Pondering Mayan History…

We’re back from a week at Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. (Seed companies offer the best customer rewards, in case you were wondering. :))



My feelings about resort tourism are too complicated and raw for a blog post, but my husband and I try to be respectful of the local culture and the country we’re visiting.

One of the reasons we wanted to go on this trip was to experience the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum for ourselves. It was a rare chance to see ancient history up close and in person, and we were not disappointed.






Chichen Itza was impressive. The sheer size and scale of the ruins, the detail of the surviving Mayan glyphs ~ there aren’t enough words to convey the sense of time you feel standing at the foot of the main pyramid, or wandering past observatories and temples. I read Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen before we left ~ about John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catharwood and their “discovery” of Mayan ruins in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico ~ so I thought I had some sort of historic context for what I was seeing. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of walking in those shadows myself, hearing the Quetzal bird echoes from our claps and seeing the Mayan faces in the stonework.


Tulum, though smaller in scope, was so wild and beautiful I could have spent my entire vacation wandering around it. It was the last Mayan city built, and the last abandoned ~ thanks to the coral reef protecting it from the sea and the thick wall protecting it from the land, it was never conquered by the Spanish (a point of obvious pride to the tour guides).






The Mayans had a sophisticated written language capable of expressing complex ideas about religion, politics, culture, and history centuries before anyone else on the continent did. They recorded their words in books (nearly all of which were destroyed by the Spanish, and the fact that the few surviving books are held in foreign museums was a clear point of anger and frustration to our guides) and developed an astronomical calendar so sophisticated and accurate that NASA recorded a margin of error of only 23 seconds. (Also, just so you know, the Mayans never predicted the world would end in 2012, okay? That marked the end of one calendar cycle, not all of creation.) They built incredible temples, dwellings, and platforms. They built roads, wells, and playing fields for their sacred ball games.

And yet the Mayan civilization could not survive the combined forces of war, invasion, rebellion, disease, and environmental degradation. Today, our guide told us, there are something like 6 million Mayan descendants still living in the Yucatan. They follow the old religion and speak the Mayan language, but so much has been lost to time and the jungle.

It makes me wonder where we’re headed.



Threads of silver wisdom…

I turn 40 in a couple of months and, yes, I wrote one of those “40 in 40” lists. At the top is something superficial and silly – and deeply significant to me.

I’m letting my hair grow out natural gray.

Now, in case it needs to be said: I’m not saying a woman shouldn’t color her hair. If you enjoy it, then rock on with your colorful self.

But if you don’t, then rock on with your gray self, too.

Here’s the thing: I almost didn’t turn 27. By the time the doctors figured out what was wrong and how to fix it, by the time I’d fought my way back on my feet, I was already finding the first random gray hair here and there.

By the time I turned 30, I was also turning noticeably gray. (Though I realize there’s a genetic component to the process of graying, in my case it was also a side-effect of the stress my body had been under for so long.) I started coloring my hair two years later.

At first, it was kind of fun. A way to pretend the past had never happened so I could move forward. But within months, I started having trouble. I’ve always been sensitive to a cocktail of different chemicals, and it quickly became apparent that do-it-yourself box dyes wouldn’t work for me. I started going to a local salon, but the coloring chemicals used there caused worse reactions. At the suggestion of a friend, I found an Aveda salon using plant-based dyes that were supposed to be better for my body and the environment, and that was important to me.

I went to that salon every six weeks for *years.* But I was never the sort of woman to sit back and enjoy it – for me, going to the salon was never relaxing. When I want to relax, I walk in the woods, ride my horses, read a book, sip a cup of tea, listen to music. I do not go somewhere to get my hair done. (shrug) Not only that, but this place was 40 minutes away, so every appointment took at least two hours (if not three – I have long hair) out of my day. Yes, I could read a book while waiting for my hair to do whatever it is that hair does when it’s being colored, but this place was one of those chatty ones where the entire room engages in casual conversation, so sticking my nose in a book felt sort of rude.

Still, it seemed the sort of thing I was supposed to do, right? A woman my age doesn’t walk around with gray hair. That’s like leaving the house without shoes, or pants, or something.

But then the “gentle, plant-based dyes” started causing irritation to my skin, too. Oh, nothing at all like the boxes! And, honestly, if I wanted to keep coloring my hair we could leave the goop on for less time, rinse it sooner and I’d probably be fine.

It’s just… I’m almost 40. I am tired of pretending my hair isn’t gray. I’m tired of being fake. We live in a culture that idolizes superficiality, shallow egotism, fake illusion. I crave authenticity, respect, substance and meaning. Why is it that so many so-called “celebrities” haven’t actually produced or accomplished anything beyond marketing their bad behavior, poor choices, and personality flaws as some kind of glittering package? Why don’t we celebrate our poets, writers, artists, scientists, innovators, teachers, leaders, and peacemakers the way we do people with painted faces and fake smiles?

Why do we idolize the young and pretend we’ll live forever? Why do we ignore the privilege of wisdom, of life experience?

And the thing I keep circling back to is the fact that I almost didn’t make it this far. Every gray hair I have is a silver banner reminding me of a memory, experience, adventure, challenge, or accomplishment I almost didn’t get to have. I know too many people who have died too young – in car crashes, from cancer. They never even got the opportunity to go gray.

Anyone who knows me also knows I’m passionate about history… which means I know the general average life expectancy in a number of places during a number of periods, and I know that growing old is never guaranteed.

So, I have to say, I’m rather pleased with my gray hair. It’s real, and I’ve earned it.

First book crossed off my challenge list

THE DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis – winner of the Hugo award (and the Nebula)

I bounced off this book hard the first time I tried to read it, years ago. The beginning is excruciatingly slow and repetitive, but once the story hit its stride I was swept along so fast I hated to put the book down.

Kivrin, a student of history, is sent to a village outside Oxford in 1320 to observe medieval life during the Christmas holiday season. What she doesn’t know is that a latent virus has erupted in modern-day Oxford (in the year 2054) and flared into a potential epidemic, threatening both her mission and the university as a whole.

Sick and disoriented when she arrives in the past, she quickly realizes her mission isn’t going to proceed according to plan at all. For one thing, she’s not in 1320 at all. She’s in 1348 and the Black Plague is sweeping through the region, consuming everyone in its path.

So – this is a time travel book, but with a sense of logic I haven’t seen before. I loved the interplay of academic ambitions, bureaucratic maneuvering, and scientific curiosity. The premise is compelling and completely credible.

What surprised me the most, I think, was the fact that I loved the scenes in real-time as much as I loved the scenes from the past. (Ordinarily I’d be all about the history and impatient with any contemporary bits). The characters are that well written and the sense of impending threat is that strong – I had to know what was going to happen.

It’s a grim book, really – any book about the plague and modern epidemics is going to be, I think – and yet the way Willis handled it was beautiful, too. In the midst of the worst aspects of the human condition – pettiness, hubris, ignorance, selfishness, fear, disease, death – she also shows the very best: compassion, heroism, generosity, faith, and love. A book that should have left me howling with grief was rendered somehow hopeful, too.

I ended up loving it more than I ever expected. Highly recommended.

Making plans and forging paths

My house is a wreck of post-holiday chaos, still, but it’s the first week of a new year and as I slowly de-clutter and deep-clean every room, I feel as if I’m doing the same in the cobwebby corners of my own mind.

I love new beginnings, blank pages, fresh starts. I love staring down the vague corridor of days that is the year ahead and wondering what doors will open and which ones will close behind me. Change has always made me nervous – I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me once too many times, I think – but I turn 40 this year so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to come to terms with the fact that the pulse of the universe is the tide of change.

This year I’m not just tolerating it, enduring it – this year I’ve decided to embrace it.

I started keeping a bullet journal last fall and have continued to experiment with it, letting my system evolve as my priorities become clearer. It has become my most powerful tool of change. For a procrastinating perfectionist, this thing has shifted the way I see process and how I evaluate progress, and that has made such a difference. I tend to juggle a number of long-term ambitions, but in years past it’s been easy to lose focus and fall discouraged. My bullet journal keeps me moving forward, slowly but consistently.

I also dropped away from social media last fall, and – though I miss the contact, and will be forever grateful for the friendships and connections I’ve made online – it’s been unexpectedly helpful. I never spent a lot of time online, but what I did came from an already limited supply of spare minutes and left me feeling stretched too thin and scraped too raw. I’m feeling my way toward a better balance of time management so I can peek in now and then – I don’t want to lose my social network entirely – but I intend to maintain my limited presence. I’ve gained a sense of personal peace and been more productive in the last couple of months, and I intend to build on that.

I’ve shifted some of my priorities to allow me more time for writing and reading, for riding my horses and just hanging out with my family before my kids leave for college, too. I struggled with a guilty sense of selfishness – and then got over it.

Things are changing in my household, around the farm, in my herd of horses – and I’m eager to see where these changes lead. I have big plans for 2017, and even though I know there will be twists and turns in the path and bumps along the way, I’m feeling stronger and more confident than I have in quite some time.

So, here’s to 2017 and all of its changes and new chances!