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“The world is a handkerchief”

Anne Dalke's picture
My tutor told me this morning that I was a philosopher. This was not a compliment.

It arose in the midst of her explaining to me the multiple uses of “ser” (as opposed to those of “estar”). I was (of course) questioning the distinctions, the possibility of any action or state—any—being “permanente.” This was followed by an intense discussion of the verb “haber” (used to “indica existencia,” as in “there is/there are”). It all ended in my giving myself a homework assignment in which I used various forms of “ser,” in an attempt to demonstrate the impermanence of all states of being.

It was beyond my capacity, in this essay, to explore the other matter which interests me: the suggestion, when we use the passive voice, that we are not agents (for example, to say that “there is no cheese in the refrigerator” doesn’t indicate which one of us has forgotten to do the shopping). I was thinking, on the one hand, of how I’m always urging first-year students @ Bryn Mawr to use the active voice, because it’s so clear and direct in indicating who is responsible for an idea. In contrast, Quaker minutes cultivate what the secular world would call a passive voice (“it was the sense of the meeting that…”). This is actually, in this context, a strong way of indicating that the action is coming from beyond the individual, is led rather from or by the world of the Spirit.

You know, of the nice things about learning Spanish (and trying it out in bits and pieces on my English-speaking friends and family) is that I get some back again, on e-mail and in other forms. One my correspondents (who also happens to be one of my children) sent this advice earlier this week: "Tú acuerdas, el mundo es un pañuel." I was having a lot of trouble w/ this (“the world is a handkerchief??), but my teacher gave me a hand up. First she pulled out a visual aide: she took a napkin, folded it in halves, then in quarters, then on the diagonal.Then she it crunched up, and said, "El mundo es un pañuela significa el mundo es pequéno, y cambia, ye tiene muchas formas, y muchas interpretacionés"—which is to say that the meaning of “the world is a handkerchief” is that the world is

  • small,
  • changing (and changeable),
  • can take many different forms, and
  • is open to many interpretations.
Wow. Not so far different from what I noticed Rigoberta Minchú saying, in my reading of last night: that for the Mayans, “bad things are like spirits, which exist only in our imagination.”

I’ve decided to make this my motto for this semester’s travels. Think about it: “The world is a handkerchief.” (And thinking makes it so?)