What does “attuned to life” mean?
It is a state of heightened awareness,
To the life forces all around.
A feeling of overwhelming love for everything and everyone.
It is, at its roots, an identification with life.
A. A Positive, Creative Force
At four years of age, I got hold of a slingshot. I went to the front yard of our house, put a small stone in it, and pulled the rubber bands back as far as I could. I then aimed the slingshot toward a fluttering hummingbird approximately 30 yards away. What happened next has haunted me for sixty-two years. When I released the stone, I saw the small, roundish object almost in slow motion hit the hummingbird and the small bird dropped to the ground dead. A moment of shock followed. Why this small incident had such relevance to me was puzzling for many years. Then one day while reviewing the incident, I understood how in a split second and without malicious intent, I had killed a wondrous and living being. The event previewed a possibility of a life that could have been my reality.
Fortunately, I did not grow up to be a destructive force, except for the occasional temper tantrums. In fact, I became the antithesis of destruction, what I optimistically characterize as a positive, creative force. Rebelliousness, a milder form of destructiveness, manifested itself in my siblings, but it did not in me, even though I secretly wished for it. Truth is, the qualities more natural to me were a quietness and reserved persona. My introverted quality reflected a curiosity and sensitivity to external events, like the death of a small bird. Despite my quietness, however, I did not see myself as shy until I associated it with fear, low self-esteem, and meekness. My childhood and adolescent personality reflected confidence, not the boasting type of confidence but a quiet confidence reflected in my actions and speech. My friends often saw me as a leader.
I was born on the thirteenth day of the sixth month of the year, and in our society, we associate the number “13” with bad luck. In fact, the fear of the number 13 has a specific recognized phobia: triskaidekaphobia. Ever since I can recall, I recoiled from such an idea, for the opposite has been true for me. In fact, I have considered myself a lucky person. Not lucky in the sense of inheriting money, rather, lucky in a fated, protective way. For I have always experienced an external mysterious force protecting me from injury and guiding me down a particular path. I encountered this mysterious power early on and especially during critical, opportune, and unexpected moments throughout my life.
B. In the Right Place and Time
My personal big bang, or birth, occurred in a small town in the middle of a poor Central American country where donkeys were as common as inhabitants. In fact, they refer to those born in my town as donkeys. I assume it’s meant to paint us as stubborn creatures. Central America means different things to different people, but to me it is the small land bridge connecting North America and Mexico to South America. In this smallest of central land bridges, seven countries developed, with a total population of about forty-two million people. Honduras is in the middle of this bridge and surrounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north, Guatemala and Belize to the northwest, El Salvador to the southwest, and Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama to its south.
My birth did not happen at a hospital or clinic but at my parent’s home in Comayagua, Honduras, on June 13, 1953. Comayagua, the donkey center, is itself found in the middle of the country. In 1953, my parents lived in an old Spanish colonial-style house with two-feet-thick adobe walls, white stucco, red tile roof, dirt floors, and the smell of history for no one knew its true age. A literally cool (heat-wise) house, it stood in a small square along with the second biggest Catholic Church in town. My aunt Maria Luisa, the oldest of Mom’s four sisters, was the midwife and made sure the birth transpired without problems. Mom considered my birth the easiest one she had. She did not realize this would be a gift to make up for what would be, in the near future, her experience of a painful letting go. For when I turned nine, my parents would send me off to another country.
The town of Comayagua wears its long history nonchalantly. Founded in 1537 by Spanish conquistadores on the banks of the Humuya River, it served as the capital of Honduras from 1540 until 1880. Because of its importance, the town has historical and striking Spanish colonial–style buildings, with the largest being the Spanish baroque Catholic cathedral completed in 1715. The cathedral, with its white, thick walls and bell tower overlooking the central square, still serves as the center for all major events. The cathedral loomed large in my childhood, as the center for all the Independence Day, Easter, and Christmas parades my siblings and I took part in. It was also the focus of the weekly Sunday masses my family attended regularly. As the focal point of my baptism, and those of my sisters and brothers, the church held in its archives the records of our religious purification and admission to membership in the Catholic Church. Everyone belonged to the church.
The thought of Comayagua, my hometown, brings back joyful memories of playful things with a serious purpose. On the outskirts of town, the Spaniards built several churches in the sixteenth-century, and a university, the first in Central America. Classes at this university started in 1632, making Comayagua a center of learning while the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia, had barely started in the United States in 1607.
Because these buildings, many now in ruins, occupy hills overlooking the town, they serve as playgrounds and social gathering places for the townsfolk. There is a lot of laughter and friendliness associated with these places. Of greater relevance to me and my friends, the air currents created by the low-lying hills served as perfect places for dads and sons to fly kites. At certain times of the year, given the wind gusts, the urge to go to these hills and fly kites was overwhelming.
When I remember Comayagua, my mind runs down one such hill holding on to a long string, at the end of which is a large kite with a long tail which Dad and I made. I see Dad holding the kite high in the air and then letting it go. The feeling of holding on to the string while the kite goes higher and higher and Dad shouting instructions is both heart-warming and thrilling. Even more special is when the kite, at the zenith of the length of string and lazily swaying in the wind, becomes my connection to Heaven. I take small pieces of paper, write messages on them, attach them to the string, and then fly them up to the kite, one at a time. They are messages to the Divine and speak of gratitude and requests for favors: Thank you for making Uncle Mario better; Please make sure I get that gun for my birthday; Please let Letti know that I like her. I could communicate with the Divine directly and that connection and communion is real. Flying a kite never had a more serious purpose.
By the 1950s, Comayagua, following the move of the capital to Tegucigalpa, had the aura of an abandoned, small, and dusty town. It suffered damage from earthquakes and several fires. Its moribund spirit was rooted in the unpaved, rutted streets and slow-moving carts drawn by oxen. The same slow-moving and carefree cadence reverberated in its citizenry, who seemed not to have a care in the world. Even with a child’s body and energy, the same slow rhythms of the town pervaded my body for I was never in a hurry. Time seemed static and never-ending and I saw no need to rush. The only significant daily activity involved getting together with friends to play soccer, everyone’s passion that not even school could overshadow.
Despite the tired visage and character of the town, the soil all around the valley was fertile and rich in nutrients conveying the sense of a place with immense possibilities. Settlers had located Comayagua in the most potentially bountiful area of the country. The valley, flat as a pancake, looked up to tall mountains covered with pine tree groves, while rivers crisscrossed it. Rivers that produced the rich, dark soil cuddling its latent fertility, like a mother holding tightly to a child in swaddling clothes waiting for it to grow. As kids, we used the rivers as a playground and the swimming holes for relief from the hot sun. Adults used the river banks as picnic areas to enjoy Sunday afternoons with the whole family.
I emerged from this serene and placid atmosphere, born the second child to middle-class parents, Jaime and Marietta Pineda-Rodriguez. Like the valley itself, I came into the world with the potential to be much more. As tradition would have it, Dad’s paternal name became my last name. “Pineda,” the stories went, came from our distant Sicilian background, likely originating from the word “pineta” or “pinetum” meaning a grove of pine trees. The coincidence of the name and birthplace setting (Comayagua was surrounded by pine groves) gave me the sense of being born in the right place and right time.
C. Family Legacy
I inherited many things from Dad, including his open, fierce, and sincere spirit. As one of four brothers (Julio, Jose, Gustavo, Jaime), Dad, a lawyer by trade, developed into a hard-working criminal attorney and became a judge in the small town of Comayagua. His dealings with criminals, many of whom he sent to jail, obliged him to own and carry a gun for protection. The rationale he gave considered police as nonexistent and corrupt. Townsfolk could not depend on them.
One hot summer day while crossing the street to go to work, Dad saw a large, gruff man whom he had sentenced to jail a few years back coming toward him. The look of recognition on the man’s face instinctively caused Dad to put his right hand nervously on the pistol he carried under his suit. “I got ready to defend myself and shoot him if I had to,” he would say in his deep, resonant voice. Unexpectedly, the man approached with a warm smile and shook Dad’s hand.
“Thank you Abogado Pineda,” he said, using the Spanish equivalent for Esquire. “You did me a great favor five years ago by sending me to prison,” he continued. “It gave me time to rethink my life, and I owe you a great deal for my life is now so much better.”
Dad could only smile uneasily. Crossing paths with criminals described a common occurrence for a judge, and the incidents could have gone either way. Fortunately, Dad never used the pistol. His kindness and humility served him better at disarming others—a lesson not lost on me.
It became a moment of pride for the family when Dad reached the pinnacle of his professional career and was named Associate Justice of the Honduran Supreme Court, a role he performed for many years. The event transpired as a nonevent for me since youth and naiveté prevented me from appreciating its significance. I learned that his colleagues deeply admired him as an honest, patriotic, and brilliant attorney, and as a person they could trust. I grew to appreciate his stature even more when his name came up for consideration as Chief Justice. But, as luck would have it, politics stymied those efforts. The accusations brought by his political enemies, which were many, revolved primarily around Dad’s origins.
“What makes a real Honduran?” they asked rhetorically. Then, they answered their own question that Dad could not be one even though born in the country. His mother, Grandma Livia, a native of neighboring Nicaragua, had emigrated to Honduras to start the family. Being 100% and a multi-generational Honduran became a prerequisite for the Chief Justice job. In this rough-and-tumble political climate, Dad did not get the job. The decision produced a gloominess in everyone, except him. When I reflect on this, I remember the spirit and grace with which he accepted the decision. He did not react with bitterness or anger. He continued to do his job as he had always done it, in the best way he could.
Dad’s spirit lives in me, as I mirror many of his mannerisms, traits, and interests. I show his drive to live a curious, intellectual life regulated by a deep faith in God and actions backed by common sense. In his lifetime, Dad became a published author. Two of the monographs derived from his thesis work, and the third, written when in the Supreme Court, covered nullification of legal opinions, an interesting but boring topic for nonlawyers. I received a copy of the latter work as a gift from him and on the inside cover, he wrote: “For my son, Jaime Armando, in remembrance of your Dad. August 18, 1992.”
I don’t know whether publications such as these are the norm in Honduras. To me, they speak of his tenacity, attention to detail, and willingness to share with others. As a scientist and teacher, I reflect a similar attention to detail, tenacity to explore life, and eagerness to share my knowledge with others. Dad also became fascinated by and explored Catholic theology, reading extensively on the topic. Like him, I developed significant interest in religion and spirituality and have read extensively in those areas.
Uncharacteristically, Dad developed a reputation for jokes he would tell at social gatherings after a few drinks, a sign he had a practical and playful side. One bawdy joke sealed his reputation as a storyteller. The story is about a landowner who finds himself naked and hanging from a chandelier trying to get away from the husband of the lady with whom he had just shared a bed. I don’t recall the punchline, but what I recall is his friends literally begging Dad to retell what they had heard many times before. They yearned to experience his performance and the sound effects associated with the telling. Dad could be a performer when he needed to be, as he gesticulated and dramatized the story. As a teacher, I have similar instincts and have called upon my acting skills to make a dry lecture interesting. Perhaps the only trait I didn’t inherit is Dad’s ability to tell jokes, as I fail miserably at being funny on purpose, even after much practice or drinking.
The most moving description of Dad came at the end of his life in the form of a eulogy written by a colleague. “This man,” his friend said in admiration, became the “Honduran Solomon” a “bright torch of the continent,” “a wise man, honest citizen, with the heart of a child, and a humility and simplicity so peculiar to him.” I read and reread those words, aware of the great honor it is to be known as a wise, Solomon-like individual. Dad has been a role model for how to live my life.
Mom played the yin to Dad’s yang. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describe apparently opposite or contrary forces that are complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. This perfectly describes Mom and Dad’s relationship. She exhibited a vivacious personality and according to her own story married below her social standing, which caused her endless regrets. In Mom, I saw a forceful spirit, good-looking, full of life, who loved us, and cared for the family in the best way she could. Not especially a good cook, she tirelessly prepared meals three times a day. The ever-present dust of a dusty town made every house we lived in a challenge and constant effort to maintain clean. The seven of us who made up her immediate family produced endless amounts of dirty clothes, which she washed by hand since we had no conveniences like a washer and drier.
I remember Mom’s smile the most as I watched her do these ordinary things. Most especially, her smile and laughter drew my attention as she talked to her friends in her unique and animated way. Her steadfastness and commitment in her role as wife and mother became teachable traits for all her children. I see in me her sense of joy that she brought to life, coupled with a kind of subtle fierceness and determination. These traits were key to my development and played significant roles in the unfolding nature of my personal and spiritual persona. Her circumstances, unfortunately, eventually overwhelmed her vivacity, joie de vivre, and determination as she aged and drifted into a life of sadness and regret. As strong as she seemed, life circumstances proved stronger. She had always aspired for more, but the gradual changes brought on by the inevitability of her circumstance, changed her positive outlook to a more negative one.
Years later, when my parents visited me in the States, my first wife, Liz, understood something different, namely, that my Mom’s dissatisfaction with her life situation did not fundamentally revolve around social status. It appeared more of a lack of a satisfying interpersonal relationship with Dad. On that visit, Mom came to Liz one day in a highly distressed emotional state. She seemed desperate to share the source of her sorrow with her and they needed a way to bridge the gap in their language barrier. I was at work so the only available “translator” was an old Spanish/English dictionary we had at home. Liz reached for it and sat down besides Mom, taking turns flipping through the dictionary, searching for just the right word or phrase to convey each other’s thoughts. One noun, one adjective, one verb at a time. Insensitive. Unhelpful. Mute. Those were the first words Mom identified and shared with Liz. Followed by Liz’s “Yes, I understand” and Mom’s corresponding “ahhh-si! Está bien, entiendo! Exáctamente!” And onto the next word they went.
Through this painstaking manner of communication, Mom conveyed how she wished with all her heart that Dad would share his thoughts, his feelings, and his hopes with her regarding his professional career. She desired for him to explain “legalese” to her so she could engage in meaningful conversation with him. She wanted to be treated as an intellectual equal. Likewise, she wanted him to listen and respond to her aspirations and needs. At the very least, Mom wanted Dad to assist with domestic shores. The physical burden of managing a household with all its demands and lack of modern conveniences was wearing on her. She needed help. And she wanted his help. But, to have a relationship requires two people who genuinely want to relate. That’s what was missing in Mom’s world—and likely the void she filled with anxiety and sadness. What’s more, Liz remembers how their translate-a-word session ended that day. While expressing how dearly Mom loved me, she also pronounced with conviction that “my son is emotionally just like his father! Si! Mi hijo es como su padre. Es igual!” I eventually learned that indeed I had inherited some negative aspects from my Dad.
Mom and her three sisters (Marta, Maria Luisa, and Adriana) and a brother, Mario, claimed to have French and Spanish royal blood, unconfirmed rumors embellishing Mom’s attractiveness. In a country where men valued light skin on a woman, she attracted many admirers during her time as a single woman. Lost in the mist of family history and legend is why she chose Dad as her eventual marriage partner. They apparently met and fell in love in the small courthouse in the center of Tegucigalpa, the capital, where he practiced law and she worked as a secretary for a time. I presume his fated sense of going far attracted her. Following their marriage, my parents became part of the social elite of Comayagua: members of the Lions Club, regular church attendees where Dad volunteered to usher, and with many friends who kept their social calendars busy. Social expectations required them to be contributors to the well-being of the town and to the people in it—something they obliged.
From both of my parents, I inherited a sense of social responsibility, especially to others who had less than they did. The lesson repeated itself each time they helped my aunts or uncle with rent payments or doctor bills. Their generosity also extended to strangers, the school I attended, church, and to the town’s soccer team. This became clear during one special occasion when Dad, in his early forties and beginning to gain a bit of weight, volunteered to play in a soccer game inaugurating a new stadium. He played as a favor to the town fathers who had requested his involvement to help collect money for payment of the stadium. I remember his trepidation in playing after so many years of inactivity, thinking he would suffer a broken leg or worse.
It was a festive day. The game started while a band played. The crowd shouted and laughed at the old men running up and down the field in shorts and t-shirts. Dad, a defender, stayed back. But then, just before the end of the first half, he stole the ball at midfield. Unexpectedly, he fired a cannon shot with his right foot toward the goalie. Remarkably, the ball netted, and he scored the goal—“un golazo,” or a superb goal, as many described it. In a town where soccer ruled and everyone considered themselves an expert, a golazo represented a well-earned compliment. Dad became the talk of the town for the miracle he had created at his age. In his typical way, he put his head down and went to work the following day.
In the family, Dad represented order and Mom the enforcer of that order. In those days, Catholic families were large, with maybe six or more children. Mom was thirty-five years old when she married, an unusually late age for marriage in those days. They had two girls and three boys. Nora was the eldest girl. Followed by me, Jaime II. Then my younger sister, Fatima. My younger brother, Jaime III followed, and then Javier was last. Apparently, my parents loved the name Jaime. To differentiate the boys, my little brother became Jaimito (or little Jaime) and I was recognized by my middle name of Armando or Mando, for short, as most of my friends would call me.
As the firstborn, my sister Nora was a rebel who made me her special target. Her attractive exterior drew many of the males in the neighborhood—and there were many—yet, good looks concealed a rebellious personality with a bit of a malicious sense of humor. When very young, she played tricks on her younger siblings, namely, me. One such incident occurred when she must have been five years old and I three. Nora asked me to hold a box of matches with two of the matches on either side of the box held down by my thumb and index finger against the striking surface. After instructing me to hold them tightly, she hit the match box hard pushing the small box down onto the floor. Left stuck to my fingers were the two lit matches. I screamed bloody murder.
At times, Nora would sneak up behind me at unpredictable moments and gleefully clobber me on the head and then run off chuckling. I know I didn’t merit such torture. But much as I cried and complained, my parents didn’t seem concerned and the torment seemed endless. They knew it was what normal siblings did. As a teenager, Nora took up smoking and sometimes stayed out with friends past curfew times. She faced my parents’ admonitions and punishment for her rebellious acts, although never seeming to learn her lesson. I envied her a lot, yet could not imitate her since I took the admonitions more seriously.
As the second child, my relationship with Nora and Fatima took different orientations. I reacted to their uniqueness, personalities, and tragedies in distinctive ways. While Nora was older, hostile, aloof, and distant, my younger sister, Fatima, appeared closer, familiar, and more like me. She inherited the best traits of both parents and grew into an obedient and studious child who showed more emotional and outgoing behavior than I did. Because of her more extraverted personality, she had a lot more friends and became more popular, which made me a bit jealous. As an adult, Fatima followed in Dad’s footsteps, eventually becoming a lawyer and then a judge. Her career path led her to become closer to him, for she could speak his lawyerly language. Such closeness to Dad, unfortunately, brought her into conflict with Mom, who became jealous of their relationship.
My little brother Jaimito was almost invisible to me. As the baby in the family, he grew up spoiled. A cute baby and child, he attracted a magnified spotlight from aunts and uncle on anything and everything he did. The intense scrutiny gave way to the development of a lackadaisical attitude, one content with the attention it received. Sweet and humble in spirit, Jaimito showed no interest in school. Several family members speculated he had been born unlucky, or at least uncoordinated, for not a day went by without him accidently bumping his head on something. They speculated this as the reason the poor boy did not do well in school. Once the light of childhood dimmed, and everyone’s attention turned elsewhere, Jaimito found himself with a childish dependency on my parents. This dependency slowed his development. He never married, although he fathered a child out of wedlock before he died in his late thirties.
Jaimito admired and looked up to me as his older brother. One summer, when I was sixteen and visiting from the States, he approached me and spoke to me in his sweet and soft twelve-year-old voice. “Can you take me to the States when you return?” he asked. “I don’t know what to do here. Maybe I can go with you and help you out.”
It was a soulful cry for help and the sadness it elicited made the helplessness it reflected even more poignant. I wasn’t sure what to tell him, for as a student I had no means to provide for his support. My lack of an answer and ability to respond made me feel equally helpless. Until his untimely death, I had the luxury of ignoring Jaimito. But his death made real that a brother whom I did not really know had died, and I could never correct that misfortune. Feelings of regret and of lost opportunities engulfed me.
The last brother who had a significant impact on my life was Javier. His presence had a profound effect on family dynamics and more pointedly on my career interests. Javier’s birth became a possibility when Mom, late in life, began to experience the estrangement of an empty nest and the need to do motherly things.
Javier was born with fine motor skills. He understood language, but did not gain full linguistic communication skills. Like my brother Jaimito, hi verbal deficits made him attached and dependent upon my parents. From the very beginning, the familial bonds between my parents and my two youngest siblings were strong, unusual, and different from those with the older children.
Javier’s unusual need for order as a child provided moments of hilarious fun for my young and innocent mind. Once when visiting from the States, I noticed that just before going to bed each night, Javier would arrange his toy soldiers by height—from smallest to largest. More than once and while he slept, I would rearrange the soldiers. I could say the budding scientist in me wanted to conduct an experiment to test his memory and reactions. In reality, my intention had a hint of meanness because I knew my action would trigger an emotional outburst. It never failed. Now, years later, I am convinced that Javier likely suffered from undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. He died unexpectedly in his twenties in a tragic car accident along with other family members. His life and condition played a key part in my developing career interest in autism.
D. Everyday Life
The family’s upward mobility created opportunities and problems. Following my birth in 1953 in the old adobe house, my parents moved to another larger house a block away. The walls of the new house were not as thick, indicating a newer structure. Tiled rather than dirt floors extended throughout the house. It had an inner yard with fruit trees and a semi-large Spanish-style adobe oven.
I can see the house in my mind’s eye and happy memories flood my brain, especially birthday celebrations and laughter. In particular, memories spring to mind of Mom’s lemonade, horchata, pineapple and other drinks she made of which I could never get enough. A few years after this move, my parents built their own home from scratch on the other side of town. The big move came soon enough, and the family found itself at the edge of town. Because of this, my siblings and I had to walk long distances to school, to the movies, and to the center square where most social events happened. Going to the movies, especially to watch cartoons and Westerns, proved unbearable because of the delays during our walk to the center of town. The adults inevitably would meet an acquaintance and stop to chat, while I twisted and turned waiting for the conversation to end. The movies, all made in Hollywood, projected on the side of the main cathedral, rendered the slow, boring life in Comayagua tolerable for the vividness, the action, and mesmerizing visuals brought to life worlds we only contemplated in our dreams. The stories created unrealistic expectations and dreams of visiting such places that would be untenable for most of us. For me, the movies served as a stimulant for my imagination already in overdrive and I knew I would be the exception.
Living in our new neighborhood meant establishing new friendships and playing roles consistent with our social status. It didn’t take long for me to assemble a group of friends who came together to play. Soon, we were the local soccer team. There were the two Hernandez brothers, sons of another lawyer, who lived a few blocks from us and closer to town. The older brother, Roberto, and I competed to be leaders of the group. At least once, we came to physical blows over who would make the rules, assign players to different positions, and decide when and where to play. We were like two young, alpha males fighting over territory.
My parents provided the soccer balls we used and the uniforms for our soccer team. In fact, Mom made the white t-shirts with a blue stripe across the front on her own sewing machine. The design hinted at the Honduran flag, which comprises three horizontal stripes where two are blue and a white one in between. In the middle of the white stripe is a grouping of five blue five-pointed stars in the shape of the letter X. Mom’s t-shirt design made the soccer team proud and patriotic. I eventually came to appreciate her big-heartedness. I don’t recall being thoughtful and considerate when very young or even aware of such things, including making value judgments regarding most of my friends, except for one.
Pablo stood out. Despite being the same age, he acted much older and wiser than the rest of us. His mannerism and speech exuded humbleness. He walked and talked slower than other kids and lived further out of town—in the sticks. I found out he came from a dirt-poor family. Pablo never wore shoes, yet his calloused feet were a marvel to behold when dribbling the soccer ball. By far the best player on the team, he displayed a level of being, physical prowess, and street smarts beyond our young competencies. I learned a lot watching him. For one, I learned to play better. More central to my story, his cool temperament, wisdom, calmness, and je ne sais quoi came to symbolize what I knew I did not have, yet yearned for. I would later associate his personality with a lack of guile and true nature.
Unwritten rules played out differently for folks in the same social milieu. Before moving into the neighborhood, neighbors saw the Hernandez as the family to admire and look up to. They had built a nice brick house, with bars on the windows, and a carport. Like our own house, they located theirs among rundown older adobe homes. We considered ourselves middle class, yet the differences with our neighbors were stark. Despite these differences, my parents were generous and friendly with all our neighbors. But the friendship took place at a distance for I saw none of those neighbors invited to our house. Instead, I only saw the same folks making up my parents’ tight social circle.
Meals and school work at the new house created vivid memories of childhood primarily because they provided a sense of reassurance given how structured they were. The constancy tickled my sensitivity to order. Breakfast happened at 7:00 a.m., lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:00 p.m. on a regular clock-like basis. Dad never missed a meal, as he always took a two-hour break from work around noon and left work at 5:30 p.m. The midday break meant the town closed for two hours, a tradition introduced by Spaniards. These early inhabitants came from a country where businesses closed their doors so the staff could take a long break and a short nap during the day’s hottest hours. I remember my parents taking the requisite noon siesta, frolicking instead of sleeping, while the kids ran around rambunctiously. Such daily routines underscore a normal and happy childhood.
Other behaviors provided fodder to my overactive mind. An especially interesting routine involved how we arranged ourselves at specific positions around the table for meals. Dad sat at the head, with Mom to his left and Nora to his right. On Mom’s left sat Jaimito. I sat on the other head position of the table, facing Dad, while Fatima sat to my left. I do not remember how these positions came to be, yet they speak of patriarchal and pecking order. Especially intriguing is how we instinctively knew our places.
Doing homework and studying also gave me an additional opportunity to observe this highly structured and ordinary world. School work typically began around 7 p.m. following dinner. The expectation to learn school lessons and recite them to our parents, usually Dad, triggered a slew of pleasing behaviors. For one, we competed for who would be first to practice, whether a history or math lesson. I found comfort in the endless repetition of the multiplication tables, as Dad and I paced back and forth in the living room. These lessons were soothing, powerful, and helpful. I learned those tables so well I now can perform simple math problems in my head quickly and without difficulty. Most of the time, the siblings competed for who would fall asleep first while studying—a common occurrence following a big meal. Even at a young age, I found all this social-learning behavior intriguing. The presence of such regularity and order produced a sense of comfort.
In retrospect, my life has been continuously engaged in understanding and confronting the causal nature of actions and events, including imagined ones. Before I discovered science, my worldview arose from and was influenced by religion and its sensitivity to magical thinking and magical realism. The assumption in that world is of an unknown that is much too scary to confront, with a Devil and devil-like creatures causing evil and havoc, creating the need for celestial beings who can save, protect, and guide us through this nightmare of a life. There is a strong presumption that all these beings, good and bad, exist in the real world. Festivals that celebrated the Day of the Dead or Day of the Devils made these presumptions come to life. I remember one such celebration when adults dressed up as the devil or little devils (diablitos), with fearsome masks, and would run around town scaring the heck out of children.
Easter and the Christmas holidays, from the beginning to the present day, also provided noteworthy examples of times when magical realism infused and transcended ordinary reality. The memories of these holidays were seared in my brain. Tradition (another word for order?) meant that for Christmas, Dad and I would go out to find and cut down the right pine tree for decoration. Every year he and I headed out to the woods close to home. We searched for the best-looking tree, which we brought home and placed in the same semi-large aluminum pail filled with rocks and sand. I don’t remember the actual decorating, so attribute such activity to Mom and sisters.
We, especially the children, then waited for Santa’s arrival, full of expectations of receiving all kinds of gifts. Santa or St. Nick, the enigmatic saint, distorted my perceptions and created an illusory and temporary happiness and never disappointed. The fairy-tale saint, angel, or being would bring the asked-for soccer ball, bows and arrows, guns, and other toys. The mystery of this being continued for six wonderful and innocent years.
Then, by random chance, when I was six, I stumbled on toys hidden in a closet before the appointed day. It didn’t take me long to make the connection of Santa’s existence and that Dad and Santa were the same. The discovery did not bother me much, as I assumed what I had always suspected, that Dad had powers beyond the normal. I replaced an unrealistic magical thought with a more realistic one. Thinking of this sort, while common in children, is less common in adults. Yet, I found suspending my beliefs critical to my well-being when, as an adult, I had to confront a growing crisis between my professional career and my personal beliefs.
E. Fateful Events
Dad’s profession as a lawyer and judge required the family to move several times to different parts of the country, sometimes with less than positive or beneficial outcomes. Soon after my birth, the family found itself in the northern coastal area of the country, in a town called Tela, where we lived for three years. Tela is in the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras and where Fatima was born. Here the hot, humid, and uncomfortable climate made living unbearable as houses lacked central air-conditioning.
Fortunately, we lived near the beach where the sand and the water became a special, comforting place, especially for Mom, who learned to appreciate the openness and breezes of the ocean. I have hazy memories of wading into the water and playing with my siblings. These positive associations are likely the reasons why today I find inspiration and calmness while walking on the beach.
A sudden illness I contracted at around two years of age, which produced severe diarrhea and nearly caused my death, punctured the idyllic beach paradise. My parents would tell the story of how they agonized about my illness and could only resort to prayer. The lack of medicine and doctors in the neighborhood and the progression of the illness presaged that I might not survive. Dad would recall the constant pacing while holding me, as my crying continued nonstop. As the illness progressed and I got worse, they became helpless, hopeless, and began to make plans to bury their second child. A last-minute desperate attempt by a doctor trying a new medication brought about my recovery. For my parents, the miracle represented a rebirth and another chance for their child. For me, the event, when recalled, serves as a reminder of what death might have meant.
The possibility of having my life erased at such a young age makes me experience what Jimmy Stewart, the protagonist of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, experienced. When the angel offers Stewart the chance to see what life would have been like had he not lived, he recognizes the wonderment of life. Imagining my death and the total absence of experiences, and how it would have undone the tapestry of my life as I review it, is spine-chilling. This exercise helps me appreciate the gift life can be.
A few years after my near-death experience, two other fateful events transpired between my third and fourth year of life, making me aware of a growing individuality and the sense of a greater force watching over me. First, at age three, I became aware of when I began to think of myself as a separate, distinct individual. Until then, I had no awareness of a separate me—only of an undifferentiated consciousness. One day my sister, Nora, decided she did not want to play. In that very instant, my world shattered. I wanted to play, so how could she not? The awareness dawned on me, more a feeling than a conceptual understanding, that she and I were distinct, with different thoughts. I now recognize this individuation as a normal process all children go through. This is what psychologists call the development of a theory of mind: the ability we develop to distinguish self from others and to know others can think different thoughts. The unexpected and earth-shattering aware-feeling of becoming an individual, separate from others, produced sadness in my young mind—because it made me recognize a kind of aloneness.
Similar feelings of sadness followed another major event—the day Dad took me to work. He had likely taken me many times before, although this time is the only one I recall vividly. In my mind’s eye, I see myself on the second floor kicking a soccer ball along a long marble-floor corridor while Dad works in an office down the hallway. Then, in a flash, I see the ball going over the small metal railing and without thinking me going after it. My next visual is waking up in a hospital bed with Nora screaming while looking at my puffed-up and distorted face. Dad would recall how he saw the ball, followed by me going over the railing. His first thought was that I would not survive the fall, as he rushed to pick up the crumpled body from the cement-covered yard on the first floor. I landed on my right side but miraculously did not suffer any broken bones or serious injury. According to my parents, this became my second miracle and second rebirth. The episode helped reinforce the magical thinking bubbling over into real life, that a heavenly, protective force appeared to be watching over me.
F. An Inquisitive Mind
For the next few years, my childhood was a series of normal, healthy, sad, and happy moments occasionally interrupted by significant shifts in awareness and transcendent moments feeding my curiosity and inquisitiveness. The persona of a studious student, good son, and soccer aficionado grew slowly. Then came a major event. I failed the final exam in kindergarten. The memory and shame of it remains frozen in my mind. I can picture the teacher, whose name I cannot recall, approaching and asking me a simple question. “Why do you want to go to first grade?” I don’t recall crying, only freezing and not being able to answer the question. Wiser minds decided first grade could wait until I could answer this.
When I finally passed the test the following year, I began attending a private Catholic school, the Immaculate Conception (IC), and did so until the fourth grade. At IC, I blossomed as a student, thanks to the nuns who taught the classes. The nuns, secretive beings who reminded me of aliens since they looked alike with the same habit and head dressing, were actually good teachers. In class, they played an engaging game. It began by the teacher asking questions concerning any academic topic. Whoever had the right answer got to move forward and replace the person in the next chair. Slowly and a chair at a time, the most knowledgeable student would end up occupying the coveted first chair in the first row. It was a version of Jeopardy for small children. The game awoke in me a desire to outdo and surpass my competitors and get to the first chair. I would study intensely every night to achieve such a goal.
Whether the nuns knowingly activated a pre-existing competitive drive in their students, or unwittingly cultivated the urge to compete through their teaching methods, is difficult to know. More likely, the inner drive resulted from the interaction between abilities already present and the spark these teachers provided in lighting the fuse. The outcome had unexpected and meaningful consequences for me, for it helped create a set of unconscious and semiconscious motivations and actions organizing my future academic mindset. The resulting brain reorganization jump-started the development of my inquisitive mind.