History at its most exciting

Sometimes you have to go to one place to learn something fascinating about another.

When I was in school, I didn’t enjoy history. It took me years to figure out that some stories of the past are intriguing, even if those tales never seemed to be covered in my history classes. Ancient civilizations, distant lands and forgotten peoples all amazed me with surprises, while everything in school seemed no more than a predictable, boring parade of Western Civilization’s wars, conquests and discoveries.

Later, I would learn that my own culture is also filled with such tales, as marginalized peoples and quiet heroes of all types faced small human dramas that seldom made my history books but, in my opinion, should have. Decades after my last history final, I came to understand that history is these thousands of fascinating stories woven together in the way that got us to where we are now.

IMG_5531My love of poorly understood tales from the past would lead to a fascination with the many advanced cultures in my hemisphere that were demolished by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That lead to a burning desire to visit Machu Picchu, and a few weeks ago I finally got to do so. The whole trip was amazing, and I’ll be posting more about it soon. But this isn’t about that.

While I was in Peru, I got asked what I knew about the massive Maya discovery being made in the Petén region of Guatemala. What??

“Oh yes,” I was told. “It is so big and amazing that soon people will want to visit it instead of Machu Picchu.”

Really? How could I have missed that.

Well, it turns out it never made much of a splash in the U.S. press. Then, I was traveling without my laptop, and trying to use no data on my phone, so my usual sources of news were gone. Instead, I was glancing at newspapers in Spanish as I walked, scanning frantically for pictures of Trump and/or nuclear clouds, in hope of seeing neither. I hadn’t looked for much else.

Once I got back, the story about the great discovery in Guatemala was easy to confirm.

“Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed,” National Geographic  informed me.

The famous Maya site of Tikal is just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis Credit: Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

“A vast network of lost Maya cities discovered deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala could rewrite the history of the ancient civilisation, experts say. Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Pioneering lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning technology was used to map 800 square miles from the air, revealing a “treasure map” of the Maya ruins,”  The Telegraph informed me all the way from the UK.

Most enticing of all  was this report from the London Times.

“The ancient Maya had no metal tools, no wheels, no cattle and no pack animals. They lived in a swamp-ridden and storm-battered region of central America where the landscape seemed resistant to the presence of humans.

Yet, boy, could they build. An aerial survey using lasers to penetrate the vegetation of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed more than 60,000 structures, including pyramids, canals, fortifications and causeways stretching from city to city.

Historians say that the finds point to a society of city states like the world of classical Greece, but with a population of between 8 and 13 million people living in a rainforest the size of Italy.”


Back in 2012, I did a deep dive into the Petén region of Guatemala as it was in the late 1600’s, as I created an imaginary Maya woman to design the clever puzzle that my modern day treasure hunters would discover and attempt to understand. As Nimah took shape in my mind, she developed her own clear voice, and soon her two sons did as well. I spent a happy year in their company.

This is how the resulting book, z2, begins:

When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and because her people kept fine records, there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more organized. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Nimah, of course, is fiction, but she left traces of herself in my brain and heart, as most of my characters do. I’m happy to discover that her world was larger, richer and more complicated than I knew, and I look forward to hearing of the many true tales to be discovered near her home. To me, this is history at its most exciting.

It is more than a little ironic that I had to go all the way to Peru to learn about it.


A sense of time

I had a boyfriend in high school who could tell you the time of day off the top of his head within ten minutes or so. He was an aspiring actor (back then) and attributed his unnatural skill to his performer’s sense of timing. Ummm ….. maybe.

I have a husband now who can do the same thing. He’s a former math teacher who considers it an ability derived from his close relationship with numbers. Well …… maybe that, too.

I have less of a sense of time. Hours pass unnoticed when I write, minutes last forever as I stare at a blank page. I attribute this to living more inside my head than out of it. But if hours and minutes confound me, years and decades are worse. Today, I reviewed a book called Deep Sahara. It takes place in 1980, which I shrugged off as being nearly current fiction when I began reading the book. Then characters who lived during World War Two began to play a role.

Geez, WWII was like 80 years ago. What are they doing still alive? Wait, 1980 was nearly 40 years ago, now, wasn’t it? Yeah, it was.

My sense of time (or lack thereof) is front and center this week as I vacation at an old house on the beach owned by my husband’s family. The house was built in the 1850’s and the deck looks out over Charleston Harbor, and directly at Fort Sumter. The first shots of the civil war rang out here, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this federal fort in April 1861. Family members who are history buffs love this fact. I find wars sad, not fascinating, and secretly think the view would be so much more pleasant if it didn’t have a reminder of a bloody, painful conflict right in the middle of it.

The house itself contains an old and a new part. The old portion is lovingly maintained as it looked in the 20’s and 30’s when this was a small beach shack used to escape the summer heat of the city. Creative relatives have decorated the walls with tools used to handle the ice blocks that provided precious refrigeration back then.

The rest of the house is circa early 1990’s, built after hurricane Hugo tore through the area. Parts of this are deemed “worn and in need of replacement” as opposed to historical. The cynic in me thinks that if they just leave the indoor-outdoor carpet on the stairs another forty years, it will become too treasured to remove. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

As I sit here studying the various ages of what I can see, I think I’ve figured out my problem with time. I’m trained as a geologist, fascinated by the formation of the earth 5 billion or so years ago, and intrigued by the first forms of life to emerge over four billion years later.

Old? Rocks formed from tiny creatures in the inland Cretaceous sea are a 100 million years old. In my home state of Kansas, we used that 100-million-year-old limestone to build houses in the mid 1800’s, about the time when shots were being fired over this beautiful harbor and you could have watched Fort Sumter being attacked from this deck.

Maybe I would care more about this if 150 years weren’t mere seconds to a geologist. To those who study the earth, everything that’s happened since 10,000 years ago is pretty much considered debris. It could be I don’t lack a sense of time, I just have another way of looking at it.

(For more of my recent thoughts on time, see my post Spending Time.)








I see ghosts.

I like to find the ghosts when I travel, and learn what I can from them. They’ve always come to me, not as shivers in the nights, or flashes of fear or wails of terror. Rather they waft gently into my imagination, almost always in the daylight, often becoming characters standing in a queue in my brain, waiting to tell me their story.

img_3260The ghosts I see are often tired, sometimes sad, but seldom angry and never at me. Not once have they made me afraid.

“Listen. This is how it happened,” they begin. And if I am lucky and have some time alone to live within my head and listen to them, they tell me their stories. What they describe often surprises me, and I know from somewhere deep inside that I am not making up these tales.

I must work to hold on to what they say, because their words quickly become mist in my brain, disappearing as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere. Their stories are much like the memory of a dream, fading quickly as one wakes. If I manage to remember one or more of their narratives, inevitably that day will be one of the best days that I have on my trip.

img_3283I started out this journey in Marrakesh Morocco, one of the many places in the world where the ancient and the new co-exist peacefully. My lodging is inside the Medina, a medieval walled city in which the buildings blend together into a continuous whole with a maze of narrow roofless hallways and short tunnels providing access. Some of the walls nearest to my Riad, or place of lodging, exist in various stages of decay or demolition, giving this part of the Medina a touch of post-apocalyptic style.

Other tourists make their way through the maze, along with Moroccan men of all ages. More of these Moroccans are young than old, most are clad in jeans, often talking and joking with friends. There are less Moroccan women to be seen. The older ones move quietly with their eyes down, often wearing flowing clothes and traditional head coverings. The younger ones are more of a mix, sometimes blue jean clad and bareheaded, and laughing with friends of both genders. The ghosts of these walls are quiet, at least as I make my way through the crowds in the middle of the day. I wonder if there is too much noise and activity here for them to be able to make themselves known.

The Medina itself is so confusing to the uninitiated that an entire cottage industry arose provide guidance to lost tourists. Helpful, hopeful men will ask anyone looking foreign and vaguely confused where they are going, and then will proceed to direct them towards it and ask for payment. Some are more persistent and demanding than others, so the savvy tourists now keep their eyes firmly on their smart phones, following their own blue dots while they wave the entrepreneurs away.

img_3322Inside the buildings are ornate tiles and woodwork that reflect centuries old crafts from this region. Often the most beautiful of these are saved for the lovely courtyards found in the center of most buildings. Visitors quickly figure out that not only is the courtyard the most pleasing place to sit, it generally has the best internet reception, too. We fill the pretty courtyards in the public places, and the ghosts stay silent here as well. Now I wonder if maybe there are simply too many of them here for any one of them to make themselves known.

It is not until I and my travel companions are on the road, driving through the coastal dessert between Agadir and Essaouira, that the ghosts finally find me. As I stare out the window at the desolate landscape that reminds me of Western Kansas where I was born, I feel their gentle tug.

img_3366See us, they say. I look at the scraggly argan trees scattered around the rosy beige rocks and hard mud and I see a robed figure moving in the distance. I squint to see better, blink in the bright sun, and it is gone.

I look for more like it. None appear, but I’ve opened my mind now and I hear them in my head and feel their presence.

“We are the soft people, ” they say as I feel the flow of their movements, their clothes.

Not soft, I think. Not the way that soft implies weak, at least. My brain searches for a word that better translates what it is feeling. The gentle people? No, they are strong, surviving in an unforgiving environment. They are soft only like a well rounded rock that pounds the grain into flour, as opposed to the blade of a knife that cuts the meat. They are the “not sharp” people, except that sharp has other nuances related to intelligence in my native tongue. I search in vain for a purer word, one that only has the meaning that I seek, but the best I can come up with is the feeling of something hard that has been worn smooth by the very harshness in which it survives.

img_3346I ask them to tell me their stories, but they are beginning to fade already, much too soon. Perhaps it is because my concentration has wandered, seeking the perfect word, or maybe it is because my two travel companions in the front seat have begun to talk, bringing me out of myself. Or maybe these soft people have no words for me. Maybe with a language and culture so different from mine, they don’t even know how to start.

As they dissipate into the warm sun-filled air, I feel them go, a presence lighter than air as they move over the dessert ground.

“Your world may be harsh, but you are not mean people at all, ” I think. One, an old man who hobbles and is the last one left, turns to look straight into my eyes. He answers me clearly.

“We have no use for the mean people either,” he says. Then he too is gone.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetMy Way, That’s Why you Make the Trip and It’s an angry world in some places on my other blogs.)


Looking ahead

Foundation2There is another excellent thing about the month of January. December is filled with “year in review” thoughts as we all reflect a little on what went well, and not so well, in the past year. January, on the other hand, is all about moving forward. Better habits, new loves and new likes. If we’re lucky, this moving on includes forgiving everyone, including ourselves, for transgressions real and imagined.

My husband, an Irish American, is engrossed in reading a comprehensive history of Ireland. This is kind of my fault, because Ireland will be a prominent part of my novel d4, due to be published in the fall of 2014. I am about a quarter of the way into writing it, and I was hoping to use a few tidbits from his research in my story. What the research has accomplished instead is to reignite his fury at the mistreatment that the Irish endured at the hands of the British.

hippiepeace1“An awful lot of people have been horribly mistreated in this world,” I say. “Not like this. Not for this long.” he corrects me. I disagree, but say no more. I have ancestors on both sides of this equation. I feel for the abused. I do not condone the abuse. I too hurt for horrible wrongs inflicted in Cambodia, Rwanda, Ireland, Kiribati and Belize. Tales of suffering needlessly at the hands of others fill our collective history, and that is a very sad thing.

Light Within 3But I also firmly believe that individuals, societies and countries need to forgive, let go, and move on. Perpetuating a legacy of revenge and hatred, particularly against the descendant of those who wronged our ancestors, only adds to the sum total of hate and misery in the world. It accomplishes nothing more. This  is partly why I wrote z2, and why d4 will pick up this theme again.

January is all about moving forward. It’s an important concept, even when we don’t know exactly where it is we are going.

(Please like the Facebook pages of Foundation for a Better Life,  Hippie Peace Freaks and The Light Within and thanks to them for sharing the witty and wise displays shown here.)

For some fun with New Year’s resolutions please visit my x0 blog here. For my genuine new year’s wish for you, please visit my y1 blog here.