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The Art of Balance

The Art of Balance

I looked like Lucille Ball in an episode of I Love Lucy the first time I tried to lie down in a family size Mexican hammock. It was suspended from grommets attached to the wall, hanging freely in a long, generous, hand-woven loop of color suspended over the tile floor of Molly’s patio. I put one tentative knee into the middle of the fabric and tried to steady myself before lifting my other foot off the ground; the hammock tipped like a canoe on a rough sea. I repositioned myself and tried again. It was a battle between me and the fabric until, on the third try, I was able to maneuver myself into position and steady the ship to a nice gentle rocking motion, feeling victorious, and stretched out comfortably.

Mayans never have such awkwardness. They grow up wrapped in the embrace of their family’s hammock. In a Mayan home, the hammock dominates, hanging diagonally across their one-room hut. At night, five people climb into one hammock and sleep as smoothly and naturally as breathing. During the day, the hammock becomes a place to rest, or to sit and talk, like sharing a living room couch. The hammock may have been handed down from the older generation and given as a wedding gift, and the purchase of a new hammock is as important as buying a new car is for families in the U.S. Traditionally, hammocks were made of hemp from the henequen, or sisal plant and were made in Merida, the colonial capital and largest city of the Yucatan Peninsula. Nowadays, though, nylon has replaced hemp in making hammocks. It is stronger, more durable and cheaper to produce. But I prefer the traditional kind and bought one for each of the three balconies in my house.

I was fascinated with the idea of balance in Mexican culture. Art and love of family are woven into the fabric of life and make survival possible. One day as I was driving toward Puerto Morelos, I passed a Mayan family of five riding down the highway on one battered old bicycle. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The father stood as he peddled, with his wife perched behind him with a baby strapped to her back. A young daughter rode in front on the handle-bars and a teen-aged son stood behind the mother on wooden blocks attached to the bike’s rear wheel. It was incredible, and I have never gotten that image out of my mind of that rickety bicycle carrying the family of five down the highway with cars whizzing by. The family did not look afraid; they were used to this.

The closeness of the family in Mexico is as essential to its individuals as food and air. The family remains one unit, bound together at every stage. Especially for the poor, when there is so little to share, parents teach their children fierce loyalty to the family above all else, and a lifelong sense of responsibility to those within it. In the U.S. we stress independence instead. In the process we often lose the deep connection that makes life beautiful and gives it meaning. The Mexicans understand and feel this in their bones, in the graceful sway of the hammock as it rocks them all to sleep.

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