Sometimes I cannot be by your side
But I just want you to know
That I am there, with you, always.
(to all my loves, here and far)
Sometimes I cannot be by your side
But I just want you to know
That I am there, with you, always.
(to all my loves, here and far)
On Sunday, our solar eclipse adventure began.
Alex and I hit the road that morning with what we called our “skeleton plan”–a loose framework for what we wanted to happen over the next couple of days. We had no confirmed place to stay on Sunday night, just a tent in the trunk of Alex’s car and a spot on the map where I knew I wanted to watch the eclipse on Monday afternoon. Everything between was all part of the adventure.
First, we stopped at a water park in Charlotte to escape the scorching heat. (Slides!!) After several hours in the sun, we ate at a nearby hole-in-the-wall pho restaurant and found a bar that was streaming Game of Thrones. It was a great experience–the bar gave out free popcorn and pizza and the crowd was really into the episode. The streaming froze several times and each time a huge wail would run through the place as we commiserated together.
When we were eating at the restaurant, we started researching campgrounds near Spartanburg, where I went to college and wanted to spend the night. I had looked up public campsites weeks back and nothing was available across the entire state of South Carolina–so I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful that evening. But Alex saw a KOA site pop up on the phone and encouraged me to call. When I did, they had one spot left–in their Overflow section. I booked it immediately and we drove the hour and a half south, setting up our tent just after midnight. It was the perfect spot.
We awoke the next morning refreshed and ready for the eclipse. Since we were in Spartanburg, we grabbed some breakfast and took a quick tour of the Wofford campus, which has grown from 1,100 students during my time to about 1,600 today. They’ve done a great job of expanding the campus and keeping a Southern, polished vibe to the buildings. It was fun to return more than 10 years after my graduation.
I started getting antsy so we plugged in the GPS coordinates for the spot I had selected: an isolated stretch just south of Princeton, SC, which is an hour south of Spartanburg. This spot was in the Path of Totality, or 100% sun blockage. Ninety-six percent coverage in Durham or even 99% in Spartanburg wasn’t going to be enough–I wanted to stare at the sun without any eye protection.
We took local highways on the drive down, and the scenery was beautiful. As we got further out, we saw a few cars that had stopped in various places to watch the eclipse. It was great to see other people who had the same idea–but I wanted to be nowhere near them. I wanted to be alone for this gorgeous and bizarre experience.
So we kept driving and driving until we saw a small paved road leading into a field. We parked the car in the shade and waited for someone to come upon us, but it was just Alex and I, the field, and the crickets. We put some chairs in the middle of the road and watched the moon begin its slow path across the sun.
For the next two hours, no one else came by. The clouds started building in the sky, so we would sit in the chairs and take in the eclipse whenever the sun peeked out from the clouds. It was a bright day, and I kept looking out over at the vast fields to see if the world was getting any darker. It seemed like a slight dusk was settling over the earth, but the sun was still incredibly strong.
Then, 15 minutes before total coverage, the clouds went away and gave us the clean blue sky we had hoped for. As we looked through our glasses, the sun became a banana, then a fingernail. I was surprised how bright the day remained even though the sun was 96% covered up. Though the fields around us began taking on a hazy, dusky hue, we still had the impossibly bright sun shining down upon us. It felt like we were specimens in a terrarium.
About two minutes before the sun was completely covered, we heard a donkey begin braying hysterically in the distance. It called for half a minute, then suddenly quieted, which was followed by a rush of insect screeches in the bushes. Nature was fully aware of this strange shift in time and light. Small ripples of light unlike anything I have ever seen before appeared on the road, glimmering for about 10-15 seconds.
Suddenly, the skies around us began to darken. It was an accelerated sunset, as if the day was folding up in just a matter of moments. At 2:38 and 40 seconds in the afternoon, it became that still, quiet moment when dusk topples over into evening–and now there was a giant black hole surrounded by a hot white rim in the sky.
We took our glasses off and could hear people cheering in the distance. But I barely registered them as I kept staring at the impossible thing above us. I remember looking up and actually feeling an undercurrent of mild horror at the spectacle. Something in the cells of my body knew that this moment was unnatural and wrong. Annie Dillard wrote this about a 1979 solar eclipse: “I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.” But during this brief moment, I was also flooded with amazement and awe. I remember looking back and forth, back and forth, between the sun and the skies around us, the clouds pink from this brilliant, dramatic sunset.
I carefully watched the time for when we would need to put our glasses back on. The moon would completely block the sun for only 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and I knew we had to be ready for the moment when the corona of the sun would blaze freely again. In the final moments of the eclipse, I tried my hardest to commit the image to memory. I hope I dream it again someday.
And just like that, the whole thing was over. The moon resumed its creeping path across the other side of the sun, and we watched it with our glasses for a few minutes. As we drove north, we couldn’t believe the luck that we’d had–we were completely isolated in that field for hours, and the clouds had parted just long enough for us to see the total eclipse. It was everything I had hoped for.
Another solar eclipse will pass through the United States in 2024… we’ll see where that adventure may lead us! :D
Yesterday America elected a schmuck.
It’s okay, though; this certainly isn’t the first time. But yesterday was an interesting tide of emotions. It’s the first major event since September 11th where I’ve seen large amounts of people express grief. What Obama’s first election brought us in giddiness and pride brought disbelief and numb horror on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2016.
I never gave Trump much serious thought, even after he achieved the Republican nomination. I felt as if Trump represented some kind of bland evil that the greater-acting good throughout America would defeat on Election Day.
This is the real reason why half of America cried yesterday. Not only were we beaten, but our egos were majorly bruised.
For the last two decades, America has increasingly abandoned its rural areas in favor of economic opportunity and convenience within major cities, usually near the coasts. It’s no surprise that the left and right sides of America have been painted blue in the last few presidential elections.
So what happened in those red areas that were left behind? The economy stagnated. Factories and mines departed, and children who dreamed of being like their parents found that a high school education was no longer enough to secure a pension, house, or very much within the American dream. The coasts and cities became bastions of a new cultural elite that scorned the traditions and labor that made the country itself possible. As both educational and economic opportunities dwindled, that population grew mistrustful, and felt very forgotten by, the establishment.
You happy with your high-paying job over there in RTP, Boston, Portland? I wish you could’ve seen West Virginia when my family and I drove through it less than a year ago. Old towns that once thrived on the boom of coal mining were decrepit. I’ve never visited a rural area and seen food banks and social service centers so prominently advertised. People told us over and over again about the lack of opportunities available for work, but nobody wanted to leave. West Virginia was their home and history.
I never thought about any of this until Wednesday morning. I had gone to sleep at 12:30 on election night with a deep sense of dread in my stomach. I avoided looking at my phone until I got up at 6:40 the next morning to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t believe, and suddenly could believe, that Donald J. Trump had legally, rightfully been elected President of the United States.
I was immediately disgusted. “America’s made it’s bed–now we have to sleep in it,” I told Alex, who already knew the news. I thought of the red voting swaths and considered them fools.
But then I thought about something that had caught my attention on election night: one of the commentators said, “This is a vote against the establishment,” just as Trump had racked up 244 electoral votes, only 26 away from victory. And I thought about West Virginia and Florida, where a similar deficit of opportunities exists, though for different reasons. And then I understood why most people had voted for Trump.
Hillary was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate. She’s brilliant, ruthless, and I was honored to vote for her, even though she certainly has a flawed record. But Hillary is also the epitome of the establishment. She’s part of a dynasty, connected to a government that has failed to serve many people in this country. And it’s far too much of a simplification to say that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Instead, it’s more likely that many of these people were actually troubled by some of the things they heard him say; those comments just didn’t apply to themselves or anyone they cared about (hi, white people!). Sexism remains well entrenched in this culture, so it’s no surprise that neither sexist or racist remarks would be enough to stir right-learning parts of the country into an outrage. They’re not there yet.
But to be fair, neither are “progressives.” We’ve been living in a bubble that was unexpectedly popped on Election Day. We’ve spent a long time dismissing Republican voters as uneducated, uninformed, stupid. Instead, I think we’ve seen distrustful, hurt, and scared people who have been left behind in a rapidly changing culture. (Let’s not get into the conspiracy theorists–they’re a whole other lot–I would rather look at how our government’s systems have failed a huge swath of people who have not forgotten it.) As one writer put much more eloquently than me, these people chose the one manner in which they truly have a voice, their vote, and they used it to send a very clear message.
There’s no doubt that the next 4 years hold some difficult battles. I am profoundly disturbed by rhetoric that is reminiscent of the era of internment camps in this country, of a time when women were devalued even more than they are now, or–let’s get real–Hitler’s Germany. We will have to work very hard to be proactive and bring our activism to the streets. It’s been too easy for progressives to use a hashtag and virtually check in as a form of “activism.” If we want to truly protect all human rights in the coming years, it will require a form of protest that many of us have never experienced.
All that said, many folks who voted for Hillary have slammed Trump voters as racists. Some of them undoubtedly are. But I’ve also seen some of those folks profess their own concerns. They didn’t like their choices either–but they couldn’t support a government that had continued to fail them for so long. I can’t defend their choice, but I can see where they’re coming from. Alex had a great observation yesterday: “Why don’t we just ask people why they voted for Trump?” Until now, progressives have been content to stay in their bubble of prosperity and surround themselves with people who hold the same views (myself included).
It’s time for real dialogue to happen about how we got into this situation and where our country needs to go. In the meantime, we must be vigilant about our most vulnerable people–and do whatever it takes to protect them.
People say, “Hey man, I love you, happy birthday… Now have all these drinks I bought you so you can feel shit tomorrow.”
Spring is here! Today I’m sitting around my apartment in a weird combination of sleeveless nightgown, scarf, and winter cap as it rains. But the green has finally come back to this part of the country–including in the little planters outside my front door!
(For those of you who know the Black Thumb Stephenson phenomenon, this is a big deal.) I’m growing my own herbs this year–basil, dill, rosemary, and cilantro.
The last few months have been good. New people, new ideas… Here’s what I’ve been up to since January:
A friend in Carrboro mentioned she had a friend looking for a place to stay, so I agreed to meet him and see if we would get along. Enter Blake: a marvelous young man who stayed with me for a couple months in January-March.
Blake had come to the area seeking an apprenticeship in Asheville. He left Iowa determined to make his path as a creative entrepreneur, with very few possessions except an incredible intellect, drive to accomplish, and eagerness to put good into the world.
He transformed my place during his time here–taking it from an apartment to a true home. Some of my favorite memories include hearing him hum around the house, singing together in the car, and seeing his touches of creativity in my apartment and his design work. Blake is extraordinarily wise for his few years… I know he will continue to carry that gift with him and bring his light into other people’s lives. Thank you for all you did in my home, friend!!
Check out Blake’s design touches:
(The curtains are made out of brown shipping paper, and the elephant was crafted by hand using only raffia string. Blake has some amazing gifts.)
In February I started offering a free English class to the community. So far I only have three students–two of whom are members of my Spanish conversation group–but it’s been really fun. There’s Dayuma from Ecuador, Alfonso from Spain, and Somdra, a Buddhist monk from Burma.
We meet once a week for 1.5 hours and play games, practice conversation, and generally just goof around as much as possible. They’re a great group–we have a lot to learn from one another.
I’m training for a mini-triathlon in mid-May. A friend from work, Melissa, invited some folks to join, so I thought, Why not? I’ve always been fascinated by the endurance aspect of triathlons–and this one is relatively short: a 250-yard swim, 8-mile bike ride, and 2-mile run.
Of course, I took my sweet time starting to train, but things are going well. This week I did my first run–one mile running, one mile walking, alternating each quarter mile. I’m most nervous about the running and bike ride; this week was pretty much the first time I’ve ever run for physical fitness. But it felt good to hit the pavement outside. As I relaxed my shoulders, I could feel my body slip into a natural flow. I’m feeling optimistic… one breath at a time.
This is my favorite part of this update! Ale and I met in September at a music festival in Carrboro. We didn’t keep touch until I started planning my trip to the Dominican Republic in November, when I invited him to have drinks so I could learn more about his hometown. (He was born in Constanza and finished high school in Bonao; when we first met and discovered we had common territory, no one could understand why we were freaking out.)
We’ve been together since the new year and are really enjoying our time together. We’ve gone to Asheville (skiing!) and New York; he’s an awesome travel companion. Ale is kind, brilliant, adventurous, sweet… we’re having a good time, as you can see from the smile on my face.
A dear friend of mine who I used to work with, Kate, recently started classes for her master’s in nonprofit management. As part of her program, she had to work with a nonprofit organization to help them establish their foundational documents and apply for grants. So Kate and I have been working together since January to brainstorm what Cucuyo could look like in the future and see if we can get some funding to do the work. Kate’s exactly the kind of person you want on your team–smart, organized, a great listener. I’m thrilled I got to pick her brain this winter, and her input has been invaluable.
I never dreamed a new era of Cucuyo was possible until last year, when I met *two* people working for very similar organizations–both of which have paid full-time staff. We’ll see what happens, but I suspect my work with Cucuyo isn’t over just yet.
Thanks for reading…. wherever you are in the world, I send you my love.
The week of Thanksgiving I took a trip down to my beloved Dominican Republic. It was a last-minute decision; as the holiday inched closer, I realized I had some vacation time to use–and that part of the world had been on my brain lately. So one week, a few clicks, and a virtual credit card swipe later, I had a ticket to the island.
This trip was interesting because it was the first time I had visited the community, La Ceiba, simply to… be there. Say hello, drink coffee, catch up. When people asked me why I had come, I responded, “I’m on vacation.” An expression of surprise would cross their faces, and I could see the progression of thoughts: “Oh. You came alone. On your free time. Huh. You’re here just to see us… Cool!”
And that was the whole point. I wanted everyone to know that, while Cucuyo is still running a program each year, that’s not the only reason we visit La Ceiba. We come because we are invested in the community.
I often say that I have friends in the Dominican Republic–which is true–but in closer conversations, I describe La Ceiba as a second home, a place of family. I know that I could go there under a variety of circumstances and be taken in, no questions asked. When I visit, lives and routines are shifted because that’s what you do when family arrives. It’s an extraordinary thing.
So I spent several days in this place I have come to love: drinking coffee, making lingering visits, and playing with kids in the hot sun. While it was short, the trip was a gift in many ways:
I came back lighter and inspired–and at ease with whatever is to come. It’s been an interesting year since I got back from Argentina (one year on Dec. 19th!)–new job, new location, new friends, new context. But it’s little surprise to me that returning to a place where some of my heart roots lie would help bring back some of the lightness.
So now for the fun stuff–stories and pictures:
School days. I visited the high school where my friend Orlando teaches–and where Cucuyo collaborated with some students and teachers last year. It was cool to see a public school and briefly meet the kids and administration. The dynamic between teachers and students was interesting–they have much more affectionate and informal relationships, though teachers are clearly respected. U.S. schools could learn a lot from that kind of atmosphere (though look at that barbed wire on the outside wall…. a horrifying similarity with urban U.S. schools).
These kids were celebrating International Day against Women’s Violence with a parade focusing on the Mirabal sisters, three women who opposed the Trujillo dictatorship and were murdered for it. The entire school came together for the parade, with students carrying signs, playing music, and chanting anti-violence slogans as they walked through the community (Los Arroces).
Tia Nini. Aunt Nini… this woman. Nini is the 70-something (?) aunt of Orlando, who I usually stay with when I visit La Ceiba. This time life was a little nuts for Orlando, so I stayed next door with his aunt (where I usually eat my meals anyway).
Nini is amazing. She’s a mujer dura, a tough woman from the campo (countryside) who has lived in La Ceiba for most of her life. She’s a widow and has lived alone for years, tending the garden outside her house, taking care of her animals, and chismeando (gossiping) with her friends and neighbors in the community.
Nini treats me so well it makes me embarrassed. She lets me sleep to as obscene an hour is possible in the morning noise, putting cafe on the stove the minute she hears me rustling. She knows my favorite foods and how much I love her berenjena a la Nini (eggplant, Nini style).
Nini also has an incredibly thick accent that is difficult for me to understand. In past years I would often nod or laugh at what seemed appropriate moments, not taking the time to truly listen. But this time I did–and it was pure joy. Each day the percentage of interpretation success would crawl a little higher; I remember one moment where I was staring at her so hard, trying to catch all her words, that it was like trying to see into her soul. But it finally came together. Nini is a gifted storyteller–she understands how to use variations in volume and pauses to grab your attention like few other people I’ve met.
Some Nini stories (told or witnessed):
Fooooood. I love Dominican food, and people love givin’ it to me while I’m there. There’s the bandera Dominicana (Dominican flag)–meat, rice and beans, and salad. Yucca, fried egg, onions and vinegar with avocado. Moro (rice and beans mixed together). Concón, the special burnt rice at the bottom of the pot. Spaghetti. Mangu–mashed plantains and garlic. Asopao: rice stew, one of my favorites. TOSTONES (fried plantains). My life for tostones.
I didn’t get to see La Rubia too much while I was there–she is another amazing woman whom I love dearly–but I got a quick cooking lesson from her one afternoon: spaghetti. La Rubia feeds me love through food (and whiskey), and I am always grateful to accept it.
Candy workshop. Across the street from Nini lives Iris, her daughter, a gentle, sweet woman who is the mother to three fantastic kids (Edideison, Ñaña, and Lidia). This taller de dulces (candy workshop) is the brainchild of Iris. She used to run a bakery but it failed, so she decided to make candies for her next business.
Iris has found a lot of success with it–and she may be the only woman business owner in the entire community (apart from those who run colmados, corner stores, with their husbands). Iris’ husband helps sometimes, but he has his own job as a guagua driver.
Every day, Iris and a handful of men who work for her create different flavors, pour the dense liquid into molds, and press and package the candy for sale at bus stops. All the candies are milk based with a flavor mixed in: coconut, orange, peanut, guayaba. They are freakin’ delicious. And all of the family pitches in to help make the candy–including Nini and the kids. I love that Iris’ kids have the example of a smart, strong mother who handles everything with grace and patience.
Marializ, la diabla. This little diva in front is something else. Her name is Marializ, and for years I have affectionately–and not so affectionately–referred to her as the devil. When she was younger, she was quite the hellion–she would start fights, dance inappropriately, and say generally terrible things to whoever.
Marializ is probably around 5 or 6 now, and she’s mellowed out (a little). She’s still full of the same troublemaking spirit, but this time I got to see her sweeter, affectionate side. In years past she wouldn’t get too close to me, but we decided to upgrade our relationship to hugs and swinging her around in the street. She is going to be So Much Trouble someday– but she’s a good kid.
(Hilarious bit: Apparently there is a doll in the DR called Muñeca Chu that looks like that devil–and that’s what everybody calls Marializ in private. :D)
Rossy. Rossy Esther is a brave woman. A year and a half ago, her family’s house burned down from a stray electrical spark. All six of Los Adames survived, but they lost everything material. All of their momentos and photos–which are especially prized in the DR, since they are costly to print and not many people have cameras.
So Rossy left her tight-knit family and the place where she had lived all of her 18 years, to work in a tourist resort in Puerto Plata, 8 hours away by bus. It was hard for her to be away and take care of herself in a strange place, where there were many young people like her also living apart from their families.
But Rossy thrived. She had wanted to study tourism and improve her English, so waiting tables was a perfect fit. She charmed and cared for many tourists (one of whom became her boyfriend, ssh, don’t tell anyone), and Rossy realized she had truly found her dream profession in tourism.
A few days before I left for the DR, I texted Rossy to tell her I was coming.
“What days?!” she wrote back. I told her. “I have 3 days of vacation then,” she said.
“Wow! What a coincidence,” I said. “Can’t wait to see you!”
When Rossy finally arrived, we met for coffee at a fancy panaderia nearby. It was so good to see her. She told me all about her life at the resort and how much she liked taking care of people. She also revealed a dream–to continue the theater work Orlando had started in La Ceiba and do an international play with performers from all over the world.
She told me she had asked for the three days off work the moment I’d written her, to come see her family and I. It was not a coincidence after all.
I marveled at the confident, mature young woman she had become. 19 years old. When I first met Rossy, she was a tomboyish 15 year-old who was eager to show off and formed clingy relationships with our teachers. Now she was worlds away from that. Moving away from her family had given her a valuable chance to grow up and find herself.
I was delighted as we drank our coffee. We were continuing our friendship on new ground–two adults sharing, growing, and dreaming together. I look forward to many future coffees with Rossy.
Los Locos de La Ceiba. There is a nebula of awesomeness in La Ceiba, conveniently located in front of the community club, and at its center is la familia Rosario: 3 brothers, Elisangel, Bladimir, and Andrys, and their cousin Milenia. I have watched these kids grow up for the last 5 years, and they are just awesome. They bring smiles, security protection during nighttime walks, and ridiculous fun. Elisangel was one of my first students–a shy artist who drew me a picture that I still have.
Another part of this group is Marinel, a lovely young woman who lives next door with her grandmother, sister Mariely (total sweetheart and also a beauty queen), and their mom Mari, a local judge we refer to as Dominican Oprah (if you met her, you’d get it immediately). We went to Marinel’s English class one evening (her English is SO good now) and hung out for a bit on her front porch. She graduated university last year with a law degree and is now practicing in Bonao. She is confident, beautiful, and a total badass–a really great person. Her independence and straightforwardness is refreshing.
One evening the boys–Elisangel, Bladi, and their cousins Robert and Niño–had a basketball game, so I suggested to Milenia that we make signs. She screamed her heart out during the game–in full One Direction-loving, tween mode–and the little cousins Frandy and Aneurys joined us. Frandy is a great kid who also has the voice of a 78 year-old man who has smoked cigarettes all his life. Aneurys is a gem, too–a cousin of the three brothers. I enjoyed getting to know him through his shy shell.
We drank beer, ate fried empanadas, and were silly for hours. Some of my fondest memories come from that club and basketball court–it was great to pass the night with mis locos again. It always feels like a precious moment on the timeline.
Kids, kids, kids. SO much time playing on this trip. Nothing better than undirected downtime. I kept promising Andrys, Aneurys, and Frandy that we would play basketball, so one morning I finally dragged my ass out of bed and we played before they went to school.
It was hot as hell–but we had a great time. (Bonus: I kicked their asses.) We ran back and forth till my stomach couldn’t take any more, and then we sat in the shade sharing water out of my thermos. I was glad to have that moment with those three.
In this picture, I’m minutes from leaving–and you can totally see it on Andrys’ face. He is incapable of hiding emotion; I hope he’s always like that. Aneurys is to my immediate right. He gave me a huge hug when I left, and I can’t wait to return it the next time I see him.
Orlando. I think there are very few people that I would immediately describe as being a privilege to know, but José Orlando Muñoz is one of them. I feel like I’m a better person for having him in my life–and it’s probably true. Orlando is the core of Cucuyo on the Dominican side: making sure critical community connections are made, spelling every kid’s name EXACTLY the way it needs to be on the program certificates, and tying up loose ends. They don’t make people of his quality anymore.
Orlando was very busy while I was there–his daughter Lidianny was sick and he was also rehearsing for a play in Bonao. But we had a few moments here and there to hang out, and I got to see a dress rehearsal of his play. He’s an incredibly talented actor and singer.
All said: Orlando and I can laugh and be silly together in any context. He is a wonderful person that I am honored to call my friend.
Chau, hermosa isla, hasta la proxima.