Three Friends / Tres Amigos

 

México casts a spell on me and, when I’m not there, I notice the absence of small, everyday things. Most of the time they’re part of the background and I take granted them for granted and don’t think about them—until they aren’t there—until I return to Minnesota. I miss most the refried black beans and corn tortillas. These essentials are hardly ever the central focus of a meal, but a complete meal is impossible without them.

Breakfast of scrambled eggs and refried beans.

México arroja un hechizo sobre me y, cuando no estoy por allá, me extraño las cosas pequeñas y cotidianas. El más del tiempo aparecen como un parte del contexto que doy por sentado y nunca les no pienso en —hasta las no están ahí—cuando he regresado a Minnesota. Me extraño lo más  los frijoles refritos negros y tortillas de maíz . Esas dos esenciales no son apenas nunca el foco central de una comida, pero sin les, una comida fina es incompleta.

Beans and tortillas seem like humble characters supporting the star of the main event, whether it is an omelet, mole poblano con pollo or soup. They are quiet, unassuming and modest in appearance. I think of beans as Sancho Panza, a faithful sidekick to the main course. And I view tortillas as handmaidens that carry the food to the mouth with grace.

Los frijoles y tortillas aparecen como personajes humildes realizando papeles que apoyan el curso principal si lo es un omelet, mole poblana con pollo o una sopa. Ellos son quietos, modestos y sin asunciones en sus aparecidos. Pienso en los refritos como un Sancho Panza, un compañero fiel al curso principal. Y veo las tortillas como las criadas agraciada, llevando la comida a mi boca.  

La milpa en el Jardin etnobotanica de Oaxaca

The Ethnobotanical Garden in Oaxaca contains all the major plants found in the central valley, including those of the milpa. Milpa is a náhuatl word for a cultivated field. It is a cropping system still used in parts of Mexico and central America. This is a highly sustainable form of agriculture that interplants corn, beans and pumpkins or squash. These crops grow with complementary ecological interactions that help replenish the soil’s fertility. The fruits of these plants are also the foundation of the Mesoamerican diet along with peppers and tomatoes.

El Jardín etnobotánico en Oaxaca contiene todas las plantas principales del valle central. Estas incluyen las plantas de la milpa. Milpa es una palabra náhuatl por un terreno cultivado. Lo es un sistema de agricultura qu ha sido usado por milenios en México y Centroamérica. Esta es un sistema de agricultura muy sostenible por la integración del maíz, frijol y calabazas. Crecen con interacciones ecológicas complementarias que ayuda renovar la fertilidad del suelo. Las frutas de estas plantas a lo largo con chilis y jitomates son la fundación de la dieta mesoamericana.

Meals based on corn, beans and pumpkin provide me with nearly complete nutrition. Corn tortillas supply carbohydrates and calcium, beans supply protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber, and calabazas or pumpkin squash provides vitamins A and C and other elements. These elements may be augmented with fruits, chilis and maybe roasted grasshoppers When I have a breakfast omelet, it is often stuffed with calabazas and comes with a side of refried beans and a basket of warm tortillas. It is good to  begin each day with these three amigos from the milpa.

Las comidas basan en el maíz, frijol y calabazas me proveen la nutrición casi completa. Tortillas de maíz contienen los carbohidratos y calcio; los frijoles proveen las proteínas, vitaminas, minerales y fibra; y las calabazas son ricos en las vitaminas de A y C a lo largo con otros elementos. Estos nutrimientos pueden estar aumentados con las frutas, chilis o quizás chapulines. Cuando tengo un omelet a la desayuna, lo podía estar relleno con las calabacitas con una porción de frijol refritos y una canasta de tortillas calientes. Está bien de comenzar cada día con estos tres amigos de milpa.

Second Thoughts–Segundo pensamientos


This winter, I tutored two oaxaquenosin English to help them gain a professional edge in digital communications and psychology. Now I have second thoughts about what I’ve done. The men’s parents are among the third of Oaxaca’s people who speak one of 16 languages used in that state. Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Mazatec, Náhuatl and Chinantec are the largest groups. Smaller groups, like Chontal, are dwindling to a few elders. My students wished they spoke Zapotec but their parents didn’t teach them because of prejudice against indigenous speakers. Even without bias, Mexico’s 63 indigenous languages struggle to to exist against the barrage of Spanish published and electronic media.

Este invierno, enseñé inglés a dos oaxaqueños hombres para ayudarles ganan ventajas profesionales en las comunicaciones digitales y la sicología. Ahora, tengo segundo pensamientos sobre que hice. Los padres de los hombres son entre la tercera parte de oaxaqueños que hablan uno de las dieciséis lenguas usada en esto estado. Zapoteca, mixteca, mixe, mazateca, náhuatl y chinanteca son los grupos más grandes. Grupos más pequeños, como Chontal, están muriendo con las muertes de los ancianos. Mis estudiantes desearon aprender zapoteca pero sus padres los no enseñaron a causa hay prejuicio contra hablantes indígenas. Aún sin discriminación, las sesenta tres lenguas reconocidas por el gobierno deben de luchar para existir contra una riada de español en todas modas de comunicación.

Friends in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, a poet and a teacher.
Amigos de la Sierra norte de Puebla, una poeta y una maestra.

A friend in the Sierra Norte of Puebla is a radio announcer and a poet of Totonaco. His poems express with eloquence the values and spirit of his people. Radio and writing in his native tongue are his tools for making his native language the equal of Spanish in daily use. Another friend, formerly my Spanish coach, studies Náhuatl for her master’s degree. During my visit, we spent five hours in class. I came away understanding that indigenous languages offer many alternate insights into what it means to be human.

The Mexican government supports indigenous radio stations.
El gobierno mexicano soporta los canales de radios.

Un amigo en la Sierra norte de Puebla es un locutor de la radio y un poeta totonaca. Los valores y espíritu de su pueblo están expresados en sus poemas con elocuencia. Los poemas y la radio son sus instrumentos para poner la utilidad del lenguaje nativo en un base igual con español. Otra amiga, anterior mi instructora en español, estudia náhuatl por su maestría. Durante mi visita, pasamos juntos cinco horas en la clase de náhuatl. Salí entendiendo que las lenguas indígenas ofrecen perspectivas alternativas en siendo humano.

Until recently, the dominant political cultures in Mexico and the U.S. regarded the perpetuation of indigenous cultures as barriers to ‘civilizing’ the people (as whites or Europeans). Indigenous tongues that were suppressed before are largely ignored except as quaint artifacts for tourism. Now, the greatest threat to indigenous languages seems to be mass communications in Spanish (and English) and as the principle avenue for good jobs. Can an economy function with multiple languages? Europe does. Do indigenous languages have the capacity to express today’s technologies? I think so.

Lessons in Nahuatl.
Las lecciones en nahuatl,

Hasta hace poco, las culturas políticas dominantes en México y lo EUA pensaban que la perpetuación de las culturas indígenas fue una barrera a civilizando la gente (como los blancos o europeos). Los lenguajes nativos que estuvieron suprimidos antes están ignorado principalmente ahora salvo como artefactos pintorescos para turismo. Ahora, se aparece que las amenazas más grandes a las lenguas nativas pueda ser las comunicaciones masivas en español (e inglés) y también como la vía principal para empleo bueno. ¿Podía una economía funcionar con lenguas múltiples? Europa hace. ¿Tienen los lenguajes nativos la capacidad suficiente para expresar las tecnologías de hoy? Creo que, sí.

Indigenous languages are as capable as English, Spanish or Mandarin for communicating modern technologies. One has only to study Mesoamerican ruins or the development of food crops to see their technology was often more advanced than that of Europe. The Mayas discovered and used the concept of zero centuries before Europeans. Like biological species, these languages and and cultures are distinct and integral parts of human ecology.

Las lenguas indígenas tienen tan muchos capaces como inglés, español o mandarino para comunicar las tecnologías modernas. Se tiene que solo estudiar las ruinas o el desarrollo de cosechas Mesoamericanas para ver que su tecnología era igual si no más avanzada a menudo de lo que en Europa. Las mayas descubrieron y usaron el concepto de cero siglos antes los europeos. Esas lenguas y culturas asociadas son partes distintas e integrales de la ecología humana así son las especies biológicas.

To lose a language is to lose its culture and its people. The extinction of an indigenous tongue subtracts from humanity’s larger fund of wisdom. Allowing indigenous tongues to atrophy and die is as barbaric as burning books. Spanish and English are the keys to powerful economic forces. There’s anything nefarious in learning English per se. But, the pressure and resources available to learn it for economic gain outweigh any countervailing efforts to cultivate indigenous languages. This troubles me. I can’t teach English without feeling like an agent of a globalism that may accelerate the suffocation of native tongues.

The Chocoloteco resist dying out.

Para perder un lenguaje es para perder su cultura y gente. La extinción de una lengua resta del fundo grande de la sabiduría humana. Para permitir la atrofia y muerte de lenguas nativas es tan bárbaro como quemando los libros. Español e inglés están integrados como llaves a las fuerzas económicas poderosas. No hay nada nefaria en aprendiendo inglés por sí mismo. Pero, la presión económica y los recursos disponibles para aprenderlo son más grande que cualquier esfuerzas compensatorias para avanzar las lenguas indígenas. Esto me molesta porque me siento como un agente del globalismo podía acelerar la sofocación las lenguas nativas.   

It’s That Time Again … (Es eso tiempo otra vez … )

We all have our habits and rhythms. As much a part of us as the color of our eyes and the timbre of our voices. It’s January and time to pack for Mexico. It’s part of my annual rhythm. Friends and acquaintances are asking, ‘When are you leaving?’ I say, ‘Friday.’

Todos nosotros tenemos nuestros hábitos y ritmos anuales. Tanta una parte de nosotros mismos como el color de nuestros ojos y el timbre de nuestras voces. Es enero y para mí, es tiempo para empacar para México. Lo es una parte de mi ritmo anual. Amigos y conocidos me piden ‘¿Cuándo te vas?’ Digo, ‘viernes.’

Some parts of Mexico are as familiar as my North Woods cabin, Minneapolis and the farm where I grew up. I return to certain places annually, like a monarch butterfly or migratory warbler. Each year, I’m met with something new—a place, a friend an experience. Why return there if they’re familiar? Why not strike out in new directions?

All paths lead to adventures. Todos caminos guiarte a una aventura.

Hay algunas partes de México que están tan conocido a mí como mi cabaña de bosque, Minneapolis y la finca donde crecí. Vuelvo a ciertos lugares de México anualmente como una mariposa monarca o un pájaro migratorio. Cada año, me encuentro con algo nuevo—un sitio, un amigo, una experiencia. ¿Por qué regreso a estos lugares cuando están tan conocidos? ¿Por qué no lanzo yo mismo hacía unos nuevos rumbos?

It’s a good question and I’ve considered it many times but I return because I haven’t yet experienced everything possible in those places. They are like good friends, there is always a new revelation, an aspect that expands my sense of them and my sense of self.

Es una buena pregunta y muchas veces en la he pensado. Regreso porque no he visto ni experimentado aún todo lo que es posible en estos lugares. Ellos son como amigos buenos, hay siempre una nueva revelación, un aspecto de les que expanda mi sentido de ellos y de yo mismo.

I am most satisfied going deep.
Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

With limited time, my choices are to spread myself thin across the country or dive deep in a few places. Both are legitimate ways to travel. A deep dive limits some options but expands others. As in most things, I’m most satisfied going deep.

Con tiempo limitado, mis opciones son entre extiende yo mismo delgado de través el país o buceo profundamente en pocos lugares. Los dos son legítimas maneras de viajar. Ir profundo me limite en ciertas maneras, pero la profundidad me expandirá en otras maneras. Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

The Native-speaker’s Ear

So, you’ve learned a lot of Spanish and Spanish speakers understand you. Some have even complimented you. The affirmation is gratifying and you want more. (We always want more!) And you want to sound a more like a native-speaker. Maybe blend in. Who doesn’t? But is it possible?

Speaking like a native requires mucho más— much, much more—than correct conjugation of the pluperfect  subjunctive or rolling the double ‘rr’ and or elided ‘yh’ sound of the double ‘ll’. Sometimes, speaking a little too perfectly marks you as an outsider, a talking text-book, someone who knows the words but not the language as it is spoken. Listen to yourself speaking English. How many deviations from the grammar books do you hear? Developing your capacity to speak Spanish as natives do requires developing an ‘ear’ to hear the language as they hear it. This is a tall order. Think of it as a journey and not a destination. It’s worth it—vale la pena.

How we speak our tongue is part of our individual and cultural  identity. Our verbal fingerprint is there in our accent, rhythm and phrasing. It tells some people we are a part of their group and tell others we are strangers,  ‘not from around these parts.’

Novels and short stories.

Accents, rhythms and phrasing. As children, we learned to speak mimicking our parents and peers. Their sound patterns trained our ‘ear’ to recognize and mimic the language as they spoke it. I don’t mean only the grammar but the accents, rhythm and phrasing of sentences. I grew up in rural Minnesota but my urban New Jersey-born parents taught me to speak and my English still has strains of the East Coast. Minnesotans pronounce ‘orange’ as  orj but I grew up hearing it is ahranj.

New sounds are often challenging for adults and adult language learners. As we age, a part of our brain gradually tunes out sounds that don’t conform to our native tongue. Adult language learners can master grammar and vocabulary with relative ease but struggle to understand what they hear. Developing the ‘ear’ requires developing the mental circuitry to handle it.

The American South and New England have distinctive accents. Among southerners, the vowels often glide so a word like ‘ride’ is pronounced rod or rad. And you may hear ‘done’  used as an auxiliary as in ‘I done told you.’ New Englanders have a distinct speech with a broad ‘ah’ instead of ‘ar,’ as in ‘don’t pahk yoah cah in Havahd Yahd.’ In Minnesota, our accent is flatter and we are apt to pronounce ‘police’ and ‘insurance’ as ‘p’lice’ and ‘inshurns.’ In the south, the accent falls heavier on first syllables and the words you hear are ‘po-lice’ and ‘in-shurance.’ These dynamics are at work in other countries and languages. In Mexico, for example, I hear subtle (to me) differences in the Spanish of multi-national Mexico City, multi-ethnic Oaxaca and indigenous Cuetzalán of the Sierra Norte.

Idiomatic phrasing is often as telling as an accent. In Minnesota and the upper Midwest, it is common to end phrases and sentences with a preposition or an adverb. You may be asked: ‘Do you want to come with?’ Or to confirm your café order: ‘So, you want cream, then?’ Many sentences begin with ‘you know’ or an agreement ends with ‘that’s for sure’ or ‘you bet.’

Find books on areas you plan to visit.

Acquiring an ‘ear’ for the language means hearing (and thinking) the way a native hears it. This takes time and patience. Becoming a native speaker by intent is a tall order for an adult learner but who doesn’t want to do a little better? So, how can we up our game, as it were? How can we move our already competent grasp of Spanish a notch closer to speaking and comprehending native speech?

Try this: Get some books written in Spanish—not translations from English! Choose children’s or young adult novels or short stories you can easily understand. That way, you can focus on the phrasing and rhythm of the language. Especially, look for books with dialogue between characters. Then read the stories aloud (a whisper is sufficient) and pay attention to the sound. Before long, you’ll feel the rhythm of the language, the rise and fall of the speech. With this practice, you will sharpen your ‘ear’.

If you have a strong interest in a particular Spanish-speaking country, look for novels and short-stories by its authors as idioms differ from one nation to another. As you read these books, make note of how common phrases are put together. Many phrases in English have counterparts in Spanish. You may also notice they don’t translate literally but only figuratively. As you read, you may notice the distinct ‘voices’ of the characters by the words they use and the kinds of phrases they speak. Take notes. Before long, you will ‘hear’ the rhythm and acquire useful phrases inherit to a nation or a region.

Feeling the Language

 

Language takes many forms of expression. Glyph. Oaxaca, Mexico

Can you “feel” the language when you speak Spanish as an unconscious action like riding a bike? That is, the skill comes unconsciously, without fear or thought. Regardless of fluency, you need pluck to meet whatever conversational circumstance you face. Don’t worry about how many words you know or how well you conjugate them. Your fluency will improve the more you forget yourself and concentrate on connecting with the other person. Then you’re too focused to worry about yourself and errors of conjugation or pronunciation.

 

How you feel when you speak–confident, nervous, fearful–will influence how well you speak spanish. Self-awareness is a key to overcoming the barriers to fluency. As a beginning Spanish speaker, I felt anxious about conversations, like a boy on a first date with a girl I liked. Fear of mistakes made me insecure, socially awkward and afraid of looking foolish. The first date was the hardest and I survived it to overcome the fear of self-inflicted rejection or humiliation. Try it. Who knows? You may soon “go steady.”

‘All government is an assassin.’ Graffiti in Oaxaca

Language immersion, formal and informal, gives you the saturation necessary to “feel” the language. By that I mean an intuitive trust the words and phrases will come when you need them. Nik Wallenda, who walked the cable between Chicago sky-scrapers, succeeded because he wasn’t preoccupied with falling. Like walking a tightrope, language confidence rests on going forward and looking ahead rather than looking down, afraid of falling over your mistakes.

I’‘felt’ the language in Guadalajara several years ago as a consultant to a food bank. A food bank official took me to a distribution center and  introduced me to local leaders with lavish praise. When she finished, she turned and looked directly at me. Only then did I realize she expected a response. It had to be more than “Gracias.” And I wasn’t prepared! Or so I thought. Swallowing momentary panic, I thanked her for the kind words and concentrated on what  I wanted them to know. Words poured out unconsciously without hemming or hawing. It all came out spontaneously. I didn’t quite believe it at first.

Every form of communication builds fluency

Try this: Enter into a Spanish conversation that involves topics more complex than you are accustomed to. Asking someone about their profession is a safe approach. People will be flattered and let yourself enter the vocabulary thicket without  a map, guided by trusting intuition to give you the words. Chances are good your conversation partner will help you with new words and phrases as she answers your questions. You may also develop a way to “work around” the unknown by describing the idea, object or action for which you lack the exact word. Even a work-around provides a good conversational exercise

Look for these  signs of progress toward fluency:

Dreaming. Our minds work even while our body rests. Early in the first immersion, I woke, stunned to realize I was dreaming in Spanish! It happens to a lot of students. If it happens to you, trust it. It doesn’t mean you’re fluent but it’s a sign your mind is absorbing the language subconsciously and that’s where you want it.

Social events are the greatest classrooms

Oblivious to language. At some point you will speak Spanish without conscious intention. Another big step. It happened to me when I agreed to an interview with a Mexican youth taking English classes.  Lacking confidence, she asked questions in halting English. I answered three questions in detail until her companion stopped me. “Ingles, habla en inglesHablas en espanol.” Speak English, she said, you are speaking Spanish. I was? Flabbergasted, I realized Spanish was now a “default” language. Even a meal in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. triggers an unconscious response in Spanish.

 Catching mistakes. Another sign is when you catch a mistake just before or after you make it  We all do it so, relax. Your brain moves faster than the tongue, your mind edits as you speak and sometimes you change our mind while the tongue still  conjugating  a verb you’ve just rejected. You do it in English, too. Don’t criticize your small mistakes. Perfectionism is a disease. Of course, you speak fluent English, don’t you? Then listen to how you speak English and notice your mistakes and imperfections. Conversations aren’t oral exams with a grade. Being understood is the passing grade.  Not trying is failure.

Energy at day’s end. Acquiring a language takes lots of energy at first. Then, as Spanish sinks into the subconscious, check your mental energy at day’s end. The more you feel or trust the language, the less energy you will use in conversation. Much of the ease comes from focusing on what you want to say without worrying about how you say it.

Language, like art, is an intimate human capacity of body and soul

Body language. Every culture has body language to go with the words. Check out your gestures and facial expressions as you gain proficiency. The changes may be subtle or obvious. You may find yourself talking with your hands in ways you never did before  or with more emphatic  gestures. In Mexico, I “talk” with my hands  far more than I do in Minnesota.

Above all, pay attention to your emotional state as you grow in fluency. Language doesn’t exist outside you, and it isn’t knowledge like mathematics or history. Acquiring a language is an intimate process, like art. The teacher can give you vocabulary and grammar as raw materials  but only you can make it a part of your being.

 

All Soul’s Day and the Big Bang

Life is a mystery. It’s an intangible spark science can’t quite pin down. The life-force lies behind the neurons and electrical pulses and move our bodies. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? And where does it go when our bodies give out? Does it go anywhere? Humans have asked these questions for millennia. They are questions for All Souls’ Day or Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The life we see in our world today began eons ago with the “Big Bang” that released all matter into the universe. Is the life-force within each of us a spark from  that immense explosion billions of years ago? Is it the same  spark that has passed from species to species and generation to generation through transmission, evolution, regression, mutation and adaptation, through creatures large and small, enduring and ephemeral? The fossil record reveals how the life force resurrects after large extinctions and finds new guises better suited to changed circumstances.

An alley wall on Day of the Dead

And what is death? What happens to the spark, the invisible, intangible part of us—the soul—that defines who we are more completely than our physical appearance? Where does it go? We know nothing for certain. Our opinions are matters of faith.

Today is All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recall or pray for those who have died that they might be at peace or stand in light perpetual. The theology varies from one denomination to the next but the current of belief flows in the same direction.

In Mexico, All Souls’ Day fused with an indigenous celebration of the deceased and became día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Most of us are familiar with its outward manifestations as skeletons, crania and the ofrendas or offerings of articles the deceased liked in life. Like Americans at Thanksgiving, distant members of Mexican families return home to tend family graves, share meals and, perhaps, commune with the spirits of the deceased.

A family ofrenda in Oaxaca.

I have celebrated Día de los Muertos  with Mexican friends in Puebla and Oaxaca  where I lived. Each family celebrated in its own way. For some, it was a cultural event like Christmas without religion. For others, a day of spiritual solemnity when the past and present (and perhaps the future) were united. Death isn’t seen as the end but part of a transcendent shift in form and substance. It is true we carry our ancestor’s DNA. Is it possible we bear something of their spirits as well. We may be individuals but we aren’t sui generis.

A century ago, people often observed a year of outward mourning for a spouse or family member. Grieving seems largely privatized these days and many talk of wanting a “closure” to their grief so they can “move on” with their lives and, perhaps, forget. But can we forget and move on without the memories? I don’t think so.

My parents are dead but they visit at odd moments in something deeper than a conscious memory. There’s a sense of their presence just beyond eye-sight, an inaudible voice at my inner ear. Are these visitations? I don’t know but I’m grateful for them. In death, each parent seems more clearly an individual than in the fusion of “MomandDad.” While the pain of loss has ceased, I don’t want “closure” or forgetfulness because I would lose something of myself.

A remembrance of my parents.

On All Souls’ Day I put up a photo of my parents with a candle as an ofrenda, a focal point for prayer. This year, I added a photo of Lupita, a landlady and loving friend with whom I lived as a student in Mexico. The spark of life burned brightly in her and warmed those around her. Lupita’s sudden death last year at 85 was a shock. There is comfort in pausing to give thanks for those who kindled the spark of life in me. And it is  well  to remember that I, too, am but dust and to dust I will return someday when my spark moves on.

 

 

 

 

Present in the Moment: Priceless

Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.

Even children beg.

Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?

My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?

I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.

In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.

I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?

“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.

She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.

Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.

What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.

 

An Apparition at Night

An Apparition at Night

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to flow into and out of your life only to re-emerge later and unexpectedly like an apparition? Why does it happen? And does it mean anything later? These apparitions rarely seem to happen at home but only when I travel. Why is that?

Things aren’t always  what they seem in darkness

An apparition occurred this spring in Puebla, Mexico, the evening I met my friend Maribel for coffee at el Profeta bookstore on 3 Sur. Our friendship began years ago when she was my Spanish teacher and has since deepened to include her siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews at celebrations of birthdays and other family events. It was already dark when we arrived and we talked for several hours. When it was time to leave, we went outside to say “Hasta la próxima” (until next time) with hugs and kisses. Maribel walked west to catch a bus to her barrio and I turned east toward my hotel. That’s when I saw a man standing at the corner, half in the shadows, staring at us. It felt odd but not dangerous. As I passed him, he touched my arm. “Señor, te acuerdas de mi?” Mister, do you remember me?

My first instinct was ‘no,’ I didn’t know this thin man with glasses, a week’s growth of beard and a cap jammed over his uncut hair. He wore tennis shoes, rumpled slacks, a nylon windbreaker over a button-down with and a cheap woven bag over his shoulder. His mishmash, out-of-style ensemble was the kind of cast-of clothing sold by charities in thrift stores. I assumed he would ask for money. How could he know me?

Then I looked closely into his eyes. “Sí … te recuerdo. ¿Omar?

He nodded. I knew him five years earlier and never expected to see him again. That was when I was his volunteer teacher’s assistant in the third-grade class at a Puebla orphanage. In those days, he wore pressed white shirts, peered through horn-rimmed glasses and kept his hair cut short and bushy. He was a conservative Catholic and sent his children to private schools. We worked together for only three weeks and knew little about each other.

He relied on rote learning as the primary method of instruction without explanations or helping the students understand the material. Correct answers weren’t praised and any disturbance was met with “¡Callase!” (shut-up) and “¡Vamanos!” (Let’s go!). This increased the disorder and provoked several of the boys to challenge his authority several times a day. He had no idea how I might help him so, on my own, I worked with the students one-on-one, encouraged them and gave them attention. I became the un-Omar.

Omar was a computer programmer before he took up teaching. Maybe that explained his frustration with the children when they didn’t respond like a line of code. As a teacher, I thought him temperamentally ill-suited to instructing abandoned eight-year-olds emotionally scarred by adult abuse. Maybe he reached that conclusion himself and left teaching or maybe the nun who ran the orphanage decided that for him. Whatever the case, he worked once more with the codes and algorithms he could control.

He spoke softly, even deferentially, in a way I didn’t recall and he gave me his business card. It had his name and a list of his data services. He was self-employed and, judging by his appearance, I guessed his professional trajectory was sloping downward. I didn’t want to know why. Our unexpected meeting made me uncomfortable. I still expected him to ask me for a favor (he didn’t).

I crossed the street and he fell into step beside me so we talked was we went. “I wonder what became of David and Lalo?” I said. “They must be about 15 or 16 years old now.” They were the brightest boys in the class, the greatest challenge to Omar’s authority and cried when I left.

“Ah, you remember them?” he asked.

“Yes, especially David. He said he wanted to be a narco gangster.”

I watched him dissolve into the shadows

Omar sniffed. When our paths diverged after two blocks. We shook hands and wished each other well. Then he turned up a dark street and I watched him dissolve into the shadows, a man as ephemeral as the fog. Our meeting seemed out of the ordinary, like an apparition, and I wondered if he were merely a figment of my imagination.

I walked to my hotel, perplexed and asking how he could materialize at that moment, in an unlikely spot and recognize me from a distance in the dark? How long had he been there? Did he follow us out of el Profeta and wait? Or was he already at the corner when Maribel and I left the bookstore? How could he remember me, a near stranger, after five years? Would our paths have crossed if I had left the bookstore a minute earlier or later?

My Mexican friends often react to the inexplicable events like this with, “It was meant to be.” I don’t believe in coincidences and “It was meant to be” feels like enough of an answer when I’m in Mexico. It was meant to be because I learned the language and doors opened, because I made friends and filled roles in their lives as they have in mine and because Spanish makes my life larger and wondrous.,

Was the encounter meant to be? And if it was, why? I went to bed wondering if there was something more behind the encounter? Call it superstition but when someone appears to me unexpectedly, it’s hard to escape the notion it happens for a reason. If so, I would know why in due time. And if not, then I’d know that, too. Either way, I would have an answer.

 

Surviving Greatness

Have you ever wondered what catapults a people into greatness? How is it that a culture can survive for centuries long after the collapse of the kingdom that bred it? Wherever I go in Mexico, I see the remains of great city-state cultures that rose and dominated territories for centuries. In their time, they developed languages, forms of writing, literature, mathematics, mapped the heavens, created elaborate calendars, and developed food crops we can’t live without. Then the political orders collapsed, often abruptly, but their languages and cultures survived and continue to adapt to the present. What propelled their trajectories across the arc of history, like rocks launched from a catapult? What enables the cultures and languages bred in those civilizations to survive after the husk of empire falls away? Can such things happen to the United States?

I considered this question on President Obama’s last day in office; the day I arrived in Cuetzalan del Progreso, a Mexican town perched on a mountainside in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. Its residents speak Spanish and Nahuatl, and some speak Totonaco, two of Mexico’s 68 officially recognized languages that survived the collapse of their political cultures. The poems of Manuel Espinosa, a Totonaco poet who lives in Cuetzalan, bring into the 21st century the sensibility, spirituality, and identity of the Totonacos. Without its language, a culture dies.

My friend Lorena, once my Spanish conversation coach, lives in Cuetzalan and studies Nahuatl for her a master’s degree. We traveled together to El Taji­n, a ancestral cultural site of the contemporary Totonac and Huastec people. The road  to Papantla, a city on the Gulf Coast, was scarcely wider than the bus. It descended the altiplano’s escarpment by an organic route of broken asphalt and gravel, through jungle thickets, lime groves, and banana plantations. We rolled along a placid river rosy with the reflections of dawn .

El Tajin’s temples impress you with their massiveness but their origins remain somewhat obscure. Humans have occupied the place for nearly 7,000 years. During its apogee between 600 and 1200 A.D., Taji­n dominated much of Veracruz state from until its destruction in 1230. Walking in the tropical heat, among the silent, carefully set stones, I wondered what force of will or visionary leadership made the Totonacs, the Huastecs, the Olmecs, the Zapotecs great in their time and place. And why did their kingdoms fail? Was their greatness the work of a charismatic leader or the blossom of a widely shared vision? What makes America, or any nation, great, I wondered?

We explored El Taji­n the day after the U.S. inaugurated a showman as President. He was an improbable candidate who rode into office demeaning Mexicans, promising to build a wall along the border, and break up NAFTA. What does it mean to ‘Make America Great Again?’ Does it mean anything? Or has a country already passed its apogee when the people want a leader who will remake their country as it was in a mythical golden age? That was my question for inauguration day 2017. The new President’s confusion of facts and lies pose a threat; he might destroy much without knowing it or, worse, without caring. Seeing Tajin’s great temples abandoned,  I worry  the barbarians are already at our gates.

Can any civilization survive its particular greatness? Is greatness sustainable? Do the concepts and values that bring a civilization into being contain a hidden seed of self-destruction? And where is that seed? Is it something small, unnoticed, or ignored until it sets in motion an irreversible  cascade of problems ? Does any nation or people escape this? Archeologists and historians are left to wonder: Where did things go wrong? And why?

Greatness. What is it? And how does it come about? Wandering among the stones, seeing the design, the care, the precision in construction; I’m impressed. Surely, such greatness must be the flower from a unifying vision of the people, a communal vision, the whole being the  fruit of many small things woven into daily life.

And what of American greatness? So many of our cultural norms rest on a belief in personal autonomy, an orderly and predictable society governed by laws and informed by science. We are optimists by nature; believers that tomorrow will inevitably be better than today, and upward progress is continuous. Unfortunately, the events of the last decade challenge this cultural idea. For many Americans, their todays are worse than their yesterdays and their tomorrows seem even bleaker. Those who felt forgotten or betrayed hitched their hopes, resentments, disappointments, and prejudices behind a campaign that promised to make America great once more.

Something similar happened in Minnesota on a smaller scale. Long a state with a progressive political and social culture, Minnesota burst into national consciousness in the mid-1970s with a Time Magazine cover story about ‘the good life’ in a state that ‘works.’ At the time, it was known for honest, collaborative politics, outstanding schools and colleges, numerous national corporations, engaged citizens, and an ethic of social responsibility. Unfortunately, Minnesotans have since taken their ‘goodness’ for granted, and the social compact has frayed to the point that the public prefers personal tax cuts to the cost of maintaining highways, schools, universities, and social services.

The decline of Minnesota’s ‘greatness’ and the collapse of Mexican civilizations reflect a loss of collective will and communal spirit in favor of a more individualistic, unequal, and antisocial attitude with widespread distrust of authority. Likewise, the social fabric of the United States is torn between narrow, competing visions of polity and the purpose of government. The culture has turned in on itself, consuming the good will that sustained diversity. Was this election a fundamental change in American civilization, or merely one episode among many? Sitting in the shade at El Tajin, I knew it was too early to know the answer. Nevertheless,  it was not too early to ask this question. Will our culture and its greatness survive?

 

 

 

 

Ruminate–chewing the cud of history

via Daily Prompt: Ruminate

Ruminating. Growing up on a Minnesota farm, I spent boyhood hours tending to our herd of dairy and beef cattle. They were a peaceful lot for the most part and, on hot afternoons, they lay in the shade and chewed their cuds as casually as kids chewed bubble gum. Cattle and other animals are ruminants, they chew their cuds of partially digested forage. Ruminating, chewing a cud, is what all thoughtful people need to do at this moment in time. In the U.S., we value swift decisions more than taking the time to ruminate or think about the consequences of our actions. Living in Mexico, with access to Mexican and U.S. newspapers, I have an opportunity to ruminate, to think about the current course of U.S. events.

Freize 2017 015Taking the long view—four millennia in the Museo Amparo. An afternoon in Puebla’s anthropological museum is a good place to thing amid its outstanding artifacts from Mesoamerican civilizations. I go often, and my four hours there (this time) passed through 4,000 years of human experience. The objects showed me other ways to view the cosmos, human fertility, divinities, writing, art, household utensils and political organizations. The variety of objects reflected amazing styles, some formal and realistic, others loose and abstract, still others as fresh as contemporary forms. Without writing, they used clay funereal figures with symbolic heads, noses, mouths and tongues to symbolize the virtues and accomplishments of the deceased—an obituary in ceramics. A video gallery of contemporary oral histories recounts cultural ideas and beliefs in Náhuatl, Mixe, Mixteca, Zapoteca, Chichimeca, and Maya—ancient languages still alive and necessary to meet human needs now as in the past.

Amparo 2017 020From museum galleries to artisans’ stalls in the mercado, you can see how creative energy flows from culture to culture, century to millennium. Sometimes the expression takes a new direction, at other times it doubles back on itself. Artifacts and products still throb with the human energy that pulses in our own veins and minds. You need only spend a day at the Amparo to see that primitive and advanced are meaningless ideas about cultures. Their abstract fallacy is the illusion there exists an objective standard by which to measure cultures. Human imagination seems always capable of rising to meet the needs and resources of a time and place. Comparing the artifacts and ruins of the past with the present doesn’t tell us we are more advanced as human beings. ‘Progress’ is a seductive but conceited notion; a false assumption that cultures rise upward through time toward some imaginary finish line. The ruins tell us another story.

The past is never the past in Mexico. The past isn’t behind me but all around me; time is a thin, fluid membrane lacking the harder, linear qualities I know as ‘time’ in Minnesota. The phrase ‘up to the minute’ feels meaningless here. What minute are we talking about? The moment we’re in now, or some other moment that just passed, or the one about to intrude? Today is perhaps yesterday or a century ago in another guise. Time changes its nature just as the mythic creatures of indigenous stories transform humans into jaguars or coyotes into humans. What we think of as the ‘past’ is always visible in a sidelong glance at margin of our peripheral vision. If I turn my head to look …!

I always come away from Amparo humbled about my place in a vaster cosmos. The universe is less complete without me but, at the cosmic level, I am but one speck of creative energy among multitudes that contributes to the flow of something greater than myself and whose significance I may never fathom in my lifetime. And yet, I suspect that grasping the essence of the past is no more difficult than lifting a cup of Mexican coffee to my lips.

Living here and now—noticing the other. I notice that Mexicans acknowledge strangers and each other in the stores and on the street with a nod or an unforced buenas tardes or buen día. The recognition may be small, even subtle, but it’s part of the social ‘grease’ and grace that underlies communal life. It is to say: ‘I don’t know you but I see you, I acknowledge your presence.’ It is a small but essential thing and, because my presence is repeatedly affirmed by others, I never feel alone or isolated in Mexico.

IMG_5428It makes me wonder if, in the rush of modern, urban life in the U.S., we take too little or no time to acknowledge the presence of those we don’t know. We all hunger for connection, for the affirmation of our being, but I fear we may have wrung it out of our culture with our utilitarian focus on work, and our isolation within the bubbles of shared opinions, social class, and race. Still, I believe there is a simple, human path out of our present divisions—to simply and sincerely acknowledge the presence of the ‘other,’ the person you don’t know, the person who thinks differently, or the foreigner you may otherwise fear. A simple acknowledgment of our shared existence as humans makes other connections possible and narrows the distances between us. It isn’t difficult.

 

Reading our way to freedom—literature as a subversive act. Latin American poets and novelists loom larger in the politics and history of their countries than they do in the U.S.—at least until now. Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz and many others were potent political figures in their time. People of all classes and opinions read them, and their works threatened the powerful. Why? Because words matter. Why? Because literature engages a person’s soul in a way that forms convictions.

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Writers and readers are more willing to put themselves on the line for these convictions than those who don’t read. Political novels, like It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 are suddenly popular in the U.S. Why? Literature is known to cultivate empathy, buck up courage, and guide public thinking and actions during dark times. Reading literature is subversive. That’s why book banning and burning is no accident. A well-read person knows that ‘alternate facts’ aren’t facts; they are lies. We all have a responsibility to call a lie, a lie. If we fall silent in the face of falsehood, we sanction the lie and make it our own. Reading thoughtful literature is one of the most subversive and revolutionary acts possible. Hence, our Constitution has its First Amendment. Today, it’s just possible that thoughtful reading and rumination may save us from the liars among us.

The rise and fall of civilizations—among the ruins of Yohualichan. I spent Inauguration Day 2017 at the ruins of Yohualichan in the rugged Sierra Norte of Puebla, Mexico. In this forested region of isolated indigenous towns, Spanish is the second language of many. Yohualichan is an aldea or hamlet of perhaps 500 Náhuatl-speaking residents, descendants of those who succeeded the Totonaco people and outlived the Spanish. Here, ancient traditions are passed on informally at home and through the schools. I visited these ruins just as the 45th President of the United States took his oath of office with his promise to ‘make America great again.’ (Not that the United States isn’t great already.)

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The ruins were built more than 1,000 years ago by a once great people who were conquered by the Aztecs in the 1200s, and were in turn defeated by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Wandering among the remains of stone temples and plazas, I ruminated on the elements of a great civilization, a great nation. Do civilizations and nations pass through life cycles of ascent, dominance, and decline? History is filled with empires that rose, dominated, and then fell. Sometimes, there were leaders—usually authoritarians—who attempted to resurrect former greatness by sheer force of will. Resurrection never seemed to be in the cards for the Greeks and Romans. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao briefly imposed their visions of greatness on their citizens but their empires fell because of internal contradictions.

I spent a morning wandering among stone temples, ball courts, and plazas erected without machines or draft animals. Their walls are plumb and the corners are square and the stones whispered a secret. Greatness doesn’t depend on priests, politicians or authoritarian leaders. These great structures with stepped temples were erected by a people imbued with a common spirit that bound them together in pursuit of a shared vision—even a vision of heaven on earth. The spirit that led the people to momentary greatness lasted only as long as they held a sense of common purpose. Their civilization flickered and died from internal divisions, political factions, and military conquests.

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Much still isn’t known about the culture of Yohualichan and its larger center at El Tajín in Papantla, Veracruz. The people of El Tajín recorded their history and culture on scrolls called codices. Spanish conquistedores destroyed most of the indigenous records and the accumulated information. That’s what invaders do. They try to destroy the soul of the culture, erase its history, and impose their language as a means of controlling those they defeated or conquered. In the quest to restore American ‘greatness,’ a new presidency seems bent on upending and obliterating the work of previous administrations. Its words and early actions are those of an invader and not of a successor. Like the Spaniards that toppled indigenous temples, the new regime seems set to demolish the social structures it inherited from 240 years of American experience. Already, the national endowments of the arts and humanities are slated for elimination—a de facto destruction of American codices. What else the administration may destroy is yet to be seen.

A slice of hope. Not all is necessarily lost. There are grounds for hope. After a day in the ruins, a friend took me to look at one of a dozen cisterns constructed and maintained by Cuetzalan 2017 067communal effort. Sunset was nearly on us when we slipped through the cattle gate and hiked up the mountainside through the grass. The large tank sat on a concrete pad fed by tubes from springs tapped farther up the slope. A tube at the bottom of the cistern channeled water to a dozen smaller tubes that ran downhill to the houses in the hamlet below. Water is scarce in parts of Mexico, and even scarcer in the midst of a drought. The construction, operation, and maintenance of the simple cistern is a communal project, a shared vision. This small project, multiplied by millions of people, is what makes a great civilization. This is greatness working in an indigenous municipality. We can all learn from the past, if we will.