A Match Made in Hell

 

Are you familiar with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson?  It’s a tragic tale about a child trapped in a world of poverty and abuse, hunger and homelessness…

On New Year’s Eve, someone steals her ill-fitting shoes, so the little girl wanders barefoot through the snow, trying to sell matches to uncaring people hurrying home to warm houses and holiday feasts.  No one has a farthing or even a second glance for the unfortunate waif.  If she goes home having sold no matches, her father will beat her.  To keep the cold at bay, she huddles against a wall and strikes her matches, one at a time. In each tiny flame she sees visions: a warm stove, an elegant feast, a Christmas tree lit by candles…  

Then her dead grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with kindness, appears to the shivering child, and carries her soul off to Heaven. The next morning, the strangers who walked past her the night before discover the little match girl’s icy corpse, clutching the burnt-out matches in her frozen fingers.  Too late they feel a twinge of pity.  The end.

As a child, I hated that story.  I was appalled that grownups could look away from a child’s suffering, without lifting a finger to help.  Why would anyone invent such a depressing story, and who would want to hear it?

As an adult, I still hate that story, and even more now, because I realize that when Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl in 1845, except for the bit about the grandmother, he was fictionalizing a deplorable reality he himself was witnessing. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the poor were miserable and overcrowded.  Pollution from the unregulated burning of coal poisoned the air, and factories were dumping metals, chemicals, raw sewage, and other toxins into the lakes and rivers that people depended upon for drinking water.

Wages were so low that the working class toiled 12 to 16 hours a day, yet still couldn’t earn a living wage.  On the brink of starvation, they sent their children to work in factories and mines.  Many were separated from their families, left to the ‘mercy’ of strangers, working ungodly hours for only a place to sleep and the food they ate.

In 1832 it was reported, “…workers are abandoned from the moment an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”  

The wealthy were given free reign to exploit the poor. When the Industrial Revolution sparked disputes over inhumane working conditions, the government introduced measures to prevent labor from organizing. The rich got richer, the poor remained poor, and children, who were forced to work all day or starve, couldn’t get an education to help them rise from poverty.

In the USA, industrialization occurred mostly in the North, with an influx of immigrants serving as factory fodder to keep up with attrition and demand. The South had its own foul history of systemic oppression, with its agrarian economy dependent upon human slavery.

Over time, Americans have fought and died for the cause of social justice.  They organized labor unions, which brought an end to child labor, shortened the work week, and ushered in workman’s compensation for on-the-job-injuries. They are still trying to negotiate a living wage.  Public education, Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Healthcare have all helped to even the playing field and a provide a social safety net.  Civil rights, women’s suffrage, Affirmative Action, environmental protection have, too.

We still had a long way to go to overcome class, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, such as the legacy of Jim Crow that still exists.  Yet we saw the middle class grow, the standard of living rise, and each generation doing better than the preceding one, until the 1970s.  What in Hell happened?  Ronald Reagan, and his trickle down economics, for starters.  It has been a downhill slide since then, snowballing since the Trump administration took power.

Today there is a little match girl on every street corner.  Our democratic republic has degenerated into an oligarchy, bought and run by big business, with puppet strings being yanked all the way from Russia.  International treaties have been broken, environmental protections scrapped to increase company profit, families torn apart by inhumane ICE policies, cruelly punishing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants. Affordable Healthcare, Social Security and Medicare are in the administration’s crosshairs.  The three richest men in America own more than half of this country’s wealth.  Our society has regressed two hundred years to become a near perfect match for the one that inspired Hans Christian Anderson to write The Little Match Girl.  A match made in Hell.

I will always hate that story.  But we need to keep telling it, until we can pound out a new ending.  We need to keep telling it, until we never need to tell it again.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck

Cuba’s Third Currency

The kids and I rendezvoused in Mexico City for spring break: from there it was a quick jump to Havana. We’d heard that thawing US-Cuban relations would affect big changes in Cuba in the near future. We wanted to see Cuba before that happened.

We arrived late at night, and taxied to our casa particular, a room rented in a private home. Eli said we would get a better feel for Cuba staying in a home rather than a hotel.  The Cuban government has allowed the practice since 1997 to accommodate and encourage tourist trade.  Upon our arrival our hostess Ana said her water pump was broken, and she turned us over to Orlando, who took us to his rental apartment.

We had to trust that everything would be okay.  And it was.

The electrical wiring at Orlando’s wouldn’t have passed a safety inspection.

 We were in a strange new place with its own set of rules, and had nowhere else to go.

 So when we detected the faint smell of gas, we opened all the windows, shut the door to the kitchen, and went to bed.

We awoke the next morning to the crowing of roosters, and a cacophony of social activity on the street; people laughing, talking, shouting cheerful greetings to each other from one balcony to the next.

We thanked Orlando, who turned out to be a retired chemistry professor, and moved to Ana’s place in The Old Town, several blocks from the capitol building.

At first La Habana Vieja, The Old Town, seemed a crumbling ruin…

…with people living in dilapidated buildings we at first mistook for abandoned shells.

In Cuba there are two forms of currency.  The Cuban peso is for local use.  The convertible peso is tied to the dollar, worth 25 times more, and is for tourist use. Most Cubans earn only twenty or thirty dollars a month, and use only Cuban pesos.

People sell…

…or buy whatever they can on their neighborhood streets.

 

Most shops have no refrigeration and little selection of goods.

This stand’s sole product was shredded cabbage.

In addition to wages, cigar factory workers are allowed five cigars a day, to smoke or to sell on their own time.

 

Tourists patronize government restaurants that few Cubans can afford, and even there the menu is limited according to what ingredients they can obtain. 

The Cuban government nationalized and charges admission fees to tourist attractions like museums…

…hotels…

…and restaurants.

 

Even the cemetery is maintained by the government, with admission fees charged to foreign visitors.

The government recreated a nightclub called The Tropicana…

…famous for its pre-revolutionary extravaganzas.

It charges tourists three times what most Cubans earn in a month for a two-hour show.

It’s what the market will bear, no more than we would pay at home, and it funds a government that pays for free healthcare and education for all Cubans, from pre-school through university and grad school.  Also milk for every child up to the age of seven, Ana said.  Gustavo drove us out to Ernest Hemingway’s house.  He shared valid complaints about government control and lost business opportunities because of it, but he also shared his plans for a new venture–in tourism.  That’s the only way most people will manage to better their circumstances, and earn dollars instead of pennies.

Everywhere there are reminders of the Revolution, on a grand scale, paid for by the government…

…but also celebrated by the people, many having lived through that momentous period of history.

 

I don’t presume to understand all the politics and history of those turbulent times.  I do note ironic parallels between the patriots of the American Revolution who fought for independence from Britain in 1776, and the Cubans who fought for independence from the US-backed Batista regime in the 1950s. Free speech and democracy are not enjoyed by Cubans, or the Chinese either, although China is a communist country granted “most favored nation” status by the US.  There’s also a history of human rights violations in China, as well as in Cuba, which includes, ironically, Guantanamo Bay. America is a big glass house, and in no position to cast stones. Yes, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we mustn’t forget that the US meddled in Cuba’s internal affairs, including eight attempts to assassinate the president of Cuba.

That was a long time ago.  Today we’re trade partners with Vietnam, yet still we cling to the punishing embargo on Cuba that hurts the Cubans…

…not the Castros.

Everyone we met was open and friendly. It helped that my traveling companions were both fluent in Spanish.  I’m not, but “Hola!” (hello) was a magic word that brought a warm response every time. I felt safe, even late at night. Warmth was the third currency of Cuba.  When we couldn’t get Ana’s key to work, the man on the steps across the street came unbidden to help.  Orlando made a special trip to Ana’s to return a sock I had left there. After a chance meeting in front of the synagogue, Eleazor took us around the old Jewish quarter, delighted when Bea could speak Yiddish with him.

A friend who had been to Cuba suggested we bring paper and pens, something we often take for granted in the US.  I bought a couple dozen yellow pads and dozens of pens, which we gave to kids, students, and elders.  When we stopped to give these little girls pens, their mother asked if we were part of the president’s entourage.

No, but President Obama’s trip to Cuba coincided with ours, and he visited some of the same sites.


We toured the historic National Hotel…

…where Obama stayed while in Havana.

One morning, as we walked near the capitol, we saw a crowd spilling out of a little corner bar.

There was excitement in the air, as they listened to President Obama’s live speech on television.

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A man–his name was Ricardo–told us how much the president’s visit meant.

He began to cry, and told us that he finally dared hope for an end to the embargo, that it would bring more prosperity, a chance to see his family in the US and, because he had a heart condition, improved healthcare.

In the not-so-distant future there is much that I too hope will change for the Cubans.

But I’m guessing there are some things in Cuba that will never change…


 

 

…but then, we wouldn’t want them to.

All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Future.

The Same Boat

Last summer the Seattle Theater Group treated its season ticket holders to a champagne lunch aboard a Holland America cruise ship.

The closest we’d come to a cruise was a day trip from Helsinki to Talin. Thom dusted off his sports jacket…

…and we went to lunch with our friend Monica.

Looking up…

…down…

…or sideways…

 

…there was unabashed glitz and glamor.

After dessert…

…they turned us loose.

We acquainted ourselves with the pool.

The art.

And the dance floor.

 

The lines…

 

…lights…

…curves…

…and colors were striking.

It was ‘The Titanic…

…meets Blade Runner.’

A place out of time.  A floating island.  Everyone the star of his or her own movie.

Across the harbor it was business as usual.

 

Gritty stories were played out in choppy waters, a world apart from our pampered microcosm.

As we left the parking lot, we drove through a sobering intersection of poverty and privilege.

Having just left a luxurious cruise boat, I thought of the Titanic.  Many historians believe steerage passengers were treated with indifference at best, and that racism and classism was a factor in the dismal survival rates of the poor.  Only 25% of the Third Class passengers survived, while 62% of the First Class passengers did.

One would hope for improvement in the last hundred years, and things did get better–for awhile.

From the 1950s through the 70s, middle class prosperity grew: more people could afford higher education, resulting in better jobs and owning homes. Then Ronald Reagan introduced Trickle Down Economics, claiming that by making the rich richer prosperity would trickle down to the poor, but that just kicked economic inequality into hyperdrive.  Bush’s tax cuts for the rich also made the rich richer, while depriving the nation of income that would prevent the lower and middle classes from slipping further behind.

From 1979-2007,  income of the top 1 percent grew by 275%, while the bottom 80 percent averaged 29%.   From 2009-2012, the top one percent raked in 95% of all income growth in the nation.

Economist Paul Krugman says soaring profits of the one percent are achieved by squeezing those below: cutting wages, slashing benefits, crushing unions.  Elite priorities exert a wildly disproportionate effect on policy, such as slashing social programs for the needy while lowering taxes for corporations and the wealthy.

But there is hope.

 In yesterday’s election, Seattle voted to shut big money out of politics, after having already led the nation in a vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

I AM SO PROUD OF SEATTLE!

When Abraham Lincoln said America’s representative democracy was of the people, by the people, and for the people, I’m sure he did NOT mean corporations.

We are all in the same boat.  I’m thinking it’s time to bust out the life preservers, and this time, let’s make sure there is one for everyone.

All images and words ©2015 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Dazzling.

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Out in the World

 We went to Sighosora, Romania…

…and stayed in the Old Town.

In the passage to the courtyard we found a nest, with two baby birds huddled nearby.

There had been a fierce windstorm the previous night that must have blown the nest from its nook in the wall, our Romanian host told us when delivering the key to our flat.  My husband Thom replaced the nest, but when he tried to return the birds to the nest….

…he discovered two of their legs were tightly bound together by a long blond hair–nesting material gone terribly wrong.

We had a knife, our tiny blunt-nosed travel scissors, and a larger pair of scissors scrounged from the kitchen.  Thom and our son Eli hoped to separate the birds with a quick snip.  But the hair had been there for a long time, the legs were swollen around it, and every effort set the birds fluttering in a panic, which we feared would cause further damage.  Our host wished us good luck, and left for work.

We felt helpless.  We were there for only one night.  To whom could we hand off these birds? We could return them to the nest and let nature take its course–a slow and painful death by starvation and infection.  Or should we put them out of their misery?  The only other possible solution was harsh.  If we did nothing, both birds would surely die.  By amputating one leg, one bird would likely die, but the other might have a fighting chance.  One delicate leg was unresponsive to the touch, probably already broken.  Eli braced himself and severed the mangled leg, cutting through the hair.  Immediately both birds were free and fluttered off.

The one-legged bird landed on the ground nearby.

The stronger one fluttered all the way to the far side of the courtyard.

We heard a cackling overhead.  Even without the family resemblance, we recognized an anxious mother, calling to her babies from the rooftop.  We felt a glimmer of hope–their mother might yet take them back under her wing!

But our presence made her nervous, so we watched from inside, then left to explore the area.

By suppertime, the stronger bird had flown up to a perch in the courtyard…

…high enough to be safe from hungry cats.

The other remained quietly earthbound.  We wondered what the morning would bring.

The next day, the stronger of the two was gone, as was its mother.  The injured bird remained, probably abandoned as a lost cause by its family.  We checked back only moments later to discover the one-legged bird was now gone without a trace.  In a laundry room off the courtyard were two domestic workers.  Could they have removed the bird like a piece of litter?  Or perhaps a crow had carried it off to feed to its babies.

Out in the world, we often catch glimpses of a story, or a life.  Sometimes they are as sweet as a single drop of honey.

Others are stories of sorrow and want.

Too many will be lived out in the shadows in quiet desperation.

As with the baby birds, sometimes we are helpless to help, sometimes we can offer only a bandaid, and most times we will never know how the story ends.

What makes the difference between a happy ending and a tragedy?  Survival of the fittest?  An accident of birth?  An ill wind, perhaps.  But sometimes it falls into our power to make a difference.  When that happens, even for one tiny being, it can make all the difference in the world.

All images and words copyright 2015 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Wind.

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Through the Looking Glass

January has been a busy month for storytelling– dusting off old stories, rehearsing new ones, attending to related business correspondence.   Last week I was pressed for time, polishing a story for its public debut, when I heard a little thump.  I peeked through the French doors onto the deck.  A tiny olive gray creature, scarcely bigger than a hummingbird, lay stunned and shivering where it fell after flying into the glass.

It was a male Golden-crowned Kinglet, with a bright orange and gold crown.  They favor coniferous forest; this one was likely nesting in the grove of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir in our backyard.  Kinglets are monogamous, and raise two broods each season.  As soon as the first nestlings can fly, Mama Bird lays another batch.  While she protects the new eggs, Papa feeds up to ten fledglings until they can take care of themselves.  Good Daddy!

Perhaps the little bird was an adolescent, driving too fast on his first solo flight, or maybe he was an exhausted frantic father trying to feed his hungry brood.  Birds are delicate, and often die of stress.  Not wanting to frighten it, I didn’t open the door, but I kept watch through the glass for neighborhood cats and hungry crows. What would happen, I wondered, to the fledglings if their Papa died?  How might his mate manage as a single parent when the next brood hatched?

As The Bard said, all the world is a stage.  Everywhere tiny dramas–life and death performances–are played out.  Most will never be witnessed or even imagined, completely lost in the big picture.  Or worse, they will be observed by cold and uncaring eyes.

On my deck, in city streets, in our wealthy country, and all over the world, baby birds are not the only creatures who slip between the cracks, with no voice, and no champion to speak out for them or watch over them.

I turned for an instant to check the clock.  When I looked again, the little bird was gone.  My eyes stung with tears of relief.  Someone looking through the glass onto my deck would see only a few bird droppings, but to me it’s a reminder that life can get messy.  Not everyone has a safety net.  Not every story has a happy ending.  Sometimes we can only  look helplessly through the glass at the world’s suffering.  But sometimes it falls within our power to change the world, one tiny story at a time.

Something to think about.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Glass

All words and images c2013 Naomi Baltuck