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.
Taking 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.
From 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.
It 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.)
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 communal 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.