Cuba Retreat

This little tray holds my Cuba memories: sand, shells, coral.

So many memories

interestingly enough, nearly two weeks after coming back from Cuba, the sensations and vivid memories are deepening and strengthening. Below are some of the pictures of that happy three slideshows...and then the poems I wrote while there. At the bottom is the reflective essay I wrote of the whole experience as my retreat for this year.

this pig tried to get closer
lunch on the white island
waiting for the boat
yoga and meditation pavilion
shell-sand of the white island
Cuban taxi-57 chevy
goat raids every morning
final dinner in the upper resort
yoga, meditation and writing pavilion
sparrows visiting while I was writing in the shade
prolific banana tree
sudden dog visitor!
swimming on the white island
water-wet sand- dry
sunrise from my window
dressed in Bali clothes for a cool dinner in Cuba!

The Endless Progression of the World: poem

 The sea is calming as evening approaches

like a slow lover, bringing soft joy

to the end of the day. Across the bay

mountains unfold and enfold

one another, infinite embraces

strong enough to withstand centuries

of forces that threaten rearrangement.

They don't care.


Air swirls the perfumes of salt

and horses, warm-breath breezes.

In the settling sea, men are at last

daring to wade out with fishing lines

hoping for food fresh from

the fertile womb of the harbour.


And here I am, softening and softening,

familiar edges of routine

in a completely unfamiliar country,

in a jarring shock of warmth

when only yesterday morning I was wrapped

in layer after layer against arctic cold.


But this is all the world, isn't it?

The heat, the freeze - isn't it all one?

Isn't being here today

and there yesterday

the mere unfolding of time,

the endless progression of the world?


But Today: poem

But Today


Yesterday I practised walking meditation

On the hard-packed sand, cool and close

To where the sea was coming and going,

Rising and receding. It was so easy,

And comforting. My feet felt strong,

my stance solid and certain,

even when the warm tide washed over them

in its steady, unpredictable rhythm.


Today I practised walking meditation

In the warm, dry sand, soft as flour

And just as powdery, falling away

With every step. And with every step

I had to find my feet again, steady myself,

keep from falling, only to have the next step

fall away all over again.


“Wouldn’t it be lovely,” I thought yesterday,

“if all of life could be as solid and predictable

as the steps on this hard sand,

comfortable and easy, cooling and solid.”


But today, today I realized

that the soft falling away of every step

in the shifting powdery sand is the real story

and the only way, the only way

that life truly unfolds

in a way I can’t explain or begin to justify:

I surrender to what is appropriately beyond me:

this alone is comforting.


I fall into the soft warm sand,


A Finished Rosary: poem

 The warm sea with white surf

rolling and rolling inward

is a beauty I have not

before encountered,

so I plunge in.


The first surging wave pushes me back.

I almost lose footing, so I pay more attention

as the sand slides away beneath my feet.

I get through the first -

then the second is stronger.


I brace, protecting my face

as it pushes me off my feet.

We are in a battle, until I realize

that - if I turn around - let

the surf push against my back -

I am stronger; I can keep my feet.


Wave after wave, higher than my head -

in this way, trusting the high surge

I move out beyond where the surf begins,

where the sea is rolling but not waving.

Here I can still stand, still sense

the alive swelling sea that is never still,

even when it looks to be.


And how is that, you might say,

any different from life itself?

From an early age we plunge

again and a again and again

into blinding surf, pushing through -

childhood, marriage, career, children,

mid-life changes - old age -

a string of mysteries,

each a pounding surf we work

to keep our feet throughout

with only a short rest before the next one,

if that.


But when we move through the last surge

out where the water is calm and rolling -

when  tasks are finished

when letting go is all that is asked or needed -

then, can we? Can I? All that is asked of any life,

of every life,

is to open your eyes in the moment

and let life slip from your fingers

like a finished rosary.


 First it was three white herons,

Playing among the grazing horses this morning.

Then it was the goats, raiding the sparse green grass again.

Just now I looked up and saw a condor- what size, what grace!

And – complete surprise – a small daschund

Arriving out of nowhere while I was meditating

And insisted on getting into my lap,

All the while whimpering until I helped him throw up.

Now he sleeps peacefully at my feet.


When I looked out this morning

and saw the violent sea

and felt the pounding of the gales

against my window, I knew

I could not go onto the beach today.

I could not give myself to the buffeting,

To this violent face of the sea. Now, in late afternoon,

Yesterday’s clean beach lies buried

In the brilliant green seaweed coughed up

Like an offering, yet another offering,

To my unplanned day.


Here is the truth I know so far:

What I plan and achieve, what

I hope for and structure into place

Comes nowhere near the joy offered me

By white herons, grazing horses, mischievous goats,

A soaring condor and a stray dog.

Sweet Surprise: a poem of walking meditation

 My feet address the shifting sands of a Cuban beach.

Slowly, wobbling in my too fast habit of walking,

I place on foot half-way behind and close to the other.

Then the one behind moves forward,

Halfway again ahead of the other. They breathe together.

My whole being slows its lung breath,

Calling every part of me into the rhythm

Of waves. For just an instant,

I am not separate

From the breath-in, breath-out of waves,

While warm breezes buffet my body

Like a playful puppy.


Then the chime sounds. I stop. Slowly

I turn. And there – o sweet surprise –

Is a wobbly track where I have walked.

Not straight; no consistent depth – you

Can see where I faltered and almost tipped

And you can see where I stood strong,

At least for a moment.


In that instant, looking down

at the uneven sandy prints,

I knew I was looking at

The track I have made through the sand

Of my whole life. I saw it all

In that one instant,

And my heart turned over in smiling joy,

Hoping that when I reach that moment

That some call death, I will

Turn and laugh at the sandy track

Of uneven footprints that have been

My life. And know again that sweet surprise.

The Sand Flea: poem

All day, since I woke this morning

with many bites, I have been thinking about

the sand flea. Unseen, unannounced

in the best of weather, the sand flea

busily pursues her only job: to collect

small samples of blood, to stay alive,

to propagate, to live to the fullest measure

the brief moment of time she has been allotted.


Thinking these things, I wonder how different

I might be from the sand flea, and I can’t

So far come up with much of significance.

It is all, I suppose, a matter of scale –


Although lately I have heard of new

scientific studies that show how every species,

every species on Earth is needed for balance –

except the human. The Earth needs every species

but no species needs us. Earth can do very well

by herself without the human species.

Jolting, isn’t it?


And so I turn back to the sand flea

Whom I have searched out and actually seen

Though briefly and with my nose to the ground.

How do you do such efficient work and so quickly?

I ask her. But she is too busy to reply, which is just as well.

Her response would certainly surpass my understanding.


So I celebrate the sand flea,

And thank her for her work on me,

Which will, in any case, disappear soon enough.


Meanwhile, she has opened a new part

Of my brain and even my heart

As I bow to a species that manages

To persevere with so little need or fanfare.

Reflection on Retreat in Cuba

 Retreating in Cuba:                     Sabbatical Adventure

           About two years ago, while driving to some faraway town for work, I was listening to an interview on CBC's Tapestry of an Eastern meditation teacher. He was Hindu. He said that - to learn silence and meditation - people were sent into the heart of the busiest intersection of a big city and asked to practice the meditation teachings they had learned for 24 hours, sitting there in the noise and constant bustle. What they were learning was how to maintain interior silence, i.e.; union with God. I remember being quite taken aback by this interview, opposite as it is to our own Western way of meditating, seeking external silence and/or at least what could be called a quiet atmosphere. So I was fascinated with this extremely opposite approach to my own way of meditating and praying, of being in union with the Universe God.

          On this last full day in Club Amigo, near Pilon, Cuba, I want to reflect on how this experience is a retreat for me, an unconventional but in uncountable ways a deep and appropriate invitation into silence, reflection, prayer, and an encounter with evolutionary awareness. A strong thread of my sabbatical time is a practise called "Heart Resonance: Developing Contemplative Presence" in which I am mentored online by Robert Sardello, author of the book Silence and many others. During the Cuban Retreat, I had new opportunities to engage these practices frequently and in a wider setting. A prime purpose of this contemplative practice is to live contemplatively in all aspects of daily life, and not only in time of prayer or times set aside for meditation and prayer. It is to be in contemplative presence with eyes open.

          It is this practice that I deepened among the "resortists", as I have come to call them, old and young coming here to seek warmth and relaxation and the healing sea in January, when the north is coldest. Twelve of us agreed to come here for those same purposes - but for three more purposes as well: Compassionate Yoga, Meditation, and Writing. These intentions were begun the first day, when we were all still very unfamiliar with how things worked, and with the resortists around us, milling and lining up for needs to be met - all, of course, on the first day. I was among them: changing money into pesos, changing my room so I would have more silence, and asking how to connect to the internet, a nearly impossible task in a country technically undeveloped So the task of the first day was to find centre and ground among the people, both tourists and Cubans, among long trails of staccato Spanish, and in the sudden heat to which we were all adjusting.

          Finding myself in the pounding heat and the lineups and the unfamiliar procedures: the first practice of retreat: letting go of control and of the familiar, and seeking silence among noise and confusion.

          I began each morning at 6:30am with private meditation until 7:15 on the sandy beach outside my room door, steeped in the loud thunder of rolling surf, and the arriving sun, straight into my eyes and face. Somewhere I found silence between the in and out of the tides, a silence I had neither experienced nor even recognized before. God is indeed everywhere and in everything, was my frequent realization, moving and changing and seldom still. And the very cells of my body, as they opened into light and warmth, shouted yes to this knowing...that God is in me as well as in everything else. Everything else: every sand grain, pink shell, sand flea, lizard -even the woman just down the beach playing music too loud for me. “All is One” can be a trite, even dismissive three words, but here, in the spaciousness of a retreat from ordinary life in a completely new and distinctly foreign atmosphere, I not only knew but felt its reality as surges of sensation opening my too-tight body.

          At 7:30 each morning then, we gathered on a pavilion in the sand for yoga, led by Barbara, a Jewish woman and Kripalu yoga instructor. This lasted for an hour and 15 minutes. Yoga was led in slow reflection and frequent short sentences of prayer and each day I sank more into the timelessness of what I came to call "Temple Practice; i.e. the teaching of Paul the late apostle who said "Did you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?" Our morning yoga practice reverently explored all the capacities, stretches, and smoothing out of body-knots, and - with this kind of attention and respect - my body loosened more and more. The proof of benefit for me was in the falling away of time as the days went by. Some aspect of me is a strict time-keeper, driven and used by schedules and plans. Last year I came to an awareness of how compulsive my attachment to time had become, and subsequently, how difficult it is to break. The Compassionate Yoga practice has significantly broken that time chokehold, and I hope to continue it most days at home. My struggle with time planning and control is far from ended, but I have made a beginning here by going through the yoga and even parts of the day without checking the time or orienting towards what's next. And then being surprised that the hour and fifteen minutes is over so soon.

          Only then did we eat breakfast: 9am or later, so we were doing intermittent fasting; i.e., fasting from the evening meal until a late breakfast, about 14 hours. The whole day was then free until 4pm. I was delighted to walk the sand barefoot, to roll with the tides for  long periods, to sit and nap under the shady upa trees before getting into the ocean again. And to write and read. Another chance to break the chokehold of "productive" time. After lunch, I wrote and napped, showered and readied for meditation and writing, which began at 4pm in the yoga pavilion.

          Our meditation teacher Mukin, a Sufi poet and writer, invited us to begin meditation by 10 minutes of walking meditation each day, which I chose to do Thich-Nhat-Hanh style in the sand. It is a settling and comforting practice for me, not only in Cuba but on our own land. Barefoot in the sand, I am not only grounding myself and giving my mind a rest, but the energy that comes into the soles of my feet and then throughout by whole body from the earth herself during this walking is truly energizing in a unique way that I have experienced nowhere else but in this particular practice.

          From that experience we moved quietly into twenty minutes of communal meditation, and from there into writing. We were invited into 10 minutes of Flow Writing to get started if needed, or straight into each one's own particular style. So far I have been able to write 1-2 poems each day during the time before dinner at 6pm.

          In the evening we gathered again in the pavilion, this time in deep darkness. Someone lights tea lights in the center and we each bring our own head lamps or flashlights for our turn to read. Each evening we marvel at the stars we can see: Orion's Belt and the Seven Sisters are vividly overhead at this time of year here, and countless others, which we haven't time to name...but we feel their presence. As we do the ever-present rolling ever-present breathing of the sea. This session is a deep and rich gathering of each one's writing of the day, a sharing that opens like a lotus into more than the particular writing topic as we give resonance and laughter and recognition of the individual expressions and experiences of life here and what each of us is experiencing each day of the retreat.

          There is a general reluctance to end the day, though it is getting for 9 most evenings when we finish. One of the evenings, someone began singing an old song, and - since most of us are "of an age", we knew the words and joined in. This led to song after song after song, and it was closer to 10 when we each trailed off to our rooms, full of gratitude and blessed by the day in all its gifts, expected and unexpected.

          An added and unexpected bonus of this retreat is encountering the Cuban people in so many ways each day. They are an affectionate and happy people. Their faith is hidden and obvious at the same time. They kiss one another on the cheek in greeting (we were warned they might do so to us and that it did not mean anything untoward) or touch on the shoulder (I have received many of these) and they are smiling and laughing and singing a lot of the time. They are not rushed or overly anxious, or time-driven as I am. They have almost nothing in material goods. Yet, they are not greedy when they are given something. I saw this directly when I went to the vendors' stalls just outside the gate. I had brought with some bandages and toothbrushes and notebooks and pens as I was advised - just to give away. Of course I assumed that whichever vendor I gave the bag to would keep it. So I was very surprised when I offered it to the middle vendor - he immediately called all the others to come and take what they wanted! No greediness, no competition. My heart aches for them...and yet, I believe they are richer than I am in many things that count for more than material goods. Or - as one of our number wrote one day: "How is it that people with nothing can be so happy and we who have everything simply want more and more and are cranky when we can't get it?" It was a question that we all carry with us from this experience.

          And - since Cuban people are allotted a half bar of soap each month by the government - a few of us went to the visitor supply store on the last day and bought up all the soap they had and distributed them to the vendors outside the gates, who are the poor...

          There are many ways to be "in retreat", and they change as we grow in years and wisdom. Buddha's last words, which we heard every morning, are said to have been "Be a Light.". Jesus, our wise Jewish Teacher, also said "You are the Light of the world. Does anyone hide the light under a bushel basket? No! You bring it to a mountaintop and let it shine, let it be you must do..." This was the repeated message to us each morning at the end of yoga.

          One of the purposes of my sabbatical year is to stretch myself into unfamiliar and unpredictable experiences, stepping outside the long years of a familiar world, a secure structure, and a safe, scheduled outcome. My Cuban retreat fulfilled all that and more. Most likely not to be repeated, but one of the most spiritually challenging and rich experiences I have known, and I am continuing to learn from its unfolding.

          All the light received during this week of retreat is present now, ready to bring light into the world, to be light in the world. There is still so much light we cannot see, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Since returning from this retreat, I am slower and more spacious about the necessities of daily life, about which I am sometimes pressured and irritated. May it continue. May the light I received in Cuba continue to increase in space and seeing.

Brenda Peddigrew, RSM; 18 January, 2015

Cathy Greene 06.02.2015 01:09

I enjoyed reading about your experiences in Cuba. And the poem, A Finished Rosary spoke to me , especially at this time in my life.

val 04.02.2015 03:15

I read and reread your writings of your Cuban adventures. It brings me back to our tea light readings in our pavilion by the sea. thank you

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Latest comments

23.11 | 19:20

Hi Marilyn...can you share your writing when there's a chance? Love to read some!

04.01 | 19:04

Thanks, Andie...that's it exactly ! So glad you experienced it!

04.01 | 18:36

'Whatever you need
and wherever you go next -
will come to you'
My holiday experience.

28.12 | 15:12

Hi Brenda,
I've just finished reading The Choice - got it from the public library. What an amazing story and an unbeatable spirit. I'll check out youtube now