In her book “The Possibility of Everything” Hope Edelman recounts the story of her quest to seek out the advice of a shaman in Belize to cure her daughter of a vexing “imaginary friend”. Skeptical of the trip, Hope is persuaded by her husband to make the journey.
1. Several of the writers for Travelhoppers are women, and each of you place travel at the heart of a spiritual journey. Is there something about the secular nature of the modern world and the place women have assumed in that world that results in a longing for spiritual quests?
I’m not sure that the secular nature of the modern world was what drove me to travel. It did, though, contribute to my feelings of disconnection and emptiness before I boarded the plane. The grinding daily routine and unusual challenges I faced in early motherhood were what made a vacation look appealing from afar. Those conditions, combined with the journey to an exotic (to me) culture and a cast of colorful and helpful indigenous Belizeans, resulted in a spiritual experience for me. But I didn’t leave home expecting to have one. In truth, I expected that the trip would prove my husband’s spiritual belief system wrong; I’d have my “I told you so” moment; and we’d come back to Los Angeles to pursue a more Western solution.
2. Much of the story of The Possibility of Everything takes place in Central America, in Belize and Guatemala. Those are geographical and cultural regions far removed from many North American travelers. How did the strangeness of that setting affect you in a way that, for instance, a trip to Glastonbury with its Anglo roots may not have?
I think the setting of our story was, in many ways, a fundamental part of our story. I’m not sure that what we experienced in Belize and Guatemala could have taken place anywhere else in quite the same way. That’s because of the strong connection between Mayan spiritual healing and the Mayan’s connection to their land. Also, my feelings of dislocation in Central America were so profound that they may have aided me in detaching from a set of Western expectations and embrace a different way of thinking more quickly than I would have in Hawaii, or even Lourdes. I didn’t have any familiar reference points to hang on to. Also, in Los Angeles people considered me overreactive and crazy for thinking my daughter’s imaginary friend might be anything other than a normal developmental phase, but in Belize the people we met just nodded and directed us to the bush doctor. They acted as if that was the normal and acceptable thing to do if your kid is preoccupied with a character you can’t see. So in just a few days I went from being Crazy Mom in one culture to being Responsible Mom in another, which was both startling and comforting at the same time.
3. I’m fascinated by the inward transformation you experienced as you traveled from Southern California to Belize. Certainly there is a reflection of the inward journey in the outward one, but in what way did the physical act of traveling leave its mark on your experience – a Via Dolorosa, a process that makes transformation more likely?
Ah—you must be referring to the two-day odyssey we underwent to get to Belize. Our first flight out of the U.S. was badly overbooked, which set into motion a chain of events that spanned two days and two additional countries before we finally arrived in Belize City. Looking back, those complications were a critical part of my inward journey. They continuously tested my determination and made our eventual arrival that much more of an accomplishment. Having endured so many challenges just getting there, I think I was primed for an out-of-the-ordinary time. As an aside, when I returned to Belize eight years later to do research for the book I changed planes in Miami and arrived in Belize within half a day. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get there, since the difficulties inherent in landing there the first time still loomed so large in my mind.
4. In your story, you come face to face with some of the darker aspects of being a parent – fear of loss, of loneliness, of anger with your child. Who was really healed on your journey, you or Maya?
All of us, for sure: Maya, me, and my husband. A critical turning point in the story comes when I’m told that the whole family needs to be healed, not just the child. This makes sense from a psychological point of view, too, since a child may act out stress on behalf of the whole family system. The terrible strain that my marriage was under back in Los Angeles was affecting her too, I’m sure.
5. Maya’s friend, Dodo, seems far from benign but, as the story indicates, many children have imaginary friends at some stage in life. Dodo, of course, has a particularly insistent personality. Maya indicates that she is aware of many Dodos, in fact. Looking back on the experience now, how different was Dodo from some of your own darker shadows during that time?
That’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer. Some readers might think that Dodo was an idea my daughter created to combat her mother’s fear or anxiety, and I can’t say that would be completely incorrect. Who knows? I do know that one of my darker shadows was the concern that my daughter may have inherited mental illness from the family line. Childhood schizophrenia is very rare, but it can manifest in a young child as a series of elaborately rendered imaginary friends similar to the ones my daughter described. I don’t think schizophrenia was what we were dealing with, but that’s what it looked like to the untrained observer, and that thought sent me to a very dark and scary place in my own mind.
6. The Mayan culture that you encounter is one in which the spiritual world is ever present. The indigenous peoples you encounter live in contact with a world in which the presence of a Dodo was no surprise. In our culture, such things are relegated to the status of non-entity or a psychological problem. Where is the middle ground, of carrying an awareness of matters of the spirit without falling into superstitious belief or, perhaps worse yet, a sterile rationalism?
At the risk of sounding cliché, I think it really comes down to remaining openminded. And being willing to embrace ambiguity. It’s very hard for people in this culture to exist in a state of not knowing, where clear and rational explanations don’t apply. My personal belief is that scientific “fact” only extends as far as the measurement tools we have at our disposal at any given time, and it’s a form of arrogance to believe we have all the answers today. We know what there is to know given the knowledge available to us in 2011: that’s all. With that in mind, did I have an experience in Belize that can be easily explained using current psychological terms, or current scientific terminology, or could it have been something else? Even after returning to Belize twice to learn about Mayan healing, I can’t answer that question with full certainty. I deliberately wrote the book so that the reader can decide for herself. If you’re prone to spiritual explanations, you can certainly interpret the story that way. But if you’re not a believer in otherworldly phenomenon and never will be, my experience can also be explained and understood in purely psychological terms. I think.
7. In Jungian psychology, our contra-sexual side acts as a guide in matters of the spirit, pulling us into a state where we are most likely to grow as humans. Early on in the story your husband Uzi is the one pulling the family into the quest for a shaman. At the end of the book, it seems to be you who are the most unquestioning and accepting of what happens and it is Uzi who is most startled by the events. Speak to those mutual arcs of your characters.
It’s true—at the start of the story, Uzi was the one more willing to believe in matters of the spirit, at times (I thought) to a worrisome degree. I was the resident skeptic, the one who insisted I needed to see to believe. By the time we returned to Los Angeles we had both moved closer to the middle of the spectrum. We came home much less critical of the other’s viewpoints, which is likely what saved our marriage. That said, ten years later I’m still the more skeptical member of our household, the one who’s less willing to accept anything on face value. It seems to function as our own system of checks and balances in the family.
8. Is travel inherently spiritual? Can a tourist in Cancun pierce the veil?
If the objective of one’s travel is to detach from the familiar in order to discover a greater truth about self or others—which comes pretty close to the definition of a pilgrimage–and if you think of pilgrimage as a form of travel with a spiritual goal, then yes. For a very thoughtful discussion about the role of travel in human history, I recommend the book The Mind of the Traveler by Eric J. Reed. In it, he tell us that the ancient idea of travel—other than for political reasons–was as a means of penance and purification, to result in “a morally improving effect” on the traveler. Though I should reveal that I’m now working on a book that takes place partly along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route across northern Spain, so I’ve got pilgrims on my mind.