Erik Eisele

Erik Eisele

How I kept the Bandaloop dancers safe

All of Portland saw Bandaloop. People packed Monument Square, and from there the city watched dancers swing, suspended from the roof of One City Center. Hung by ropes, they bounded across glass and brick in flowy costumes, pink and green streaks linking arms, tossing one another and jumping in unison. They danced like birds, cutting through the air in great swoops, the music leading each movement, the blue of the sky serving as their backdrop, the late afternoon sun their spotlight.

It was a free gift, the sort of thing someone could wander into — out for a Friday night in the Old Port, and suddenly you’re watching the most graceful dance in the most unlikely of places.

I, however, didn’t see it. I can describe the evening, tell you about the dance, the movement, the choreography, even the sunset and how cold it was, but I didn’t see a step or a swing of the performance.

I was on the roof.

Bandaloop from the ground is human brushstrokes across an urban canvas, but achieving such elegance is no simple feat. The dancers hide harnesses beneath their costumes, and each rope serves as a lifeline. Their performance is not without risk, and the risk factor is part of what makes it spectacular.

I was on the roof. I was there as a safeguard against the risk. I was there as a rigger.

A rigger is the person who builds the anchors and hangs the ropes. A rigger is the last person to check the dancers’ safety gear before they step over the edge, the person who makes sure they are anchored adequately and secure. And should something go wrong, a rigger is the person who intervenes.

I saw the dancers the moment before you did. I checked their harnesses, their ropes, every carabiner. I watched them approach the edge as the music began, moved their rope if it needed adjustment once they were over the edge. I made eye contact just before they leaned back.

“Are you ready?” I asked Jessica, who wore a blue dress that came alive in every puff of wind.

“Yes,” she said. She smiled, and then she was gone.

You didn’t see me. I ducked low every time I drew close to the building edge. But clad in leather gloves, harness, a jacket and a radio, I was there. The dancers were my responsibility, in my hands. As they spun and you clapped, I waited, their safety net above. Their performance was brilliant, colorful, arresting, but I didn’t see it. I’d watched all week, checked and rechecked each of them before every journey down the ropes, learned their rituals so when the time came for performance movement they could forget about rope systems, exposure, the ground below, and just dance. I’d taken their jackets at the last moment to ward off the chill of a late September evening. I wasn’t on the ground looking up. I didn’t see their dance. But I was there.

When the performance ended a call came over the radio.

“Riggers, can you shoot a photo of the crowd?”

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I walked to the edge and for the first time peeked over. The dancers were down. They were safe. The ground was dark with people, specks the size of ants that filled in the square. All of Portland was there to watch Bandaloop dancers fly against the sky.

I didn’t see it. But I was there too.

Art in the Elements: Surface First Tilts West coaxes visitors to an uninhabited island

It started like any art opening: A small crowd gathered outside, many of them holding coffee due to the early hour, standing and mingling. Some were artists themselves, others were more the outdoorsy-type wearing Patagonia jackets and sports sandals. They laughed and talked while waiting for the doors to open.

But the doors didn’t open. Instead, the Elizabeth Grace, a water taxi, pulled up to the Portland Yacht Services dock, and the laughing, talking, and mingling moved on board.

The boat was bound for Little Chebeague and Surface First Tilts West, an art show that eschews the gallery in favor of the trees, meadows, beaches, and hiking paths of an island in Casco Bay. Described as an “experiential exhibition,” Surface First is an outdoor installation, a collection of prints, sculptures, paintings, writings, and recordings left to fend for themselves in the elements. They dot the sandbar that at low tide connects Little Chebeague to Great Chebeague. They hang spinning inside the rusting fire training structure that sits atop Chandler Cove. They hide inside plexiglass boxes among the ruins of former houses and cottages. And they sit suspended from trees.

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The work comes from several artists, among whom lead curator Jordan Kendall Parks is also one. She tucked one of her favorite woodcuts into a rough wooden case and left it to weather in Maine's September rains. Jared Haug sculpted huge seashells out of foam and fiberglass, then chained them to cinder blocks and tossed them below the low-tide mark, leaving them to rise and fall with the water. The words of writer Jennifer O'Connell hang on translucent fabric, draped from the spread arms of an oak tree. Isabel Neal’s words sit sandwiched in prints that twist and sway with every breeze. And Chris Battaglia’s work is ongoing, capturing the installation in stills and video, documenting the weathering of the island and its art.

What is the point of installing art on an uninhabited island? Parks says it's meant to bring visitors and add to Little Chebeague’s juxtaposition of natural and man-made, of the past and the present. Each piece was placed conspicuously, the spot chosen because of how the light fell on it, or how the trees swayed, or what ruins lay around it. And in sitting there, in filling that space, the art enhanced it. The green of grass and leaves looked greener in contrast, the black and white prints striking by comparison. The sunlight dances on draped canvas, changing as the day progressed and as the season slips toward fall. A walk around the island is like watching a dance. The light and the wind and the water and artists are playing together. Each installation flirts with its surroundings, each swaying and mirroring the other.

But the flirting is temporary. The art is tenuous, fragile, never made to last. Every breeze threatens to rip or topple; every rising tide threatens to sweep away. The end result is a teetering feeling, a celebration of the fleeting nature of things. Cast alongside the art pieces, even the foundations of long-destroyed buildings seem momentary. A print is no more everlasting than an old car chassis sitting rusting in a field. Everything we build is temporary. Only the island endures — the sand, the trees, the streaming sunlight, the giant oak with its limbs spread wide as if holding the sky.

But without the art, without each exhibit, the island fades to a backdrop. It becomes just an island again, one of so many in Casco Bay they have been compared to the days in a calendar. Surface First Tilts West draws Little Chebeague out, pulling it from obscurity to center stage. The installation might be the point of visiting, but really the art is only the opening act. The main event is an island, steadfast, quiet, and majestic.

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Surface First Tilts West remains on display until September 30. But to see the show can be tricky, as there is no direct ferry service to the island. At low tide, Little Chebeague is connected to Great Chebeague by a sandbar, which makes a quick visit possible. It is best to get to the sandbar about two hours before the lowest point in the tide cycle. Casco Bay Ferry Lines runs multiple trips to Great Chebeague daily, and the sandbar is a short walk from the pier.

It is also possible to take a private boat or kayak to Little Chebeague, which is part of the Maine Island Trail Association network of islands. Camping is also allowed. More information is available at mita.org

  • Published in Art

RINOs: The new liberals?

Democrats must be hoping to inherit the earth.

Take a look at Washington right now. The president is denouncing the free press, White House aides are saying the president will not be questioned, and the Republican congress is silent in its role as a check on presidential power.

Where are the Democrats? Where is the Democratic voice stepping in to rally the oceans of opposition mounting against Donald Trump’s policies? The party is in disarray, a sham. This is not a time to be meek.

But the only dissent gaining any ground are not Democrats. Dissent is that within the Republican Party. Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins, for example.

Yes, it’s sad, but Sen. Collins is currently the most effective opposition in Trump’s America. Many Mainers bristle at her name — in their eyes she’s still part of the Republican horde, RINO (Republican In Name Only) or no, she’s part of the problem — but these days are different. 2016 left Democrats sent to their room like bad children, and for some reason they’re going. Instead of channeling the chorus of voices opposed to President Trump into a movement, Democrats are sad, silent and obedient. They are beaten and pathetic. So the movement is moving without them. Fragmented and leaderless, it has energy, but not Democratic energy.

So where is its voice? Collins is a speaking out. She is quietly but consistently offering pushback against a president who is clearly in need of restraint. Just last week Collins expressed willingness to request President Trump’s tax returns through the Senate Intelligence Committee. If a Democrat said it it would be an impotent claim. No one would care. But a RINO has power.

Her vote was not enough to stop the president’s nominees to head the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency from taking office, but it was resistance, more resistance. In the ever-right-drifting American political conversation, RINOs have become the last voice of progressive politics. It’s sad, but the alternative, Democrats, are no voice at all.

Maine has been unwilling to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for decades. Voters take Independents and RINOs, but not D’s. Which makes sense, as this backslip of the Democratic Party has been unfolding for years. We’ve been watching the weak-kneed politics of the Ds for a generation. Republicans have held the floor since the 1990s. They have been the idea generators, leaving Democrats scrambling to mount a counter-attack. Republican tenets like limited government and increased privatization formed the framework of government, and though might unfold with disastrous consequences, as the only party with ideas to buy they won the day. Theirs were the ideas sold.

So now in 2017, RINOs, not Democrats, are the real opposition.

It was Sen. John McCain, after all, who spoke out forcefully on the president’s travel ban, saying it will “give ISIS some more propaganda.” Another RINO, a Republican, offering Trump resistance. Where were the Democrats? Nowhere special. Nowhere important. Who even remembers Democrats anymore?

Democrats should lead the charge right now. The energy to RESIST is everywhere, but the Democrats aren’t. They are languishing, lost, a party of the past. Trump has sparked a movement in his opposition, but it remains unfocused. The “opposition party” offers that might be a rallying point is a joke. There is no real opposition party.

And so there are the RINOs. As imperfect as Collins’ political persuasion may be, it stands far stronger and far better than the ineffectual laments of today’s Democrat.

Where is the counter-vision to Trump’s America? Every American on the streets holding signs in opposition to the wall, the ban, deportations, and pipelines knows it exists, but they are waiting for a party able to articulate it. So far, however, that has not been the Democratic Party.

Which leaves us with RINOs. They have become sanity’s best ally. And until Democrats make a move towards reclaiming the mantle of a party of ideas, until they offer something more than an air of defeat, the protest is a vote for Collins.

Sad.

More Votes Than Protests

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

Progressives hate to admit it, but sometimes Gov. Paul LePage is right. He was spot-on: Maine offered a glimpse of what it’s like to elevate a blustery, aggressive, quick-mouthed bully to the most prominent position in government well before such elections went national. Not just for one term, but two.

Eight years. Think about that. Gov. LePage was authentically himself not once but twice, and he won election and re-election. Democracy facepalm.

I know what you’re thinking about split votes and 61 percent and so forth. But just like national arguments over the popular vote count versus the electoral college, these points ring hollow. America is a county built on the rule of law, and the system for deciding victors is clearly laid out. The winner must meet the standard, both in Maine and in America. The standard didn’t change. Republicans manage to win despite long odds and minority support. They win over and over.

Such upsets are now common enough that perhaps it should serve as a lesson to progressives. Something in their strategy isn’t working. And Mainers are luckier than most: Here progressives have not only 2016 to look to, but also 2010 and 2014 to for instruction on how not to run against campaigns steeped in misogyny and xenophobia.

It wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama, the candidate of Hope and Change, swept into office. His stirring defeat of Sen. John McCain left conservatives nationwide on the defensive. But here we are eight years later, and the former opposition party holds not just the presidency, the House and the Senate, but also the majority of state legislatures and 33 governorships. That’s quite a comeback in two terms.

All this while progressives win popular votes? What makes Republicans so powerful?

I was working as a newspaper reporter in New Hampshire in 2009 when President Obama was sworn in. Remember those days? The economy had taken a cliff-jump, mortgage companies were folding, home foreclosures were sweeping nationwide, we were reeling from two wars, and with the inauguration of the first African American president came a new political wave: the Taxed Enough Already movement. It spilled out in loud protest all at once, a spontaneous eruption of right-leaning frustration.

There are echoes of the Tea Party movement today — in form if not in content: Constant protests against the president, the spontaneous upwellings of frustration at airports, schools and street corners in opposition to policy. The issues are different, but the reaction is the same — to take to the streets to make yourself heard.

That’s what progressives do well, far better and in far larger numbers than conservatives did back in 2009. But as a reporter I saw the other wave that came with the Tea Party. They brought more than just protests. Taxed Enough brought a conservative reinvigoration at every level of government. Candidates signing up for city council and school board were suddenly talking about the national debt and the federal budget. These were non-partisan positions, but there was no question where this political wave was born.

And that wave became a Republican boon, an injection into a political feeder system. While Tea Partiers protested in the streets, it was the swarm of new low-level political candidates that had lasting implications. These newly energized recruits were learning the ropes, practicing Robert’s Rules of Order and making connections within the Republican Party apparatus. Voices heard on the news stations and in the streets were one thing, but these conservatives were more focused making theirs heard in chambers of power.

Like progressives, conservatives spilled out into the streets, but they also took a long view, one intent on making their ideology more than just a slogan. The were determined to break into the halls of decision making. They fought their way into Congress and state legislatures, even school boards and select boards. No platform was too small for their fight.

I wonder how many progressives have examined that lesson. Or are they counting another 61 percent?

A Message to Portland's Immigrants: This Is Your City

A is a Portland high school student. She is Muslim of Somali heritage, her parents’ eldest child. She is thoughtful, engaged and politically aware. Lately, she has found much to be aware of.

 

“I am tired,” she told me yesterday. “I’m so tired. All of this, it’s like they don’t want us. It’s like they want to push us out. I don’t know what to do. I’m tired of protesting, I don’t want to protest anymore. Nothing changes. Never. I don’t want to protest ever again. I’m so tired.”

 

A is Somali, but she might as easily be Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese or Yemeni. Here in Portland, these are our neighbors: Black. Arab. Muslim. Tired. Excluded. Alone.

 

So to every Portland-area Somali, Iraqi and Libyan, and to every Muslim who feels unwelcome, and, most importantly, to A: We see you. We are not blind to this, blind to the fear that has left you singled out and marked. “Black,” “Muslim,” “Somali,” “Woman” — these things do not scare us. These are part of your uniqueness, what makes you remarkable. Do not let others transform these into a yoke. Carry each of these labels proudly. You are black and Muslim and part of this community. There is no contradiction. You are welcome here because you are one of us, part of this city, this state and this country. You are the texture that makes this place rich, a gift to this country, an unexpected miracle that brings with it new life and renewed energy. You are a thread in Portland’s vibrant fabric, a key ingredient in this city’s thriving cosmopolitan present.

 

This is your city. It is as much yours as anyone’s, be they white, black, Hindu, Jewish or Christian. These distinctions are meaningless. If you love this place, if you invest in it, care for it, work to make it better, work to make it home, you will always be welcome here.

 

Some people may blind to you. They may fear your skin and your name for “God,” and they may reject your version of community. They may not agree with your vision for American greatness. They may accuse you of undermining their home and tell you to “Love it or leave it.” Pay them no mind. We will never be rid of such sentiments. The best we can do is soldier on unheeded by their taunts.

 

We live in a land of contradiction. At our founding, we declared “All men are created equal,” a line written by a patriot who was also a slaveowner. “All men” did not live up to its promise then, and it is still striving. But even as America is a land of contradictions, it is also a place for such striving. Since those words were first hatched, America has been swarmed with those pushing to live up to that original promise. You are now part of that striving, and in that, you are American, truly so.

 

This will be no easy walk, but you are not alone in it. We will stand beside you, stand with you, work to make your voice heard. We will work to make your blackness, your faith, your female character as equal as “all men.” Like you, we may not know how to push back the forces of bigotry, violence, and exclusion, but you will not push in alone.

 

This is Portland, your city. This is Maine, your state. This is America, your country. And we are your people. Ask us to stand with you and our voices will ring in your name.

It is okay to feel tired. It is okay to feel exhausted, to feel hopeless. But I write to remind you that you are not alone. I write to tell you that if your hope is spent, I will offer some of mine. I hope you will keep striving, like so many Americans before you, in search of that first promise, that most American promise: “Equal.”

Black Lives and White Faces

Maine is an unlikely forum for the conversation about race.

 

Northern New England, in general, is the whitest place in the country. At least 96 percent of the population of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers bear out as you wander through the snow. There just isn’t a lot of diversity here.

 

Which means when white nationalists and xenophobic groups — like Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute — seem to be finding a voice in the national mainstream, it can be difficult for white people to figure out what to do. How do you show solidarity with people of color when you live in a sea of white faces? What kind of conversation can you have about race in such a pale state?

 

In the basement of the Portland Public Library last week, USM professor Dr. Leroy Rowe tested exactly that. Rowe is an assistant professor of African-American History and Politics, and with the backing of the Maine Humanities Council, he hosts "Race and Justice in America," the latest iteration of the library's "Let's Talk About It" book discussion series.

 

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Dr. Leroy M. Rowe is a Assistant Professor of African American History and Politics at the University of Southern Maine.

In the room was Rowe, one other young black woman born in South Africa, and 50 white faces. Yet Rowe had support — for the first discussion in the five-part series which concludes April 10, he came armed with The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, a 2016 collection of essays compiled by the novelist Jesmyn Ward, and written by a diverse group of young writers of color on the American experience in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the growing list of racial injustices.

 

Their voices, paired with Rowe’s, fed the conversation, prompting questions like What is blackness? How does it affect our country and our politics? What is white fear? White rage? Who does the American criminal justice system protect? How does American-style policing impact people of color?

 

It was a room full of white people sitting in a circle talking about a topic often seemingly off limits, white hands looking to offer support, white ears hoping to listen. Maybe this is what race conversations in white places are bound to look like — pale, paired with black and white of a book. Precious few interlocutors to engage with, yes, but maybe this is how the conversation begins. In a progressive city like Portland, this might be the expected outcome.

 

How can white “allies” support people of color, turn “white privilege" into a tool of the disenfranchised? I don’t know. No one ever taught me how to load, aim and fire my “white privilege” in a direction that counts. It’s something I’ve always carried, never controlled. My whiteness gets me out of laws and codes like Stop and Frisk, and in routine traffic stops my only risk is getting ticketed, but these perks seem like impotent tools for confronting systemic racism.

 

But power resides within me nonetheless. In court for example, as one essayist points out in The Fire This Time, white testimony means more than black testimony. According to this account, in the American criminal justice system, a white witness matters. Judges and juries believe me. That is power.

 

In public gatherings, white crowds are protesters; black groups are rioters. One gets deference and assistance; the other, tear gas. That is power.

 

In filling out job applications, mine is an uncommon last name, but it is a white name. That means I get more calls returned and more interviews. That is power, a privilege I never knew I had.

 

One woman in the group remarked that she did not ask for this privilege. She would give it away if she could, she said.

 

Not me. I didn’t ask for it either, but I would instead trade my “privilege” for “rights,” make them a commonality afforded to all Americans. This is, after all, the aspirational claim of our country: “All men are created equal.” Yet color is still a marker of worth. That is a mistake that is ours to undo.

 

But to break the pattern we have to recognize the power of whiteness and call it what it is. What I assumed are my “rights” are not afforded to all. Unpacking that reality required someone willing to show me.

 

That conversation has to happen everywhere, even here, where we stand surrounded by whiteness. It may be clumsy, a dialogue mostly between white people, with black voices coming mostly from books, but it’s better than no conversation at all.

It's hard to care about the environment, but we need to

The environment sucks. It’s like that depressed friend you care about but can’t help. You can kill yourself trying to save it, but what will your efforts amount to? Where does it get you?

That’s how it feels sometimes, right? I grew up being taught not to litter. I learned to recycle and kept the heat low in winter so not to waste fuel. I even turned off the water between toothbrush rinses in order to save water.

And yet, despite my best efforts, the Gulf of Maine is getting warmer. Crap.

A warmer gulf hurts fish, which, in turn, hurts fishermen, which, in turn, hurts Maine's economy. Crap. Double crap.

I like the environment. The Earth is probably my favorite place. So as a reporter, the first thing I think about is writing stories about it. But stories about the environment, quite frankly, aren’t particularly in demand. Talk about how hot water off Casco Bay takes a toll on cod and people’s eyes glaze over. They have more important things to wrestle with.

But this isn’t just a Maine problem — just think back to the election and how often presidential debates broke down into a nuanced conversation on carbon emissions or climate change. Never once. Not a chance. Email servers and pussy-grabbers are a way bigger draw than slowly rising sea levels and Earth’s sixth mass extinction. The same is true of local stories — the heroin crisis and changing demographics are seen as far more compelling.

This is strange. The Earth is the only planet we’ve got. It’s akin to a ship with a bad leak — it’s taking on water fast. We have no backup ship. It’s right there in the warming waters off our coast, the body named for Maine, which is warming faster than almost any other body of water on the planet.

Even if the science isn’t perfect and it’s only half right (which it isn't) we better pay attention. But we don’t.

Part of our problem is the Earth lives among a host of issues drastically in need of our attention: Wealth inequality, racial disparity, sexism, a culture of exploitation, threats to democracy, religious extremism, etc., etc., etc. These steal our focus. But how much do they matter if the stage they play out burns to the ground? If Earth goes into a tailspin we’re all dead. Maybe an apocalypse will be the great equalizer. 

But even on an individual level, it can be hard to act in the best interest of the Earth. I care about carbon emissions, global warming, science, the environment, all that stuff. But while looking at bus tickets from Portland to New York City recently my loyalties were tested. The Gulf of Maine is warming because of carbon dioxide, and certain modes of transport emit less carbon than others — trains are best, buses are OK but not great, and taking an airplane is pretty bad.

But a quick glance at cost and time — $79 to fly from New York to Portland (one hour trip), $69 to take the bus (six hours), and between $125 and $225 on Amtrak (anywhere from eight to 10 hours or more) — and it’s clear things like money and time live on the opposite side of the ledger than preserving Earth. Our busy lives don’t include space to worry about a little thing like the environment.

Funny concept, eh? We may be giving the thing we count on to support every aspect of our lives the worst hangover imaginable, and we can’t help but keep shouting in its ear. Even if you’re one of those people who wants to lower your voice, you can’t figure out how.

So how do you take hold of the controls of a crashing ship and pull up? How do you do anything with enough force to make a difference?

Well for my NYC trip I bought a bus ticket down and a plane ticket back. I’m not off to a good start.

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

I mean, he’s rich. But is he rich because his family was rich? Because his dad made a lot of money in real estate back in the day? Or is he rich because his entrepreneurial ventures have been successful?

Is he good at his job? That’s the question.

I know lots of people already have answers. His supporters say he’s clearly a billionaire with a business empire, and therefore my question is dumb. His opponents say he was born rich, and it is his string of failed businesses — casinos, an airline, a university, meat products — that make my question dumb.

But these are partisan answers. I’m looking for something different. I'm looking for a nuanced definition of entrepreneurship, of risking it in business and seeing new ideas take, and then to compare that definition to the president-elect’s record.

I don’t know a lot about being an entrepreneur, but I know it requires a willingness to fail. No one comes up with a brilliant idea first go, and no one learns everything they need to know to be successful in college or an MBA program. It takes experience, and experience is just a gentle word for failure. Success is built on foundations of failure, and it’s only in hindsight that the failures look like inevitable lessons along the way.

Maybe that’s what Donald Trump’s casinos, airline, university and steaks were — a trail of lessons. Maybe Trump was already rich, so unlike some guy selling widgets out of his garage, his failures were bound to be public and spectacular.

The fact is, I don’t know. It's almost Inauguration Day and I don’t have a clue. That wasn’t how America approached this election. There were those with undying support willing to look past his failures, and there were those who dismissed him completely, laying his successes at the feet of his father.

I imagine it’s more complex than that. Surely, Trump has both made money and lost money. But my question is whether the rate at which he made it leans closer to success or failure.

Then again, maybe Trump’s goal all along wasn't money, but power. If that’s the case, his past seems to have definitely been worthwhile. There’s no doubt he was successful at getting elected the most powerful position in the land.

That, however, strays from my point. Is Trump, the businessman (versus Trump, the politician) successful? He sold himself as a businessman — and America bought. But is he a good one? It feels like a question someone should have asked, but never did. There must be a business professor out there, or a handful of business professors, who can explain what a normal failure rate for entrepreneurs looks like. There has to be someone able to contrast that with the record of the president-elect. Is he doing well for himself? Did he do poorly? Is he at the top of the game? The middle? The bottom?

These are questions we’ve stopped asking. This election left so little space for issues, so little time for a hard look at resumes. Instead, we scrutinized temperament and character, talked border walls and Muslim bans, bickered about emails and tax returns. We never took a step back to ask basic questions about who was running. We engaged in partisan conversation, and the only clues to whether or not Donald Trump was a successful businessman came from looking at those who support him and those who opposed.

Now, here we are in January, and it’s still not really clear who we elected. That seems a poor recipe for success.

A new holiday tradition: learning about non-European cultures

I visited my niece at school last week. She’s nine and in the fourth grade. It was a holiday open house, and family was invited. Every student in the class had put together a diorama on holiday traditions, and families were welcome to come walk around the room to see how different households celebrate holidays. There were Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, strings of Christmas lights, elves on shelves, and more. Each diorama included a short history of the tradition highlighted, a smattering of interesting facts about it, and a personal narrative about how it looked in that student’s particular home.

And it wasn’t just Christmas — one little boy’s tradition was tacos on Easter. Another boy wrote about snowball fights. Another wrote about his birthday, which falls the day after Christmas. A little girl wrote about raking leaves in Autumn and jumping in the leaf pile. This was a celebration of all kinds of holidays and all kinds of traditions.

Several students chose to highlight their favorite holiday food, Eid cookies and Eid cake, sweet treats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

I was familiar with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, but I’d never heard of Eid al-Fitr. And I’d certainly never heard of purpose-built cookies or cake to accompany it. But for several students, it was their chosen tradition. One family brought in two Eid cakes for people to sample. The student, a little girl, sat smiling as her dad offered everyone a second and third slice. Her mom stood on the other side, also smiling, her head wrapped in a hijab.

I remember my own versions of these elementary school dioramas. It wasn’t that long ago, in a school much like my niece’s. But in 1990s Maine there were far fewer brown and black faces, and even fewer Muslims. Almost every featured tradition showcased a Christmas theme — wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc. Maybe someone would stretch so far as to highlight the Fourth of July or share a New Year's tradition, but in all the years no one shared anything about Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, or the Hajj. Before last week I’d never heard about or seen, much less tasted, an Eid cake. A teacher might bring up Hanukkah, but the only Jewish student was a grade below so even those traditions remained a mystery. The worlds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-European religions never made an appearance — my first introduction to Islam didn’t come until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. Buddhism came around the same time, through Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. Other religions like these were always embodied by books, not people. It took until adulthood for them to become as real as the people I would meet throughout my life. 

My niece, however, will be spared such ignorance. Her world is more diverse than mine. Her best friend, whose diorama was set up right next door to hers, is black. A number of her classmates are Muslim. Several of the girls wore headscarves, as did parents and family members who came in to visit. To her, these differences in culture and religious belief have faces. They are people, not just ideas. She interacts with them every day, plays with them at recess, collaborates with them on assignments. They are her friends. It is a level of diversity I would not have imagined existed inside a Maine classroom, the sort of cultural education Mainers a generation ago could not access. It gives me hope. I walked into my niece’s classroom and saw the promise of mutual appreciation, the possibility of a shared interest in the diverse cultures.

Because what is school for but to learn? To learn about the world around us. Few books are as interesting as learning from life. And that is the gift my nine-year-old niece gets — a global education, right here in Maine.

That might be my new favorite tradition.

2016 Began A Long Time Ago

2016 began a long time ago.

Remember the primary, when Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were all looking to overtake Donald Trump’s rambunctious start? That was one beginning.

The other beginning, my 2016 beginning, was in Cuba. After President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, I spent the next two years working there, guiding cultural exchange trips to the former pariah state. I spent New Year's Eve in Havana and flew back home a few days later. 

Now, President-elect Trump is poised to roll back expanded ties with Cuba. On the verge of opening fully, the door might once more swing closed. That’s 2016. What a year.

What else has 2016 brought? Not just the election, surely. It’s not just because of Trump's win, but 2016 has carried a whole host of hints about a long-hushed and covered topic: race. America’s dividing line. This past year has made discussions on race ring quite loud.

Trump is part of it. He won despite xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. His rise has been with the support of white supremacists and his election has emboldened their dangerous ideologies. But that is only part of the race picture. He teased out race in politics, but elsewhere in 2016 the threads were beginning to show.

Like when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were targeted and murdered following the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police in Baton Rouge, and the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, by police in Minnesota. 

At the time, I was working in Belize, running youth literacy programs that brought American high school students down to run summer camps for Belizean elementary and middle schoolers. The American students had limited access to Internet, so when these racialized incidents occurred, it fell to me and the other staff to let the group know about the tumult at home.

Belize is a former British colony populated by the descendants of slaves and indigenous Mayans. The American students were there to teach, and not one of the kids they were sent to guide were white.

Our group of 26, meanwhile, were predominantly white girls. There was a sprinkling of Hispanic, Arab, black and Asian kids, many of whom attended through the support of scholarship programs that provide opportunities to underserved urban students, but most of the students came from upper-middle-class white families.

Race was always on our doorstep, but it wasn’t until police started shooting and dying that we got to talking about it. Ferguson was the straw the broke the camel's back, and that was well over two years ago. 

And we did talk about it. These were smart, thoughtful, engaged kids, not quick to shy away from hard conversations. But when it came to discussing race, the differences were striking: the students of color were well-versed and had a vocabulary around the subject, a familiarity grown over time. It was a constant reality in their world, and they knew how to express themselves, their feelings, and their frustrations.

Many of the white students, meanwhile, struggled to find a foothold to speak from. These were smart young women, but when the subject turned to historical subjugation and persistent inequity, they went silent. I did my best to get them to open up, but most were unwilling to engage. Their discomfort with race was so large it became a muzzle. One-way conversation, dominated by the students of color, was the best we could do.

That, perhaps, is 2016 in a sentence: Race and the struggle white Americans face in its stark and uncomfortable reality. The fear of it. The fear of talking about it. The struggle in reckoning with inequity, the persistence of it, and the opportunity and power race carries.

These are conversations white people are not all well-versed in. We are not all equally articulate. And these conversations include risks — in a world of scarcity, white America stands to lose. At least, that's their perception. There is great fear associated with that risk; 2016 makes that clear.

But 2016 has also left the coverings of this most American rift threadbare. Race is in our founding, in our very fabric, and it will take Americans of all shades to make sense of it. But this long one-way conversation brings nothing to a close. We must all be willing to speak up, and when appropriate, listen. 

I'm anxious to see what 2017 will bring. 

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