Singing Bowl on Cuban Floor Tiles in Havana

Havana, Cuba: A Mother’s Reflections on a Sarah Cyr Writing Retreat

When my friend Sarah Cyr told a table of fellow writers at Jackson’s Corner Cafe that she planned to cohost an arts retreat in Havana, Cuba alongside a creative travel group Otros Ojos, I was undoubtably in.

“When are we going?” I asked.

“January,” Sarah said.

The retreat was set for 2020, mere weeks before word got out about the pandemic.

Sarah Cyr leads a group workshop in Havana
Every writer needs a guide. When I was getting back into writing, Sarah Cyr was mine.

Sarah Cyr's Mindfulness Workshops

Long before I did The Forge Writing Workshop, and five years before the Havana trip, Sarah Cyr and her mindful writing workshops opened a portal for me, back to my creative writing roots and back to my inner voice. I’d gotten too absorbed in the currents of my career and although I intermittently kept a journal, I’d lost my way as an artist.

At that time, Sarah taught her weekly group classes in the style of Natalie Goldberg. She’d set a timer, give us a prompt, and then we’d follow Goldberg’s rules of writing practice:

  • Keep your pen moving

  • Be specific

  • Go for the jugular

  • Don’t be afraid to write the worst junk in America.

Writing group share in Havana, Dana
Inside the Turquoise House, Dana Clark shares her writing with a small group

When I attended Sarah’s classes after a long work day, any fictional characters in my mind were exhausted. The lyricism I hosted in my songs and poetry had checked out for the evening. I was left with nothing but what was present, and with time, I began to write into past scenes from my life.

I didn’t know anything about personal essays at that point, but writing under Sarah’s tutelage felt right and I became a groupie attending every workshop and class I could. I saw her as an ocean-going vessel and I was content to be a barnacle on the boat. Fortunately, she became one of my closest friends in Bend, and through her classes or our writing meet-ups, we wrote ourselves into each other’s full lives.

Joella Nicole in Cuba
The OG! I met my adventure buddy Joella Nicole in Havana, Cuba. 

Sarah was ahead of me in the mothering timeline, with two young children by the time I was expecting. Early in those parenting days, I looked to Sarah for guidance and she never failed to deliver. I also remember day shortly after Josie was born, when I was rocking Josie on the porch in a stupor of sleep deprivation and hormones, and Sarah showed up offering a bounty of mini-quiches she’d made. Honestly, it could have been cupcakes, but I remember the sentiment; I remember feeling seen; and I remember the buzz of mutual appreciation.

My transition to motherhood was more than the daylong physical labor, or the nine months that preceded the birth of my daughter. It was all-consuming— and nearly six years after Josephine’s birth, motherhood continues to shape me.

Adventures of my eighteen-month-old

Departing for the Writing Retreat in Havana, Cuba

When that January came and Josie was eighteen-months-old, I left her to wean with Caleb, and departed for the transformative five day trip to Havana, Cuba.

I envisioned it as a writing retreat first and foremost, but upon entering Cuba, the writing aspect, to no fault of Sarah’s, was overshadowed by the spiritedness and complexity of Havana.

Writing and Waking Up to Place with Sarah Cyr
The cover of our reading workbook prepared by Sarah Cyr

The trip was all I could ask for in a creative retreat. It changed my perspective on home and politics. It changed my perspective on being broke. It reminded me of a bounty that exists outside material possessions. It made me more resourceful; more scrappy.

I felt my tired, achy, drained body came alive in the galleries of protest art, in the jazz clubs, and on the streets of the Vedado neighborhood, where some houses whispered stories to me from the past while others screamed.

White Home in Havana
Some houses whispered...
Dilapidated house in Vedado Neighborhood of Havana Cuba
Some houses screamed

The Cuban government systematically fails its people in egregious ways that made my own struggles with motherhood and America’s maternity support seem small in comparison. Yes, it made me count my blessings and at the same time, I yearn to be back in that place where the people have insurmountable hope, a patchy internet connection, and a complicated relationship with their homeland.

Sarah Cyr and Otro Ojos at Hemmingway
Sarah reads to the group about Hemmingway's writing process on his estate outside Havana 

This was also a significant trip because I felt this instant bond with the group I was introduced to in Havana. I'm pretty sure it wasn't just my mothering hormones. That group included hosts Kay Whitchurch and Noberto Guerra, and kindred-spirit Joella Nicole (who now joins me on FL Panther adventures among others).

I met Bendite Julie Connell (of Con Lo Common) there, and she later successfully implored me to read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. Actually, Molly Rosen Guy recommended The Artist's Way while we were at a gallery dinner in Havana, so it's only right that I've since become a Julia Cameron nut.

Legendary luthier Flip Scipio and bookbinder Mitzi Pratt both gave me a "I am in the presence of greatness" vibe. I waded in the rocky shallows, nervously shuffling and checking for death traps, while Mitzi boldly swam out into a marina and didn't return for half an hour.

I enjoyed elaborate breakfasts with my housemate, haiku writer Dana Clark, who during the pandemic generously shared purple potato spuds from her personal stash. 

I shared motherhood trials and tribulations with fellow-traveler Danica Wilcox, and suddenly wanted to visit her homeland of Mallorca.

In crowded basement club with Sarah, Julie, Noberto, his brother and me, Karen Terrell danced to reggaeton like a woman let out of a cage. 

I took notes on how to survive motherhood from mother-daughter duo Cande Buccola and Kelly Solberg who somehow like each other, and they give me hope for the future relationship with my own daughter. 

Downtime at the Turquoise House. We gathered at Kay and Noberto's for writing sessions, a group meal, and to await our rides across Havana. 

I suppose my point in dropping names is that relationships matter. My friendship with Sarah Cyr got me out of my postpartum placidity and to a radical creative retreat across the globe.

Now that more than four years have passed since the retreat, and Sarah and I see less of each other in the shuffle of after-school activities and chunky schedules, I just wanted to document how much the trip and Sarah's friendship has meant to me. And too, this is a little reminder to myself to nourish the spuds of friendship in my life, like those formed on that trip to Cuba in 2020.

Shelby Little and Sarah Cyr at Hemmingway
Me, Sarah Cyr, and a banyan tree on Hemmingway's property outside Havana. I am wearing the same sandals that died four years later at the Key West Literary Seminar.

What the heck did we do on the writing and cultural retreat with Sarah Cyr and Otros Ojos? That's a whole other story...

I'm working on compiling photos and tales from my trip to Havana in January 2020 and will put a link here when I'm finished.

Homes in Havana

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