Hi Friends and Family:
I started this blog three summers ago. The moment I returned home from that trip I was planning the next one; knowing I must return. Spent a good amount of the past two years with my mind in the Andes, and six weeks of last summer actually there again. Now it is time to go back, and folks have asked for more blog posts, so here I go:
I have three notions to share: the first about threats to the Quechua languages; the second about two homes; the third about modern-day mythology.
The Quechua verb “to speak,” rimay, gave the city of Lima its name. But the word has taken a strange turn in its contact with Spanish. In Bolivia, “rimay” now means “to speak against/gossip/malign” while the European word “parlay” has taken its place in Bolivian Quechua. I learned this when trying to show off my new abilities in Quechua to a Bolivian friend – I said “let’s speak Quechua” using rimay and she said that made no sense.
This is not the first time that Quechua words have been distorted through contact. Regina Harrison points out that the word “supay” for both good and evil spirits took on the restricted meaning “devil” within less than 40 years of the Spanish conquest. (Signs, Songs, and Memory in the Andes, 1989.)
What does it mean to speak a language whose social relationship to another language causes the negative distortion of its most basic vocabulary?
2) Thoughts about Two Homes:
If I ever get to write a book about the paradoxes that the Andean mirror holds up for this planet, I would like it to start with the image of two houses. Each of them exists today on the same planet. The first one sits in my hometown in the center of a park; it was built by a college professor of history and his students to show everyone what building methods and standards were required in Williamstown at the time of its founding around 1753. “In order to gain a title to a lot, settlers were required to clear five acres and construct a house measuring at least 15 by 18 feet with a 7-foot stud, hence the name “regulation” house.”
I walked by that living museum hundreds of times in my childhood, and the couple of times I went inside I noticed that the floor was made of dirt and the fireplace of stone. It seemed a dark and small place to contemplate living.
Now I am about to spend a month living in a house that is of a similar size and level of technology. It is not made of wood but rather, adobe; and the fact that it has a fireplace at all is an innovation not used in most other rural Andean homes I have been in, which use tiny clay platforms for cooking over fires of sticks, and a hole in the wall for escaping smoke.
The paradox, to me, is that these houses exist at the same time. One of them is a museum symbolizing forgotten ways of living; the other represents innovation and is lived in now.
What does it mean to live in a house that represents forgotten and abandoned ways for one society, and innovation for another? I know that it will mean something different to me, the visitor, than to the family that is hosting me.
3) Modern myths:
I have been reading a fabulous book about north American Catholicism, written by a great intellectual and big-hearted religious reformer named James Carroll (“Practicing Catholic.”) One of the striking statements Carroll makes early is that “Once a believer has learned to think historically and critically, it is impossible any longer to think mythically.” I tend to disagree; I think the lines between myth and criticism simply get more complex and hard to detect as society gets more dependent on science.
I will be exploring the relationship between critical and mythical thinking as I relate to today’s practitioners of animist religion. One hunch I have is that we post-industrial city-dwellers imagine ourselves to be more scientific thinkers than folks who work the land and worship stones. Certainly, writing and computers allow us to communicate our thoughts to one another in greater volume. But I doubt that people who work the land are any less attuned to experience as the measure of reality than we are.
That’s it for now folks.
I get on the plane tomorrow and wake up in Peru on Friday.