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Telling a Tale of a Heart

Standing before a Mayan temple near Mahahuan, on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, I’m taken back to the Mayan heart sacrifice ritual, and the image of a bloody heart held in a priest’s hand, still beating. The ritual may have been done to appease the gods, feeding them with the blood of high status prisoners of war, their bodies painted blue for the ritual (and perhaps to provide better contrast with blood). One thinks of Mayan civilization as having come and gone fairly quickly, but this ritual, is traceable to the Classic Period of 250-500 CE, Popol Vuh was written in the mid-sixteenth century CE, and the ritual was still being performed well into the 17th Century. In 1684, three Franciscan missionaries were tied to crosses and their hearts extracted. This is a civilization with a pretty long haul, however much European diseasevectors, and advances in weaponry, may have quickly stopped its heart

A few years ago, I visited Cichen Itza as an excursion during a conference in Cancun. It is ironic that one of the results of visiting one of the largest temple sites on the Yucatan, substantially further inland from the beautiful Western Caribbean coast, was that, upon return I was forbidden to give blood. While the sterility of being “on the reservation” of the Cancun resorts would have been fine, my trip inland meant malarial risk. What an interesting sacrifice is giving blood, both in many religious senses, as Christians celebrate communion with the body and blood of God’s son, sacrificed for human

redemption, but as so many of us do by donating our precious life-blood so that others may live. As any Roman soldier could have told you, “the spear in the side” with which it is fi


nished is only a little to the side, through the diaphragm, to pierce the heart. Le Sacre Coeur.

Having once watched a college acquaintance cook and then mix morphine with his blood before injecting it into his arm with a needle (after which I couldn’t sleep), I could never bring myself anywhere near a needle being stuck into my vein. Then, as the father of an infant daughter, I saw a hospital billboard with another young father, reaching out his arm, beneath which it said “Please, my little girl needs blood.” I was hooked. By now I’ve given gallons, but it took me months to get readmitted to my blood bank after a false positive for Hepatitus C surface antibodies. Then, after taking my readmittance letter to blood donations for years, one of the doctors asked me whether I would have trouble lying about whether my blood had ever been rejected, as the process of officially clearance took time away from other donors, and I was clearly no risk. I would give my students extra credit, not for giving blood, but for writing about the effects of the process on the autonomic nervous system (the fight-flight system) in either themselves or a friend they might have accompanied. I once even gave students Valentine’s Day off for generating 70 pints of blood. Not only is such a donation (for those that can) clearly a moral good, but a psychological boost, and probably has physiological benefits as well. Win-win-win.

Having come of age in an era where blood was sometimes spilled on documents in Vietnam war protests, and later sometimes used more atavistically in rock concert performances, I thought it might be interesting to have a replica of a heart-sacrifice knife, available at most souvenir shops. After the national trauma of 9/11/2001, airport “security operations” had been seriously tightened. Sadly, many of these operations do little or nothing to reduce terrorism (and are easily circumvented, as our own government research has shown), and mainly are costly in both time and money over the millions of law-abiding citizens subjected to them. I personally find it a bit nerve-wracking when stacked in the cattle chutes waiting to get through security, being perfectly aware that the most damage possible might be caused by a suicide bomber patiently waiting in line, and then detonating into the waiting crowd. It is wryly amusing to note that what psychotherapists call “security operations” are all the superstitious or neurotic little rituals that people go through to make themselves feel safer, that actually do nothing of the sort, and may become counterproductive in their false safety.

Thinking travel would be more efficient without checked baggage, I brought only a carry-on backpack for the conference in Cancun. Sad for me that I couldn’t then take home the free bottle of Tequila offered by our resort hotel. I’d carefully packed my souvenir heart-knife inside a coffee cup. The knife wasn’t actually flint, just obsidian, but it looked pretty impressive with an image of a god carved on the handle. I thought the coffee cup would protect it from breakage. The absurd thing about this particular airport security was about their overzealous reaction to bottles of water. Mexico can be pretty hot, and it does make sense to hydrate. I surrendered one water bottle before putting my pack on the X-ray conveyor. Not a problem, as one can buy bottles of water cheaply in the secure passenger-checked area. I enjoyed my time there, running onto some of the conference luminaries, and also noting many of the distinctive facial features of the Mayans that I knew might’ve gone back thousands of years. I wasn’t really thinking much about their beating hearts, though my own could still beat faster at the sight of a provocatively dressed woman, and it was, after all, Cancun. I do remember seeing my first love at a college reunion, after not seeing her for ten years, and was still disconcerted by my dry mouth, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, and nervous obsessions about her. What was disturb