By Heriberto Escamilla
In a few weeks from today, if our Creator continues being gracious with me, I will be celebrating the 52nd anniversary of my birth. By today’s standards, reaching this age is probably not much to write about. According the CDC, the life expectancy of a male living the United States in 2002 was about 74.5 years. In the last two years, modern science has no doubt granted us a month or two. Females in the United States can expect to live a little longer, to the age of 79.9. And the fact that I am a Mexican immigrant indicates that I may have even more time. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the life expectancy of Latino males exceeds that of Whites by about three years. Scientist believe that a better diet, tortillas, frijoles and a shot of Don Julio from time to time, no doubt decrease our tendency toward obesity and that condition’s related maladies. Seriously though, reaching the age of 52 is not a major accomplishment, there is little reason for despair, yet. If all goes well, I can probably look forward to greeting the morning sun for another 25 years.
But to the people that once lived in Meso-America, the ones that created what we know today as the “Aztec Calendar”, 52 years was extraordinary and perhaps even magical. According to the people that study history, the Cuauhxicalli, or “bowl of the eagle” as it translates into English, was among other things, a device for counting the passage of time. Embedded in the markings, symbols and glyphs are two counting systems. The tonalpohualli for “counting the days” and the xiuhpo-hualli or the “counting of years.” People that have studied this massive 25-ton stone tell us that the tonalpohualli combines 20 symbols representing different aspects of the natural world, with the numbers 1 to 13, assigning each passing day a unique name. That means that for a period of 260 days, each day has its own name connected with the deity that ruled over that particular aspect of the nature. The xiuhpohualli is a 365-day calendar based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, similar to our modern calendar. Used together, our ancestors assigned a unique and probably more importantly, meaningful name to each day for 52 years!
Now at this point, I suspect that I may begin to lose some of you. This is just another one of those mumbo jumbo discussions about what amounts to nothing. Maybe so, pero no sean flojos, don’t get distracted by the hard to pronounce names. Where do you think Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the names we give the days of our modern calendar come from? Sunday (Domingo) is the Sun’s day, Monday (Lunes, luna), the Moon’s day. Tuesday, Martes as we know it in Spanish derives from Mars, the Roman god of war and we all know about Thursday (Thor), the Norse god of thunder. Are these not just names for aspects of the natural world? But our modern calendar is a confusing patchwork. We start with the Roman Sun and Moon, jump north to find Wodin (Wednesday), the major deity of the Norsemen and Freya’s (Friday), that same culture’s goddess of beauty. And we are not even touching Saturn’s day, to the Jews, the Sabbath. Aspects of the natural world, yes, but they come to us from our all over time and space. It’s no wonder, we forget what we intend to do from one day to the next.
Now the more that I study and reflect on these matters, the more that I listen to the stories men tell, the more I appreciate our boundless creativity. You and I, each and every one of us is truly gifted with the power to give our lives meaning. But it’s integrity, Erik Erickson tells us that matters most; that our stories all have a little bit of our own unique essence throughout.
So what meaning did the ancient Aztecas give to the 52-year cycle of life? On the last evening of the old cycle, they celebrated the xiuhmolpilli “Bundling of the New Fire”. The priests, a chosen warrior and the other people of Tenochitlan gathered sticks of wood representing years of the old cycle, bundled them and walking into the darkness, embarked on a 20-kilometer pilgrimage to the “Hill of the Star.” There, when the stars were properly aligned, they sacrificed the warrior and set the bundle of sticks aflame, in the warriors open chest. The people gathered and took for themselves some fire for their own homes. The new fire was then transported to the temple to guide activity for the next 52-year cycle. I think I’ll pass on this one, or perhaps we can forgo candles on my birthday cake this year.
We have to remember that the Aztecas, toward the end of their rein began showing signs of what some people consider to be desperation. Some historians tell us their priests had already foreseen their demise; others believe they were obsessed with death. But you and I and the people of today are not in any position to truly understand the world they perceived through their own eyes. And how they soothed their desperate hearts. We are only capable of knowing the world we see today and the condition of our own hearts, here and now.
Historians tell us that while the Azteca may have carved the Calendar around the year 1479, it is based on the observations and wisdom of the people that came before them, the Olmecas, Toltecas, Mayas and others that dedicated more time and attention to the movement of time. The Aztecas in giving meaning to their days on earth, did with this wisdom what all men tend to do, create their own stories, build their own world to serve their needs as best they could.
But I’d like to believe that somewhere in the stone, in the earth from which it was hewn lives a spirit, still hungry, not for our blood, but our attention.
Let us then propose another meaning for the counting of days and the ceremony of the “New Fire.” The transition into “Mid-life” can indeed be a magical time, an opportunity to see a different world from the one we created in our youth. It is a time to loosen the chains of habit, daily routine and unconscious behavior. Perhaps it can be a time when we appreciate mystery, walk into the unknown without the desperation of a superstitious youngster. Maybe the new flame will illuminate our hearts so that we can openly share with the people in our circles. A few years ago, my chest swelled at the sight of myself reflected in my children. Afraid of the darkness before me, I found some consolation in knowing that some aspect of myself would be projected into the future. But just today, the new light transformed my daughter’s cleanliness from a “neurotic obsession” into an expression of individual creativity. There is no way on earth that she inherited that trait from either my wife or I and I am truly grateful her spirit resisted our relentless attempts to mold her in our image. But let’s not wait for the magic to come, create it. Isn’t every single day an opportunity to pay attention, to feed that wonderful spirit that sustains us all? Thank you.
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.