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. Standing in the jungle of what is now Tikal, listening to the monkeys swing from the branches overhead, I felt the history and power left behind by those ancient civilizations. I knew little of the Maya before that trip but learned 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. Next, I learned 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 countryside with the hills and mountains lit by bonfires. The fires are tended for five days by the shamans so that others can partake in the ritual of “release”–the sacrifice, the burning, of the old to make room for the new.
The ritual is akin to a New Year’s resolution but the feel of its physicality shocked me. The participant crafts a doll or writes on a piece of paper or creates something physical to represent that thing which might prevent them from moving forward in life. That thing is sacrificed into the fire, burned, the wind carrying it and its ashes back into the ether. Thus freeing the participant of that binding energy and opening them up to something better, to the next inner or outer adventure. I think, we, as westerners underestimate the sheer power of ritual. With every fear and bad habit and overwhelming doubt scribbled onto scraps of paper and burned, the more tenuous those threads felt in my mind. Weight lifted from my shoulders. I breathed easier. I spoke with more clarity. The ritual. The ritual is important. It holds some magic we’re, as of yet, unable to measure.