Invisibility: Stories about hiding in plain sight

This week, we bring you two stories of invisibility, from a man looking to escape his identity to a marine biologist who feels invisible to her colleagues.

Part 1: Richard Cardillo escapes his problems by joining a Catholic mission in Peru, where he becomes a community health organizer.

Jump to Richard’s story >>

Richard Cardillo is a 25 year resident of the Lower East Side been an educator for over three decades on two continents and in two languages. He's instructed on all levels from preschool to graduate programs, considering himself still more of a learner than a teacher....but always a storyteller! Rich is a three-time Moth StorySLAM winner and has also participated in three Moth GrandSLAMS . Rich is a passionate bread baker and, yes, has gone to that quirky (scary?) place of naming his 16-year-old sourdough starter. He tries to bake up a new story with every loaf that emerges from his tiny apartment oven.

Part 2: Marine biologist Liz Neeley is excited to be a part of a coral conservation project in Fiji, but her colleagues keep forgetting her.

Jump to Liz’s story >>

Liz Neeley is the executive director of The Story Collider. She's a marine biologist by training, and an optimistic worrier by nature. As the oldest of five children, she specializes in keeping the peace and not telling Mom. After grad school, Liz stumbled into ocean conservation. She focused on coral reef management and restoration in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and dabbled in international trade policy on deep sea corals. Next, she spent almost a decade at COMPASS helping scientists understand journalism,  policymaking, and social media. Follow her at @lizneeley


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Richard Cardillo

It’s September of 1980 and it’s six in the morning. I’m in the monastery chapel, like I am every morning at six a.m., and it’s my turn to read the gospel meditation to my seventeen brother monks. I go up to the front, to the lectern, open the Bible and I begin reading, “And Jesus said, ‘In a little while and you will see me no more. And then in a little while you will see me again.’”

I close the Bible. I go back to my pew, kneeling, and have the most profound meditation and reflection. Damn, I want some of that magic trick. Invisibility, going rogue, disappear without anybody knowing where you are.

I have this crazy fantasy. You know, Maria Von Trapp, when she wanted to disappear from the convent, she’d go prancing through the Alps. I wanted to disappear from my monastery and I wanted to go cruising through the Ramble in Central Park, but I didn’t, and I wouldn’t.

I’m twenty-two years old and I've already been five years inside the monastery. It sounds like a prison sentence. “I’m givin’ ya a message from the inside.” But I joined at the tender young age of seventeen. I made this experiment in invisibility at the time. I knew, kind of knew that I was gay and I was so ashamed and so afraid of that I figured I could pray away the gay by joining a monastery. So that’s what I did.

I go through formation. This frustration was lasting a little bit longer than usual, but I wasn’t going to act on it. I was going to stay faithful. I had this pesky little idea that I could just turn things around. I even changed my name in the monastery. I’m Richard. My name is Richard. But beginning in my first year of the monastery and for fourteen years after that I became Brother Mark. That persona took on everything that I wanted to be but knew inside I wasn’t.

And I wasn’t going to act on any of those things. I told you, this pesky little idea which is my vow of celibacy. I made a promise and a vow that I would never ever have any relations with a human being ever for the rest of my life. So I went through with it.

It was hard. I kept channeling the words of Horton, not the saint, the elephant. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, Brother Mark will be faithful one hundred percent.” And I kept up at it. I finally finished my formation. They sent me out teaching to an all boys’ Catholic high school in Harlem. I was going through the motions, but it just didn’t feel authentic at all and these crazy feelings wouldn’t go away. So I figured I had to petition my superiors to get something more difficult, more drastic because this self-imposed conversion therapy just wasn’t working.

So I told my superiors I needed something tougher. About a week after that, I got a knock on my cell door, not a prison cell, but it felt like that, knock on my cell door and he came in and he said, “Brother Mark, do you speak Spanish?”

I said, “High school Spanish.”

He said, “Well, I think you better start learning it because we’re transferring you to the missions in Peru.” All of a sudden, I became a missionary.

After some intense language study and some intense liberation theology, I was assigned to teach in this remote shanty town of a village, which was on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. This was a time when the country was just falling apart. They were in the hands and the grip of terrorist violence. There was no sanitation, health was horrible, the economy was in a collapse, there was hyperinflation and I was assigned there.

So I show up and all of a sudden I meet this community organizer who’s the same age as I am, I’m twenty-seven. Gonzala. And Gonzala wrangles me into starting an orphanage for all the kids who were coming to the capital city for a somewhat better life.

So I said, “Okay, we’ll give it a try, but I’m just not gonna be good at this.”

And she guided me through it. She guided me. She was a consummate person who let me know at any given time if my privilege was showing. For instance, I'll give you an idea.

She told me, “I see you every morning when you go out and these women that are carrying their babies and they're in the papooses. And you just go up and you're like a politician, ‘Hey, baby, how are you? What is the name of your baby? Can I hold your baby?’” She said, “Don’t pay attention to the baby and don’t ask for the baby’s name.”

I asked her, “Why not?”

She said, “Fifty percent of the babies die here before the age of one. The mothers don’t name that baby until they know that baby is going to flourish, so don’t ask for the name of the baby. They'll just call that baby Nene. Call it Nene.” So I learned.

She was also the consummate community builder in that orphanage. Obviously, we didn’t know the birthdates of any of the kids in that orphanage, but on every one of their saint’s days or their name days, Gonzala would make a very special cake for each boy or girl and she‘d decorate the top of it with something that symbolized their specific personality. If it was a shoeshine boy, she’d put a picture of a shoe on top of the cake. If it was somebody who was interested in music, she’d stencil in panpipes and a guitar. So she just really had these kids eating out of her hands but built up community like I couldn’t believe.

About six months after we started the orphanage, I was also asked to become the community health organizer for my village. There was no clinic, there was no hospital within hundreds of miles so I was in charge. I took this crash course in all things rural medicine. My bible was this book called Where There Is No Doctor.

I learned how to do very basic things, fix bumps and bruises, how to get somebody’s fever down. I could even learn how to give stitches to people. It was amazing. But the one thing I had no control over were all the diseases connected to poverty, these kids were coming down with dysentery, giardia, all different kinds of intestinal things, diarrhea, and I just could not get anywhere with that. It was frustrating.

Only about eight or nine months after I took over that job, I was hit with a really big piece of misfortune in my life. I contracted cholera. It probably was the most debilitating disease or incident that ever happened in my life. I knew that I was just wasting away.

It’s funny, I tell stories now all over the place, different slams and different shows, and I’m getting very used to that. There's usually the requisite poop story. Everybody has their one poop story that they got to tell. I guess this is my requisite poop story, but I just can’t tease out any humor from it.

But there I was and I felt my body just collapsing. I couldn’t leave the bathroom because it was incessant diarrhea of just liquid. I had lost fourteen pounds in two days. My skin was tightening, my eyes were turning yellow, I was literally disappearing.

The State Department kept good tabs on everybody who was in the country who was a gringo and they found out about me. They sent an ambulance right away to pick me up and put me right into a hospital, the best in the nation right in the capital of Lima. They automatically put the rehydration IV in me and I was fine after twelve hours. There was some bed rest and then, after five days, I was out of there and I was taken back to the village.

There was a sign there: “Bienvenidos Hermano Marcos.” I felt very, very good. There was a lot of fanfare for me. But within a short amount of time of going back and saying, “yes, I am cured,” I got the horrible news that in my five-day absence forty-five children had died of cholera.

I lost it. But I had to contain myself. I felt, for the sake of the people, I have to hold it together. And I talked to one of the elders. I said, “How could this happen? I got better and they didn’t.”

He said, “Oh, hermano, facil.” It’s easy to know why.

I said, “Well, why? Why did that happen?”

He said, “Porque tu eres lo que eres y nosotros somos lo que somos.” Because you are who you are and we are who we are, and that’s when I learned about privilege.

That’s when I felt really lousy. That’s when I knew that I had to start taking steps to turn things around. It was amazing. I knew that privilege was something in me not only for my health but the things that I could hide, and I was hiding my sexuality. It’s probably what got me into that country in the first place so I knew that I had to turn that around.

It’s kind of that day that I made the decision that I was going to spend the rest of my life advocating and being an ally for people who couldn’t be who they were because of their race, their gender, their gender expression, their sexuality, their sexual orientation, their religion. It didn’t matter. I wanted to be the advocate so people could be who they were. That was the lesson I learned in Peru.

There comes a time when you're a missionary. They teach you about this. There's a saying. When you're working with people from a different culture always go where you're really, really needed but not really wanted. And only stay until you're really, really wanted but not really needed. So I knew it was time for me to go to live with my true self.

I went back to the United States. I eventually left the monastery. I lived as a gay man, got into a partnership with my partner of eighteen years and I kind of never strayed from that idea of being this advocate for other people.

In 2015, at the behest of the Ministry of Education in Peru, I was invited to go down to help the Ministry of Education put together an anti-bullying program all around the country, and I was going to be there for ten days. It was my first time back in the country since I had left, and I said, “This is gonna be great.”

I found a different country. The roads were built, health was better, the economy was in good shape, still pockets of poverty but people were doing pretty good. I wanted to make it a point to look up Gonzala, and I found her. I knew I would.

So we spent a day together. She had married and had children of her own through the years and I just loved reminiscing with her about the orphans that we took care of. And I used that time to ask her and to come out.

I said, “Did you know at that time that I was gay?”

She says, “You know, I always thought that, but I wanted to respect your desire to be hidden. In fact, do you remember what I taught you about those women with their babies, that they don’t name their babies until that baby can flourish?”

I said, “Yeah.”

She said, “Hermano Marcos wasn’t ready to flourish. Richard is ready to flourish.” And I was just so thankful.

I go back to my hotel room. The next morning I get this call from the front desk. Somebody left a parcel for you. I said, “This is great. Somebody left…” I thought it was a gift or something. I go down there and I see the box and I knew what it was right away. I looked at that box and it was Gonzala’s cake boxes.

So I said, “She made me a cake.” I open up the cake box and I look at that cake and indeed it was a cake from Gonzala decorated on the top with a rainbow flag.

Forty-five years earlier, I had said those words from the gospel, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then in a little while you will see me again.” I felt that I had come full circle and I could finally go about the business of being seen again. Thank you.

Part 2: Liz Neeley

Outside it’s balmy and breezy and beautiful, and inside I’m churning. Where is my ride? I have been waiting for more than an hour and a half and at this point I've done all my deep breathing, I have smelled every flower in this beautiful hotel lobby and I’m becoming increasingly concerned. I’m afraid that I’m going to miss a meeting I've travelled more than seven thousand miles to attend.

I’m in Fiji. I work in coral conservation and my job is to teach local journalists about ocean science, to teach local scientists how you do something like talk to journalists, and then throw parties to introduce them to each other. It’s the best job in the world and Fiji is the best place in the world to do this kind of work. Not only do they have incredible coral reefs but they also have embraced this powerful idea that if you bring together community leadership, traditional management and the best of modern science that this is how you help communities thrive when it comes to conservation.

I’m convinced that when we talk about saving the planet, this kind of approach is the only way we’re going to save anything, much less ourselves. And that’s why I've thrown my career into this kind of work instead of the traditional research path I thought I was undertaking.

Today, I’m in Fiji for a meeting where all my colleagues, coral reef experts and journalists, scientists, every kind of person from Fiji working on this is coming together in a village called Nanduri for a meeting of the locally managed Marine Area Network, and I’m terrified I’m going to miss it. It has already been a rough couple of days. I've been traveling for thirty-some hours. I flew from D.C. to L.A. to Honolulu to Fiji and then caught a connecting flight.

When I got to my hotel last night, it was calm and cozy and quiet. I was grateful. I just collapsed. I dreamt that someone was massaging my head and running their fingers through my hair and gradually realized I wasn’t asleep and I could still feel what ended up being two giant cockroaches onto me. Fortunately, I've been working in the tropic for years and this is not a problem that a little patience and a shoe cannot handle. But it means I didn’t have very much sleep, I've gotten up really early for this meeting and I’m waiting and waiting and waiting.

Fortunately, I do have a cell phone. It’s one of those Nokia bricks. It’s way too early in the morning to call anyone in Fiji, plus everyone I know is already on their way to this meeting.

I have three numbers programmed into it. The first one is my boss, the second one is my mom. I don't want to call them. This isn’t my first trip into the field or even in Fiji but it is my first big solo work and I feel like I've got something to prove. I need to be able to show that I can hack it doing international conservation work.

So fortunately, the third number in the phone says Peace Corps Ralph. Twelve hours ago, Peace Corps Ralph was a stranger who just plopped down beside me at the airport in Fiji. He was one of those people, he had curly hair and a sunburned nose, big smile, he was chatty and impossible not to like. And even better, he seemed very at ease in his own skin, he knew how to deal with people and he seemed comfortable in his traditional Fijian garb of a Hawaiian-print shirt and a men’s dress skirt called a sulu.

So I thought he seems like the kind of guy I can send a really awkward text message to that’s like, hypothetically speaking, if someone got stranded, how might they make their way. Fortunately, he was the kind of guy who could take a text message like that and immediately turn it into a road trip adventure.

So Peace Corps Ralph enlists Peace Corps Josh and, in no time, all three of us are first on a bus and then we get picked up by an improbably purple pickup truck with roses painted on the window. So we’re on our way. My problem of not being able to get to the meeting is tentatively solved. But I've got a much bigger one starting to boil now.

In Fiji, you do not just waltz up into a village unannounced. I’m off-schedule, showing up in a way that I’m not supposed to be, and this is just sort of breathtakingly rude. It damages the exact kind of relationships that we’re here to build. Fortunately, I don't have to tell this to the Peace Corps guys. They know. In fact, they've already arranged with Peace Corps Katie that she will give us shelter in her hut for the hour or so before the rest of that convoy of scientists and conservationists shows up.

When they roll up in all their vans and trucks, they're all starting to pile out, they're surprised to see me, but not apologetic. They're kind of laughing like, “Ha-ha, did we forget you?”

And I’m kind of laughing back like, “Ah-ha-ha, you did.” But I’m also secretly sort of proud that I've gotten myself here with minimal amount of hassle, plus there's no time to argue. We all need to immediately get ourselves into a really important ceremony.

In Fiji, you do something called sevusevu. This is a ceremony in which you make an offering and you request the permission of the chief of the area to enter the territory or village. The chief that we’re here to meet, he's not just any chief. He's a high chief. In fact, he is the paramount high chief of this entire region. His full title is Tui Macuata, Ratu Aisea Katonivere. “Ratu” means chief so Ratu Aisea.

And he is intimidating. He's tall and he's broad and he's fierce. I've heard stories about his military service in Lebanon. I've also heard stories about the way he takes poachers on directly, sinking their boats and burning their nets. So it feels particularly appropriate that we are here to beg his permission to walk on his land and to swim in his sea.

The sevusevu ceremony is solemn. There are mats on the floor and we are all kneeling at Ratu Aisea’s feet. I keep my head down and my mouth shut and there are all these formal words of introduction in Fijian. As the ceremony comes to a close, Ratu Aisea claps three times and, at this point, we are welcomed into the village.

This is not just a formality either. It’s a recognition of our interdependence and I have accepted my own duties and obligations to the village the same way that they have taken on responsibility for me.

The rest of the day passes in a happy blur. The meetings go great. We’re sharing all these stories about how much we can do when we come together to share information and to work together. And then in the afternoon we get to go see the fruits of this labor and dive on the coral reef.

My dive buddy is a conservationist and outsider like me and she's struggling with her gear. She can’t control her buoyancy. So I reach over and I grab her vest so that I can hold her down because it’s dangerous to ascend rapidly. Together we swim over and through these coral reefs and I feel something amazing. The sense of place. The sense of what is possible when people come together.

I’m just suffused with this happy feeling and, as we get out of the water, I’m happy to let everyone else go shower first. I wave goodbye to Peace Corps Josh and Peace Corps Ralph as they paddle off into the sunset as if it is a movie and I just take a deep breath being thankful to be here in this beautiful place with these wonderful people on this beautiful day.

It’s my turn to shower so I hurry up, soap up, rinse off, jump out and then burst out to realize the convoy has left me again. What is wrong with them? What is wrong with me? How could they? My dive buddy! And how can we be a team if they can’t even remember something as important as get Liz in the car? It has just been a day and I’m shaken.

So when I head into the main hall to tell my Fijian hosts what had happened, I feel awful. But they think this is hilarious. They are rolling with laughter. There is a Fijian word “kaila.” It means to shout with laughter and that is what is happening all around me right now. I realize they're not laughing at me. This isn’t even about me. This is life. It happens. We laugh at it.

And Ratu Aisea says, “Don’t worry. Don’t you remember, I told you you're under my protection.”

So he had his driver get his private truck, black this time, not purple. And as we glide through this quiet, dark Fijian night, I’m looking out the window and up into stars like I have never seen before with the Milky Way stretching above me. I think about place. I think about home and what it means to be connected to other people.

About a year later, I had the opportunity to return Ratu Aisea’s generosity to me. He had won a major ocean conservation award and was being brought to Washington D.C. for the galas and the parties. Yet, as everyone was scrambling trying to think about how do we plan to celebrate and recognize him for this conservation leadership, they weren’t thinking about basic hospitality and how to welcome him into our community the way he had welcomed me into his.

So I took it upon myself. I made sure to meet him at the airport. I brought him a Nokia phone so he could call home. And I guided him through our meetings on Capitol Hill, meetings with senators. I took photographs of him in front of the White House. And as I drove him back to Dulles International Airport, I realized I had one final ceremonial obligation. I'd been working on this but I wasn’t sure I had the courage.

As he stepped into the security line, I stopped caring about what the passengers would think, screwed up my courage, balled up my fists and sang, “Isa isa vulagi lasa dina, nomu lako au na rarawa kina.”

It’s a hard song to sing with a lump in your throat. It’s the traditional Fijian song of farewell. It’s called Isa Lei. It is about sorrow and longing, what it means to be together, what it means to be to apart. And the chief, he had just been standing there smiling at me.

I know culture is not like magic. Learning a few words of the language, respecting and admiring the ceremonies, this doesn’t make me one of his people, but he is my Ratu.

There's a happy postscript to this story. Many years later, I was in a different kind of lobby feeling a different kind of annoyance. I’m working at the University of Washington in the Fisheries Department surrounded by the smell of dead fish and there's a guy who keeps staring at me. It gets to the point where I finally turn to him and go, “What?”

And he goes, “Fiji?” It’s Peace Corps Ralph. Six years and six thousand miles later, finally, someone remembers me.