A few weeks ago I taped a print of this painting on the wall across from my bed. It isn’t comfortable to look at. I am living outside the US as we collectively catch a harrowing glimpse beneath the myth we’ve continued to live. The myth that civil rights were won in ’64 and we are nearly a “post-racial” society. The myth that everyone has an equal seat at the table. The myth of teaching our children the value, “to be colorblind.” Why be blind to what is beautiful? The only way I know how to understand and engage in the revelation of our insidious collective complicity is to examine and root out these things on the individual level. I recognize that the system of values which twitches a police officer’s reflex is within me, too. I taped up Titus Kaphar’s Beneath the Myth of Benevolence because I mirror its duplicity.
I remember growing up favoring Jefferson because in history classes he was introduced as “a good slave master.” “He did own slaves but he treated them well.” I was satisfied with that. Sympathetic. I decided I could like him the most. It was the system that he was living in that was so bad -- in that era, slavery was normal. “He did his best.”
Sarah Millsaps is a good white person. She does her best. She is not a racist. She likes social justice pages on Facebook and reads books and articles that inform her about injustices. She can quote Martin Luther King Jr. She doesn’t support racist thinking. She feels for black people— for the marginalized. She considers herself on their team.
But the painted “good white person” canvas falls. And we see that Sarah gets quite a kickback from the system. She is content in being complacent because the system is set up to trust and favor her whiteness by handicapping and robbing the rights of others. It took her awhile to even take note of the still strong taint of white supremacy in our schools, streets, lawmaking, and faith communities. She walks streets with prejudice in her head to be more alert around the presence of black males. She has ingested too many news stories. She accepts it when people chalk up poverty rates, graduation rates, incarceration rates, and police shootings to unfortunate ethnic identity characteristics. She’s a part of conversations when someone's voice drops low before revealing, “he is…black…” as if it were a disease. She didn’t attend many of the organizing Black Lives Matter groups in college. It feels too risky to step out into the political. She sometimes excuses herself that she doesn’t like to get too involved with politics — blissfully ignorant to how everything is political...because the politics don't oppress her(too much.) Sarah has worked so hard accumulating points according to this system’s rules. She’s got a seat at the table. Challenging the current systemic violence means challenging the system that is set up to favor her. She prefers to save face. Sarah is a good white person shamefully culpable of perpetuating the socio-political machine this country was built on that is forever slanted towards white folks.
If “doing my best” is reading articles, and writing nicely worded essays like this one but NOT analyzing and acting upon my entanglement and privileged position in the system that Neo-Nazis march to protect— then I am complicit. I am living the Myth of Benevolence. I want my best to be all ears and then all action. I must start honestly -- facing the evil that has rooted in my own image before I can join corporately against the backwards, sickening, egotistic violence of marching white supremacists and bigoted presidents. I must be devastatingly conscious of how I need to follow my friends of color as the leaders of resistance. I must listen and act along side of them— amplifying their voices instead of overusing mine. I must be political-- risk losing in the system in order to build a new, truly just one. I must talk to white people that remain dangerously trapped in the myth. It is the only way I will look less like a good white person and more like love.
Kaphar explained what inspired his piece on this episode of On Being:
MS. TIPPETT: “Beneath the Myth of Benevolence,” which is — as you often do, it’s one painting on top of another. And it’s Thomas Jefferson, right, but then the canvas is peeling away, and you see this image of a slave woman, and it’s an intimate image. And in some ways, you could almost say that’s a picture of implicit bias, right, the contrast that we carry around — who we are, who we present to the world, and who we believe ourselves to be, and are, in some way; and then, also, who we are.
MR. KAPHAR: This painting was made after a conversation with — and this is a couple of years ago. We were sitting down, we were having a conversation, and she’s a schoolteacher, she was a schoolteacher for years, for 30 years. And she taught history, AP History. And I love talking about history. And as we were sitting there talking about history, we sort of moved on to Jefferson, and I said, “Fascinating individual. Fascinating individual.” And she said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “Well, you know, the issues of slavery, but at the same time, this brilliant mind. Wow. Just complex.” And she said to me, “Well, there was slavery, but he was a benevolent slave owner.”
And I said, “I… I…”
“I don’t know what you mean by that.”
And she didn’t respond to me. And so I sort of followed up, and I said, “I’ve never once ever heard anyone called a benevolent rapist. I’ve never heard that before. I’ve never heard anyone called a benevolent kidnapper. I don’t know what you mean. Could you please just clarify it for me.” She sat in silence for at least two or three minutes, and then that was the end of the conversation. And so I got up, and I left. I went to the studio and had to do something, and this is what came out.
I’ve been trying to find the words to describe the sky here. On the whole, the climate is inhospitable. I struggle to stomach the amount of time I spend inside. High winds cancel classes. On my mile walk to school I get bullied by the wind — pushed from behind and stiff-armed into stopping in my tracks. There is no green— no grass, no trees. There are no mountains in the distance, and even standing seaside is dimmed by the all-encompassing grayness that sits on this town. Daylight is short: 9am to 5:30pm and it continues shrinking.
Most days, the sky is blanketed with what appears to be one cohesive cloud. It’s on these days that I understand the answer I sometimes get when I ask, “what did you do over the weekend?”
“I just laid in bed.”
What I am realizing, is here, all the action happens in the sky. I find that when I take pictures I perpetually tilt my camera skywards — forgetting about the landscape. I have made up a cloud narrative in my head. I think they come from all over. The clouds in Nairobi, Dublin, Auckland, and Tokyo heard rumor of the flat lands in Tierra Del Fuego and bustle their way here. They come because it’s as if the grasslands are laid out in waiting for the cloud’s staining shadow to spread lazily across their surface. Molecule to molecule they gossip about The Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire—the place they are allowed to hang down low — peering at their condensing shape as a narcissist creeps ever closer to the full-length mirror.
I applaud their color shows. One time, on my way to work, I texted my friend Leo (he prefers to be called Shin, but it’s pronounced “Sheen”):
Sarah: [ Go Outside!!!!!! The world is on FIRE!!!!!! ]
I had walked down my apartment steps and encountered the world on fire. I tried to hide my awe. My eyes stretched wide as if I’d just seen a Khanki waiter turn a pile of rice into an erupting volcano.
But just like hot griddle tricks, if you’ve seen them countless times, your eyes begin to adjust to the magic. And so my friend Leo, who is known for his Eeyore-like ways, responded with:
Leo: [are you high?]
Some days, I walk through town and I’m certain we live within a snow globe. The light pours in as if from a sweet tea pitcher. Maybe it’s because there are no trees or because the terrain is devastatingly flat. The sun splashes down on the hastily constructed Rio Grande roofs and soaks them through with heaven shine. The nuisant* wisps of my hair which never make it back into my ponytail crowd my vision — desperate to match with the gleaming roofs. Maybe it’s the tilt of the earth. Maybe it’s the crisp air— it waltzes in chemical slo-mo with the UV rays before entering my light-less pupils. My mind files it with the light I see on movie screens.
The sky is multiplicitous. The vast scape is big enough, wide enough, full enough to include clashes of light and dark—terror and beauty. I am embracing the sky-ness in me. Allowing myself to be contrary, to change, to darken and lighten in rhythm with the world.
* warning! made up adjective
I heard someone on a podcast say “each one of us experiences and understands time differently.” I think I experience time differently here.
Argentinians are practiced at waiting. There is a “20 items or less” line at the grocery store closest to my apartment. And yet, no matter what time of day I go, I usually end up waiting upwards of 40 minutes to check out. At first, I experienced an ugly impatience—an incredulous “how can people live like this?” But over time, I have begun to experience time differently. I realize there is nowhere else I have to be besides in this line, holding my twenty items or less, standing behind the two knee-high children begging for two pieces of cashier line candy.
I started keeping a list of all the customs, norms, and habits here which “keep time” differently than the way I “tell time” in the US. Even those verbs interest me. We “keep,” “tell,” check,” “save,” “waste,” “spend,” and “pass” time.
In the United States, I see my day through the gray, semi-transparent lines of my Google calendar. Half hours and hours. My internal clock is not so much trained to daybreak and sunset but to the 60 minute mark. I sit with a friend at a coffee shop and conversation begins to lag..I check my watch…yep, we’ve been here for 52 minutes…time to go!
Here, A friend drops by my house and asks if I want some mates. He stays for 2 and a half hours and mind you we run out of gossip in the first 15. Initially, I squirmed through these visits. What do I do when conversation lags? How do I remain interesting for 2 hours? How will I get anything done? Now, in the middle of May, I have nearly adjusted my internal clock. The hour ticks are no longer how I keep time.
There is another way that Argentines practice waiting. On April 2, the town of Rio Grande memorializes the Malvinas War (or the Falklands)—a war in which they endured great loss. On April 1st, nearly the entire city goes out to the shoreline at 9pm and waits there (in the 40 degree rainy, windy, night). Waiting is an act of remembering—the mothers waiting for the boats to come back with their boys. Standing vigil is something Argentinian children enter the world and inherit.
I have been thinking about the tragedies of our shared history in the US. What are the unspoken, often cleaned-up parts of my history that I need to start standing vigil to? On March 24, Argentina dedicates the day to reflecting on the horrors of the last dictatorship. It was a day of saying, “this was us.” What if instead of spending Black History Month celebrating the past achievements, we begin to hold vigils on the anniversaries of lynchings and burned black churches?
One of my favorite times is the time called “sobremesa.” It’s the after-you’ve-eaten-before-you’ve-gotten-up-from-the-table time of dinner. It can extend for hours. Waiters do not collect your plates here until after you have left the restaurant. I was once with a group of friends and we were waiting for one more girl to join us. Someone got a text and announced, “she won’t be here for a while, she is still in sobremesa.” Sobremesa is a time that you can be in.
The time I experience here is changing the questions I ask. I am molting out of “What did I do today?” and growing into “Who was I with today?”
Piling in with Deborah's family for a train ride through the National Park.
Digging in to tacos during our girls night at my apartment.
A shot of the trail from my backpacking trip to Chalten.
Teaching about the Power of Language in the context of marginalized communities with my little wrapped up right wrist.
The most recent feature of "Humanos del IPES" (think Humans of New York). If you want to follow along with this project -- we have a facebook and instagram! https://www.facebook.com/HumanosDelIPES/
I am living in a place where they say “kabloom” instead of “kaboom.” Here in Argentina, when someone is telling a story and they arrive at the moment in which they must convey a crash or an explosion, their hands move in time with their onomatopoeic outburst, “KABLOOM!” I itch with intrigue. Why is there a “luh” [ /l/ ] sound? Do Argentinians crash differently? Why must they include their alveolar ridge in the ruinous noise? Or maybe, scuffles in the US are the ones ‘where the L is silent?’
As much as I delight in studying as I speak, I have felt maimed in my inability to communicate fully in Spanish. I am unable to be creative in the way I thank people, and I end up settling with “Muchas gracias.” Full of curiosity for a new friend, I am unable to ask or even think of questions beyond, “where are you from, tell me about your family, and why do you want to be an English teacher?” It is a loss of identity — I love words and in temporarily losing my knack for them, I have become needy. I am dependent on the patience and understanding of others. I rely on the listeners that track my mouth’s movements and piece together my stilted words and animated body language. It is a place of weakness.
My parents introduced me to the writing and devotions of Richard Rohr a while back, and during my time here in Rio Grande, he and Cynthia Bourgeault have been teaching more on “The Law of Three” which identifies three forces. Here are some of the examples they give of the Law of Three in Action.
seed/moist earth/sun = sprout
flour/water/fire = bread
plaintiff/defendant/judge = resolution
And this is the quote that turned my frustrating line of communication into a worth-my-while triangle:
“The single most liberating insight to come out of my work with the Law of Three was the realization that what appears to be the resisting or opposing force is never actually the problem to be overcome. Second force, or ‘holy denying,’ is a legitimate and essential component in every new arising.” (CB)
My vision changed. I began to admire and accept my neediness as a required force for newness. My dependency on others pushes me to extend myself in ways I rarely do in the US. I walk into a cafe to use wi-fi and see the waiter as an opportunity for friendship. I find that the needier I am, the more likely I am to connect with others. My neediness bends me more towards compassion—much more than my self-reliance in the US. One of my favorite examples of encountering a “third way” here occurred as I walked to my classes one evening…
Rio Grande is one of the windiest cities in Argentina and the Fueginos (people of the province of Tierra del Fuego) both bemoan and boast in this fact. The evening was particularly windy and as I walked along the sidewalk, a student opened his passenger door and stepped out of the car. He cleared his throat and hocked a loogey without thinking. The wind carried his spittle promptly to the entirety of my person. In immediate recognition, the guy turned and blanketed me with profuse apology. I grinned and demanded friendship as the only proper repayment. His name is Mario and he is studying to be a primary school teacher. I am thankful that the wind was not resistance, but a harbinger of newness.
Other things of note:
-I win all the points here when I disclose the truth that my mom is a 3rd grade public school teacher. She is a hero. I work with a trio of women that remind me of her in their commitment to excellent teaching for all. I work at IPES Paulo Freire and students here take four years of classes in one of the 8 “profesorados” before becoming a teacher in that field…and its FREE. Imagine that. IPES is proud that many of their students are first generation students. And the teaching doesn’t come without its own perceived resistance. The institution just moved into new space and furniture arrived a week after classes started…I attached the picture of the director of IPES, Alicia, teaching the first class with everyone sitting on the floor — a powerful symbol of their commitment to teaching.
-April 2nd is the day in which Argentina commemorates the Malvinas War. Rio Grande (one of the closest cities to the islands) hosts the largest vigil. I got to attend and learn a great deal. One of the most striking things is how present it is in the memories of this community. The soldiers were their fathers, their grandfathers, and their sons.
-The first weekend in Rio Grande, I was invited to a friend’s house to make pizzas. This crew of friends really won me when one guy offered a game of UNO and the group responded as if he had offered a free trip to Hawaii.
Me in the back of a folklore dance class. Learning the Chacarera.
I joined IPES in the "defile" for the April 2 Remembrance of the Malvinas War.
A picture of my everyday rhythm -- Mate and writing.
I've got an Estancia for any of you who want to come visit.
Fishing with my host family at a place called "Cabo Domingo." I run along the Atlantic Coast every morning!
Lucho casting a line..we were fishing with chicken innards
Fell into the right friend group at school -- these guys (Manu on the left and Leo on the right) took me to get ice cream in between classes.
Eugenia and Ana Paula, 2/3s of the heroine trio here in RG.
There are certain books — usually library books— with which I make an effort not to dog-ear pages. Instead, I slot my left hand’s fingers into the pages that I’ve read but must refer back to. (I’m not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition but I am going to (twice.)) I held onto pages often with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. My memory was not sharp enough to differentiate the Ramsay children. I had to keep physically returning to the past action — the “biblio-memory,” to contextualize a certain character’s development. My left hand ran out of fingers and I eventually shifted to a post-it note method.
This first blog post serves as a page in my book to personally hold my finger on and remember my place. I think it's important to include you in this memorizing, too. We are page-holders for each other. Where was I leaving for Argentina? Who was I? What space did I hold?
I need pressure to write, which is why I am excited to pick up this blog again, but it is also a risky habit. I start doing what I just did…chopping my lived reality to fit the bounds of constructed narrative. My first words in my WFU admissions info sessions were “My name is Sarah Millsaps and I am fascinated by story-telling.” But I am also contemptuous of story-telling— it tempts me to tell only the parts that “fit” — the moments with which I can annotate a story-arc and produce a palatable denouement by the end of it.
One of the most challenging and helpful pieces of advice I have received is “Sarah, tell the stories that don’t fit.”
I hope to keep things complicated on this blog over the next 9 months. While I find the stories you can wrap up with a bow dubious, I have walked back towards the middle and understand that humans need stories. Fiction is needed as much as truth-telling. I am thankful that my memory doesn’t keep perfect record — it blurs harsh lines—a merciful salve for the gravest missteps.
I know only in part.
I used to hear this and think only of knowing the future "in part." But it is true of the past, too. I only know what I remember. How do I readjust my greed for control and enter the flow of “knowing only in part?”
I go with an intention to practice my memory. I want to keep my finger on my full-tilt reactions to injustice. What makes me beat my fists on the table? And what am I going to do about it? I want to embody the rhythm I practice in bread-baking — when is it time to “rest,” and when is it demanded of me to “rise?”
I am fairly certain that I only ever leave this place to experience the homesickness for it. By doing what I love most, I feel closest to whom I love most. Physical distance doesn’t threaten this. I remember that in Nepali, there is phrase that means “A memory of home came to me.” It is most often used when someone is asked,
“why are you sad?” and he/she responds,
“A memory of home came to me.”
Trust me, there will be moments in the next 9 months when I will break into a wide smile, a throw-my-head-back laugh, or yes, maybe a tear or two, and in Spanish, someone I have come to love will ask,
“Sarah, what’s up?”
And I will think of you, of home, of us, and explain:
“A memory of home came to me.”
When I was younger, my mom used to offer me that Maderma cream which promised to erase my various scars. I always said no and I think it was because I liked the idea of preserving the aesthetic storytelling of where I have been and to whom I belong. While blemishing, if erased, somehow it seems I have dishonored the experience.
My hands are dry. The creases so often overlooked are now emboldened by stubborn steppe dirt. At each bend, I find a new scratch etched in red. I rub my forehead (I am Chuck’s daughter), and suffer the scratchy roughness of “garden hands.” A gratifying emotion burgeons within me. It feels like a pride of sorts. My hands prove my belonging to the land. It is as if every mark is a branding—evidence of my intimacy with the dry Patagonian earth. My hands record the history of my relationship with the Argentine soil and wind.
The new volunteers are from Spain. Their first night at dinner, I explained how I can understand nearly everything that people say, but it is still difficult for me to actually speak Spanish. Carlos, the Spaniard, corrected me. “You do not speak Spanish. You speak Castellano(Argentine Spanish),” he said with a smile. Again, the pride-reminiscent emotion grew within me. Even my language proves my belonging to this place. Better yet, my words disclose the details that I have learned the majority of Castellano from a French girl. There is story hidden even within my diction. Here, a gallena is not a “ga[y]ena it is a “ga[shh]ena.”
I begin to recognize this now familiar sentiment as the sense of belonging. It ties right into Wendell Berry’s notion of membership. When I feel the pride--mixed with contentment--mixed with a strong sense of inclusion, I believe it is because I belong. My hands remind me of my earned place. The dirt gritted within my fingers stands witness for how I cannot separate Sarah from the land on which I live. My tongue testifies to my being a part of this culture and this community.
On cold days, I like to think “I feel belonging” the strongest. There is something about walking out of Sybil’s and my tiny room and into the unrelenting wind. My body desires a sweater, a fire, coffee, and maybe a board game. These desires are incredibly culture-driven, yet I believe the cold—the difficult, catalyzes a closeness. The tug towards those who I belong to takes me to the kitchen; I see the dear smile of Zunilda and Pablo and Fer. I give them all a quick Argentine kiss and it is my equivalent to the comfort found fireside.
Throughout my life, I have relished the moments when I duck inside a tent full of friends and out of the rain. Or, I step into a warmly-lit cabin with my family and out of the dense dark. I do not think I have to convince you that I love being out of doors. I long for an open landscape with only my feet to take me across it. Yet, on the Carolina Coast, there is something comforting about seeing a beach house light glowing gold against the dark abyss of the sea. Reentering a gathering place after time out in the invigorating harshness parallels to the experiences in which I send myself out to risk and dare and be uncomfortable and suffer hardship. Without fail, each time I eventually yearn to turn homewards—to North Caroline, to Winston, to Raleigh, and into the arms of someone who loves me.
I think we can belong to all sorts of things. I find myself saying things that Anne Campbell would say. In these moments, with smile writ large, I believe it proves my belonging to our friendship. Or out of nowhere, my memory overwhelms and I am walking across Davis field at nightfall with no shoes to obstruct my toes from greeting the cold green grass. My memory, my body, my words, all point back to those to which I belong.
I believe I am still in the shallows of belonging. How will my heart feel when I am far away from this simple and significant Patagonian rhythm? What must it be like to belong to a man in marriage for the rest of life? And think of the mystery of all of us belonging together in one body—the body of a King.
That's me, the blond gringa who somehow got the chance to belong to a membership of gauchos for a month.
If you are counting with shower days, I only have fifteen days left here in Bahia Bustamante. In comparison with the lifestyle in which I beg for “more time,” here I find there is just enough time to “waste.” Along with six hours in the garden, the day’s rhythm concedes to reading and writing and sitting in the sun with Sybil until conversation finds us. The night falls and there always seems to be just a bit more reading or talking or thinking that I have failed to squeeze in!
In the garden
I have grown fond of worms. For most of my life, I have enjoyed placing them on my nose or dangling them above my mouth to gross out friends and defy the norm. Here, I can’t help but admire their “underdogness.” I sift through compost to prepare a raised bed of healthy new soil. It’s as if the whole earth wiggles. There is something in how worms are lowly, undecorated, and to some—gross. Yet, they are signs of encouragement. Their presence screams: “this soil is healthy and yummy!” I feel like we are on the same team, me and the simple squirm-ers.
The aphids have invaded. Sybil and I fight the good fight. We enter the garden each morning and tentatively turn over leaves. I cringe and wail as I find a leaf covered in grimy, evil aphid babies. You know they are born pregnant? The scoundrels. What is awesome is that we combat them with cigarette juice. We collect all the cigarette butts around town and soak them for a few days in water before spraying the tobacco sludge on infested plants. As a girl who in 11th grade designed an entire Dante-inspired ring of hell for those who mindlessly toss their cigarette butts, I especially enjoy this repurposing.
There is a raised bed that I favor. The arugula and leeks grow side by side. In sowing, someone must have spilled the arugula seeds. I love the way Astrid looks and talks about these seeds. I think I perceive them the same. They are mistakes. When you look at the bed of soil, this is the first thing you notice—they are not in their prescribed uniform line. But because they are ours, I am fond of them. Each time I look at them, I shake my head in affectionate disbelief. “You weren’t supposed to, and yet you did!” I think it is in familiarity that imperfection becomes most beloved. It reminds me of the kids I looked after at summer camp. I would tell the boys the rules of the farm—“no more catching chickens!” And then, a little daredevil appears behind me with not one but two roosters—one under each arm. All thoughts of rules are gone. I am left reveling in the grit and spunk of this little boy. My spilled arugula seeds are rule-breakers—rebels in the finest sense.
Japanese lettuce seeds
my rebel arugula seeds
Dawes was playing in my head with this view.
In the kitchen
I tug open the heavy blue door and step into the kitchen. I am sent to collect rosemary flowers and dill. Reentering the creative space, I try to conceal my juvenile smile as Juan Pablo remains straight-faced. He lifts his black apron overhead and hands it to me. He is quieter and more serious in the evenings. His head is filled with master plans for dinner.
Earlier in the day, I stepped in for Tomy, the dishwasher who has a day off. All morning, octopus stewed red on the backburner while I scooped hot water off the stove, and washed plate after plate. At one point, I suggested that Juan Pablo and I need a secret handshake. Pablo looked at me, and with his familiar deadpan said, “Sarah, this is not summer camp.”
He’s had it easy. It’s hard for me to develop a comeback quick enough in Spanish. This time, I manage to muster a retort—“For me, my whole life is summer camp.” Fernanda turns from the coffee she is pouring and gives me a wink and a thumbs up—she is always on my team. Juan Pablo nods his head in the slightest acknowledgement of my zing. I interpret it as “not bad.” Getting Juan Pablo to break his cool is almost as hard as getting Blake Habicht to hug you.
From the beginning, people here have teased my “cheery, all-in positivity.” They first categorized my nature as the “classic American oh-my-god” tendency to overreact. Sybil once told me that as Americans, we live in the extremes—something is either incredibly awesome or unbelievably awful. I told her life is too short to live in the middle. With time, I think I have entered a category all my own. In learning that I worked at a summer camp, they now have a fitting name for my constant cheers, encouragement, and silly notes left everywhere— “summer camp Sarah.”
Tonight, Pablo plans to incorporate seaweed into every course. Thankfully, I know the word for genius in Spanish and tell him how talented he is. He feigns a coldness towards me as I bested him earlier in the day running our daily loop twice 'round. JP, as I call him, makes it clear that tonight is different. Tonight I am not baking bread or washing dishes. I am his sous-chef. It is the real deal. I love how although he teases me ceaselessly, he also takes me seriously. With thirteen guests, my best is needed tonight.
JP informs me, “This is your cutting board. You are in charge of keeping it clean.” He hands me a hand towel as he holds his own. He instructs me to keep it with me at all times. Demonstrating, he tucks his into the side of his apron. I do the same. I cannot take how gravely we are handling dish rags any longer, and so I tell him we make a great set of twins. I break his serious composure for a moment. His tense posture surrenders into an easy laugh. I celebrate my victory and plan for many more throughout the evening.
I cut circles out of big, stewed pieces of Gracilaria seaweed. 1..2..3….29..30. My left palm is marked with angry red remnants of perfect circuitry.
“Tranqui, Tranqui.” We come to a slow spell as Pablo extracts bones out of the fish. So I make mate. Covering the mouth of the gourd, I tip it over once and then again to rid the herbs of unwanted dust. My eyes level with the mouth of the gourd, I pour water with extreme attention—desperate against “mate lavado” – washed mate. I pass the yerba to JP. He knows how hard I tried and how much I care. He gives me one word, and a face worth a thousand. “Frio.” I throw up my hands and laugh at how ridiculous he can be. I persevere and pass the mate around the kitchen to Analia, to Fer, and eventually to Franco who cheers for his “lavadito.”
I return to my cutting board. I stuff each seaweed circle with a polenta, onion, tomato mix and create what looks like a mini empanada. Each one is delicate. I press the sides together as Pablo watches over me. He hands me a bowl of whipped cream and gives me quick, indiscernible instructions. Something about underneath and past the blue door? There are so many people in the kitchen. I panic. I return apologetically and ask for the directions once more. Heladera is a fridge…got it. JP is exasperated. It is the height of his culinary performance and me asking for language clarification is like asking Coach K for a mint during the final timeout of UNC game.
For a while, he is quiet. He plucks each fine bone as I stand silently—an act of apology. He knows I know and I know he knows. The moment I wait for comes. He looks up at me with a goofy, wide-eyed smirk and all tension evaporates. I am thankful for humor—the harbinger of mercy, and Juan Pablo’s patience with me.
I stand with my hands folded together in front of me. I have no task, and therefore I feel a bit out of place. He looks up again, “Sarah, cooks never cross their arms. There is always something to do.” Reminded of when soccer coaches were always tough on me, I appreciate how JP is never satisfied. With Juan Pablo’s high expectations, comes an assumption of my high potential. A smile will not leave my face. I know my hands are needed in this kitchen.
We are in the middle of nowhere—tacked on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean with electricity only five hours out of the day, and yet Pablo and I are hunched over oven-warmed plates designing the aesthetically pleasing main course. A spoon as paintbrush, he swipes each plate like the professional he is with sauces of dill, garlic, and orange. I delicately rest a twig of dill, a rosemary flower, and a candied orange peel on each corresponding brushstroke.
Tally another Sarah victory. I find Juan Pablo’s hand towel strewn across the counter as the main course leaves the kitchen. Folding it, I motion to him. With all the weight of expectation cooped up in his body, he reacts too quickly. Uncharacteristically, exasperation speaks for him and his shoulders heave. He cannot believe I have forgotten again. In the middle of his reaction, he halts. Recognition washes over his face and his whole body responds. It is not my dish towel, but his! His bright, teasing eyes return for good this time. He snatches the towel from my hand and bows in defeat before tapping my head with it. This is all the apology I need. “ Buenisimo Sara, buenisimo.”
I have been thinking some about a word in Spanish. Dr. Hamilton opened doors in my mind to the wonderings of linguistics; and I cannot turn back. The word is “preocupar.” Most often, the verb is used in saying something like “no te preocupes.” If translated for meaning, it means “do not worry.”
There are days here when I sit alone at the wooden table. Well, not literally alone. Two or three employees sit around me, yet they talk about personal or business things that either I cannot relate to, or my Spanish is not proficient.
Sybil, my closest friend and roommate here, is serving tables tonight in the restaurant. I pick at the pasta on my plate and begin to imagine what it will be like when she leaves at the end of the month. Will the cohesion of our group dissolve? Will a divide grow in between employees and volunteers? Will every evening turn into this? I sip from my “Home Depot Argentina” mug. I am not thirsty, but I want something to do so I can linger at the table longer. I have descended the staircase that seems to present itself only in the evenings—with each stair I carry myself deeper into the preoccupied state of future thought.
And that is just it. “No te preocupes” translated literally means “do not preoccupy yourself.” I need this reminder. My blues comes when I lose my footing in the present and drift towards future worry. The Spanish-speakers have it right. Worry is what happens when my mind fixates on things prematurely. I stand and walk to the only-cold-water sink. The sky is dark. A last breath of day lingers in the pinkish hue of the clouds.
Without fail, there is redemption for nights like these. It is as though I find an equivalent to my late night laps around the Quad.
Here, I go find Sybil and listen to her explain the comic book story she has been developing in her head for a year now. She intertwines the personalities of her friends in a plot surrounding the last hurrahs of youth when dreams mix with reality. She is so French, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch her work to convey meaning in Spanish. Her brow furrows as the light catches her blue eyes and reveals how personal this narrative is to her.
Or I cross paths with Pablo, and before I can say anything, his face gives way to a goofy expression as though to say “you look at me as if I am up to something, but I’m not!” Standing on the edge of town, our heads tilt. We drink in the stars showing off in the new moon night. I introduce Pablo to a sweet southern phrase, “my word!”
Or maybe, redemption is slow-coming. The following afternoon, I prepare the soil for a new bed of zucchini. Astrid has arrived home from her travels. It is as though Grammy docked at Sun Sands. Bahia Bustamante is finally complete. She brings with her friends from Buenos Aires. Young hip blond Argentine guys with scruffy beards and puffy Patagonia jackets. A wispy Ecuadorian girl follows behind them. I cannot help but think of the 180 Degrees South entourage as I tour these new friends through the garden. The Ecuadorian, Isabella, kneels down to plant basil, eggplant, and leeks with me. Astrid passes us Mate and we revel in the “girl power hour” in the garden. At day’s end, everyone finds their way to the garden. I like to think it is the “life hub” which attracts us. Whether it is the life in each other or the life in the growing red fruits, I am not certain. On the western edge of the garden, the wind dances through oversized bushes speckled with blushed-pink blooms. I pull at the collar of my sweater—the breeze sweeps hair in my face as the light pours in—it is golden hour.
my inaugural alcoholic beverage to celebrate my 21st birthday came two weeks late. From a broken glass mug I sipped Patagonian wine. The wind mixed in Patagonian dust to make things extra special. [Sybil, Rosie, Jacob...R and J are from the UK only here for 2 weeks]
Sybil and I went exploring one morning. We walked 9K to the end of the Peninsula.
Mate Mate Mate! I am learning all the tricks to being a "Sededor" aka the one who passes the mate.
We plant with the new moon as the new moon is when roots grow. The full moon is better for the parts of the plant above ground. at this time, the fruits, leaves, and flowers grow the most. call me a dirty hippie.
Another small story from life here at BB--
One of the ongoing conversations here is about ghosts. Pablo the chef and Franco the guide lived together at first. Each morning, Pablo walks in recounting how sleepless the night had been for him. I look to Franco for confirmation and he shrugs his shoulders affirming how it was all true. Franco has experience with the supernatural. He explains even in his first nights here, the electricity would go out at midnight, and as he walked back with the light of the stars he began to feel the heaviness of spirits around him. While Franco may be hypersensitive to these occurrences, it does not seem to bother him. It is just how it is.
I am up to my elbows in flour as Pablo is talking a mile a minute. I press my knuckles further into the risen dough, and listen. He lists the many spooky events of the night before—“tac tac tacs” at the window, “pah pah pahs on the metal door,” and” thup thup thups” up to his bedroom door…a long pause, and then withdrawing steps. His eyes widen as he warns me it all starts right when the lights go out. The poor guy hasn’t slept in days. If anyone, it is the guy in charge of our food that I want to sleep well.
Pablo speaks with Matias, and decides he will move. He now resides in the room next to Sybil and me. I hope the ghosts won’t follow him. Franco and Adrian catch us up on the history of this place. When it served as home to a seaweed-harvesting community, the population was 75% men and nearly all were recently released convicts. Adrian raises his eyebrows—our imaginations figure out the rest. Franco adds, “yeah there were fights and killings all time and it wasn’t like they buried people.” Franco is matter of fact with his accounts. He describes what he hears and tells us he believes it is ghosts. Sybil eggs Franco on--she assumes her natural position…the opposite. Franco remains unphased. “Okay then, come stay a night, you will see who is laughing the next morning.”
I jump at the invitation. This is a new thing for me, but I love the adventure and adrenaline ghost-seeking offers. Thanks Jack, Connor, and Poulin for going with me on our quest for Lydia. “Of course, Franco, we will come tonight!” Sybil gives me the “you are silly…but let’s do it” look and Franco’s grin widens.
For the rest of the day, everyone is talking about how “the girls are staying in Pablo’s room with the ghosts.” Pablo shakes his head—incredulous at how we would choose to sleep in his old haunted room.
After dinner, we sit watching River (Adrian and Franco’s team) play Libertad. With each half hour, people begin to call it a night and head to sleep. Franco begins to discuss the agenda for the evening. He takes this seriously. “Do you want me to walk you to the house? Do you know which house is mine?” Strong, independent Sybil denies all attempts at chivalry. Of course we can find the house. Internally, my heart is already pumping with the adrenaline rush of “what ifs.”
I tuck my trusty, ancient, ¾ size, blue Thermarest under my arm and my sleeping bag under the other. Thankfully, Franco is both stubborn and thoughtful. He has finished his after-dinner smoke and is waiting to accompany us on the 200 meter (meters…I am in Argentina ya know!?) walk to his house. We walk in and check absolutely everything out—every window, door, and light fixture. Sybil wants to be able to pinpoint the origin of every sound. All I am thinking is “oh please, my imagination does not need any more help.”
I unroll my thermarest and situate my bedding. Sybil won’t have it. “You ahr going to zleep on zhat tiny fhing?” Franco stands in the doorway laughing at our antics. I explain how if we hear things I do not want to go outside and back to our room. Sybil interrupts—but the noises come from inside! Franco assures me that if we wake up in the middle of the night he will walk us home. He heads back to watch the game, and promises to announce himself upon reentry.
Sybil launches into every ghost story she knows. A half hour passes, and Franco with his hood up ducks his head in—“soy yo” he declares. He swears off any jokes from now onward. One hand on the bathroom door, he asks if we think we will use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Sybil can’t help herself. With her sarcastic smile she says “yes, I think it is a possibility.” I turn the pages of Wake Forest Magazine (the very best! Homegrown Harmonies was a homerun, no?). All I can think about is the moment when the electricity shuts off—the moment Pablo has explained to me again and again—the moment of the first bang.
From the other room we hear: “If you hear loud snoring, it is not ghosts, it is me.”
Sybil ropes me into another lofty before bed conversation. I reach for the odds and ends of my Spanish vocabulary trying to explain something of the academic structure of Wake and then….all of the sudden...the light sputters and coughs off. I stop midsentence. Even unbelieving Sybil takes in a breath. Conversation is out of the question now. I am caught in between two motives. Do I rush myself to sleep and avoid the terror or do I submit to the tantalizing possibility of a visit from the supernatural? If you have ever tried to rush to sleep, you know how few my options truly were. A loud clang echoes through the house right after the lights went. I write it off as coincidence…could have been a stray dog. I cannot tell if it’s been minutes or more, but Sybil’s breath lengthens and grows heavy. I strain my ears…shoot, Franco snores sound from the room next door. I am the only one awake. The wind storms off the steppe and careens its way around this tiny house. We are enveloped in its wild howling and shrieking. The door to Pablo’s room does not fully shut. There is this tiny crack of possibility that is left open. I imagine a nearly headless man peeking through, still searching this earth for revenge.
I lift my head off my warm sweatshirt and the room is light. Finally. I check my watch…last time it was 4:37am…the time before that it was 3:13am…the time before that… It is now 8:15am. I rouse Sybil and we walk back to grab a few crackers and swig down our coffee. I look over at her to check if our nights match. “Nada.” She says simply.
I walk into the kitchen with an apologetic smile. I didn’t hear anything. Pablo does not care. He slept great for the first time in weeks. Franco walks in and bids me good morning. I look at him hoping to garner a hint to what he is thinking—how he diagnoses the evening. Without missing a beat he answers, “the ghosts were calm last night.”
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."