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Reflections after the Storm

It’s almost three weeks after the hurricane and Barra de Navidad is beginning to look better. The same can not yet be said for other places nearby, not yet anyway. And by ‘other places’ I refer not only to settlements but plantations and farms. Hurricane Jova turned this part of Mexico upside-down, and for those of us non-Mexicans living here it was an opportunity to serve, to pitch in and help out. Many of our lives have begun to take on an identity with the community and we tend more towards a lifestyle that cultivates relational participation than self-enclosed passivity. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher said, ‘In the beginning is the relation.’ We are Response. For the way in which we respond to other human beings and the non-human creation. We often laugh at the questions we get from people up north who ask, ‘What do you do down there in Mexico anyway?’ Maybe they imagine we’re on the beach nursing margaritas, living the vida loca. Last week an official from our bank in B.C. called, and before saying good-bye she added, ‘Have fun in Mexico!’

Have fun in Mexico?! I laugh now just thinking about it. We’re still cleaning up after Jova who left us in a pretty mess. Difficulties abound everywhere in this region. People need help. And we are inescapably involved whether we like it or not. Oh we can withdraw when we need to, it’s a common response to feeling overwhelmed, but in the long run it turns out that the easy option is not the best one. It’s not a club – it’s a community, and love undergirds what we do and what we say
here. The Response is also the Community.

The night of the storm I felt like I was lost at sea – the wind sounded like a gigantic beast about to blow the lid off the house, leaving us stranded, adrift on a piece of furniture we managed to grab before the waves took us under…I felt paralyzed. I remember thinking at one point that nature was very angry, that the oceans and the land ( which were both meant to be managed by us as a gift ) were finally giving voice to a weary and beleagured existence by an extreme kind of assault on the poor people of Mexico, me included.

I think Mexicans have learned, for the most part, that fear never need rule them.They are still living in gratitude and peace; they know that it’s the courage to continue that counts.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, you know what you know.
And you’re the one who’ll decide where you go.
And oh the places you’ll go.
Dr. Seuss

I look back on that storm and I’m ashamed of my fears. ‘Pavor’ isn’t quite what I experienced .. pavor is like a phobia, an intense loathing if you will. Neither are ‘espantar’ or ‘asustar’ the right verbs to use because they means ‘to scare’ or ‘scare away’, both fitting words for Hallowe’en. And ‘aterrador’ meaning ‘terrifying’ doesn’t hit the mark – ‘me da terror’, ‘me da panico’ and ‘me da horror’ don’t work for me either … they’re all too strong. Maybe I’d better stick with the classic ‘el hurracan me dio miedo’ or ‘tenia miedo’. Your run-of-the-mill type of fear. ‘Tengo miedo de….’ the bogeyman, the walking dead, water rats, scorpions in the toes of my shoes. And hurricanes.

Oprah, who wasn’t loved as a child, said you must be fearless to give yourself the kind of love you didn’t receive. Yes, fearless. And great heart. The heart is our source of creativity, courage and conviction. Begin, she said, by noticing that every new day brings a new opportunity for personal growth, that every choice gives you a chance to pave your own road. It’s then that you can begin to move forward. And oh the places you’ll go.

Keep on moving. Full speed ahead. Toward the lighthouse if you feel at sea. Buen consejo, no..?

The Cornerstone Survives ‘Hurracan Jova’

‘Al mal tiempo, buena cara.’ This expression is like our catchy little phrase ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ But that’s a lose translation of the Spanish expression; more literally it means ‘in bad weather, or in bad times, we put on a good face, we maintain a cheerful attitude.’ And that’s just exactly how it was, indeed, how it continues to be, during this post hurricane season in Barra de Navidad and outlying areas.

It was our very first hurricane, both ours personally and the Cornerstone’s. The latter is a school located, appropriately, right next door to our home. When news of the hurricane arrived in our part of Mexico, the ‘Costa Alegre’, I wasted no time clearing out all the books and teaching aids from the school and tarped up all the furniture to protect it from flood – at this point in its humble history the Cornerstone still lacks doors, both front and back – my husband installed huge tarps fore and aft stabilized by bricks, with just enough opening to let in some of Barra’s beautiful sunshine, making the verbs written on the walls easy for struggling students to use in conversations, dialogues or simply drills. I didn’t have far to walk, but it seemed the textbooks were everywhere in the house, on the furniture in the living room – tables and chairs were placed on ‘stilts’ – in boxes upstairs and in our bedrooms too, anywhere that had a flat surface. I’m a booky person, a nerd, a ‘ comelibros’, an eater of books. And these were just my Spanish and French books, obtained from Amazon or second-hand bookstores up north during visits to see family, testimonies to my life-long devotion to second language teaching, many of them dragged down in suitcase after heavy suitcase, at a cost far exceeding their actual worth if one views this ‘gigantesco’ assortment of libros with objectivity, which for me is not at all possible, but which for others, namely my husband, is quite possible but is no longer a matter of irritation.

Once installed in the house, with supplies of food, water and candles, we waited for the storm to hit. And we had no idea how hard that hit would be! We’d viewed several websites and they gave differing wind velocities – how can you be discerning if one website gives three different velocities? Do you take the average of the three? I’d been ‘sheltered’ all my life living in Victoria, B.C., where the biggest weather challenge amounted to a sprinkling of snow once or twice a year. How to deal with a hurricane was completely different, but we assured our children with optimistic voices over the phone that all would be well and not to worry if we were incomunicados for a while, for at least as long as the power was out.

The evening it ‘hit’ – not a very descriptive word because the sounds it made increased steadily and became more and more fierce, whipping the house in strong, loud gusts – my poor cats went wild, and the little Cornerstone kitty was, for once on my husband’s orders, able to enter the house. Thoroughly exhausted, we finally went to bed upstairs ( ‘ upstairs’ so we’d at least have the stairs to keep us from drowning should a sea surge take place ); my husband, for all his concerns, fell asleep immediately, while I gripped the sheets and fended off freaked-out cats. And it was oh, so hot! At one a.m. there was a loud announcement from the ‘Proteccion Civil’ stating in two languages that ‘the coast was affected’, plus a reiteration about the importance of keeping documents safe. Nada mas, unless it was to tell us to ‘stay put’, my words though, Mexicans are by nature polite, even in emergencies. I was straining at the rumbling walls to try to catch every valuable word, cats still bouncing off the ceiling and walls. I remember thinking, do I live or do I die? There’s a phrase in Spanish that I like and that describes how I felt … ‘sudar la gota gorda’ … sweat the fat drop. I was sweating it out, ‘sudando la gota gorda.’

Gracias a Dios, we made it through the night. But the chaos the next day was frightening, especially along the ‘costa alegre’. In Barra the restaurants along the water were indeed ‘affected’ – many were part way into the sea, their walls falling into the heavy, brown surf. And people’s attitudes? Well, practical, realistic… some getting rid of equipment and furniture destroyed by rain and sea water, others scooting into the church to give thanks that their lives and the lives of their families had been spared. ‘A mal tiempo, buena cara.’

My husband and I swept, yes swept, a good deal of water out of the Cornerstone, but apart from this inconvenience there was no damage at all. In the distance a mournful dog howled closed up in somebody’s house, and people everywhere were sweeping water, sweeping up broken things and hanging out things to dry, putting the pieces of their lives back together. With dignity. With ‘buena cara.’

Taking Responsibility

One of the reasons why I write this blog is to educate my students. I appeciate the generosity of ‘WordPress’ because I now have an avenue to teach more about the culture of a people. And that’s always interesting. There’s never enough time in a class to teach or discuss even some of the most key elements of a culture because the language spoken in class is the language the students are grappling with to learn; they’re involved in this daily immersion of foreign words, namely its sentence structures, its idioms and vocabulary. Those engaged in learning this second language, then, are sometimes missing the enormously complex web of social nuance behind the idioms or phrases, and, as we’re about to appreciate, its verbs.

In the Spanish language, the learner catches glimpses of an intricate culture, not in a museum sense, but in a personal and relational sense, albeit ambivalent. Any language reveals its social need for conversation and intimacy, and the Spanish language is no exception; some of its verb structures imply a reluctance to assign blame, much like in Japan with the Japanese society, where one sees ‘shame’ rather than ‘guilt’ embedded in the culture and therefore in daily conversation.

What I love about Spanish is its beautiful sounds, its colloquialisms which are often funny, its logic and its melody. And what some students of mine find amusing are these verb structures which appear to defy guilt or blame; Mexicans, even in small, insignificant situations, like forgetting a newpaper or dropping a glass, find it appropriate to blame the ‘wrong’ on some undefined, outside source beyond their control. The sentence structure used is “se” ( itself ) plus an indirect object pronoun ( me, te, le, nos, les – to me, to you, to him, to us, to them, respectively ) so that instead of saying ‘ I forgot my key’, you are really saying ‘The key forgot itself to me’, removing an cause for blame. ‘ Se me olvido la llave’. It wasn’t my fault. I can attribute the forgetfulness over the key to some exterior force over which I need not take personal responsibility. Or, dealing with the idea again of the key, one might say ‘Se me perdio la llave’ – the key lost itself to me. Was I guilty of carelessness? Heavens no!

On average, then, without ( I hope ) generalizing too much, the Mexican personality displays more of an interest in reputation or image, perhaps in fear of social humiliation should the ‘wrong’ be discovered. I think this is more the case with men. That which is seen is important. These men have a tremendous need to be respected. This need for dignity, and respect, another aspect of a people ruled by leaders who haven’t cared for their needs, is understandable when one remembers Mexico’s history. The Aztec Empire, for example, was a hierarchial regime in which the majority of people lived at the bottom level, obeying commands from their ‘superiors.’ Two authoritarian regimes, the Catholic Church and the Spanish administrators, helped to further shape a culture in which ‘verguenza’, or shame, was more predominant than ‘culpa’, or guilt. Historians tell us that the Catholic priests who ruled the people for some 400 years after the Aztec Empire fell to the Spanish conquistadors were corrupt, and so were the Spanish viceroys, most of whom were either extremely incompetent or cruel, or both. Over the centuries a sort of rationalizing away of ‘culpa’ too place – they simply could not be blamed for all the bad things that befell them. How could they? Things just happened ‘by themselves.’

Is it fair to say that the concept of individual conscience, so ingrained in our WASP culture, is lacking in this one? I’m not sure. But I do know that being able to discern real truth from ‘personal truth’, or that which the Mexican would really like to be true, is a constant challenge for us living here in Mexico.

I love my Mexican students. I really do. My husband and I are lucky to know some outstanding Mexicans. And besides friends, we also have three Hispanics in our family, two Mexicans and one Dominican. I love their passion, their senses of humor and their love of family. Their language is sometimes challenging, but always fun. Being with them is like sharing all the wonderful things a big meal brings to the participants, especially a love for each other.

Reporting from ‘Cornerstone Idiomas’ in Barra de Navidad.