The Way Not Taken

Posted on March 8, 2010 by Anne Basye

“Cuba did not go the way of possessions,” says the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer in the lovely movie, “The Buena Vista Social Club.”

Last month I experienced the possession-less path on a visit to the Lutheran Church in Cuba. I’m not pro- or anti-Castro, but as a Lutheran with serious questions about U.S. consumer culture, I found it refreshing to step COMPLETELY outside it.

Our first few days were spent on the Isla de la Juventud, an island off the southern coast where the Cuban Lutheran Church is based. (Click here to read the island’s history.) On this rural island, time seemed to have stood still. With few private cars, people moved about on foot, on bicycles, in bicycle taxis, in trucks converted to buses, and even by horse and buggy. When the roosters stopped crowing and the hour for turning down the ever-throbbing reggaeton music arrived, it was amazingly quiet. The din of traffic we are accustomed to was absent.

Also absent were television commercials. Movies ran without interruption. Newscasts lasted 45 minutes. Of course, the movies and the music videos being shown were themselves a kind of commercial for the way of possessions, but never once was anyone exhorted to buy a product. Public health announcements and promotions for cultural events ran instead.

The home I stayed in had everything but clutter. My hostess had enough glasses, plates, and silverware for everyone present, but no more. When I shivered under a sheet during an unseasonably cold night, she produced a second sheet and a blanket.

Isla de la Juventud gave me a glimpse into life organized around something besides stuff. Now, it wasn’t Eden, and most people I met were actually trying to get MORE stuff. One man said that Cuba does $650 million in business with the U.S., but because of the embargo, the goods arrive chopped up in the  suitcases of returning relatives and residents. The Havana charter area of Miami Airport was teeming with televisions, radios, and microwaves wrapped in blue plastic to protect them on their flight. My fellow travelers from the ELCA Florida-Bahamas Synod, the companion synod to the Cuban Lutheran Church, said that on their last trip they had seen a bumper, a muffler, a car door, and a windshield wrapped for the journey.

It’s not easy to move around on the island, and we were frequently hungry. 9 hours might pass between our breakfast and our return to the church for our communal supper. That obese or even overweight people were few and far between was evidence that you can’t just drive up to a store or a restaurant for a snack.  The consumption of milk and meat are restricted for most people, and it can be hard to secure food and building materials. That was clear in Havana, which has more cars and restaurants and stores and tourists,  but is teeming with beautiful buildings that are falling apart.

My book Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal asks the question, “what is enough?” Most Americans passed “enough” decades ago. I’m convinced we are entering a time in which we will happily and willingly scale back our “enough”, for the sake of our physical, emotional, and planetary health.

In Cuba, the answer to “what is enough?” is “this is too little.” And although Cuba’s way of few possessions has been imposed, I know, from the top, in its stark mirror it’s possible to see our own excesses clearly.

90 miles from Miami, and no television commercials. ¡Imaginelo!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

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