend, early on a cloudy-gray Saturday. A few inches of fresh snow lay undisturbed except for animal tracks. Lots of deer, rabbit, perhaps fox, and several other small prints I couldn’t identify. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Just me and my sister.

As we approached a wetland I noticed an array of flat, wide tracks. Instinctively I knew, “That’s beaver.” My sister nudged me, “Do you see him?” Sure enough, he (or she) was perched on top of the lodge, chewing on a thin branch. A smaller beaver swam nearby. We’ve had an unseasonably warm stretch so there was plenty of open water. They’d been busy , these beavers! There were lots of tracks into the woods surrounding the pond on either side of the trail. We watched them for several moments, fascinated by their behaviors. Eventually the small one caught on to us and THWACK! Her tail hit the water in a splash of alarm and they were gone.

Monster flakes were falling from the sky by the time we rounded the last bend. We closed the loop on our own tracks laid at the beginning of our journey, still just the two of us in a white world silenced by the snow. I felt refreshed by an hour in the crisp cold air, walking and talking with my sister. It’s often the simplest of things that restore us.

~ René Morley

 

 

open house, open hearts

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On the first Saturday of December we hosted an open house with Santa. It was one of those stars -have-aligned sort of opportunities. First Christmas in our new home. So many people to thank and so many reasons to be thankful. Young grandchildren and great-nieces and wee friends from children’s church experiencing the magical wonder and holy awe of Christmas. New friends in the community. Lots of good reasons to plan a Christmas party.

Most importantly, this will be the first Christmas since our beloved Betty passed over. She loved the Christmas season more than anyone I’ve known. Christmas a la Betty was a sight to behold. She trimmed the tree, the house, the yard, until every nook and cranny was graced by Christmas spirit. She spent an entire year preparing, purchasing gifts well in advance and baking sweets and treats for weeks leading up to the big day.

By the time I entered the scene the family was so large that gifts were exchanged in family groupings over the course of a week leading up to Christmas. Even then, she always exceeded expectations with beautifully wrapped packages spilling into the dining room from under the front room tree. On Christmas Eve, the entire brood gathered at the farm before church services. Santa made an appearance to the delight of the children as adults battled over Betty’s famous dill pickles in a gift exchange. Christmas was a celebration of family as well faith.

On the days leading up to our open house, it was almost as if my mother-in-law was shadowing each step. She felt very near as I was baking spiral hams and dozens of rolls, trimming with lights and baubles and scents of the season, wrapping packages to fill the gap under the mammoth tree that the Hubs, a.k.a. Clark Griswold, couldn’t resist — he carries her Christmas torch. I knew she would be pleased with our preparations for sixty guests. My sisters-in-law and others showed up with helpful contributions just as I knew they would because they also know family matters. Betty’s example and joyful celebrations of family life and Christmas will serve us well in to the future.

In one important way, as the song below so beautifully illustrates, this is her first Christmas. Listen in… and if that doesn’t boost your Christmas spirit, then spend some time with my Christmas playlist!

And it was just (February) past 
She said goodbye, and breathed her last 
And the great-grandchildren miss her so 
But if she could she would let them know … 
This is my first Christmas 

First time to hear the angels sing 
Glory, hallelujah to the risen king 
And a holy night is what this is 
‘Cause this is my first Christmas 
This is my first Christmas

 

 

 

I’m pleased to report the open house with Santa a grand success and a ton of fun. The house was buzzing with conversation among family, friends, and neighbors. Twenty children leaned in one by one, wide-eyed and eager to bend Santa’s ear — except for our three grandgirls, who each preferred to keep their distance! Santa gifted each child with a Little Golden Book retelling the first Christmas story.

I crouched low on the carpet, observing each of the children up close in their moment of joy on Santa’s lap. They were just precious. One of the most memorable was in 3 year-old Henry’s Santa exchange. It was a very short conversation. “I want a bounce house” (trampoline), Henry proclaimed. I prompted him to continue on his sister’s behalf, just as he’d practiced, so Santa would know Anna Bea would like “something that squeaks.” Alas, he’d changed his mind about sharing this detail. “No, GiGi,” he said. “She’s fine. Beasy don’t need nothing.” Well, huh. I sure hope Santa doesn’t forget her!

Long into the eventing we ate, drank and were merry in the making of memories and start of a new Christmas tradition.

 

Merry Christmas!

~ René Morley

journey to bethlehem

We’ve had so much fun with children’s church this fall! The first quarter is drawing to a close with a Journey to Bethlehem. The curriculum was a free download, which is always appreciated. Unfortunately, it wasn’t age-appropriate for our mostly preschool-aged group. So we borrowed weekly themes and customized lessons and crafts for wee ones to follow the star and learn the story of the first Christmas.

Our journey is based on the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:1-20. In week 1, we explore the journey Joseph took in trusting God, a leap of faith that changed the world as he led his new wife to fulfill 500 years of prophecy in Bethlehem. In week 2, we drop in on the lowly shepherds, the first people to learn and act upon the good news of great joy available to everyone. In week 3, we consider the long and expensive journey of the magi, they who were wise in watching the signs and following the star that led them to worship the Christ child. In week 4, we learn about the long journey the baby Jesus took to Bethlehem, giving up heaven to become the ultimate Christmas gift.

The children are learning cute hand motions to familiar carols like Away in the Manger, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. The favorite, by far, is newcomer, “Oh, What a Special Night.”  You can’t help but sing and move along! I invite you to share the wonder and joy of Christmas with the little ones you love through these fun activities.

TOP LEFT of CENTER and FAR RIGHT: Joseph and family of popsicle sticks and cloth (week 1) TOP FAR LEFT and RIGHT of CENTER: Baby Jesus in popsicle stick and paper manger  (week 4) CENTER: Soft sheep reminder of the shepherds (week 2) BOTTOM  Sparkly clay star; we used this recipe (week 3) Please use comments for craft assembly questions.

As always, Carolyn Arends inspires my advent preparation. Come and See, is a joyous accompaniment to our journey! I guarantee if you like that you won’t want to miss Story of StoriesLong Way to Go, and It Was a Holy Night. Listen in and be inspired by those and many other original, thought-provoking lyrics by launching her delightful Christmas Jukebox. Do you lack Christmas Spirit? Get it here!

 

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Bonus! A sweet reminder of the first Christmas with M&M candies. I wish I knew who to give credit for this clever poem. Please clue me in if you know the original author!

 

Happy happy and merry, merry! May your Christmas be especially blessed.

~ René Morley

happy birthday anna bea

On the last Saturday of October we celebrated Anna Beatrice, the cherub who turned one year old mid-week. Her party was the bookend on an amazing first year. Anna Bea’s family and extended family, including cousins/second-cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents and greats all gathered to celebrate this sweet-as-honey girly-girl. The cousins donned costume in dress rehearsal for a big night of trick-or-treating just ahead.

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I cannot imagine our family without Anna Beasy. She always offers a bright smile, her beautiful blue eyes twinkling. She quickly settled in with brother Henry, mama, daddy and black cat, Bear Grylls in their new home — along with GiGi and Pops. We were one big happy family for several months. In April, our new house was livable and we parted in peace! Whew

That was eight months after launching a grand adventure in multigenerational habitation, selling / purchasing one home and building another (a.k.a the big dig); mama on maternity leave or working (either way with little sleep), GiGi working from home office, daddy on shift work and Pops working the farm … plus a newborn baby girl and a rambunctious two-year old boy. And a cat. That cat! Mixed, shaken or stirred, it could have been a recipe for conflict but instead it was pretty sweet. Whew! We did it. They did it!

Anna was blessed to meet her Great-Grandma Betty when she was only a few days old, a mere 87 years between them. G’ma nestled wee Anna under wing, true to form as grandmother hen. Anna didn’t have long with G’ma, to our great sadness, but she has been blessed by loving attention from the greatest generation, as Great-Grandma Alice and Great-Great-Aunt Beatrice so much enjoy her company.

img_3915I’m thankful Every. Single. Day. that all of our sweet grands live within a few miles. Anna Bea and her brother Henry are only a short walk across our yard, through a hole in the cedar split-rail (extracted from an ancient fence in our woodlot) lined with clumps of white birch and lilacs (birches transplanted from the back forty and lilacs from the Walker estate many years ago), and past the (brand new) shed where Anna’s daddy and brother build honey bee hives.

Yesterday I was sitting on my back porch, working on children’s church craft projects when a movement caught my eye. Near the periphery of our property, wee Anna was toddling around, bundled up for fall. Her daddy stood nearby, swooped in and scooped her up, put her down, and stepped back to watch as she turned again toward the rail fence. It was a beautiful fall day; I didn’t think much about it at the time. Later, her mama explained the scene: as soon as daddy set her down, Anna Bea made a beeline for GiGi and Pop’s house! At one year old, she already knows how we love her so and apparently also where to find us. Quite amazing, eh?

Life is sweet. Sweeter. Sweetness complete. Happy birthday, Anna Bea!

~ René Morley