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Excerpted from Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream by William Powers. Copyright © 2010 by William Powers. Excerpted by permission of New World LIbrary.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.

"Did the world have to be flat? Was it too late to imagine other shapes?"

  William Powers, Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream, Part 4

When the 5K race was over, I left the awards ceremony and looked into the lifeless water of the lake beside Dow Chemical. Since returning to the United States, I felt something wasn't right with me. I'd been a squid out of ink, the joy squeezed right out of me. I closed my eyes and traveled back to Bolivia, to the banks of Lake Titicaca and the particular moment I'd remembered while sitting with my mother.

It happened just three months back. Two friends, she American and he British, were getting married. They'd lived in Bolivia for years, working with the country's indigenous people, and an Aymara shaman was going to marry them. Before the ceremony began, I stood with the shaman as we admired the most extraordinary sky, a rusty orange-and-red blend, and the famous Andean lake, which was the size of a small sea, its unseen far shores in Peru. We stood at thirteen thousand feet, and the light cast a gossamer shimmer over three distant islands. Above them, the jagged Andes.

The shaman looked out over the landscape and asked me, "What's the shape of the world?"

Farther up the lake, I saw the bride and groom mingling with other Bolivian and American friends, all dressed in their finest. About half the Americans lived and worked in Bolivia; the other half were just there for the week. Honamti, the shaman, was dressed in an olive jacket and jeans and looked nearly iconic, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, an ambiguous expression in his dark eyes.

"The world?" I finally said. "It's round."

"How is it round?" Honamti asked.

I showed him, putting my two pointer fingers together in front of me and drawing a downward circle.

"That's how most people imagine it," he said. "But we Aymaras disagree."

He was silent for a long moment. Alpacas and sheep grazed in the distance, shepherded together by an Aymara woman in a colorful, layer-cake skirt. A pejerey leapt from and plunged back into Lake Titicaca, sending out rippling circles. "We say that the earth is round, but in a different way," Honamti finally said, and he traced an upward circle, the opposite of how I'd drawn it, beginning at his belly and finishing at his heart. He traced the shape slowly. Amazed, I watched it spring to life in the landscape. His upward stroke began with the lake, curved up the sides of the Andes, and finished gloriously with the dome of the sky.

"And it's also round like this." This time he traced a circle that began at his heart and went outward toward the lake, finishing two feet in front of his body. And the earth took that shape, as the lake-shore curled into the base of the distant mountains and then into the sky's horizon, a perfect outward circle.

"And it's also round like this." Keeping his hands two feet in front of him, he traced a slow circle back into himself. The circle finished at some hidden place inside, the outward world circling into our inner world.

Somebody called over to Honamti; the ceremony was to begin. But before the Aymara man turned to go, I asked him, "Which of the three is it? What's the shape of the world?"

He answered by repeating: "What's the shape of the world?"

I opened my eyes: the lifeless Dow Chemical lake before me, Honamti's question/answer echoing in my head. Did the world have to be flat? Was it too late to imagine other shapes?

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