Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Interlude: A Bowl of Raspberry Oatmeal

Carl Sagan once said something along these lines: If, after the resurrection, Jesus had ascended into heaven at the speed of light, he still wouldn't have cleared the galaxy.

Maybe that's the wrong metaphor for what happened to me this morning, but I'm going with it anyway.

For a long time I've been trying to see the big picture. You need a high perch to see what's happening to the earth as a whole, to wrap your mind around humanity's non-future, to consider what, if anything, you might try to do about it. That's why I traveled to the Yucatan. That's why I've visited certain websites way too often over the years. That's where I've been living, in a shaky house in a very tall tree that has nevertheless felt not tall enough.

How far up would I have to go? How tall would my tree need to be?

Since Wednesday night I've been hanging out at my niece's house. She's been in a Seattle hospital having surgery. Something needed to be taken out, and that something needed to be biopsied. It wasn't cancerous. Hallelujah. She'll be coming home in a day or two, and that's good because her three daughters miss her a LOT. They miss their father too, who's with my niece at the hospital.

This morning I asked the middle daughter, Harper, who is ten (I think) and has seemed to be the most rattled by her mother's absence, what she wanted for breakfast.

"I want blueberry oatmeal," she said, plain as day.

Since my niece and her husband adopted Harper--she was three at the time--her speech development has been slow. It's possible that she suffered some brain damage during her birth in China. Lately, though, she's been making fast progress. In any case, there was no mistaking "I want blueberry oatmeal."

I couldn't find any blueberries, but there was a bag of frozen raspberries in the freezer. "Is raspberry oatmeal okay?"

A grudging nod. She took a bowl out of the cupboard and placed it at the center of the kitchen island, which is where breakfast gets eaten in this very organized household.

I poured some raspberries into the bowl I'd put on the counter for my own breakfast, thawed them in the microwave, cooked the oatmeal on the stove, poured the oatmeal on top of the raspberries, and set the bowl in front of Harper.

She stared into the bowl, looking utterly appalled. Her younger sister. Hunter, said to me, "I think you were supposed to mix it together."

I handed Harper a spoon. "You can go ahead and mix it up."

She mixed it up and stared into the bowl some more.

Hunter, ever helpful, said, "Mom puts cinnamon on it."

I shook some cinnamon on Harper's oatmeal. Still she stared into the bowl. After a minute she pushed it away, stretched out an arm, and lay her head on it.

"Hannah," I said to the oldest sister, a teenager. "Help me out here."

Hannah said softly, "She's just being Harper."

And what did I do? I repeated those words loud enough for Harper to hear them. "She's just being Harper," I said--trying to figure out what was wrong, trying to reassure myself that it had nothing to do with me.

Harper, her head still down, started to cry. For a long minute none of the rest of us said anything, neither Hunter nor Hannah nor I.

"She doesn't like the bowl," Hunter finally suggested.

Then I saw right in front of me the bowl that Harper had chosen. I'd put her oatmeal in the one I'd chosen. I poured the oatmeal from my bowl into hers, and she ate it, all but the last bite, although the bowl wasn't the real problem.

When you're in a very tall tree, you can miss things, especially small things, things on the ground that require care. Being careful with small things is work worth doing in this terrifying, unprecedented time.

What does all this have to do with the Carl Sagan quote? Probably nothing. I've just always liked that quote.

Next time: A Shared Mayan Meal--What's On, and In, the Ground

Monday, February 23, 2015

Talking About Collapse in Mayan Territory

The Doomsday Clock, recently reset two minutes ahead, to 11:57.
We didn't talk about collapse--at least not much--and that surprised me.

During our week in Izamal, Israel was busy in the evenings. Sometimes he did bodywork for members of the group, but otherwise he was elsewhere. I wonder how much he would have said about planetary collapse--of our economies, habitats, and cultures--even if he'd been around. He seemed more interested in showing us ways to live based on spiritual principles sounder, or more deeply held, than our own.

If we'd traveled together longer, maybe we would have talked more about our feelings and plans in the face of collapse, but during our ten days together, we were busy looking at ruins, taking pictures, having adventures, and learning from our leaders new ways to feel stronger in these scary times. When we did approach the subject of collapse directly, I felt that most of us were holding back.

The topic of one brief conversation was how directly the Mayan experience applied to our own. The Post-Classic Maya of the Yucatan were in the end invaded and conquered by the Spanish. That didn't seem likely to happen to us, those of us who were Americans at least, armed to the teeth as our country is. Earlier Maya suffered from drought, overuse of resources, and stratified, top-heavy, disorganized societies. Those stresses did seem to apply to us. How did these Maya die in the end? Starvation, probably. No one wanted to talk about that.

I've had some experience talking to others about rapidly rising temperatures, the melting Arctic, the messed up Jet Stream, gridlocked government, the dying ocean and burning forests. These conversations have never gone well. I don't regret them but didn't want to repeat them on the trip, and I guess most of the rest of the group didn't either. Probably we already shared a roughly similar body of knowledge about these things. Some of us, I know, were trying to face up to the idea of near-term human extinction, a very rapid collapse caused by huge methane releases and probably already in progress.

But I was hungry to hear about individual circumstances, what people were planning to do, what was going on inside their heads. Maybe I should have said that louder.

Gary Stamper, for example, talked about his and his partner's situation in a loosely formed community with no children growing up to carry it on. He spoke as well about the impossibility of preparing adequately for "cliff events" such as a new, rapidly spreading virus or a currency collapse. I appreciated his honesty.

A gradual, stepwise collapse seems more probable to me. For that we have to band together in small communities, share, barter, help, look out for the most vulnerable. These strategies won't work in the long run--I don't think any strategy will save us--but in the short run, depending on community might be the only thing that will make life bearable.

Our six travelers from Germany seemed interested in the possibility that some of us might survive--if we can learn to live a different way. They train people in a remarkable program of personal development called Possibility Management.  I plan to learn more about that and about autonomous zones (see, for example,, a movement they are interested in fostering. I got the distinct impression, however, that Possibility Management begins with and insists on, if not optimism, a positive outlook. At this point I'd have to have a brain transplant to conjure up a positive outlook. A peaceful one might become possible, but a positive one, no.

Carolyn Baker spoke about collapse becoming a vehicle that would lead the willing toward a less egoistic state and ultimately to a transformation of consciousness. What that might feel like, no one can know. I've been pondering it anyway.

These exchanges pointed to a future none of us can see its entirety. Guessing, despite the flood of information finally coming out about trouble ahead, is also problematic. Since we are facing something the Maya did not face, something brand new and devastating in its emotional impact, the extinction of life on an entire planet, I guess it's not surprising that we have to look at it and talk about it a little at a time.

Before the trip, Gary wrote, "I think by going, I’ll be saying through the Mayan collapse and to the Maya, in a way I cannot do from home, that we are connected, that they are not alone. And neither am I."

I like that.

Tulum. The Maya couldn't go any further north without falling into the sea. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Learning from a Mayan Shaman, #3: Chichen Itza

A few thoughts of my own before I return to Israel's . . .

Chichen Itza, a post-classic Mayan City in the northern Yucatan important between 600 and 1200 A.D., is included in some Seven Wonders of the World lists. I could see why when I stood at the foot of the Pyramid of Kukulkan and looked up its steep steps toward the hulking temple on top, when I walked Chichen Itza's sprawling grounds until its structures seemed to look back at me and I had to turn away, let my mind wander.

Actually, this isn't true. While I was at Chichen Itza, I registered very little. I was too overwhelmed. Most of these thoughts and feelings surfaced in retrospect.

From my limited travels, I've been able to call up only one comparison to this haunted place--the Roman Forum. Both the Forum and Chichen Itza were built over time and contain structures used for religion and government. Chichen Itza was also a city, of course, where people lived, worked and were laid to rest, whereas the Forum was only part of a city, a gathering place for the people in charge. But both are artifacts of empires that perished. Both insist on the ultimacy of power.

The Arch of Titus, for example, located just off the Roman Forum, commemorates the emperor who led the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple, the deaths of a million Jews, and the Diaspora. "Whoopee!" this structure seems to say. "We wiped out an entire culture!" The Romans didn't succeed in wiping out the Jewish people or their culture, of course, although Europeans would continue trying to do this for millennia to come.

Like the Pyramid, Chichen Itza's Temple of the Warriors is dedicated to Kukulkan, the plumed serpent, whose role in classic Maya society centered on sacrificial rites. The serpent served a sort of lightning rod up to the gods. In post-classic Chichen Itza, when the city was most powerful, Kukulkan was also a king. This double identity confused me until I remembered that Augustus Caesar was also both god and king (at least according to Augustus Caesar).

The Temple of Warriors was built about 1000 AD. By this time the Toltec people and the Maya had interacted, possibly in wars that left the Toltec in charge. Toltec influence on the Temple is said to be strong. The ranks of columns, each column representing a guerrero, once supported a roof. Roofless, the columns seemed to move rather than stand still, as if in procession.

Israel laid a hand on one of these columns and said, "A warrior built this, to make himself immortal. And now he is."

I said above that Chichen Itza was haunted, but the spirits seemed all male to me.

"These buildings are all towers, built toward the sky," I said to Israel. "Toward sky gods. Male gods."

"No, there are structures that go down too," Anyaa, one of the trip planners and a shamanic priestess, said.  "Remember the excavation Israel showed us." Archaeologists had unearthed above-ground structures before looking below ground, but the digging down had begun. "Remember the seven points."

During our purification ceremony, we'd followed Israel's lead by turning toward the East, South, West and North (I may have the order wrong), by reaching for the sky and kneeling to touch the ground. At the center of the circle was the point at which an axis--knowing a little more, I see this now as a snake or  tree--connected the underworld, this world, and the realm of the gods and ancestors above. Seven points.

Cenote at Chichen Itza, inaccessible to visitors
I remembered as well that we were going to visit several cenotes, the underground rivers that made Mayan life in the Yucatan possible. I looked forward to swimming in one or two.

Israel drew a series of concentric circles on the ground, identifying the gatekeepers between the circles, officials whose importance increased the closer they stood to the center. Many of these officials, Israel said, were women.

Yet the bottom line for me was that Chichen Itza was built by the powerless for the powerful. I was as uncomfortable there as I'd been at Versailles or Hearst Castle. The spirits of the women who'd lived and worked there, raised their children there, didn't speak to me. Nor did those of the men, some of them slaves (as is true in nearly all ancient cultures), whose lives were consumed by hard labor.

More to come: Evenings together talking about collapse.

Photos from Google Images

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Learning from a Mayan Shaman, #2: Purification

Landa's church, dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua
Izamal, the "Yellow City," contains what is left of a cluster of Mayan temples. These were lowered--the structures on top taken down--and the stones used to build a Catholic church and monastery over what had been the tallest pyramid. The church still stands. Diego de Landa Calderon, a Franciscan, supervised its construction in the 1560s. He collected valuable information about the Maya people, their culture, and their language. But he also conducted inquisitions into Mayan leaders' supposed attempts to sabotage Catholic conversions. Some of these investigations led to executions. Believing the Maya to be idolaters, he destroyed as many of their artifacts as he could, including most of their bifold books. I tell you all this to put Israel's work with us in context.

On our first day with Israel, just a few blocks from the church above, he conducted a purification ceremony next to an old temple. He stood over a circular altar on the ground about a yard in diameter. The altar included sacred objects, some of which were Israel's tools, candles, flowers, and a few of the group's possessions we thought might need cleansing--my watch, for example.

Israel's circle after the ceremony, many objects removed.
I didn't know what to expect from Israel's ceremony. I'd done a little reading (part of Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, by Freidel, Schele and Parker), but hadn't taken much of it in. What was I being cleansed of exactly? What was corrupting me? Was I signing up for something like Catholic confession? That didn't sound good. I've made a few big mistakes in my life, but I've never hidden them, never let them turn poisonous in the dark. If my impurities were those I'd "caught" from modern culture, I would have been happy to kiss them goodbye, although I wasn't sure what habits or resources I'd be able to put in their place. And how exactly would Israel cleanse me?

I don't want to say much about what Israel did. He shares the skills he learned from his forebears as he
Israel with the conch shell.
sees fit. It's not up to me to make them public. And the others in the group who stepped up to be purified--each underwent a different rite--will tell or not tell what happened to them as they wish.  I only have my story, and I couldn't even see it all unfold.

What did the stones he was moving around and behind my feet signify? Why was he blowing his giant conch shell right next to my head? Why was he blowing it so long and loud? Was it necessary to wave that smoky substance all over me?

I was anxious about many things. I wished the rest of the group wasn't watching. Apart from my husband, I'd known these others exactly one day.

What if I didn't get it? What if this young man brought his wisdom to bear and it rolled right off me? What if my corruption was too deep?

What if everything Israel was doing was hocus pocus? A chorus of scoffing voices erupted in my head.

My purification lasted about ten minutes. Later a new friend from the group told me what he saw: Israel setting a black stone behind my feet--signifying something that had happened to me that I needed to leave behind--and blowing the conch shell to call my soul back into my body.

Whatever the nature of the ceremony, when I sat down afterward, under the trees that surrounded the altar, I was confident that Israel, this shaman, this doctor, could be trusted. He had helped me. I felt lighter, ready for something new.

More to come.


Photos by Tracy O'Neill

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Learning from a Mayan Shaman, #1: The Yucatan

I promised myself that when I came back to this blog, I'd write about books and writing and nothing more. Whoops.

Israel May 
My husband and I just returned from Mexico, where we and fifteen others met at the Cancun airport and traveled west by bus to the colonial city of Izamal. We spent a week there driving out to visit Mayan ruins and learning from a Mayan shaman. Gary Stamper, Anyaa McAndrew, and Carolyn Baker--all people I hope to know for the rest of my life--planned the trip. I don't think any of them would object to my saying that the shaman we spent the week with, a quiet, modest man named Israel May, was our teacher and leader. With Israel we visited Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo states of Northern Mexico--Chichen Itza first, then Ake, Tulum, and the Temple of Ixchel.

From 1800 BC to 1500 AD, the Maya thrived in stages in Central America, primarily in areas that now lie in Mexico and Guatemala. As you probably know, they developed written language, higher mathematics and astronomy, as well as skills that allowed them, without benefit of pack animals or metal tools, to build communities both beautiful and functional, and feed their people. A powerful mystical tradition also grew up.

Why the Maya "disappeared" is a topic of some interest to people in the collapsing cultures of the global North. We know that Mayan cities from the classic period (about 250 AD to 900) were deserted long before Spanish soldiers and priests began their invasions in the 1500s. There is no consensus as to precisely why these communities failed. Some guesses are that a long drought stressed the primary crop, corn, that too many rich demanded service from too few poor, that forests were overcut to clear land for farming and to fuel preparation of the limestone plaster used to ornament buildings.

From the jungles of the south, the Maya moved north. Although the north was dryer, they could tap into water tables at shallow depths. In magnificent cities like Chichen Itza and Tulum, the Maya maintained a culture remarkably uniform through the centuries until the Spanish tried their best to wipe it and them out.

Chichen Itza, Pyramid of Kukulcan, "The Castle"

Ake, roof of marketplace missing. Although Ake is Early Classic, older than Chichen Itza, it is not yet completely unearthed.  

Tulum, El Castillo

Temple of the Goddess Ixchel, Isla Mujeres

The Mayan people, however, have not disappeared. We saw them, small in body, forthright in gaze, everywhere we went. Israel learned his shamanic skills from his grandmother and now educates northerners in ancient ways, doing as much good as he can for visitors who have trouble benefitting from what they don't understand.

More to come.

Photo credits: Israel May (trip members: who took this?); Chichen Itza, Ake, Tulum by Warren Miller; Temple of Ixchel, Google Images.