Monday, October 12, 2015

An October Post From the Past

This post was first written in 2007, when I was a very new blogger. I like to take it out and look at it every October. Please excuse the formatting; I had trouble with it when this post was first published, and am still having problems with it now. 

There are as many ways to think about death as there are cultures. In my own culture (Anglo-Saxon New Englander roots), we tend not to talk about it too much. But think about the beliefs expressed in this poem* that was read at the funeral of a friend, who was given back to us with these words:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on the snow.

I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn's rain.

When you awaken in the morning hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry:

I am not there, I did not die.

I think of that poem when it is time to celebrate Los Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) here in New Mexico, observed from October 31 to November 2. On November 1st the souls of children—los angelitos—are believed to return, with adult spirits following on November 2nd. It’s a time to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver tells how she is drawn to this celebration because our culture “allows almost no room for dead people.” It’s true, we honor our military dead in a formal way on Memorial Day and on Remembrance Day, but there really is no holiday that gives us a chance to honor our own lost loved ones in a personal way.

When I first moved to New Mexico and experienced Los Dias de los Muertos, I have to tell you that it shocked me in some fundamental way to see children happily munching on candy skulls, surrounded by grinning skeletons on display and altars (ofrendas) built in remembrance of the dead—perhaps for a grandmother or grandfather, a beloved pet, or even, in the case of the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History, an altar built in memory of extinct animals. Some ofrendas may be publicly displayed, as they are in the plaza of La Mesilla in Las Cruces, and some may be built at home. The altars might contain pictures of the deceased, religious symbols, objects to remind us of the person, dishes of their favorite foods, marigolds, and lots of candles—maybe even a calavera (also a colloquial term for skulls), a short mocking poetic epitaph. I was amazed to see the familiar attitude expressed toward death—a kind of sly, humorous, and elbow-nudging nod to our mortality.

Here is a calavera that I found on a teacher web site, with their English translation.

Ahi viene el agua por la ladera,
y se me moja
mi calavera.
La muerte calaca,
ni gorda ni flaca.
La muerte casera,
pegada con cera.

Here comes the water
down the slope
and my skull
is getting wet.
Death, a skeleton
neither fat nor skinny.
A homemade skeleton
stuck together with wax.

I guess I needed to undergo an attitude change toward death, because it was something I was so uncomfortable with. I believe that now I’m ready to take part in the Days of the Dead celebration. I have the short life of my own little “angelita,” to celebrate. My daughter Angelina, who died not very long after being born, has never had a birthday party and has never been included in any other family celebrations. This year, I will build an ofrenda to help remember her, and I’ll make another for the lives of my parents.
Please enjoy my sister's photographs of the amazing ofrenda she built in Angelina’s honor. Thank you, dear Auntie.

*Note about the poem, "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" from information I found out on further research: It turns out that there is much controversy surrounding the origins of this poem. Some believe that it is the work of Mary Elizabeth Frye (1904-2004), but apparently she neither published nor copyrighted it, although that doesn't mean she didn't write it. It is often thought to have native American origins. On the prayer card from the funeral of my friend, it is called a Hopi poem.


Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Clair this is just beautiful. We were in NM at this time of year and had some of those same feelings , and changes in how we thought , even in the short time we were there. I have tried to remember what we learned in all the succeeding years. Warm wishes as you celebrate life and death on this next Dia de la Muerta. .

Jean (aka Auntie Bucksnort) said...

This was such a moving post and still is. Thank you for posting it again.

Death is such an important fact of life. And each time we lose someone or a friend loses someone, all of the deaths we've lived through surface once again. It deepens our overall experience with death proper. It makes the fact of death become just a little more real, but in a good way. It's good to share our stories with others who have recently lost someone. It reaffirms community. We can process death together, offering and receiving support, memorializing and celebrating the ones who've passed by talking about them. It's painful and healing at the same time.

I think Dia de Los Muertos is one of the "healthiest" holidays there is. And creating an ofrendo is such a celebration of the life it commemorates; each little object, each photograph brings another story back to life; memories sad and happy all wrapped up together. The term "bittersweet" comes to mind. Ofrendos share the experience with others who see them and ask about them, providing us another opportunity to tell our stories and listen to theirs. Getting up the nerve to allow ourselves to feel these emotions is really important. It makes us stronger and keeps important memories from fading away and being lost forever. It makes us appreciate life even more.

I'm really looking forward to the ofrendas you're going to create.

charlotte g said...

At this time of year, I am homesick, and it helps to read you and in my imagination smell the pinon smoke, which may be my favorite fragrance on earth.
I had to look up infrenda. I know my parents grieved both my newborn sister and the brother who died 20 days before I was 2. I know they found their peace, their solace, because there was so much joy, love and laughter in my childhood.

They have been gone so many years. I didn't know my siblings, and my parents have been gone so many years they are no longer sorrows, but blessings. They loved me and gave me joy. And my life's desire for occupation.

I have the chill, but not the mountains, but I do remember, and I know you see, and I am so happy for us both.

clairz said...

Charlotte and Auntie, thank you both for your thoughtful, moving, and very welcome comments on this post. Auntie, we will celebrate the season, I know. Charlotte, now I will think of you every time I look at our beautiful mountains.