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.


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.)

Cuetzalan 2017 041

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.


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.

New Year’s Eve in Cuba –But not quite normal relations

ITABO-FAVORITO, Cuba. December 31, 2013.

Dawn’s first light streams across the level plains and set the roosters crowing at the top of their lungs. Itabo-Favorito is a community of two small towns in the interior of Cuba. I’m the co-leader of a religious group visiting the Episcopal Church of Cuba, a national denomination with Minnesota roots. We are on a pilgrimage to learn about hope in the face of hardship. I slip out of the dorm without waking the other men, and watch the sun rise behind three shaggy-headed royal palms standing dark against the salmon-colored sky.

This pilgrimage isn’t easy for the 11 of us. We aren’t in Cuba on a mission to be Good Samaritans caring for our poor Cuban brethren. We’re here to learn from their care of us because, despite our wealth, there is nothing we can do for them they can’t do better for themselves. Daily we face a spiritual struggle against our cultural tendency to take charge and “fix” things. Despite good intentions, acting like “Mr. Fix-it” is insulting and oppressive. Said another way, it is imperialism.

I sweat a little in the morning humidity but there is freshness in the air. From around the dormitory’s corner, I hear women working in the kitchen off the open-air dining room, their voices rising and falling as they prepare the breakfast. It is morning talk spiced with laughter.

Beyond the kitchen, a pair of men wash leaf lettuce in the bed of a metal wheelbarrow. Enrique rinses the lettuce in the water, hangs it to drip dry over a string stretched between two sticks, and then sets it aside. Victor takes the washed lettuce to the table by the courtyard gate where the townspeople stop to buy it.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy, the country turned inward to develop its resources. Sustainable, organic agriculture now provides produce for nearly 11 million people who once depended on raising sugar and importing everything else. The lettuce is grown the seven acres owned by the Iglesia de Santa María, property the government didn’t confiscate. Church employees raise lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, radishes, garlic, papaya, coffee, mangos, okra, bees, rabbits, chickens, and turkeys. In addition, it runs a filtration system to provide potable water to the community. Benedictine monks used this kind of economic development to Christianize Europe during the Dark Ages.

Enrique is a rugged-faced, muscular man in his 50s, outgoing, and easy to talk to, although his Cuban Spanish is faster and more idiomatic than my Mexican Spanish. Taking me into the fields, we compare notes on cultivating crops, adding his lessons to my farm background. A friendship blooms as Enrique and I talk – farmer to farmer. He trained as a veterinarian, he says, but had to join the army and fight in Mozambique. That’s behind him now and he is happy in Itabo.

Grabbing a handful of the red soil, I notice it is friable and easy to work. Enrique says the climate has leached the soil of minerals except for iron oxide and fertilizing is essential. Composted manure from horses, rabbits, and chickens provides soil nutrients. Once the church begins to raise hogs in the new cement hog barn, the manure will become biogas and fertilizer. Everything here works together. I think we can learn more from the Cubans than we could teach them.

La iglesia de Santa María Magdelena is under construction in the village of Favorito, two kilometers from Itabo. The building used to be a house but community volunteers are transforming it bit by bit. Although a construction company could finish it in days, relying on community volunteers, including “unchurched” ones, makes Santa María Magdelena “their” church, too. It is nearly finished. The light-colored, plastered walls are decorated with a light blue stripe. The floor is still crushed rock but the altar, tabernacle, ambo, and baptismal font rest on a tile platform.

Our small group pitches in to prepare for a raised walkway along the side of the church. There are only a few simple hand tools, and we take turns cutting the sod and leveling the ground. Chopping out a guava stump, we break the axe handle. There isn’t a replacement and we fall back on the pick-ax and take turns chipping away at the stump in the hot sun.

The rising afternoon wind dissipates the heat and the azure sky is filled with huge, fluffy clouds – like mounds of whipped cream. We finish working at 2 p.m. and four of us walk the road to Itabo. A dark-skinned woman ahead of us passes through a gate into a garden much larger than the church’s. I turn off to talk with her. Like the other Cubans I’ve met, she is open and friendly – a surprise in a country of political repression and domestic spying. She confirms the field is run by a local cooperative. Everyone in the community works on it and has a share in its produce.

Hay una fiesta esta noche por el Año Nuevo.” Smiling, she says there is a party for the New Year, and gestures to the pink rollers in her hair. “But I must do some work, too.” This is how Cuba feeds itself.

Everyone around Itabo-Favorito seems ready to party. “Feliz Año Nuevo!” the drivers and riders call out from passing pick-ups, tractors, carriages, and horse-drawn wagons. I wave and return the greetings. I’m comfortable in Cuba.

The Cubans’ esprit – their drive to make a good life with whatever they have – is overwhelming. “Making do” is a highly refined national trait. Things simple or complex are used and reused cleverly for novel purposes. People say little about what they lack, and they readily share what little they have. None of them chose a life of shortages but they’ve figured out how to enjoy their lives when they can’t get what they want. Or perhaps they are strong enough not to be consumed by a desire for what they can’t have now. Clearly, their happiness is the fruit of an attitude, a posture, and not from money or possessions. I wonder about the source of my happiness.

Cuba is a paradise of flowers and climate, sun and sea, hills and forests. Socially, it is a highly communal society, and racially well-integrated. People are politically discrete if not indifferent, and the few references to politics are sly, indirect, and subversive. No one is overtly anti-Castro, nor anti-American, and it’s clear they’re proud to be Cubans.

“Itabo is a good place to live,” says Rita, one of the kitchen workers taking a cigarette break in the palapa or open shelter. She’s a cheerful, wizened woman – minus some teeth – and old enough to remember pre-Castro days. After dragging on her cigarette, she says, “Nobody bothers us here. We are free.” !

Wood smoke and the aroma of cooking meat drifts everywhere. The men butchered a hog and the women are barbequing the meat for dinner. Until then, we snack on chicharones, pigskin fried in fat. It’s salty, crisp, and delicious!

Barbequed pork, moros and cristianos, (rice and black beans) lettuce, avocado, soup, and wine make a rich feast. Sweet, tender meat practically melts in my mouth. After eating, we talk and sip small cups of thick, sweet café cubano. A couple of the men light up puros or cigars rolled by the women who work in the kitchen! It’s another kindness on top of many others we’ve received. Our desire to give something in return meets with frustration. The best gift is the most difficult – we can be humble enough to accept with gratitude something we did nothing to deserve. It’s grace, a model of the faith we profess. That’s the point of the pilgrimage.

Our New Year’s celebration is on the plaza behind the church in Favorito. Next to the church, in front of the house, sits an effigy named “Pancho.” Cubans burn effigies to symbolically rid themselves of the old year’s disappointments. “Pancho” is made of old, khaki clothing stuffed with waste paper and other trash. His head is a ruined soccer ball; he has a painted beard, a soft, military cap, and a big cigar. We all know who “Pancho” is but no one utters his name. This is nervy and subversive because the local head of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) lives down the road. The woman of the house kisses “Pancho” goodbye before her husband sets him aflame.

The gravel plaza behind the church has several rows of chairs, a table with a computer and soundboard, and two huge speakers. There are enough amps that everyone in town will hear our music and feel free to join us. Everyone dances – children, parents, teens, and elders – the music is infectious. While we dance, we sip Cristal beer and eat popcorn snacks.

Then the dance music stops. It’s midnight. Suddenly, the speakers blast The Star Spangled Banner across all of Favorito. We’re surprised, stand with our hands over our hearts, and look about wide-eyed, wondering if the local police will raid the dance. Surely the local CDR can hear this. The Cuban national hymn follows The Star Spangled Banner, no police arrive, and dance continues until 2 a.m.

In the morning, I ask Gerardo if he’ll get into trouble for playing our anthem.

“No,” he tells me. “It’s not political. We were simply showing respect to our visitors.”

I return to the U.S. five days later after a few days in Havana where cars from the ‘fifties shuttle European tourists about the city. On its surface, Cuba is a place trapped in a moment of time. But underneath the surface, I think a lot has changed.

For the first time in its history, Cuba is politically and economically independent of the United States. I think they are proud of that even if they don’t like Castro. The history of U.S.-Cuban relations as never one of mutual respect. The U.S. tried to buy Cuba from Spain, or annex as slave state. Yankee businesses dominated the economy, intervention in 1898 forced Cuban nationalists to accept a U.S.-written constitution as the price of self-government. Until the 1930s, the Cuban constitution permitted U.S. intervention at its discretion. U.S. officials governed Cuba in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22. After that, it meddled in Cuban elections until the fall of Batista in 1959. Cubans have paid a terrible price for having the U.S. as their neighbor. Yet there is no personal rancor against individual Americans.

Now that U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing, people say they want to visit Cuba “before it changes.” What a sad, selfish statement. Cubans are eager for some changes. The country and its people are so much more than old cars cruising the Malecón and late night dance clubs. The phrase reminds me that imperialists always think the natives are happiest under their rule and don’t desire a change. Going forward, I hope our relations with Cuba are on a better, more equal footing. Then it will be truly a happy new year.