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The times, they are a-changing...

Anne Dalke's picture
I have all my life been subject to strong mood swings: from the happiness & hopefulness that besets me most mornings, to an often not-so-much later crash into sadness & hopelessness….

So it’s been quite an experience for me to find myself living in a country where the weather is as changeable as my moods. Most mornings here in the highlands of Guatemala are gloriously clear and sunny, full of flowers, birdsong, possibility…

…and most afternoons (now, @ the end of the rainy seasons) are weighed down, contrarywise, with drenching rains, preceded by overcast skies, a sense of oppressiveness, of (not to put too fine a point upon it) an inescapable weight, a sense of doom…

What I want to try and write about this afternoon--in part in order to lift that sense of the oppressive--is the space in between internal mood swings (which seem to respond to something unknown and uncontrollable, surges of hormones, whatever) and the variable weather of Central America. What is changeable in that inbetween space, where humans relate to one another…?

I have found @ least one clear answer in the narrative I’ve just finished, Rigoberto Minchú’s autobiography, which is quite striking to me in the move it makes from the intractable conservatism of traditional Mayan ways of doing things (“You mustn’t change the way you dress, because you’re the same person and you’re not going to change from now on”) to the revolutionary work of Mayans who decided that “on this earth we have a right to what we need.”

Inbetween Minchú offers at least two striking reflections on the role that an attitude toward the world might play in revising the world: She says that, for Mayans, “bad things are like spirits, which exist only in our imagination.” That is (I think?) we can make the world, shape it after our own imaginings (cf. Hamlet 2:2: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison”). Minchú also reports on the opposite side of the coin, the positive effects that positive thinking can have: Her mother ““always dreamed about nature. I think it was just her own imagination working. But when someone believes, things that you imagine often happen.”

What I find most striking in Minchú’s narrative is the account it gives of the change in thinking—and with it the change in agency and action—that occurs. The story begins with a strong emphasis on the necessity of accepting life’s suffering. At the age of ten, all Mayan children are told, as Rigoberto’s parents told her, that “I would want many things that I couldn’t have…that, whatever my ambitions, I’d no way of achieving them. That’s how life is…” A few years later, a few years older, such children engage in a marriage ceremony that includes a promise, made by both parties, that they will suffer; a number of their children will die young, but they will bear it and go on…

On the one hand, this attitude involves an open acceptance of what is; there is no judgment of failure, but simply an acknowledgement of difference that anticipates by decades contemporary Northamerican arguments about the value of diversity:

Our people don’t differentiate between people who are homosexual and people who aren’t….We don’t have the rejection of homosexuality the ladinos do; they really cannot stand it. What’s good about our way of life is that everything is considered part of nature. So an animal which didn’t turn out right is part of nature, so is a harvest that didn’t give a good yield. On the other hand, such an attitude had meant, for centuries, that Mayans accepted the constrictions of a life defined by the suffering of poverty, the loss of children, the curtailment of ambition: “We say you shouldn’t ask for more than you can receive,” Minchú explains. “That’s what the ladinos brought with them. It’s a phenomenon which arrived with the foreigners.”

In the course of her narrative, however, Minchú learns to disentangle acceptance from resignation, to give her life over to ending oppression: “Our situation had nothing to do with fate but was something which had been imposed on us”; Mayans “had to defend themselves against it…”

Such a reorientation seems to have @ least some of its roots in the worldview traced by Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, which has opened up to me a range of other ways of thinking about the world. For instance, the 260-day divinatory calendar of the Maya is based on human and earthly—rather than astronomical—calculations. That opens up all sorts of thinking about the basis for the patterns we make of our days, and of our lives:

The foundation of Mayan timekeeping, and that of Mesoamerican timekeeping in general, is a divinatory calendar of 260 days…Contemporary daykeepers often call this sequence of days “the calendar of the earth,” thus setting it apart from astronomical intervals such as the solar year…[some insist] that the period of human pregnancy is the basis for its length…260 days is indeed close to the average figure for the interval between first missed menses (the earliest definitive sign of pregnancy) and birth. It should also be noted that the growth cycle of one of the varieties of corn planted in highland Guatemala is such that it is ideally harvested 260 days after planting. (“The Mayan Calendar,” in “notes and Comments to Dennis Tedlock’s translation of Popol Vuh ) So: what is the most productive—the most life-giving—frame of reference within which we can operate? An internal calibration? An interpersonal one? A global one? One that’s astronomical?