Mary Beth Writes

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Senor Jorge, the 50ish father of the family, asked me if I would like to take a walk to see a Mayan antiquity. It took a minute for his question, in Spanish, to plow through the cumbersome language filters in my brain, but as soon as my high school Spanish kicked in, I grinned and answered "Yeah! Si! Cool!"

I grabbed my backpack, bottle of water, camera, and hat.

There was a tiny moment when all the little kids who were hanging about looked up at their dad/grandpa. Could they come along with?

It took less than ten seconds to sort out. Four of the kids were over 4 years old. Luis Alexander, Linda Patricia, Viqui, and Evalina could come. Little Maria, who can't be much over 3 had to stay home. She cried a little, but not much.

The hike would take two hours and was not easy. No child ever whined or asked to be carried. It was a subtle but effective example of child-raising in what we tend to call "the developing world." One doesn't receive treats such as candy or toys for mature behavior -- because there is no money for non-essentials. What one gets, as they mature into independent behavior, are privileges. And even the privileges will require gumption, such as climbing up and down a mountain for several hours.

We walked the path that skirts the milpa (corn field) behind the house. Xetonox, indeed most of rural Maya Guatemala, seems to be knit together by little footpaths. In the US we have highways and sidewalks, but we don't have fascinating little paths that lead who knows where.

Soon the family footpath connected into a wider path of packed earth that was about six feet across. It crossed a small creek with a handy rock right in the middle to serve as a stepping stone. There was also, over our heads, three tree trunks lying more-or-less across this small gorge. The kids skipped across the tree trunks. I realized from the vegetation line around us that in rainy season, this small ravine could be many feet deep in rushing mountain water. Three tree trunks over it then would be scary.

I started to climb the path on the other side of the creek. The incline of the ravine wasn't a big deal, maybe 20 very steep feet. Yet my heart was knocking in my chest like a wild animal trying to get out of a cage. At first I was a little embarrassed -- what a pansy I am!  Jorge said something to me in Spanish as he chuckled at how hard I was breathing. I realized what he was telling me.

We were in the altiplano - literally the "high lands." Xetonox is 5000-6000' above sea level. It was altitude that was making my heart pump so hard. After that I took a lot of mini breaks as it seemed like a lousy day to have a heart attack.

Soon the path was flat again. Jorge explained to me that the path has been a Maya path for thousands of years. That's why it was wide enough for people, wide enough for an animal pulling a cart, but not wide enough for cars or trucks.

Later a truck WOULD pass us, but in order to do that we walkers had to climb off the road and stand in the milpa. Do you want to know that the truck was painted turquoise, watermelon pink, yellow, and that a family were bouncing along in the back of it? Everyone called "Buenos Dias!" though the children of that family looked at me with startled curiosity. I think they were on to me not being Maya.

We met the main road, crossed it, and started up a steep macadam road. At the top of this hill, we turned off the road onto another foot path. This path climbed to the trees growing at the crown of the mountain. It was a work-out climbing a dusty path at what now was approaching an altitude of 6500-7000 feet. Milpa to my right; a drop-off of 10 feet to my left.

I admired the children scrambling like little goats ahead of me. They wore flimsy sandals but it sure didn't slow them down. The oldest child, Patricia, kept looking around to make sure I hadn't tumbled over the edge. Her bright smile made me smile.

It took twenty more minutes to scale that dusty height. Finally, the last little footpath veered to the left, through bushes, towards a clearing. Jorge led the kids who led me.   

There before us was a Mayan stele, an antiquity of 1500 years.

It appears as if it were a huge tombstone. It's a hunk of limestone six feet tall, 3-4 feet across, a foot thick. Carved with hieroglyphics. Staring out over twenty miles of valley, silent testimony to more than most of us will ever understand.

I saw eyes carved in the signature Mayan style; thick, undulating, severe, mysterious. Since ancient times someone has cemented rocks around the base to help keep it upright. The place it stands is a flattish promontory at the top of the mountain. Before it is a huge falling-away view of the patchwork countryside of milpas and tiny houses of the valley.

It was Sunday afternoon and two evangelical churches were broadcasting hours of preaching. The acoustics were so perfect that at the top of that mountain one could easily hear both church services. Before us the huge bowl of the earth was surrounded by ranges of mountains.

Jorge pointed to two other mountains in the distance; two other points where ancients had built two other ceremonial sites. He said when one talks from these three high spots one can fill the entire valley.

In front of the stele was a smaller rock which Jorge said was a place for sacrifice. I'm no archeologist and what I know about Maya religion is minimal, but goose bumps danced across my skin. Whatever or whomever they sacrificed on those three mountains would have been heard by all the people in the long, wide valley. Just as that afternoon the countryside was filled with a clarion call to Pentecostal salvation. Maya folks still know how to use their mountain acoustics to an effect we don't much know.

I picked some flowers and laid them on the altar. I drank some of my water and gave the rest to the kids. I discovered a baggie of pretzels at the bottom of my pack and handed that to the kids, too, and after that we left.

I don't think we understand this. Not always, but often, the "poorest" people on our earth are also the most rooted. Jorge and Vicenta, their children, all the scrambling sure-footed little children, are Maya. I visited an antiquity of a culture I know little about. They took me to see what their great-great-grand-dads made. I marveled at the warm, dusty, exotic beauty of the day and place. They took me to what belongs to them.

Years ago, I visited a carved runic rock in Denmark. I'm Swedish enough to be able to claim anything a Viking did, and I felt something very deep, respectful, and curious about that rock. In a way I barely understand, it was mine. For better and for worse, it marked a time and a place that had once been me. It took me back past sentimentalities, said behind everything I know and don't know, there were these people and they are in me now.

Watching Patricia and Luis, Evalina and Viqui, I could only salute the amazing, fierce, artistic, determined people from whom they descend, and the future into which they climb on their tiny feet in dusty sandals.

Last spring, I hosted a MayaWorks open house at my house. I invited local volunteers plus many folks from the community who might want to see what this organization is all about; folks who might like to buy some of the beautiful hand-woven and hand-beaded things.

An acquaintance said one of her closest friends had adopted a daughter from Guatemala eight years ago; could they come to the event at my house? Of course.

The day was hectic. The two women and their children including the daughter born in Guatemala arrived at my house. I found some backstrap looms made from Foamcore and acrylic yarn that I'd cobbled together months before for a school kid presentation. I set the kids up in my quiet bedroom and tied the flimsy looms to the kids and showed them more or less how to weave. Then I went back to take care of my party.

Soon I saw the mothers and their American-born kids wandering around my house.

About a half hour later I went to my bedroom.

The little girl who had been a North American daughter in a suburban Wisconsin family for 7 1/2 of her eight years on earth -- that little girl was quietly sitting on her knees exactly the way Maya women do in Guatemala. She was fingering the yarn back and forth and so lost in her world she didn't hear me walk into the room.   

I felt that mystery when I stood on that mountain. There is more in us of the generations who brought us to this time than we know.



Nice memories. Reminds me of my trips to Guatemala.
Mary Beth's picture

Those were powerful good years and here so many of us are now, friends because of working together than. The rewards...

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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

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My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


When History isn't in Museums

I stayed twice for several days with a Maya family in Guatemala’s altiplano. This adventure happened during my second day of my second stay with them.

Senor Jorge, the 50ish father of the family, asked if I would like to take a walk to see a Mayan antiquity. It took a minute to understand his question since my high school Spanish was a long time ago.

Yes, I would!

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