archaeology, life, Mayan Culture, mythology, philosophy, research, spirituality, travel, writing

Travels in the Mayan Yucatan

On the Trail of Mayan Secrets, Coba, Wind Ruffled Waters

This is the fourth in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the oldest and probably the largest ancient city on the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba.

“Wind ruffled Waters.”

I could see why Coba had been so named; the sun broke into a myriad of lights as it fell into the tiny waves made by the wind as it passed across the water of the lake and high-lighted the mist that rose phantom like from the tall grasses at the edge. From where I stood at the end of a small pier that jutted out from the barren shore beside the hotel, my eye was drawn further; toward the jungle at the far edge of the lake and the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan that rose above the mass of green like an aged forlorn space ship long forgotten, abandoned by the builders, no longer of use, a relic of past glory.

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Coba pier

With such easy access to water—there are five lakes in the region — it was not only mankind who was drawn to this spot: all manner of animal, bird, insect and plant would also have made their homes here and for that reason my exploration on this trip would be of the ancient Maya’s relationship to nonhuman beings; both mythic and spiritual.  Here the coral snake would have lived– famous for biting one’s shadow– the alligator was also dominant as well as monkeys, armadillos, coatimundi and jaguar.  As I gazed into the water around the pier several turtles bobbed, heads raised curiously toward me, the intruder in their realm. Turtles were a favorite creature to the ancient people; the earth was thought of as the rounded circular back of a great tortoise.

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boys on the lake

Located 26 miles east of the Caribbean, Coba’s Mayan settlement was once one of the largest in the Yucatan, extending three miles by six miles, comprised of several distinct sites connected by Sacbeob, sacred roads. The roads varied in depth from two feet to over eight feet when crossing swampy areas, averaged thirty two feet in width and most ran perfectly straight. The shoulders were made from roughly dressed stone, the bed of the road from large boulders with smaller stones on top, and finally the surface was plastered with limestone cement.  A stone roller, weighing over five tons was found here, probably used to compact the stones during construction. Over 50 of these Sacbeob were discovered in and around Coba making it the densest road system in Meso-America. One of these roads runs 60 miles to a settlement past Chichen Itza, another runs to the coast and others run both north and south, distinguishing Coba as an important trade center.

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Archaeological Hotel at Coba

As the sun gained height, the heat rose with it causing waves to rise from the dirt road and the last of the mist around the lake to disappear. The day would be too hot to explore the site until later, so I headed to the welcome cool interior of the hotel.

ArtBite8aIn the reception area I was greeted by a sculpture of a quetzal bird; a shy forest dweller capable of releasing humans from time’s bondage. One of the most important animals in their cosmology due to the importance they placed on both time and transformation, the quetzal’s feathers, beautiful iridescent blue-green, were highly prized by Mayans as totems. On the opposite side of the desk, housed in a glass case, was a serpent sculpture, dated 800AD.  The designers of the hotel must have been cognizant of the ancient beliefs when placing these artifacts, as the serpent was considered the opposite of the quetzal bird and both represent aspects if the life/death cycle.

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Viewing the lake

So far as Mayan gods were concerned, they were of two primary types: spiritual creation gods, and the creature gods who resembled a real animal, bird or insect in the physical world.  Purely spiritual gods had no comparable form on earth and for this reason, the gods who took a recognizable earthly form were more loved by the simple people whom they could more easily understand. The Principal Bird Deity, one of the first deities revered by the Maya for power, was often shown holding a snake in its mouth, possibly a reference to storms and lightning. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god, the synthesis of bird and serpent, may have been derived from the Principal Bird in its relationship to both bird and snake, but whether or not they were connected, it was Quetzalcoatl who gained prominence and became one of the greatest gods in all of Mesoamerica.  Associated with the life giving elements of wind, it was often the patron of rulers and priests.

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Hut protecting ancient inscription

When the sun sank low enough for me to venture out, I headed down the dusty dirt road that ran beside the lake to the ruins half a mile away.  The mass of tour buses from earlier were gone, and the many guides so anxious for business in the morning, lounged casually in the shade by the ticket counter unmoved by my approach.  Fine, I thought, I won’t have to turn them down.  I was on the trail of creatures that live within the dense cloud cover of the jungle: of Toucans, Macaws and Motmots, brilliant turquoise crested birds, as well as a myriad of other flying beings.

Through the dense shrub that covered the site, butterflies drifted lazily, birds with high pitched voices called out from deep in the jungle, and I followed their calls. To either side of the path were many mounds that I recognized as unexcavated structures where the shrub had taken over; where lizards and iguana hesitatingly peeked their heads out of the shade they’d slept within for the hot part of the day and would now be looking for dinner.

Populated from at least 600 AD to well into the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, this city sprawled to include outlying areas for over 600 square miles. Today very few of the original structures have been excavated. There are three main sections of several buildings each which are separated by long neat trails, a ball court, and the tallest structure in the Yucatan, named Nohoch Mul is 120 steps and rises to 140 feet. The climb to the top is far better than any stair-master at the gym; the steps half broken and extremely steep; a purposeful design to require one to crawl like a jaguar when approaching the temple at the top.

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Nohoch Mul

The trail between groups of buildings is wide and easy to follow, and as I meandered alone through the growing dark, far ahead I glimpsed a large creature run across the path to quickly disappear into the dense undergrowth on the other side. I raced forward, my heart beating quickly with the hope of seeing who it was that had graced me with a vision.  But once I reached the place I’d seen it enter, there was no sign or sound to tell me more.  It could have been a jaguar– they are still seen occasionally — or it could have been a large house cat, but I was quite certain it was of the cat family. In my years of research about the ancient Maya, the references to the jaguar—both the animal and the god– are the most frequent, and for me, have been the most intriguing.

 

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A pyramid in the interior of the site

 

 

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Travels in the Mayan Yucatan

This is the third in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya.

The Puuc Region: Uxmal

At the Mayan site of Uxmal the top of a mammoth pyramid rose above the surrounding jungle like an apparition; magnificent, eerie, and captivating to the imagination.  A gentle rain in the night had sweetly scented the air, and by the time I’d dressed and eaten, the clouds had passed leaving everything wet and clean; the dust settled on the dirt paths that lead from one part of the ruins to another.
The city of Uxmal, meaning the place of plentiful harvests, was inhabited from 100–1000 AD and was rebuilt five times with a population at its height of 20,000 people.
Comprised of seven separate groupings, the surviving buildings were located on a broad plateau.  As I’d seen at the nearby sites of Sayil and Kabah, the architectural style was unique and distinguished them from other areas of the Yucatan; long and low with exquisite proportions, decorated with elaborate ornate carvings of Puuc the rain god and several other deities.

 

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“The Nunnery Quadrangle,” named by a 17th century Christian priest for its resemblance to the cloisters of Spain, is now believed to have had  various civic and religious uses by priests and dignitaries of the city.  The quantity of divine symbols in the friezes and excessive number of Chaacs – the rain god — speaks of sacramental spaces.  Faithful to the design of the other ritual buildings of this site, the quadrangle was the most outstanding with its elaborate ornamentation and long low design.

Little is known about the people who lived here and their unique history. The ruins themselves speak of a culture that was highly religious and ritualistic, who lived according to the ancient books of the Classic Maya, but beyond that, we don’t know.  I found myself remembering the Mayan creation stories I’d found in the Popul Vuh and the Books of the Chilan Balam. Here is an excerpt:

“In the beginning the two who came first from the one made the gods of the four directions and joined the two of heaven, and the six together created the seventh who is ‘heart of heaven’.  Thus co-creation began and all else came forth from this co-operation.  The word was spoken and action arose.  It was green.

In the first stage the earth,

plants and animals were formed and multiplied.  However the animals could not speak, but could only squawk and run about madly, could not name the gods who created them, could not honor and praise them, and so their flesh was brought low, they were eaten, they were killed — the animals on the face of the earth.

In the second stage,

The Makers experimented with the human work and built them of earth and mud, but it did not look good to them; it kept separating and changing, it could only mimic, it could not create.  No words of praise came forth from their distorted faces.  The days of the gods were not kept by them.  They were insufficient and therefore were dismantled.

In the third stage

the gods were successful in fashioning a human who could sustain its form.  They were carved of wood and were led by the grandmother, the daykeeper, and by grandfather, the master of coral seeds.  These could multiply, but there was not enough in their hearts, not enough in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder.  They did not remember the ‘Heart of Sky’, but only knew the grandmother, ‘Heart of Lake’.  Again a great destruction was made; a dismantling of the creation.
This was when there was only a trace of dawn on the face of the earth; there was no sun.  To this time and place there came the great warrior twins, the redeemers of mankind, Hanahpu and Ixbalamka who would transform the creation from the third to the fourth stage.”

The stories that describe stages of creation were consistent with the philosophic understanding that life is dependent on the creators and that the creators expect something in return.  At the height of the Mayan civilization a great deal of attention was given to the gods, and Uxmal, like other sites, was where the people came for rituals to honor them.

Together with others who had come from the far corners of the world to see this magnificent site, I realized the honoring was still taking place. Maybe it was not with the same understanding, but we did gaze in awe and wonder all the same.

Uxmal ballcourt

 

Here at Uxmal the separate groups of buildings were positioned in relationship to one another in intricate geometric patterns.  It was truly a marvel to see and one wondered at how such a marvel was accomplished in a place where there were no mines, no metal tools, no dray animals, and the wheel had not been discovered.  The wheel issue was another of the Mayan mysteries; for a people that charted the heavens without the aid of modern instruments, that came up with the concept of zero and were brilliant mathematicians, why did they have no concept of the wheel?

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As I approached The Temple of the Magician, whose top I had seen from my room at the hotel, it was  forbidding with its 118 steps leading to two platforms. The gargantuan size would have certainly impressed any visitors at any time.  Five superimposed temples, each embedded in the other and added in different periods, made up the temple.  At 114 feet, it was the second largest pyramid in the Yucatan.

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Most Mesoamerican cultures played a form of the ballgame, and I was anxious to see Uxmal’s ballcourt.  111 feet long and 32 feet wide, its sloped walls ran the length forming a platform at the top for spectators.  The equipment for the ballgame varied through time and space but generally consisted of a rubber ball and heavy padding for the players.  Two teams of 2 or 3 players each competed to pass the ball through a ring suspended high on one of the walls of the alleyway.  The players controlled the ball by hitting it with the upper arm and thigh; no hands could be used.

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More ceremony than sport, the ballgame was another of the Classic Maya’s symbolic aspects; the struggle between day and night, dark and light, consciousness and the unconscious.  A metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, particularly the Sun, Moon, and Venus, the ball itself may have been understood as the sun journeying in and out of the Underworld, seen as the narrow alley of the ballcourt.  The most well documented description of the importance of the ballgame to the Maya was found in the Popul Vuh when the redeemer twins, Hanahpu and Ixbalamka must play the game with the lords of the Underworld to bring about the fourth stage.

Again a time came, when there was not a trace of dawn on the face of the earth; there was no sun. The lords of Xibalba challenged Hanahpu and Ixbalamka to a ballgame in the underworld, which is not something that can be refused.

 

Excerpt from my novel, The Jaguar’s House.

Hanahpu and Ixbalamka climbed down the craggy cliffs to the catapulting river below.  After passing all of the tests put to them, they were put to the ultimate test; the House of Death where they would be sacrificed.  Here the ballgame was played.  Hanahpu lost his head, but with the aid of the animals and all allies of the earth, the brothers did utterly defeat the lords of Xibalba; because of superior knowledge they knew that death was a stage whose next step was rebirth, so when Hanahpu died, he knew he’d be reborn, and therefore was.
This feat was a miracle to the lords of Xibalba who believed death was the final frontier.  The lords were envious of this mastery and wished to participate and gain its power.  One Death bowed to them and said, “Please, sacrifice us, so that we may know this great truth.” Here the twins defeated them utterly, for when their heads were cut off, they could not reassemble themselves. They had no belief in transformation, and so were locked in the prison of their own minds; dead forever.

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The game became the metaphor of life, death, and regeneration and the resurrection of the twins’ father, the Maize God, from the court of death. The principle ideas that form the foundation of Mayan thought were of stages, of a continual round of cycles of time, of transformation, and of the correct way to live in relation to the gods.  All of these concepts can be seen in this excerpt from my novel, The Jaguar’s House.” 

 

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art, Mayan Culture, mythology, philosophy, research, spirituality, travel, writing

Travels in the Mayan Yucatan

On the Trail of Mayan Secrets

The Puuc Region: Kabah & Sayil

This is the second in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the Puuc region of the Yucatan where several ancient sites are located.

“Please, madam, do not go outside the grounds at night,” insisted the Mayan hotel desk clerk.”It is not the tarantulas or alligators that you should be concerned about. But the coral snake. She is the one to watch. She will bite your shadow.”
The Mayan meaning of having one’s shadow bitten is to lose one’s ability to defend oneself.  I’d say the coral snake had most definitely bitten me, for I was defenseless against the spell of the place that conjured so much mystery and passion.  That night, cradled by the chorus of insects that sing through the night, my dreams were multi-layered with meaning and symbols.  Through an open window a dark form.  Was it a shadow play or real?
I’d driven from Chichen Itza that morning on a two lane straight path that rolled in leisurely fashion over the low hills toward my destination in the Puuc region. It was well-paved and passed through land virtually uninhabited by man. Once away from the capital of Merida, except for an occasional small truck, I had the road to myself.
The Yucatan, a slab of limestone that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea has few lakes, no rivers and is honeycombed with caves and sink-holes, called cenotes that have broken through the limestone crust allowing underground water to rise.  This relentlessly flat landscape carpeted in green hosts a medium-height tropical forest known most particularly for the over 475 species of birds who are responsible for one aspect of the wonder of the place.
Though Mayan, the Puuc is different than the rest of the peninsula in several ways that we know, and probably many that we do not.  For one thing the 4700 square mile area is hilly rather than flat, and clothed in woodland, the hills are alive with a wider range of wildlife: puma, coatimundi, margay, armadillo, deer and spider monkeys, and of course, the birds.  But the most important physical difference was that the area has no cenotes so they have no natural way to store water.  The people of the Puuc developed a method for extracting the underground water and storing it in manmade pits.  A system of cisterns and artificial watering holes are still in evidence.  One of the mysteries of this region is why people settled here with no water.  One possible explanation is that the hills are said to be extremely fertile due to the runoff from the hills.  It is assumed that it was because they would be so dependent on rain for survival that their primary god was the rain god Chac.

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Chac was a benign god who caused trees and plants to bud and flower and ripen.  Besides his stylized elephant nose, his face was painted black; his jacket was a net symbolizing clouds and his crown was of heron feathers. He carried rattles to create thunder and stylized images of him show large circular eyes that give the appearance of goggles.

It’s only 50 miles from Merida to the first area of ruins at Uxmal, but with each mile devoid of human life, and nothing but monotonous scrub for as far as I could see, I felt I was going further and further from civilization, to the middle of nowhere.  The feeling was exhilarating, until I remembered the state of my rental car, which had no odometer, no speedometer and no air-conditioning.  Though as the temperature outside went up, I did occasionally fiddle with the switch on the dash that lured me with the promise of coolness.

 

 

 

 

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My thoughts reached toward this place I’d read so much about but had never seen. The unique beauty of the architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright admired had captured my imagination, as well as the opportunity to explore ruins hardly touched by modern man.  The area had been inhabited since 800BC and reached it’s height in power and architecture between the 7th and 9th century AD.  Around 1200AD it disappeared. Unlike many of the classic Mayan sites that continued to be inhabited for some time after their height, the ruins in the Puuc were entirely abandoned. Why, I wondered?
My long study of the Classic Mayan philosophy and cosmology had showed me that their core beliefs were monotheistic and centered on cycles of change, love and consciousness. The many surviving myths make this point clear. Many Mayanologists believe that the acts of blood rituals and homicide came later and were a distortion of what had once been a complete vision of man’s place in the universe.
The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Maya collection of sacred books, expresses their philosophy of monotheism as well as a resonance with other world religions:
Where there was neither heaven nor earth sounded the first word of God. And He unloosed Himself from His stone and declared His divinity.  And all the vastness of eternity shuddered.  And His word was a measure of grace and He broke and pierced the backbone of the mountains. Who was born there? Who? Father, thou knowest: He who was tender in Heaven came into Being.

The Mayan belief that creation would continually recycle; ending and beginning endlessly, can be seen in another place in the Chilam Balam:

All moons, all years, all days, all winds, reach their completion and pass away.  So does all blood reach its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne. Measured was the time in which they could praise the splendor of the trinity. Measured was the time in which the grid of the stars would look down upon them; and through it, keeping watch over their safety, the gods trapped within the stars would contemplate them.

Here again was the concept of the cyclical nature of life I’d explored in their calendars at Chichen Itza.  Within the movement of the heavens extending three million years, stillness was felt, like a spoked wheel that when it whirls at great speed appears solid and at rest.  Everything turns on its cycle, reaches completion and finds its quiet place, it’s power and its throne.  Here is fulfillment and back to the beginning; the perpetual cycle seen in the heavens and reflected on earth.

As I drove through miles of almost complete emptiness these beautiful ideas of the Maya seemed particularly haunting. Where were they now? The Yucatan still has a Mayan population but the people live mostly in small villages that have not physically changed in a thousand years.  The early beliefs that had been responsible for the rise of a sophisticated culture were all but lost to the modern Maya.

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Suddenly out of the empty landscape, a vision of oasis quality materialized; hundreds of palms and tall graceful trees, elegant Spanish buildings with red-tile roofs, and a sweeping entranceway that was Uxmal’s Hacienda Hotel.
As I walked to dinner that night a Toucan greeted me from his perch in a grass roofed hut-cage on the veranda of the hotel.  His huge yellow beak was backlit in the last of the sun’s rays, reminding me of the classic Maya profile with hooked nose, and of the rain god Chac whose main feature is that famous shaped nose.  The Maya are known for their interest in the meaning of things beyond the material which made me wonder what meaning they were referring to beyond the prominent nose whose shape ornaments so many of the temples.  Was it the crescent moon, the arc planets make around a sun, the passage of time itself?
As I sought to understand these underlying meanings, I felt that my own mind was being bent by this place where Mayan minds thought such thoughts, where they pondered the secrets of the universe.  Was my present bent of mind being stimulated by the sounds in the air; enchanting me with songs of love and truth?

 

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The next morning dawned full of birdsongs and filtered light through the canopy of occasional clouds.  I’d decided to head first for Kabah and Sayil, two sites nearby said to be untouched and lovely, and explore the larger and more famous ruins of Uxmal tomorrow. I filled my camera bag with all types of film, since I didn’t know what the conditions would be; the weather in the Yucatan can change in minutes and often does.

At Kabah I could hardly believe my good fortune when I drove the 23 miles to the site and pulled up in the grass on the side of the road with no parking lot, no buses, no one but me and the ancient man at the entrance — a wood hut with dresses hanging on a line for sale — who took my 20 pesos–2 dollars, with a toothless grin and a warm, buenos dias.

 

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Kabah, The Lord of the Strong and Powerful Hand, closely linked to Uxmal and the two other primary centers, epitomizes the Puuc style of architecture.  The main buildings were larger than I’d seen at other sites and the design was definitely unique.  A thin limestone veneer covered over a cement and rubble core; decorated cornices swirled around the columns in doorways; frets and lattice like designs criss-crossed over the surface, and lavish stone mosaics in the upper façade emphasized sky-serpent faces with long hook shaped noses!!  Chac was everywhere and most particularly on the Kodz Poop which means rolled-up matting, a long building with over 250 stone masks of Chac that ran row after row over the entire westside of the structure.  The repetition was absolutely breath-taking in its effect and clearly expressed their reverence for this god.

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I was reminded of the Buddhist prayer wheels that are lined up and run in a circle so that one can walk and spin one after the other sending one’s prayer to the gods over and over again. The builders of this structure must have had something similar in mind.  The idea of the repetition of prayers is not unlike present day affirmations. But in this case, the Maya actually created the prayers in physical form, once again demonstrating their symbolic way of thinking.  They believed that whatever existed on the physical was representative of the unseen—of the spiritual.

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The eastside of the Kodz Poop was equally impressive in an entirely different way.  Delicate lattice work and stylized huts were set below two huge statues of humans that looked out from their vantage point across the hills imparting a sense of guardianship and safety.  The head of one was missing but the other’s face was decorated with tattoos, marking them as nobility.  Facing east was probably connected to their concept of eternal return; the cycle of life seen in the rising of the sun in the east. They believed that the west and not the east is the seed ground, perpetual re-creation of life out of death.  Rebirth occurred when the light dawned in the east the following day.  As the sun dies or disappears, the seeds of its rebirth are planted.
The morning passed quickly as I explored every nook and cranny of Kabah, so different than any site I’d visited previously.  The long structures with several stories expressed a more expansive multi-layered attitude. Except for the pyraminds, other Mayan sites on the peninsula tend to be square, single storied and with little ornamentation.  It was no wonder that Frank Lloyd Wright had been so impressed with this architecture that had reached the height of sophistication

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A five minute drive brought me to Sayil where another surprise awaited me.  A well tended path wound through dense jungle and into a beautiful flower garden with a traditional Mayan thatch-roofed hut tended by a gracious woman.  I was so surprised to find myself in what was obviously her private garden that I stumbled an awkward, Tres bonito jardin, mixing my small French with smaller Spanish.
She laughed kindly. “Thank you, Senora. It is my passion.” Fortunately speaking English.
“Are you guardian of the ruins?”
“My other passion. Will you look?”
“I will. What do you know about them that I should know as I go through?”
“The structures are far from one another, so look for the signs and don’t give up and come back too soon. Are you alone?”
“Si, it’s just me.”
She nodded and smiled what seemed to be approval. “The jungle is dense in this region, and the way is long from the Great Palace to the other buildings. But it is safe, so, please, don’t worry.” She patted my shoulder.
Sayil means, The place of Ants, hardly a name our modern minds relate to positively, but what did it mean to the Maya? Did they have a special love of ants, or did they mean something entirely different?
It was nearing noon, and the sky was free of clouds, making the day warmer than usual as I headed into the dense growth where flowering vines leapt across the space from tree to tree, and plants, more root than stem, grabbed at my feet as I carefully walked the rock strewn path.  I was soon glad of the woman’s warning, for it seemed I’d walked forever without seeing anything or anyone besides the jungle.  It was probably no more than half an hour but alone in such a place had a forever quality about it.  The only sound was of birds.  I was in their territory where there was no illusion of whose place it was.

 

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But what a delight awaited me when suddenly the jungle gave way to a huge open space and the largest single structure I’d seen.  The Great Palace reminded me of the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos.  There were over 100 rooms reached by wide stairways to three separate floors where I imagined robed figures with feathered head-dresses conducting elaborate rituals.

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Both Kabah and Sayil would have been the spiritual centers for the villages around them where the priests and elite served the needs of the people by imparting the wisdom they had come to understand and conducting regular rituals for the maintenance of their way of life.  These were a people whose spiritual lives were deeply woven with the physical and with their concepts of multi-layered symbolism, they would not have believed there was a difference.
Might the Maya have lost sight of the truth they had come to know and by so doing, lost their creative edge as a culture, falling back into superstition as the village people of today had.  The distortion that occurred in their thinking is demonstrated before the fall of the Classic period when they embraced violence and blood sacrifice.  Could that have been the beginning of a loss of consciousness? I see a great people in their concepts, and by virtue of their awareness, there is an ability to do great things.  The vast and glorious sites of Kabah and Sayil were for ritual worship of the gods for all the surrounding villages. But when the gods become terrifying who will want to come near them?
The front of the palace structure had been excavated but the back had been left untouched.  Trees and vines grew from cracks in the tumbling rocks conveying the sense of a long passage of time.  The Mayan concept of destruction and creation occurring from out of the rubble of what went before was obviously in evidence here.
I decided to explore the palace more closely, and peering inside one of the many openings to the rooms, was startled by dozens of birds that flew out and around me.  Curious, I looked in several others and discovered that thousands of birds were now the inhabitants of Sayil’s Great Palace.  I chuckled at the idea that maybe the visionary Maya had been moved to build these semi-permanent nests for the rightful inhabitants; tricked into doing so by the will of the bird god?
Able to wander alone in the silence with the many elegant structures reclaimed by vegetation and creatures of all sorts, I felt privileged and could practically see the moment of the high culture’s disappearance hovering in the air like a message left by those who’d loved this place and left.  It was not an answer in words but in feeling; of sadness and loss, of dreams ended and an unknown future, of courage and vision, and ultimately of humanities vast ability to recreate itself, watched from above by the gods trapped within the stars.  With their ability to foresee the future, had they known the end was coming and gone to nearby centers, transforming their lives as the hero twins had taught them to? There are as many theories about the end of the Classic Maya as there are theorists but one thing is certain; they understood cycles of change probably better than any other culture.
As I made my way back through the dense growth to my car, I thanked all the creatures seen and unseen for the gifts of this day. I had received more than I could have hoped for and still there was Uxmal tomorrow.

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gratitude, parenting, philosophy, spirituality, thanksgiving, writing

Everyday Gratitude

The Attack of the Turkeys.  I’m not kidding.

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Tennessee Valley is one of my favorite places to walk; a two mile valley that runs east/west to the beach just north of San Francisco.   There’s a side path that goes through a horse pasture to an overgrown pond where I like to go looking for things to photograph.  On this occasion a few months ago, as I was passing the horses, five very large, very angry turkeys blocked my way.

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Ignorant of the ways of turkeys, I charged on through them thinking, mistakenly, that they’d back down, instead they surrounded me and with wildly, and incredibly strong beating wings, proceeded to beat me up.  With nothing but the jacket I carried, I swung at them.  However, I was also intend on documenting the event and continued to take photographs.

 

 

 

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Above is some unknown part of the turkey as it was beating me with its wings which are incredibly hard and strong.

Since they were intend on blocking my path and would certainly do me harm, I was ready to give up and turn for home, when a ranger came and drove them off.  They were guarding a nest of babies.

Tomorrow millions of people will eat turkey, myself included.  A delicious bird that has come to symbolize our gratitude for the abundance in our lives.  After more than 200 years of being prey on this day, it’s no wonder the creature is feisty.

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I’m glad that there is a day assigned for giving thanks.  I really do appreciate the gesture, however, each day we’re alive to experience the unfolding of life on this gorgeous, fragile, powerful, multi-faceted planet, is a day to celebrate.  No matter what one believes about life after death, once dead, wherever we go from here, we will no longer be a part of life on this planet.

So I thank the turkeys for showing me something of their power and their willingness to put themselves at risk for the sake of their off spring; to remind me that

all life is moved to protect new life.  It is how the creation assures it’s survival.  It is a life force, not unlike gravity or time or space.  It is called Love.

 

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everest21.jpgFirst it’s about Human Rights.

The first step on the long climb is to recognize that if you are unable to allow freedom to others, you’ll never have it yourself.  If my individual freedom encroaches on yours, that is not it.  That is bullying.  If I think freedom is doing as I please, I haven’t taken the first step but remain in a childlike mentality.  It has taken us several thousand years to arrive at base camp; the oxygen hasn’t even begun to thin.

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Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Ring any bells?  That was 2000 years ago.  How high have we climbed since then? It took the western world another 1800 years to take that first step and acknowledge the rights of others.  And in many parts of the world today, there has been little or no progress in that regard.

When I acknowledge your need for freedom is as important as mine, I have begun to climb.  It is not easy. Our brains are hardwired to be selfish; unless our early lives teach us to care for others, we won’t.  Research on brain development is clear on this point; we are not naturally empathic, in fact it’s hard work to teach a child that the toy his friend has should not be taken from him.  There will be tantrums, sulks, and continual efforts to get what they want, no matter what mommy and daddy say.  Until months, and sometimes years later, the child learns that sharing is good.  It has payback.  The parents are happy with their child and the friend might even give the child what they want once the power struggle is over.

When we teach our children that they are the only ones, but are not the only ones who are the only ones, we help them take that first important step toward a free world.

Freedom is an attitude not a given.

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It is a willingness to keep going up; to strive harder when it feels your lungs will burst;  Paris bombing, Beirut bombing, Malta bombing . . . The second step requires us to be patient, be kind, be empathic, not just for our own but for those who’ve hurt us.  When we want to strike back, as Gandhi said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  

Until we’re all free, none of us are.  The age of terrorism is showing those of us who’ve lived in countries that profess freedom for their citizens that the illusion can be wrested from us.  It isn’t even very hard.  Just shoot a few people in a country that believes it’s free and suddenly, no one in that country can live with the illusion any longer.  The borders close, the army comes in, and individuals are restricted in their movements.  All gone freedom.

Freedom is not something one can have while another does not.  Freedom is an attitude of inclusion, lacking that, the word is incorrect.

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We must be still; stop our animal brain, breath and grieve.  Trauma research among animals has shown that when an animal is hurt or shocked they sit still for awhile.  Psychologists have integrated this information when working with people who’ve experienced a trauma and have found that by being still, even just for a few minutes, the individual is able to process the crises and move on.

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Understanding those who’ve violated our freedom.

Moving on up the mountain to the freedom promised at the top, means understanding those who’ve threatened that freedom; to bring our intelligence to bare on what is outside of our reality.  Like the problem of the child who wants someone else’s toy, some people have never learned the first step, so are handicapped and trapped in the reptilian brain of pain and selfishness, they take freedom from others.   Ignorance is not an excuse but it is a reality.

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For those of us still climbing toward the goal, meeting and sharing with others of like mind is a relief and a support.  To sit in the crisp clear air and share our stories, our challenges, and our failures, gives courage to continue.

Humanity need not go the way of the dinosaurs and other species who failed to adapt. We are, however, awfully close to the brink of our own extinction.  We must wake up, keep climbing, and prove we are worthy of living on this glorious planet.  But for that to happen, we must learn to cooperate.

As the Buddhists say: No single person gets enlightened.  Until we all go, no one goes.  We are One.

 

 

 

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Love in the Time of Terrorism

It’s about staying light; about believing in hope, goodness, love, connection, and finally, finding humor.

What does it mean to stay light?

In the Mahabharata, Krishna advised Arjuna on the day of battle and after a terrible betrayal, to not let his heart get hard.  A soft heart does not mean we’ll get run over. (Krishna did win in battle that day.)  It means to keep believing in the good that you’re fighting for.  No matter how dire the outlook.

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Maintaining hope in the face of adversity,

means that you find what goodness there is in the situation; that you avoid the trap of going over and over the terrible things that happened, but rather that you mourn the tragic and look for the small and beautiful within the landscape of tragedy; the heroes and heroines, the saved lives, the things learned, the actions taken to recover and protect against the next bad thing that is inevitably on the horizon.

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There is so much goodness to be had in a time of tragedy.

Whether it’s war, or famine, or acts of nature, or terrorism.  ( the 21st Centuries kind of war) difficult situations tend to bring out the best in humanity; we rise to the occasion and deal with it, and in that, we find goodness all around us.

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Our connection to others becomes obvious in crises.

In our everyday lives most of us move robotically, passing others on the street and barely acknowledging them, being too busy to phone a friend or family member.  Contained within our self center, we’re disconnected from life swirling around us.

 

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Not so in crises.  By its very definition, crises means that the norm has been broken, and when it breaks, the bubble we’ve been walking around inside, breaks open and suddenly we see one another; reach out to help if help is needed, offer a hand, feel empathy, feel all kinds of emotions depending on the situation.

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Humor is the life saver; the heart saver, the hope, love and connection saver.

 

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Without humor we harden, and Krishna did warn against such a course.  It doesn’t mean we don’t feel sad, or mad, or frightened, but what it does mean is we can and must lighten the situation to maintain our humanity. With humor we can return to light, hope, goodness, love, and connection. Like the flip of a switch, what was intolerable, unconscionable, unacceptable, inhuman, etc., etc., etc., shifts from a dark perspective to one with, at least a little, light.

 

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Paris; Love, Beauty, Inspiration, Joie de Vivre, Will never be beaten down.

IMG_2632Like so many others, the first time I
saw Paris, I fell in love.  In many consequent trips, I continued that love affair; always a little different, but never less thrilling.  I wrote an historical novel: the Nobility of the Robe, about a real woman who was the abbess of Port Royal Abbey in 17th Century Paris that allowed me to return several times.  I’d planned to return this spring, for no other reason than to remember myself as a french woman.  My mother was french, and I had discovered that heritage was very much alive in me; i walk differently on the streets of Paris; I breathe and sigh more passionately, I am more fully feminine.

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I took up the habit of writing poems on napkins in the cafes as I ate my croissant and listened to the melody of French conversations at nearby tables. On that first mad, divine, trip with no paper to write on but the napkin on my table, the waitress smiled when she saw me and said, “For your great novel?” We both laughed and I knew I was home; home to the creative artistic spirit that is the quintessential attraction of Paris.

Though I traveled alone, I never felt alone, never felt at risk walking at night, often in the rain, carrying my heavy photographic equipment.  Paris is even more wonderful at night in the rain.

When I returned from that first trip I created a photographic show of the images from that time.  They’re still some of my favorites.  All of the images in this post are from Paris.

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This one from the Luxembourg gardens is a normal sighting of those who spend time there.

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The wedding dress image was a surprise.  I was walking along the Seine and shot the display in the store window.  I didn’t know until the film was developed how much more had been captured.  I’m dating myself by admitting to film.  It was a while ago!

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In the Rodin Museum, another surprise moment caught my attention.

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Outside Notre Dame, I was fortunate to come upon an unusual mime that I felt captured the spirit of Paris completely; whimsical, musical and melancholic.  What I’m saying, is that my artistic spirit is so moved in that environment, things just happen.  There is nowhere else in the world where I have been so free..

That said, I am saddened far beyond these words can express by the assault on Paris this last Friday.  Will any of us who love, and, or live, in that magical city ever experience such freedom again? Will the dark overcome the light?

The answer is a resounding NO; say NO to fear, say NO to worry, say NO to doubt, say NO to the pain others cannot help but inflict on life, love and beauty.

        Say NO

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