Maya — no meany

December 21, 2012

This was my first ‘In a Word’ column for The Montpelier Bridge, published several years ago.

We are walking down a jungle path, in the Yucatan, on our honeymoon, with Marcellino and the children from his village. He has just shown us a cave, the cueva that they show to visitors. Taken me into it, while Jo sat outside singing to the children. Feet first through a small black hole, into the dark with a broken piece of candle and an ember from a cookfire. The cave was small, one room with a sandy floor, an arched rock ceiling and a sliver of water against one wall. We have knelt down together and with cupped hands drunk the cold water, “mi pueblo,” he said slowly, knowing I spoke no Spanish, “prehispanica, agua.” My people, before the Spanish, water.”

He is Mayan, speaks it, and Spanish, and wants to learn some English words, so he can be a better guide to the next pair of wandering gringo honeymooners who stumble down this path. “Cave” he repeated, several times. “Stalagtite, stalagmite…” these were more difficult, hard to say, hard to distinguish, and since I could not remember which hung down and which stood up, the attempt at precision seemed pointless. In Mayan there is one word for both (I can’t recall it) and his cave had one of each, and one giant brown bat that flapped its wings like a gull as it guarded the entrance.

“Maya,” I say, as we walk along the footpath, “what does Maya mean?” “No meany,” he responds. No meany, I repeat it to myself, no meany…. “No meaning?” I ask, this time out loud. “Si,” he responds, but a little unsure, “no meany.” No meaning, possible, I think, unlikely though. I repeat it again, silently, and then, out loud,“Not many?” “Si, si,” he responds, this time emphatically, “not meany.” Not many. “Few?” I venture. “Si, si, few.” Few, few… my mind is flying now, associations rippling out in streams, in filaments searching for words to land on.“Chosen?” I ask. “Si, si,” Marcellino is as excited as I am now, “si, the chosen.” From “no meaning” to “the chosen ones” in the course of thirty seconds, a nice bit of semantic speed-skating.

My mind jumps to the Inca, another pre-hispanic empire, and to the word, “Inca.” I already knew what it “meant,”what its root was, ruler, king, emperor. “Incan Empire” is really a redundancy, the imperial empire, the kingly kingdom, like “Indus River” (Indus means “the river”) or “Milky Way galaxy”(the Greek root of galaxy means “milky path”).

I wondered if “Maya” had followed a similar wordway. Why would such a vast empire, with such a huge population, call itself “the few,” “the chosen few,” unless it is taking on the name of its ruling class, its elites? The “Maya elite,” another redundancy which casts a mindwire forward to my front step where I am listening to my brother wax poetic about his teachers, his spiritual mentors and guides, and how advanced and enlightened they are, how much above the common folk. “That sounds elitist,” I grumble, to which he counters, quickly, “Well, Dan, you do know what “elite” means don’t know?” “No, enlighten me.” “Elect, you know, chosen. Elite and elect are basically the same word.”

So now I think of John Calvin with his “Elect,” those chosen from before time to live forever with God and the unhappy “Preterite” a kind of pre-past tense, pre-post, predoomed, outcast from the getgo. And I think of pick-up games, of getting picked, or not, of standing there while the captains choose kids on either side of you. And of the Marines, those “few” those “proud.”

I think of “election”, our upcoming, facing choices and a variety of dooms, and, by Jeezum, “the people,” you know, us’ns, get to choose, not God, not the elites. Democracy, “people-rule” the great heresy that is now orthodox, the gift of liberty that we are waging a war to force onto Iraq, the scandal of the age, Leviathan, the great unwashed, the idealists, and suckers. We, the people, get to choose from among the chosen ones, those prechosen by the party elites, and each one of them no doubt believing, as Marcellino does of his Maya, that the United States, is the chosen, the destined, most wonderfulest nation on earth.


A Welcome Arrival

July 14, 2009

Working on origin, and this great quote from Emerson: “Language is fossil poetry. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have once been a brilliant picture.” And orient. And horizon.  They all have to do with rising, I think. The or is a remnant, a fossil fragment of an ancient verb, from a time before writing, before letters, before history, but spelled er or eur by modern linguists, meaning to rise, to flow, to move. That’s what my books say. The earliest meaning is probably flow. The r in river is a piece of the same fossil, evidence of the same root. The word rise itself, same root. Arrive. A flowing rising river is doubly redundant, inundatingly redundant.

It is found again in the conjugation of our most fundamental verb, to be, in are. They are, we are. Same fossil, same root, now meaning to exist. Existence is movement, rising and flowing, to be alive is to rise and move. To stop moving, to fall, to lie still, is to die.

Origin, the place of rising, of first movement. Orient, the place of the sun’s rising, now simply the east. To orient, to know the directions, to know where you are, how to find your way.

But I’m wrong about horizon. The or fossil is a look-alike but from a different species, from horos, a younger word, Greek, of unknown origin (!) meaning limit, border, boundary, dividing line.  I am disappointed. I wanted it to be the same, the redundancy would be pleasant, the sun rising above the place of rising.

Sitting here pondering these things, on a sunny Sunday morning, seeing in my mind’s eye a brilliant picture, an ancient sun rising over the Caucasus ten thousand years ago, shining down on my chattering Indo-European forbears, when my laptop pings. An email has arrived, flowing in through the ether from my father. Subject heading: A Joyful Sunday.

My mother died seven months ago today. We were all with her. One of the last pieces of news she received was that my older sister’s daughter was pregnant, with her first child. Life flows on. The email from my father was announcing that my niece had given birth early this morning, to a girl. Seven months to the day. The sun over the Caucasus flew out the window and I burst into tears of joy and sorrow.

Within a hour a picture popped up on my facebook page, her sister had posted it. There they were, mother and child, the child the great grandchild of my mother, someone who had birthed me, held and nursed me the way Megan now held and suckled hers. And now gone. Seven months gone. And yet there, on my screen, in an other hospital room, in the mountains of North Carolina, not gone at all, in the smile, the loving embrace.

To flow, to move, to exist, to rise. To come into existence. This new baby rising like the sun. Megan, exhausted, yet beaming like a mother sun, milk flowing like a river from her swelling breast. The baby rising from the loving flowing of her parents, the loving movements of her grandparents, her great-grandparents.

Life goes on, flowing, moving, rising– and yet we die, we lie down and stop moving. The horizon stands in the distance, more clear to me, and closer than ever before, the divide that we must all cross, that my beloved mother has so recently crossed, that separates us now from her, this line that sets the sun.

And yet. And yet. Life does go on. Our mouths are full of words and fragments of words, fragments of pictures tens of thousands of years old, our blood with water billions of years old; the salt in my tears, how old is that? the sweetness in her milk, how perfect and ancient and ever-new is that?

sand painting

July 7, 2009

sand painting

tiny water flow patterns in the sand, Magonk Point, Waterford, CT
Daniel Wetmore July 4, 2009

bending the river

March 15, 2009

one leaf fragment
held firm in the ground
and turned the little stream
sent it coiling away
over new ground

as the rain comes down
and the little streams form
and pick their way
they make their way
by dissolving
grain by grain
fleck by fleck

when these small flecks give way
when this particular one does
the water’s flow shifts
leaves the path it was on
and courses down a new one

my mind is such a ground
my thoughts tiny rivers
the simplest small thing
can shift the entire flow
and I lose myself
in muddy
silty distractions

control (or at least awareness) of the simple
the small
the gesture
this is where self-mastery begins.