The Magic of Maya

Hope Edelman, today’s guest blogger, is the acclaimed author of the influential bestseller Motherless Daughters; her new book, a fascinating and inspirational personal odyssey titled The Possibility of Everything, is out this week.

My daughter got her name from a San Francisco Guardian newspaper box.

Actually, she got her name from a prophetic graffiti artist who chose a Guardian newspaper box as his canvas. But I get ahead of myself.

It was September 1997, my eighth month of pregnancy, and my husband and I were taking our last pre-baby vacation. All the way up the California coast, we debated what to name our daughter.  She was to be named after my mother, Marcia, who’d died when I was seventeen. By Jewish tradition, this meant we needed a name starting with an M.  After several false starts we’d  narrowed the field to Maya— popular in my husband’s native Israeli culture–and Melanie, just because we liked it.

That evening, we checked into a hotel just outside Chinatown. As we were getting dressed for dinner, the debate continued.  Maya or Melanie? Melanie or Maya? The decision felt like a profound one, a label our unborn daughter would carry with her for life, and given that it was one of the very first choices we’d make for her as parents, we wanted to get this one right.

As circumstance would have it, we didn’t have to make the decision alone. When we stepped onto the sidewalk for dinner, we were greeted by spray-painted graffiti letters sprawled across a newsbox right in front of the hotel:  MAYA.  I stood there staring at the letters in disbelief. Even to a hardcore skeptic like me, it seemed like some kind of sign.

We named our daughter Maya Jill. Three years later, we took her on a journey to Central America to get rid of a troubling imaginary friend, a story I tell in my newest book, The Possibility of Everything.

When one of my friends read an early draft of the book, he was concerned about my use of names. They were just “a little too precious,” he said.  “Maya was healed by a Maya healer, and your name is Hope? No one’s going to believe it.”

But what could I do? It’s a memoir. It would have been silly to create pseudonyms for my daughter and myself. So I left our names as they are.

Granted, it was confusing as a writer to have “Maya” describe both a child and a culture.  I had to do constant and fancy gymnastics to keep Maya’s name from appearing in the same sentence where “Maya” was also used as an adjective or proper noun (as in “Maya temples” or “the ancient Maya”).  

In Sanskrit, Maya means “illusion,” which seems somehow appropriate for a story that’s ultimately about faith. But in Belize, my daughter’s name is a source of amusement. To Belizeans, Maya is the name of a people, not a person. It would be akin to an American naming their child “Navajo” or “Chinese.”  They like the name Hope, though. They say we all need more of that.

Is it purely a coincidence that a child named Maya and her parents were healed in the land of the Maya? Perhaps. Who knows? Life receives its richness from the mysterious interplay between all that we can see and explain, and all that we cannot. I didn’t understand this until I went to Belize in the winter of 2000, but the first glimmer of awareness may have been revealed to me on the San Francisco sidewalk. That was the first time Hope and Maya bumped into each other, and squared off face to face.

Precious, indeed.

Hope Edelman is the author of five non-fiction books, including the bestsellers Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.


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7 Responses to “The Magic of Maya”

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Jill Says:

September 14th, 2009 at 2:07 am

Great blog! I love your daughter’s name, and think that the story behind it is amazing. (I got goosebumps when I read about you seeing Maya on the mailbox!) I’m one who believes that everything happens for a reason…

I wish that my name held as much meaning as Maya’s! Granted, like your Maya, my first name, Jill, was chosen to honor the memory of my grandmother (a J initial), but I feel robbed of the cool background story!

(By the way, I love your name, too!)

Best wishes on your new book! 🙂

Pam Says:

September 14th, 2009 at 6:25 am

That is pretty amazing, Hope. Yes, sometimes when you need a sign, the gods give you one you can’t miss — and with a sense of humor, too. Thanks for a beautiful blog post.

Abby Says:

September 14th, 2009 at 8:50 am

What a fabulous story. Too bad you didn’t take a picture of that graffiti image – then again, you’ll probably never need a camera to recall it.

I can’t wait to read the book.

itsreelygreat Says:

September 14th, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Wow…not only is this an amazing story in general, but it also seems even more interesting to me, because my name is Hope, and my best-friend-since-first-grade’s name is… you guessed it…Maya. Teachers always used to call us by each other’s names, even though we look like complete opposites. Maybe there’s a strange connection between those two names!!!

Lucy Says:

September 15th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

What a lovely story about your little Maya! I just had to reply as my eldest is called Maia (pronounced the same as Maya). We originally chose the name because the children are mixed race Indian/ Caucasian and Maya is a very classical Indian name. We chose to spell it a different way as we thought this was pretty too and a little more unusual. We loved the fact it is such multicultural name as we are a multicultural family. Maia was a goddess in ancient Greece and Rome, Maja is used in Eastern Europe and the word seems to have meaning in so many languages.
I love your name, Hope too!

Katie Says:

September 23rd, 2009 at 3:24 pm

My daughter’s name is Maya Gabriella. My husband’s stepfather was from India, and he loved this name too.

Lisa Joy Says:

September 28th, 2009 at 3:01 am

Something like this happened to me. I had been thinking of changing my “boring” middle name, Ann, to Joy for some years, but never did it. Then, on the street in Seattle, a young, pretty, obviously mentally ill black woman came up to me and started talking semi-coherently. I gradually got the gist: she needed a place to stay, where could she get help? So I told her about the local food bank and then directed her to the nearby branch of the Seattle Public Library, where she could ask the reference librarian to hook her up with available services. Before she left, she turned to me and she asked, quite lucidly, “Is your name Joy?” I said, why, no, it isn’t. Then she said, “Well, if it’s not, it should be.”

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