The view from the plaza at Tikal.
The view from the plaza at Tikal.

As a writer, you can do all the research in the world. But there’s no substitute for being out in the world. I took that photo from the plaza at Tikal. It was on one of my ‘eco’ trips. I don’t know what else to call them. For instance, before that trip, I had known of the Maya. Their history along with mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztecs. What I didn’t know was that the Mayan culture is still very much alive. At the time I was working with a non-profit group that took westerners into rural parts of Central and South America to immerse themselves in indigenous cultures. As well as bringing members of those societies into North America for the same reason: to immerse us in practices that many people think long-since dead.

I met a Mayan shaman on one of my trips and she invited me to share in the Mayan New Year. The Mayan calendar is not the Gregorian. That’s the first thing I learned. Then I learned that the Mayans take the ritual and marking of the new year very seriously. Or very ‘sacredly’ they would say. (Shamans have a wicked sense of humor.) For five days we traveled around the Guatemalan country sides. The green hills and mountains lit by fires everywhere. It was insanely rich and magical. Standing in the jungle of what is now Tikal. Listening to the monkeys swing from the branches overhead, feeling the history and power left behind by those ancient civilizations. Partaking in the new year rituals of the burning of the old–making something to represent the thing I was ready to let go of, with the sole purpose of seeing it burn in the fires.maya20

How clever? To not only make a “New Year’s resolution” but go through the process of crafting a doll or a stick figure or whatever and lay it purposely in the flames. Watch it as the thing that represents your fear or your bad habit is licked by the fire and carried into the winds, gone forever. There’s obviously more to changing oneself than burning a paper doll. But the ritual was what I had been missing. What, I think, we’ve all been missing.

Those experiences changed me forever.maya21