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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Learning from a Shaman, #4: Table Fellowship in Israel's Backyard

In the middle of our week in Izamal, shaman Israel May invited us into his backyard, next door to an age-old Mayan temple, for a traditional meal.

He and his family had prepared pibil, the generic name for food cooked in a pit or "pib." Our pibil was a dough made of masa and black beans wrapped in banana leaves. Israel had set many of these banana-leaf packages, along with squash, tomatoes, and citrus fruit, in a ceremonial circle ringed with flowers. When the rocks lining the bottom of the pit were the right temperature, we each chose an item of food and handed it to Israel. He lifted the food and our joined hands toward the sky, placed the food carefully on the rocks, then covered the food with sacking and the red dirt we'd seen everywhere in the Yucatan. It would take a couple of hours for the food to cook, so we got back on the bus and drove to the Ake ruins.

Ake is an early classic city, built centuries before post-Classic Chichen Itza and Tulum. It has been only partially excavated, but much grandeur has already surfaced. There was a school nearby, too, and it was good to hear children's voices. There was something else, too--dwellings, not of kings and priests, but of common people.

Israel showed us two caves set about 20 feet apart on a hill. When he was halfway up the steep path to these dwellings he said, "Stop here! You'll feel something right here." I didn't, and it made me sad. But on top of the hill, sitting near one of the caves, I began to imagine the people who had once lived there, smaller and darker-skinned than I am but otherwise the same, women, in particular, who cooked out of doors, gave birth, looked after their children, stored the bones of their dead, and themselves died. I felt something then.

By the time the bus returned to Israel's house, with the temple next door, the pit holding our food, I was in a place to appreciate what I was being offered, the sacred gift of friendship.

Israel and his brother excavated the food, laid it out on a small table in the garden, and we ate sitting on rocks. Nevertheless, we were practicing table fellowship. That's how it seemed to me.

If you've avoided church pews most of your life, you'll have to forgive me for this comparison. Christianity is where I started. I'm still trying to separate what's beautiful in it from what's hideous, but it's impossible to set aside entirely. An old friend once said of the effort to walk away, "It's too deep in me."

What I mean by table fellowship is this: Jesus invited the marginal--tax collectors, prostitutes, menstruating women, foreigners, the sick, and people too poor to pay for required sacrifices at the temple--to eat with him. (Unlike Israel, he didn't cook the meal himself. Remember Mary and Martha? That whole quagmire? Others cooked. Women cooked.) But by eating together, sitting down and breaking bread, he showed to those who were either temporarily or permanently not "our kind of people" that as far as he and the god he believed in were concerned, they were unblemished; they counted; they belonged.

In Mexico, I sometimes felt as if I were marginalized--by the people I knew least, and whose opinion I valued most, the Mexicans who lived there. This was most disturbing in Cancun, where our trip started and ended. Cancun is infested by fancy hotels and beach houses, clubbing opportunities, and giant statues of Spiderman. Apart from the mesmerizing water, aqua to indigo to aqua again, Cancun is Las Vegas South.

Mexican service workers make their living there by catering to our tastelessness. I saw resignation on some faces and barely disguised rage on others. In Izamal, on the other hand, people were friendly, waving at us as they bicycled by on the street, or smiling up into the windows of our bus. They seemed glad to see us, or maybe just glad to see Israel, who seemed to know every last one of them. Yet even in Izamal I felt foreign, ignorant, intrusive, and a lot of other unpleasant things.

The meal Israel offered us relieved me of those feelings, at least for a while. Blessing food by raising it up and eating it together? A Eucharist. Burying food in the ground and digging it up later? A sort of resurrection. Doing all this outdoors? Fellowship with people through the ages who lived simply on the land. A vision of our own future, maybe, if we're lucky enough to have a future.


Trip photos by Tracy O'Neill. Photo of Ake temple from Wikipedia.