Archive for the 'Faith' Category


Hope Lab recently launched a Joy Campaign to celebrate their 10th birthday and a few days ago I made a new twitter friend when I read this:

Liz Moment of Joy

Liz is a visual communication designer at Hope Lab and she has me pondering Joy, or happiness+ as they’ve called it. When she took an interest in my wdydwyd picture I couldn’t help but ask to trade my thoughts on Joy for a wdydwyd portrait of her. To be entirely honest, I tried to trade her wdydwyd picture for my collection of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on Joy but she wouldn’t make a bargain so easy on me. So I had to dig deep and share Joy and my own experiences.

In my life Joy is happiness + loosing all track of time, could be feeling the full weight of history pressing down upon me. The world so wild I feel vulnerable, and something else makes me feel hidden or protected. Joy sets me in motion. It’s never as lethargic as pleasure or happiness can be. The center of Joy is a longing which reminds me I’m not there yet, still growing. That hopeful outlook is part of the exhilaration. Joy is completely different than happiness. All of the differences are invisible to the eye.

I now invite you to stop reading if you’ve had enough; I’ve described my Joy. The rest is a set of almost embarrassingly personal memories that pointed me towards my understanding of Joy.

When I was three years old we lived in a green house on east 10th street with a small orchard and barn. Mom forbid me to enter the barn’s attic, saying it was dangerous, which of course made me immeasurably curious. I remember climbing into the attic one day and finding a faded blue wicker rocking chair. It looked very fine in the faint light full of dust motes, and suddenly I felt urgently that I was close to doing or knowing something extraordinary. The attic was very quiet and I felt safe from my mother’s disciplinarian eye. If only I could sit in the chair I might grasp it… I hastily moved a stack of something off the chair but the motivation faded as I sat down. I was no longer close to it, and it hadn’t lasted long enough for me to properly grasp what it was. At the time I blamed the thought’s flight on the unwholesome noise the chair made when I sat down.

Perhaps two years later we had moved to a house overlooking the Cascades. My brother and I would play through the scrub oaks around the cherry orchards above our house – a place we called The Mountains. One day we stumbled upon a small trench winding up the hillside. So close to places we had run countless times but it was shallow and overgrown with tall grass and other greens; it might be overlooked from even a few feet away. I crouched down, then kneeled and when I hid in the trench something odd happened to time. I had been hidden in the trench for time out of mind, or I had some other sense of ancientness pressing down upon me, like I was hiding where others had hidden. They had been industrious and important and they had sheltered in this grassy, wet hiding place that transported them across the hill. The trench had been instrumental in some weighty endeavor. I realized this would make an excellent game to play with my brother, as soon as my mind crystalized enough around who they were that I could describe them. But the image never gelled, and my brother said something brusque like “why are you crawling in the mud?” I blamed him for disrupting my concentration but I didn’t say anything because part of me knew it had begun to fade before he interrupted me.

At seven or eight I was too young to walk far when my father went pheasant hunting but he would take my brother and I out to Remington’s wheat fields to play in the creek bed while he and the dogs walked the hills above. Guns are scary. Even if you are not the fearful animal, a child’s mind intuits that something is scared. The creek bed was the protected magical underneath, a tunnel of thick tree cover that muffled gunshots and sunlight and everything else. Plastered the ground with red and yellow leaves as small as chicken eggs. Safe. I had the idea that if I ran swiftly enough up the creek bed I might discover the one perfect thing to make believe that most completely was autumn. As if I might catch the fleeting idea by chasing it. This is the precise moment I recall whenever I think of what it feels like to run light of foot, but eventually I was tired and my chase failed. I wasn’t sad. The creek bed is one of my favorite places and this chasing is one of my fondest memories despite never catching or even being able to describe what I meant to catch.

If you have ever had such experiences, you probably remember them fiercely and know precisely what I am talking about. If you have not, nostalgia is the most similar kind of longing you probably know. Different in that it was like nostalgia even then, not only in memory but even as it was happening, and it was so much more exhilarating!

Che Guevara described a similar sensation upon exploring Machu Pichu: “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” C.S. Lewis’ autobiography revolves around a few such experiences and he names the sensation Joy. I wouldn’t have called it Joy before reading C.S. Lewis but I have no other name for it. Like Lewis, I would say without doubt that The central story of my life is about nothing else…. I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.

I haven’t had experiences like this in adulthood but I think of them often enough that they are still part of my life. When I think of Joy as happiness+, the + is some circumstance that reminds me. The center of Joy is a longing which puts me on a path to still more growth. Whenever I open a wardrobe or even a alluring closet, I reach through to knock the back wall. Not because I have any hope of finding Narnia on the other side, but because I might stumble into Joy, itself the longing for Narnia. My love of fairy tales, my creative endeavors and my quest for richer spiritual experiences. All tie back to a few moments of Joy.

Thank you C.S. Lewis for helping me make sense of these experiences. Thank you Liz for convincing me to chronicle and share them.

Memoriam Betty Lou Holeman

Betty Raft
Grandma Betty, Granddad Emile, and my dad Mike raft the Deschutes River, from a set of family photos on Flickr.

My grandmother Betty Lou Holeman died on April 2nd, 2011. She passed peacefully, surrounded by four generations of her family at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Pendleton Oregon, a few miles from where she was born. I wrote this requiem for her and for my own piece of mind. After reading it at a family gathering the night before her funeral, I decided to post it here for the rest of my family.

I am the youngest son of Betty Lou’s oldest son, and as one of the grandchildren I am in many ways unprepared to speak about her life. We grandchildren rarely appreciate how our grandparents have changed over time. For so many of Betty Lou’s stories we simply were not around, and we struggle to see the accomplishments of a lifetime, what was tough and what came naturally when she was younger. Instead of countless stories that paint a trajectory of progress, we see a more fixed identity. To a young enough eye, grandma and grandpa’s role feels as dependable as heaven and earth and I am convinced that is why we kids put down our own roots there.

When a stranger asks me about myself, I think of where I come from, and sometimes I think of Betty Lou. More frequently I call on a general sense of belonging that is an almost physical sensation, like the way I can choose to cover my arms with goosebumps if I concentrate. I tell stories about Christmas, Thanksgiving, going to the cabin, picking huckleberries, cooking and eating together, splitting firewood, hunting and fishing, training as an athlete and supporting the home team. I tell how parts of my family walked here before Oregon was an American state, and we have made do by any number of ordinary and honorable vocations since then. But the belonging doesn’t really come from the activities, as much as I value them. The belonging emanates from the people I do these things with, especially Betty Lou. She collected the family history to share with us and more importantly she also presides over it, she presides over our stories. She and Granddad are the quiet masters of ceremony for our whole family experience when we get together. Betty Lou has gone but she left that sense of belonging behind for us; this is the first way that she lives with us still.

Feeling my roots is especially important for me when I am far from Oregon, and sometimes I feel like I am kept close to this family by forces greater than I understand. The night Betty Lou passed away I was working at a Catholic mission hospital called St Gabriel’s in rural Malawi, in eastern Africa. After dinner I sat around the table with seven new friends from medical schools in Kansas and Maryland, and someone suggested a game to play. According to my new friend’s rules we went in turns around the table; all the young men said the names of their grandmothers and the women said the names of their grandfathers. For each person the group chose one of the two names. For me they chose Betty Lou and all night long anyone who called me anything other than Betty Lou had to take a drink from their cup. Maybe you’ve never tried it, but it is actually hilarious to have near strangers call you only by your grandmother’s name, more so after a few drinks. I didn’t know Grandma’s health was taking a turn for the worse, but circumstances mainly beyond my control had decided that she would be on the minds of our entire family that Saturday night, and being ten thousand miles away with no news from home just was not going to stop me from taking part. I thought of her all night in a happy, chuckling way. When I awoke in the morning I saw an email from my mom that Grandma Betty’s blood pressure had dropped and she’d been taken to the hospital again. When my mom wrote that mail she hadn’t yet known how the night would end, but I just kind of knew when I read it. Due to the time difference I didn’t call my mom until 4pm, which was 7am Sunday back in Oregon.

I was on the next flight home, five minutes after 3pm Monday. Thinking of Grandma Betty as the plane left the ground, wishing her soul a swift and beautiful journey as I made my own way up through the first wispy clouds. The plane continued to rise up over Lake Malawi, such an enormous stretch of water it is like an inland sea. Then far below I saw something unlike anything I had seen before, which is uncommon given how much I fly for work (I’ve filled eleven pages of my passport since August). Some trick of the sunlight on tiny rhythmic wave patterns below, perhaps wind and just the right altitude made a broad patch of the water begin to look like a great crowd, very far away, clapping its hands. With a muted smile I thought that perhaps God had heard me and responded by sending Grandma off to an extraordinary round of applause. But then I felt more strongly that she was close there with me, that perhaps it was Betty Lou down in the surface of the sea, clapping for me. Wishing me a safe journey home, typically quiet and proud without fail, this time because of how closely I carried her in my heart. As if to say If you are willing to live your life in view of eternity, Isaac, you’ll know my support whenever you need it. Growing up not going to Church, I would say this is the recourse nearest to prayer that my family taught me, and by this second means Grandma Betty will live with me as long as I carry her close.

Hours later I am somewhere over the Atlantic as I type this. I’m looking forward to seeing my family, I know we’ll all be strong for each other’s sake. And whenever we rally together for our family’s needs or celebrations, we can say for a third reason that Betty Lou’s story continues and probably will continue on for an awfully long time.

Regarding the blurry boundary between Free Love and Transactional Sex in Cuba

the malecon

the malecón photo by Isaac Holeman.


The other day I passed part of the afternoon walking alone along the malecón, the seawall pictured above. Built in 1901 by the U.S. during one of their occupations of Cuba, it covers most of Havana’s sea shore and is a hub of people watching and sea sprayed dallying for locals and tourists alike. On one particularly popular stretch I walked past a fairly attractive young woman wearing a modest tank top and long skirt. She was sitting with one hip and a hand on the broad seawall, and I happened to look over right as a gust of wind blew her skirt almost up to her waist. She saw my embarrassed smile and called me back, “hey amigo”.

She was friendly and more forthcoming than most Cuban women I’ve met, particularly after she discovered I’m from the US. Before long she asked me if I had a girlfriend (American women are always asked by Cuban men “do you have a boyfriend?” If yes, “do you have a Cuban boyfriend?” The question is slightly less common from women). No I said, and she smiled and said she was single too, so we could start dating if I liked. She knew I only had 3 weeks left in Cuba, but said we could pasar un buen tiempo (have a good time). I was more than a little stymied, fearing to respond in case I had misunderstood, though I was certain I hadn’t. It got worse when she said, as if to clarify, “quieres quedar conmigo?” The word quedar has various meanings, some of them specific to Cuba, so she might have been asking if I wanted to stop and sit on the seawall with her, if I wanted to start dating her, or if I wanted to sleep with her. After consulting Cuban friends, the last interpretation wouldn’t have been literally accurate but possible as an innuendo, and the second was the most likely, but I had no idea at the time. She then told me about a nice bed and breakfast (casa particular) by the national hotel that would rent a room for $20, did I have 20 dollars? she asked. This is significantly more money than non-famous Cubans my age have for leisure spending in a month, or even a year. As I drifted away, feeling rather odd, I tried to stammer something about not knowing her very well – it almost came out in English.

Here’s a list of my general perceptions about the conversation, including the nonverbal cues.

  • She was interested in having sex with me, pronto.
  • This would have been part of engaging in a relationship, not just a one night stand (one afternoon, in this case).
  • My nationality and her associated expectation of my relative wealthiness played a significant role in her interest.
  • If I had pursued this relationship, she would have expected me to spend money, take her places, and buy her things that were not otherwise available to her.
  • If I had agreed to the relationship but later refused to spend money on her, she would very likely have ended the relationship, but wouldn’t have argued that I had incurred a debt that needed to be paid.
  • She did not consider the proposal a transaction or a purchase.

Again, this is the way it looked from my perspective, they are not indisputable truths about the situation. I am quite confident that she was not a jinetera (prostitute), but I definitely got a bad vibe that felt more sinister than promiscuous and forward behavior alone. This experience left me with more questions than answers. Here are some of the questions.

  • If there were a spectrum of behavior with transactional sex on one end and free love on the other, where the heck would this encounter register?
  • Could I have ethically pursued a romantic relationship with her (not necesarily including sex), knowing that she was probably as interested in my economic status as in me?
  • In this specific instance, would it have felt empowering to her that she could use her attractiveness to satisfy her physical desires AND have material benefits, or would she have felt that this use of her body was an unfortunate only option? Basically, was she going against her morals?
  • Was my impulse to get away from her rooted in an unfair gender bias – an expectation that Cuban women should act more prudently than Cuban men?
  • Did my response to this situation result from an unfair bias regarding her nationality and my assumptions about her economic status?

The second to last question needs more explanation. Young Cuban men are constantly intimating to my female American friends that they would like to have a sex with them. This can be frustrating but it’s “normal” here. My female friends are really put off by this dynamic (I would be too), but it doesn’t cause them to reject every person outright; if they did they wouldn’t have any friends. They just deal with it and remember that they need to be careful about initiating relationships on their own terms.

If this woman had been a man and I a woman, her actions would have been relatively very forward, but not to the extent that they would merit immediately viewing her as much less appealing than any other random stranger. While she definitely did say some things that made it clear she was in the market for a sugar daddy, it’s hard for me to dissect how her nonconformity with the typical gender role might have cauesed me to (in the spur of the moment) focus on the financially motivated comments (creepy) more than any genuine interest in casual sex (not my thing, but not as repulsive as sex for money). It’s probably pertinent that she must have been more aware of Cuba’s gender biases than I, and her words were probably intended to honestly convey all of the things she was interested in. Nonetheless, I don’t like the idea of applying this gender bias when I make decisions. This is one of the dilemmas of being in an environment where I feel like the only norms I can use to interpret the social significance of various interactions are those of a culture that I can’t participate in fully enough to challenge.

As for the last question. There are a lot of gold diggers in the states too. I’m definitely not a fan of them, but I tend to think of it as shallow rather than borderline transactional sex. I don’t think this girl was looking to me to help her meet basic material necessities. At the same time, if she is like most Cubans she probably has almost zero material pleasures beyond those necessities, and very little chance of improving her situation through her own labor (there just aren’t economic opportunities in Cuba). While intertwining sex and material gain may not exactly be driven by desperation in this case, it likewise doesn’t seem quite the same as a person in the US who has access to economic opportunities and is choosing not to pursue them because it’s easier to seduce a rich person.

Overall, it was a pretty strange experience, one that I wouldn’t have been capable of understanding (linguistically or culturally) a few months ago. It’s nice to feel that my Spanish and understanding of Cuban society have improved that much, but at the same time I feel like gaining some insight has left me with more unanswered questions than I had before. Please post a comment if you have ideas about any of my questions.

Important note: Although I have read that sex tourism is often less formal in Cuba than in other places, I have not thoroughly researched the topic. This post is meant to describe some individual responses to economic and social differences. Please do not think I am claiming that everyone who comes from or visits Cuba responds the same way.

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