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Election Day Blues; or, an Existential Dilemma

Anne Dalke's picture
A friend (who read about ”the trampoline thing”) remembered, from her own childhood experiences that you have to stay loose at least somewhat, let your limbs relax. Keeping stiff endangers you since the body impact and bounce are not always predictable. What a great metaphor for being open to the newness of travel! But (going further, with the help of another friend) is the world a place to jump and jump--or to take in? Maybe I'm just “jumping” too damn much? Michelle observed that, when she's going through the most transitions, it actually might mean she's running from something. I expect the same is true for me: (a sense of) perpetual transition might well mean my refusal to settle into...

something. Judie also called attention to

the irony of my ambivalence (about not knowing how I'm "supposed" to act/ think in a new culture), juxtaposed against the Guatemalan political system (which seemed to accept "given" knowledge of how to act/ think) and my own need for a secure base (the attuned caregiver who also structures safety). It occurs to me that irony is just another word for seeing the underside of any situation, for acknowledging that there are always (at least!) two ways to read what’s going on. For instance, one of the great pleasures of this Spanish-learning trip is the explosion in my vocabulary—along with all the fun I’ve been having trying to figure out the history that lies behind many of my new words. One of the more pleasing flowers here (where there are MANY pleasing flowers!) is something called, alternately, “pacifiers” and “Napoleon’s buttons.” I’ve amused myself trying to decide if these two names express fundamentally different ideas—say, cultural imperialism and family nurturance—or essentially the same concept--something having to do with a false show, being a “dummy”? Depends (as much else!) on your point of view…

Speaking of which…

My teacher, Ana, gave me the exercise this week of translating The Giving Tree into Spanish. It was a good exercise--right @ my level--and it led to an interesting multi-leveled discussion between us about the ideal of self-sacrifice; about the cultural expectations that women--mothers especially---should sacrifice themselves for their children; about the ways the Catholic church, in encouraging its followers to believe that “all life is suffering,” encourages women to tolerate domestic abuse (Ana’s grandmother, a victim of such abuse, had a saying, "La iglesia se cagó en todo"--translate that @ your own risk!).

All of this led me to try and explain to Ana about the philosophy which has always seemed most compatible to me--that of existentialism. Lots of fun trying to tell her that, unlike a knife, which is defined by its sharpness (“sin filo no es un cuchillo; la razón de la vida del cuchilloses estar afilado”), a human is defined by not being pre-defined. We make the meaning of our lives, for ourselves, rather than having it laid out for us ahead of time.

Before the week was over, I had an absurd, concrete experience in this realm. Back in mid-July, as we were beginning to make our plans for spending four months out of the country, I called the Bureau of Elections @ the courthouse in Media, Pennsylvania, to request that our absentee ballots be sent to us in time for us to vote. At 6 p.m. last night (Friday, November 3), they were delivered to us--along w/ a notice that they needed to be received in Media by 5 p.m. the same day.

This morning, we voted, and paid $20 to have our signed ballots returned to the U.S. pronto. The main satisfaction here was our ability to negotiate this in Spanish with the disbelieving postmaster. (Why pay all this money for something that won’t matter when it gets there?) During our long wait for these ballots, we nourished a couple of paranoid notions about the political process discouraging the votes of left-leaning intellectuals who have dropped out of the country for a semester--especially once we learned that service people abroad can now vote by e-mail (we also began to speculate that business people working abroad don't find the process a difficult one, either). Multiple instructions and caveats on the form encouraged this sort of thinking--although they also gave rise to notions of bureaucracy clearly run amok. Anyhow, if Santorum or Weldon win by two votes, expect an outcry from Central America.

I expect that what the postmater gleaned from this experience was another story about crazy Americans, spending lots of money to speed home ballots that won't be counted. From his perspective, our act was absurd--as (from the perspective of existentialism) everything is absurd, without intrinsic meaning. From our perspective, though, the act was a symbolic one, with lots of meaning for us, if only as a gesture @ our continued commitment to the American political process....

Which brings me back to these Monteverde Quakers, whose symbolic gestures, and there VERY concrete results, continue to interest me deeply. I've just about completed the Monteverde Jubilee Family Album, and--predictably---the story's gotten more complicated, as the layers of other years and other perspectives have been added. Perhaps the most striking of those new angles of vision appears in Mildred Mendenhall’s essay about of "The Cheese Plant":

Today, however, we have to question the effects of our locating in a quiet, isolated rural community. We had desired to see the local people enjoy more comfortable lives, while being reluctant ourselves to adopt their level of subsistence living. By helping to improve the local economy and living standards, had we contributed to a form of materialism we had come to Costa Rica to avoid? Has the area been well served by the relative prosperity we observe there today? Perhaps the tentacles of growing global consumerism would have reached eventually into this isolated area anyway. A useful adjustment to yesterday’s hero-making--though I don’t buy the binary of "materialism vs. anti-materialism": surely the two poles exist on a spectrum where the first two question might well be "what's sustainable?" and "what's necessary for life to flourish?" A question asked by my teacher last week--"Is the problem poverty, or is it ambition?"-- now takes on existential ramifications...

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