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Archive for May, 2010

God’s remarks to Job:

“My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will there at first was man’s,
Who could do good or evil as he chose.
I had no choice but I must follow him
With forfeits and rewards he understood–
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.

You are the Emancipator of your God…”

A Masque of Reason
by Robert Frost

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Más que todo, me gusta platicar con los taxistas. Es un pasatiempo mío acá en Acapulco y, también, en otras ciudades latinoamericanas. Sin olvidar, aquí ellos son parte de la economía turística, manejando turistas desde punta a punta, y esperando fuera los hoteles para ofrecer sus servicios a los visitantes. Sin embargo, aúnque no estuvieran turistas acá, habrían sido cruciales en todo el sistema de transporte.

Me caen super bien por varias razones, claro que sí, pero particularmente porque ellos saben un poco de todo. Es la verdad–ellos actúan como dioses en cuatro llantas! Son guías bien informadas. Son intérpretes de la cultura local. Son fuentes de información sobre todo lo que pasa en su ciudad: politicamente, culturalmente, historicamente hablando. Y, también, maniobrarían por todos atajos.

He platicado con varios lo que habían conducido por más de treinte años. Habían experimentado todo el mundo en el asiento a lado de ellos.

Ayer, le dije eso a uno de ellos que estaba poniendo de pie fuera mi hostel. Sonreió y me declaró:

“Y, lo que no sabemos, nos inventamos!”

Por siempre me he preguntado eso. Ahorita, ya lo sé!

Los taxistas han venido a characterizados como malos en tiempos recientes por culpa de varios que la robaron a gente, especialmente en al Distrito Federal y en zonas turísticas. Lamentablemente, eso se pasa, no solamente acá en México, sino en todo el mundo.

Pero, a pesar de todo, los son ayudantes indespensables.

Normalmente, cuando llegaba a México o Honduras, o otro país, el primer persona que me encontraba es un taxista. Sí, no hay duda, son hombres de negocios. Ellos quieren y necesitan que les pague. Mi necesitidad es suerte suyo. Es un acuerdo lo que acepto y en que lo estamos de acuerdo.

Vale la pena mencionar porque ellos son hombres de negocios se tratan de sacar lo más dinero como posible de sus clientes. Obviamente. Acá en Acapulco, por ejemplo, se regula las tarifas en autobúses (colectivos o urbanos), pero no se dirige los precios en los taxis. Resulta es que nadie es bien cierto de tarifas antes de negociarlas–y, tenemos que hacerlos cada vez! Aveces, este me vuelve loco, pero así se va.

Al mismo tiempo, poder hablar primaramente con alguien tan informado y, frecuentamente, orgullo de su patria, en un buen entrada de la estancia.

Hay otras negocias en que no recibíamos beneficios así, al muy contrario, en éstas, aplastan todo en su paso! Pero, si fueran taxistas o si tuvieran un corazón taxista (ya haya algo así?  Supuesto que hablo demasiado idealística!) habrían cuidar más todo en su paso. Porqué? Por que manaña, pues, tal véz, necesite su servicio de nuevo y, en casí cada instancia, nos dan más de un paseo, pero, también una ventana hacia al mundo.

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Qué pasa después de amanecer en Acapulco?

Acá en Acapulco hay mucha actividad después de oscura y en todas partes de la Avenida Miguel Alemán o en la  fracción más nueva, Diamante. Se pubican las guias para anunicar los barres donde podemos comprar bebidas barratas, encontrarnos una amante, y rentar una habitación en donde podríamos desfruntar ambos. Hay cosas bien conocidas que se nos indican: los bundgees y las Clavadistas en la Quebrada…se dicen que todos de nosotros tengamos que verlos!

Sin embargo, que occure en la manaña en Acapulco? Qué tal la vida normal mientras todavía duermen las turistas?

La mentalidad de la turista, a mi modo de ver, es que las unbicaciones turisticas existen solamente para consumir–no importa el lugar: Orlando, Las Vegas, Venice, o Acapulco. La gente que vive y trabaja en sitios así, no son seres humanos, sino son accesorios de la experiencia turística. Ellos existen para hacer más exótico el tiempo de las vacacciones. Quíen sabe si ellos tienen ideas o sueños o esperanzas o desafíos?

Pienso en eso siempre.

Cuando no hago otras cosas, platico con personas en la calle. Es una de las cosas más me gusta de poder hablar el español–mi experiencia de lugares como Acapulco no es totalmente mediada ni por traductores ni por guias oficiales. Afortunadamente, se me charlan, personas de todas carerras: dependientes, meseros, salvavidas, taxistas, protitutas, las policias, gente en los buses.

Aquí en este blog, me encantaría plasmar algo de éstas experiencias y ésta gente.

Esta ciudad es real, no es fantisía y hay habitantes reales (casi 800.000) que pasan su vida acá.

Hay problemas y retos substanciales aquí, esperanza del corazón. Sonya, una emplea en un hotel de lujo, me dijo que le alegra que tanta viene a Acapulco para disfrutar el ambiente, pero ella no puede recordar tiempos recientes cuando podía sentarse en la playa.

Sin duda, hay mucha que trabaja y se aprovecha de las actividades turísticas. Cuando bajan las turistas baja, también, su dinero. Sin embargo, hay mucha que no cuenta su vida por los buses que vienen de Puebla o el Distrito Federal, tampoco de las de Canadá y los Estados Unidos que compran playeras y trajes de baño en las tiendas.

Hay escuelas acá, pero el nivel del analfabetismo en entre los tres estados más peor en toda la República (lo demás: Oaxaca y Chiapas). También, hay iglesias…y no solamente la más famosa en el Zócalo (que fue construida por una película en los años trenta). Como otras comunidades hay bibliotecas, series de películas, charlas de libros, clínicas, y personas de todas carerras, buenas y malas.

Quién son? Cuál es la forma de su vida?

No estoy dormiendo por causa de una resaca, así que despierto por la manaña. Entonces, quiero saber: Qué pasa en Acapulco después de amanecer?

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Acapulco After Dawn (1)

What happens when the sun comes up?

Here in Acapulco there is a hopping night-life whether you are in the Condesa along Avenida Miguel Alemán or in the even newer Diamante section of town. Fromm Guides, Moon Guides, Lonely Planet Guides, all of them tell you where to get strong drinks, cheap dates, and a reasonable bed to finish off both. The cliff divers in La Quebrada are a must-see, and the bungy jumping is a must-do (except for when the cord snaps!). All this is well-known, well-documented, and is explored again and again every time the sun goes down.

But what happens when the sun comes up in Acapulco? What is life like while the tourists are sleeping off the night before?

Part of the mentality of the tourist is that the location exists to be consumed–whether Orlando, Las Vegas, Venice, or Acapulco. The people who actually live and work in these tourist locations are props, not people, and they exist to exoticize the experience for the consumer. The nameless girl in the grass skirt, the shoeless child we put our arm around in the photo–who knows who they are, what their life is like, what they think or even if they think.

I wonder about this all the time.

Much of what I do when I’m not doing something else is, is talk to people. This is the beauty of speaking Spanish; my experience here is no longer mediated exclusively through guides and interpreters, so I take advantage of it. I’m usually enough of a novelty that people talk to me–shop keepers, waiters, lifeguards, cabbies, prostitutes, police officers, commuters on the bus.

In occasional posts I want to capture some of that experience.

This is a real city with real inhabitants (about 800,000), there real issues here, real struggles, real hopes. Sonya, a hotel employee, said she is glad so many people come here to enjoy the bay, but she couldn’t remember the last time she was on the beach.

While many here either work in or benefit from tourism–and they can tell off-season by the decline in their income–many do not, and their lives are not determined by the flow of tour buses from Puebla or Mexico City or the T-Shirt consumers from Canada and the US.

There are schools here, but Guerrero is ranked as one of the three Mexican states with the lowest rate of general literacy (along with Oaxaca and Chiapas). There are churches here, and not only the one in the Zócalo that was first built (then abandoned) as a movie set. There are libraries and film series, and book talks, and health clinics, and veterinarians, and funeral directors, and drug dealers, and tattoo artists. Who are these people and how does life happen here?

I’m not sleeping off a hangover, so I’ll be awake in the morning. I want to know: What is Acapulco after dawn?

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Barth in Indiana

Uncle Karl does not have a passport so he has to stay in Indiana. As much as it pains me to hit the “pause” button on a project underway, I won’t be toting volumes of the Church Dogmatics with me to Mexico; I’ll resume the reading in July when I return.

"It pleases me to summer in Indiana," said noted theologian, Karl Barth, "but Dr. Johns is unkind not to take me to the beach for at least one day of play."

As I announced last week here at Theography, I have committed to reading Barth’s entire magnum opus and began doing so on his birthday, May 10. I’m nearly 250 pages into I/1 (I’m trying to only include Barth quotations in my blogs from pages I have actually read during this year-long plus marathon).

Since it is my practice to only read material in Spanish while in Mexico (Honduras, etc.), Karl has to stay home–my copy of the CD is an English translation.  Maybe it’s crazy, but as much as is possible, the only exception I make to this rule is reading email (and blog comments, of course). However, this ought not stop the rest of you from reading Barth throughout the month of June. We’ll compare notes when I return.

Citing concerns over the new Immigration Laws in Arizona, Swiss theologian Karl Barth cancels lectures in Phoenix and Tucson. "I don't look 'Arizonan,'” he told reporters, “I will limit my summer travels to Richmond, Indiana and surrounding communities."

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I will spend six weeks in Mexico this summer on a writing retreat. This won’t be a formal retreat connected to an organization or something put together by a particular writer’s group. This will be me, a notebook, and some pencils. I write all the time–in the office, at home, sitting in the car waiting at traffic lights. Why go to Mexico to do something I generally do no matter where I am?

First, I must confess that I love Mexico. If I said anything overly spiritual about my reasons for writing there those who know me well would rightly call me out and press me to be honest. So, up front, full-disclosure: I love Mexico. I fell in love with the country after my first visit in April 2007 and I have returned several times, led two student groups there, and even spent the summer of 2008 as a Friend-in-Residence at the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. So, I confess–love of Mexico is clearly one of the reasons why I will spend six weeks there. (For those who know me, this love of mine is not a overly romaticized love–when I was robbed in October 2008 in Cuernavaca with a pistol to my forehead that took away any glamorized view I might have possessed!)

But the reasons extend beyond this. I am working on a project about disorientation, tentativeness, and the provisional. I’m writing about the importance of holding our theology seriously, but lightly…writing it, as it were, in pencil rather than in ink.  (I’ve written a little about this elsewhere on Theography.)

If there is an attitude I am challenging in this project it is one of over-confidence and self-assuredness. This is something which I don’t believe is helpful to our theological work. Ok. Again, for those who know me, perhaps I am actually speaking to myself and trying to grow into a spirituality textured more by trust in God than confidence in my own abilities! Nevertheless, for me and anyone else who will listen, the point is to challenge us to have the courage to be honest about what we do not know and to trust that God can speak powerfully even in this “limitation.”

“The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church,” writes Karl Barth, “has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49, also 163) He goes on to argue that in theological work we don’t need “assuring” as much as “deassuring,” an actual “theological warning against theology, a warning against the idea that its propositions or principles are certain in themselves” (CD I/1, 165).  It’s somewhere between “full assurance” and “no certainty” that I’m aiming for.

It is important, then, for me to write somewhere where I am not overly confident or so familiar that I am lulled into certainty. So, I won’t be writing in a university library, nor in my campus office, nor even in my study at home. Yes, I’ll write in a context I love, but it will be one where I am not an insider nor one where I am so comfortable that I can be overly self-assured.

There is an edginess to Mexico that keeps us all wondering. In El Laberinto de la Solidad, Octavio Paz speaks of a deep questioning of identity and inheritance that is part of the Mexican psychology. This clearly grows out of the Spanish conquest, but it continues into the present. Who are the cultural mothers and fathers and could the present have come to be apart from the “sorrowful birth” brought about by Cortés’ defeat of Cuautémoc? In another sense, Mexico City has been described as full of “chaotic energy,” where everything that exists in the world is present at the fullest stretch imaginable.

And yet, at the same time, at every level of society and in every community across the Republic, there are random eruptions of joy splashed with bright colors and enough music to make even hardcore gringos burn their return ticket.

To think and write about theology in this context is to be aware of how much is provisional and even “on the run.” I won’t have to imagine disorientation; I will be in the middle of it living it in my skin. Yet, to write in Mexico is also a reminder to me of how, even in this uncertainty, there is and can be joy.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent when we do not know something—whereon one does not know, thereon one must not speak, or something like that. Of course, Wittgenstein didn’t follow his own advice and neither do most of us. Occasionally we try, but the pressure to say something is strong, the desire to appear knowledgeable too tempting for us to hold our tongue for very long. Maybe he was right—whereon one does not know—and, who knows, maybe there would be fewer conflicts, inner and outer, if we chose silence over bullshit—thereon one must not speak—but we’ll never know for sure.

I’m a professor. This means I’m expected to know a few things, which I do. But whether society expects it or whether my own insecurities demand it, I don’t often chose silence when I don’t know something. I try to find something useful to say, or something clever, or at least I try to sound smart as I think out loud.

When I traveled to Guatemala to teach a workshop on Quaker testimonies I had been speaking Spanish for only one year. I had a lot to say about the topic, but I hadn’t packed enough words to say it.

“Everyone has something that trips them up. Anger. Fear. Something. What’s it for you?”

I stepped over a stack of books when I walked into the office and set my briefcase close to me on the sofa cluttered with magazines and papers. I had never been asked this in a job interview. I might have brushed it aside as inappropriate, but it was coming from the college’s president. “What trips you up?”

There were just the two of us and the sound of our gazing. “I don’t like to look incompetent in front of people,” I said.

I didn’t hesitate and it wasn’t a scripted response; I think I told him the truth. Thereon I knew, so thereon I spoke.

I never wanted to travel to Guatemala or Honduras. I wanted to see India or the Egyptian pyramids, or to kiss a complete stranger atop the Eiffel Tower. But after a reluctant trip to Central America with co-workers, I had become taken with Mesoamerica and just about everything latino, including Guatemala and the language of 350 million people.

I thought I would spend my first sabbatical in Europe breathing the musty air of a great university library writing an important book, or maybe backpacking through India studying ancient rituals and swimming in the murky sacred waters of the Ganges. But in February 2007 I was in Chiquimula, Guatemala, one year old in a new language and a sophomore in confidence.

La Iglesia Amigos Embajadores had invited me to speak to them about the “Quaker Testimonies,” core principles of Quaker faith and practice. I was eager to practice the Spanish I was learning, so I said yes without really considering whether it made sense to do this. I showed up with a stack of notes, my Langenscheidt Spanish dictionary, and an ego big enough for three people.

The church started to fill with workshop attendees from Chiquimula, then a van arrived with a dozen more who had driven all day from El Salvador. Not long after, a couple from Honduras walked in and took a seat. In the colleges where I’ve taught, some students found the dorms a time zone away from the classrooms. I was surprised these people were here to listen to my talk. As I made last minute preparations the attendees visited and made small talk. I overheard some of it but realized I wasn’t eavesdropping because I couldn’t understand most of what was being said.

The meeting room was a cavernous two-story space, wooden benches, tile floors, and not a stitch of cloth to absorb the echoes. Through the morning and into the afternoon the entire room was bright from sunlight that gushed through ten-foot tall open windows. But the sun was slipping behind the mountains as I was introduced and I took my place at the podium beneath the dull glow of florescence.

I’d given this talk a dozen times before—in English, no problema—but this time had to find another way to say familiar things. This alone was enough to cause me to think differently about my words. But on top of that my mouth vibrated through the entire talk, a sensual buzzing along the roof of my mouth and length of my tongue.

I have a friend whose Spanish is very good and we practice together from time to time. His Spanish is better than mine, but he sounds like a North Carolinian. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like a North Carolinian, especially if one was born there, like my friend. But Spanish has a kind of buzzing, vibrating, purring feeling if you let your mouth play with it. I likely sound more a mid-western boy trying to speak Spanish than I think I do—I’m not fooling anyone—but I try to let my tongue taste the language I am learning.

So, even though the ideas were familiar—this point leads to that one, and another comes in later—and although a lot of words were similar—testimonio, cuáqueros, expresión—it all felt different, each word reminded me that I was somewhere between everything I didn’t know.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” That’s good advice—whereon one does not know. I was talking with my mouth full and I could feel my cheeks swelling, stretching. I knew sooner or later my talk would be unintelligible and I would choke on my words.

La integridad, la igualdad, and la paz. Each of these testimonies was familiar to me, I had scribbled lecture notes to prove it, and three nations sat before me nodding in recognition, or politeness. Integrity. Yes. Equality. Of course. Peace. That’s who we are.

There is a fourth testimony, simplicity.

I had the Spanish translation of a 1927 statement from Philadelphia Quakers that I had wanted to read aloud: La verdadera sencillez consiste, no en el uso de formas particulares, sino en la privación del exceso de indulgencia, en mantener la humildad del espíritu… true simplicity, I wanted to tell them, was not a matter of certain kinds of forms but in limiting indulgent excess and maintaining a humble spirit.

I stopped.

I tried to say the word, but I couldn’t. I had used it before in another context—simplicidad—that was one word, another was, sencillez, both mean simplicity and neither is hard to say—sem-plee-cee-dad (accent on the last syllable); sain-see-YAAZ (double ll’s pronounced like a Y…or a J if you’re from Columbia or Argentina). I wasn’t sure which was best, so I planned to use both, like a walking thesaurus. But when I tried I couldn’t pronounce either. I just wanted to say a simple word simply. No purring R’s, nothing fancy. Simple. Simplicity itself. But my mouth was too full and the buzzing felt like a flaying live wire whipping back and forth. There was no room for anything but the one thing I didn’t want.

My face was hot and the front of my shirt was already dotted with blots of Rorschach sweat. Read the smudges: “What trips you up?”

I stammered trying to spit the words from my mouth. I wanted to teach my workshop, to leave and have everyone amazed at how much Spanish I had learned in a year. I wanted people to say: Mira, es casi latino! he’s almost Latino! I wanted more than anything to teach my first workshop in Spanish and not make an ass of myself. But I fell headlong into a stammering mess.

I saw my house back in the states—comfortable in Indiana—extravagant in Chiquimula. The weight of all the letters following my name felt like a string of pearls at a picnic. I felt the irony of a sabbatical, the economic privilege of time and money to travel and be with people who had neither the money nor the time to do the same.

I couldn’t hide, standing in front of three-dozen people, each one willing to help me find the words I needed. I needed to end the talk and get out of there. The longer I spoke the more obvious it was that I was working with a limited palate of words, repeating them in a fashion to make my point but unable to take us as deep as I wanted us to go.  It was best to come clean and to confess that I was falling apart—I wasn’t fooling anyone.

“I don’t know what to say,” and I told them that I was feeling embarrassed, guilty, that I had nothing more to say, and couldn’t finish the talk. I’d never done this before, even when, years ago, irate with class, I had too much to say that I walked out of the room leaving them confused until the next week.

Qué pasó? I heard someone ask.

“What’s wrong?” I looked at the floor and mumbled about how I had come from a wealthy and materialistic country, that’s ‘what’s wrong!’ I knew nothing about their lives, that’s ‘qué pasó!” I had no business talking to them about anything, much less about sencillez. I don’t know whether they had ever witnessed someone crumble before their eyes under the collective weight of their gringo life, but that’s what they got when they invited me to speak.

“Just tell the truth, hermano,” I heard a woman say.

“I don’t know what that is,” I said.

“I have no idea what the truth is.”

The enormity of the room collapsed, the air was gone, and we were all squeezed into a shoebox. But in the box echoed, “I don’t know…I have no idea.” Still looking at the floor I added that I felt like un mentiroso y un mendigo, a liar and a beggar.

Thereon I knew.

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