Salsa in the City: Santo Domingo Rises from Ruins

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Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order. – Samuel Beckett

For those wanting the ultimate Dominican experience, check out Las Ruinas in Santo Domingo where every Sunday night locals gather to dance merengue, bachata (both invented here) and salsa—the world dance popular from Asia to Africa to Australia.

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Setup before the party explodes

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I love hearing Latin music played daily in taxis, groceries, and restaurants and hearing it played live in the Colonial Zone feels like home. When in Nashville I danced weekly—sometimes biweekly—with people bonded by a shared passion for dance and music. From Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, Spain, India, France, Ethiopia, Syria, and Jordan, strangers became friends and made my life richer by teaching me about cuisine, art, and celebrations from around the globe.  Dancing has always brought me pure joy and freedom. It makes me feel alive.

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Las Ruinas is also symbolic of the spirit of the Dominican people. Flanked by food trucks and under bright, colorful lights, Las Ruinas is a backdrop to a sea of laughing faces and twirling bodies. It is a testimony to tenacity.   Formerly called The Monastery of San Franciso and built by Nicolas de Ovando in 1508, this first monastery of the New World has been battered by nature and war. First it was stormed by a hurricane, then sacked by Francis Drake. In 1673 and 1751 it was shaken by two earthquakes. French troops collapsed its ceiling by placing artillery on its roof and Cyclone San Zenon in 1930  destroyed much of the building.  In 1940 it was converted into an asylum.

Today Las Ruinas is the site of the biggest dance party on the island. The days when Dictator Rafael Trujillo censored bachata are gone and now friends and families gather to sing and see older couples show young ones how it’s done. The weekly ritual is a reminder that despite daunting times the human spirit can rise from ruins.  Together we can celebrate and dance on.

My Cup Runneth Over

“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”–Howard Thurman

The most creative people I know seem to be defined by vision, passion, sensitivity, and need—specifically the urgency to manage and express the chaos without and within.  Some sneer at the “starving artist.” The paradox is that no matter how much money one makes, a true artist must continue to starve–to thirst and hunger for truth and love– with abandon.  Likewise, no matter how little one earns, life is rich– in its intensity, diversity, and complexity.  I decided in 2009 to finally blog about the wealth of  joys I’ve found through the arts, travel, my family, friends, and faith.

I’ve been writing for awhile.  I first thought writing would kill three birds—maybe even a whole flock– with one stone.   First, it would provide income–for travel, for Lancome eye cream, for groceries.

Second, it would provide therapy as I released the stuff ricocheting in my head, eliminating the need for Wellbutrin.  I concur with my favorite Bad Boy Byron who said: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Writing would uncover my usually stifled rebel yells and free my muddled, melancholy musings.

Third, writing would help me see where I’m going and help me remember where I’ve been.  With writing I could comfort others with the comfort I’ve been given.

When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave.  While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths. (This was before Pan’s Labyrinth or I might have seen it as quite the adventure.)  The tour guide seemed so calm.  She had a light to guide us but no map.  She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could  have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.

The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light.   I’ve survived the death of two unborn children and of two marriages—my parents’ and my own.  I’ve survived the death of a father and then a grandmother who was my mentor and muse.  I’m still surviving the life of a single mother and a woman dating over 40.

Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight.  God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out.  I still grope but know He’s there.  Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine.  Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years.   I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.

Some say we read to know we’re not alone.  We write for the same reason—especially when we’re gut honest and still raw.  I write of the familiar and lonely—like playing Santa solo for twelve years as I placed gifts under the tree.  Or of the frustrating and embarrassing–like when I didn’t know how to tie my son’s first real necktie.  While I cried, cursing my ineptness as a parent, he emerged from his bedroom with a perfectly tied knot.  Thank God for youtube.

But mostly I write of the joy I’m finding on the path not taken—that place I landed when derailed from the life I imagined, the L.L. Bean or Southern Living picture-perfect family I so desperately wanted.   Truly God has made “all things work together for good,” and He is still conforming me to the likeness of His son despite the fact that in the words of one of my favorite hymns, I am weak and “prone to wander.”  He never gives up on me.

And so I write… of playing volleyball with Italian friends in a pool at midnight, of walking through a fishing village in Ireland, and of leaving Montmartre with my daughter, all lit by the same gigantic moon. I write of riding The Hulk with my son at Universal Studios—teeth clinched, tears squeezed out the corners of our eyes as we held on for dear life…literally…under a hot July sun.  I write of feeling alive and blessed—even when the virtual mob of Guitar Hero World Tour shuts me down because my kids, though unhappy,  don’t kick me out of the band.

I write about the absurd—trying to find a social scene somewhere between the Senior Citizens Center and the haunts of hot pants herds.  And then finding it.

2008 was full of surprises, so I write…
Of a new passion that left me addicted…but never so free.  As sleep-deprived as when I nursed infants…but never so fully awake.  Though my old friends say I’m MIA, I no longer feel invisible.  I’m immersed in a foreign culture…but I’m so completely at home.  Maybe because I’m NOT  one of the twenty million American women sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. Instead I’m dancing under them.  With friends from Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, and Syria. In Nashville.

Of the closest of friendships between a conservative suburb/girly girl/ teacher/soccer mom and a liberal urban/athletic/ folk singer/dog rescuer.  (Sure to come in 2009 is the continuing salsa saga of two Renaissance women with gypsy souls whose quest to become Dancing Queens often turns Monty Python.)

Of a baby girl whose finishing her last year of high school and moving to college made her mom very sad.

Of her brother whose getting his permit and doing well his first year of high school made his mom very happy.

And, no surprise, she’s proud of them both.

I look ahead in 2009 and look forward to fun with my mom on her first trip to Europe.  Wish my sister were going.  She’s been listening to me ramble since we were kids.  Oh, and Christmas Eve rocked!

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2008 As the Other Cindy McCain

Last fall a man claiming to be a member of the “Right Hand party” in Belgium sent me a friend request on Facebook supporting my “ courageous husband, John.”  I wasn’t sure how to respond…again.  I had been hailed as the future First Lady in jest since the summer. No doubt there was a resemblance–strong enough that MTV Canada found my picture on Facebook and persuaded me to do their Hot Topic segment the day after the election.  I was on a split- screen panel via Skype with a John McCain from Appomattox, Virginia, and two regulars, Naked Guy and Skull Man.  Two questions were fired at me:  how l had fared with my famous name and what I predicted was in Sarah Palin’s future.

Previously I had been interviewed on Nashville’s Channel 5 News segment, “Cool Schools” when the high school where I teach was featured.  The reporter asked about political discussions in my senior English classes, but only after he mock-introduced me as the Cindy McCain who had left the campaign trail to make an appearance.  Then there was the police officer who pulled me over for expired tags as I pulled out of the parking lot of an early voting site.  When he saw the sticker on my sweater announcing I’d voted and the name on my license, he softened.   Assuming we were on the same team, he grinned, “Guess you’d like to be the other Cindy McCain.”  I nodded, then truthfully and without defecting quipped: “I sure would.  I’d like to have her money.”

No doubt I wanted to please the nice policeman.  My Southern Girl upbringing warned me not to act ugly–to remember that it’s better to smile and nod when people assume I voted a certain way than to incite controversy by saying I didn’t. I vowed to defend passionately and logically my candidate when the time was right. I managed to do this a few times, but sometimes my responses morphed into bi-polar fight or flight instincts.  There were a couple of bouts with friends—both which disturbed the peace in two eating establishments—and one which ended in my being accused of drinking the Kool-Aid to which I childishly retorted, “You lost and we won—so there!”  More often I took flight with the smile and nod routine.

As a minor irritation, conducting business took longer when the cable company’s tech guy, the financial aide officer of my daughter’s college, and  telemarketers asked if I realized I had the same name as the presidential candidate’s wife.  A hotel clerk stared hard at me when I checked in wearing my Jackie O glasses, trying to decide if I was indeed that Cindy McCain. But more disturbing than the man from Belgium and two others on Facebook who confused me for the real deal was the assumption that if I shared her name, I shared her political views.

I must disagree with Romeo when he asked:  “What is a name?  A rose called by any other name would still smell as sweet.”  Instead of smelling a rose, some McCain fans looked at me as if they smelled a rat if I fessed up to not voting for their man.  And to be fair, it wasn’t just my name.  I live in the Bible Belt AND a red state where many believe being a Christian (which I am) is synonymous with pledging allegiance to the GOP. Likewise, an Obama supporter tried to divine my political persuasion from my name when I met her at a dinner party the week after the election.  She said, “It’s nice to meet you, but I’m glad you didn’t win.” Suddenly I related to soap opera villains who are accosted on the street because fans confuse the character with the actor.

I know many of my friends with perfectly normal names were entangled in Facebook wars of their own.  But stranger than the usual debate was an ominous message I received from a Canadian man after the MTV segment aired.  Deducing from my prediction that Sarah Palin would  become an anchor on FOX news, then the Home Shopping Network, he said he knew I wouldn’t agree as an Obama supporter but he warned that America had been “DUPED” by Obama and that the election result was “NOT the kind of change the nation wants.” Then he asked about my weekend.

I waited until after the election to tell the gentleman from Belgium I was not the Cindy McCain he was looking for.  Containing his disappointment, he asked if I was a Republican.  I said I vote for candidates, not parties.  He said that was smart and invited me to have coffee with him if I’m ever in Brussels.

For someone who doesn’t enjoy conflict, I learned a lot in the fall of 2008.  I realized I had become defensive when the mailman asked me who I was voting for.  “Why does it matter?”  I retorted.  He laughed:  “Just kidding you about your name.”  I learned that while politics can divide friends, listening to each other and even agreeing to disagree can ultimately deepen friendships.  In political debate we can engage without fighting or fleeing.  We can act ugly or take the higher road.  Many just forward emails.  My drug of choice for the headaches of last fall was The Office DVD collection.  In addition to  comic relief , I used them to master Jim’s way of rising above the fray by smiling smugly into the camera.  Many days as students or friends tried to lure me into argument or drama, I looked over their shoulders and smiled serenely into my own imaginary camera, praying I’d be a peacemaker rather than a rabble rouser.

If posed those two questions on MTV again, I stand by my answer on Palin.  But I’m now as ambivalent about having the name of a famous political figure as I am about it resulting in “Cindy McCain” listed over five million times on Google.  It could be a blessing when I don’t want people snooping but a curse when I hope they do.  I’m excited about our new President despite the fact that his winning reduced my shot at four years of fame to just five minutes.  Recently when a friend gave my manuscript of a magazine article to a New York agent for placement, he said she first thought it was by the Cindy McCain. I’m sure she was disappointed it wasn’t.

I wish Cindy well with her family and millions.  No doubt her fall was harder than mine.  But as 2009 takes my hand, I feel rich, too.  More on why later.  For now, I’m off to salsa…the-one