Day of the Dead – A day out of time

November 1, the cusp of winter, marks a season of longer, darker nights in Minnesota. This is a chilly season of damp, gray clouds. Against the gloom of a twilight sky pierced by the black limbs of bare trees, it is easy to think of death.

November begins with All Saints Day, a celebration of the martyrs, apostles, and other exemplars of the Christian faith whose souls have ascended to heaven. All Souls’ Day follows it with remembrance of faithful, ordinary people who have died. In Mexico, and among Mexican communities in the United States – including mine – November 2 is el Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a day I try to observe with reverence.

Why do I, a well-educated Anglo, celebrate a day that is a fusion of Christian All Souls’ Day and an ancient indigenous Mexican celebration of ancestors. Do the spirits of the dead really return?

A decorated tomb.

A decorated tomb.

Yes, I think the spirits return if we want them to. For me, el Día de los Muertos is a time in which I break out of the linerarity of modern chronological time and return to something older and deeper – the cyclicality of life where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously (as it also does in quantum physics).

Viewed from fleeting acquaintance with Mexican culture, Day of the Dead conjures up images of skeletons, crania or skulls, and people dressed for a party. It is that but it’s much more than that. The ubiquitous tableaux of skeletal figures eating, drinking, walking skeleton dogs, and copulating convey the idea that, whatever your status, death isn’t final but makes all equal. The day takes death seriously without becoming macabre, yet it is celebratory without being trivial.

Decorated family graves.

Decorated family graves.

I celebrated this day in Oaxaca with the family where I was living. They cleaned and decorated the family grave on November 1. Most families leave flowers and candles but they didn’t. The extended family’s ofrenda or altar in the home stood bedecked with flor de muerto, a tall, pungent marigold in vases next to a photo of the deceased family patriarch. Around the photo were things the man loved in life: bowls of beans and chocolate, a bottle of mescal and a pack of cigarettes, candles and loaves of pan de muerto (bread). The family put out these symbolic offerings to invite his spirit to visit them again.

The family ofrenda.

The family ofrenda.

We spent the day together – much like American families do at Thanksgiving – sharing memories and telling stories, drinking mescal and agua de jamaica (hibiscus flavored water), and feasting on mole con pollo, chicken in mole that Estela, my host, prepared in a ceramic pot over a charcoal brazier in the courtyard.

El Día de los Muertos exhibits both the carnal and spiritual aspects of human life and death because we are both. This day would be meaningless – at least to me – if it were so spiritual as to be devoid of any material or visual expression. As Thomas Merton wrote, “The spiritual life is first of all a life … to be lived… If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men [mortals].” [i] In short, the spiritual and mortal part integral parts of each other and not opposites.

Estela cooks the mole.

Estela cooks the mole.

I’m a historian by training and avocation. Nature and education imbued me with a sense of the past, the multiple intricacies of cause and effect, the importance of facts and documentation, the dynamic of analysis and synthesis. At first glance, my professional attributes would not seem to lead toward accepting an idea that the spirits of the dead return. How do I hold these seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time?

It’s not as difficult as it looks. By a return of the spirits, I mean I a fleeting sense of their distinct personality that endures in memories infused with emotions tied to particular times, places, and people.

Those I’ve known and loved, and who have died – like my parents – return to me from time to time in particular moments. No, I don’t see them as visual phantoms or hear their voices, nor do I try to communicate with the dead. It’s more subtle than that. I listen. There is so much we don’t heard because we aren’t listening.

An ofrenda to my parents.

An ofrenda to my parents.

As our family’s historian, I’ve read reams of letters written by my parents, aunts, grandparents, and ancestors dating back to the 1840s. I’ve come to know each correspondent by their distinct “voice”, or style of expression. Through their words, I’m acquainted with them, and know their personalities, their souls. They are present to me through their writings, putting what is in their hearts on the pages. Isn’t that a kind of visitation by the dead? And don’t they still live as long as their words endure?

This brings me back to el Día de los Muertos. Some Mexican families hold vigils before the ofrendas in their homes, praying for their difuntos and awaiting the return of their spirits. For years, I spent evenings spent pouring over 170 years’ worth of old letters, teasing out the details of our family’s story. At the time, I had thought of it as historical research, Then, in Mexico, it occurred to me these hours were also a kind of vigil with the dead. And doesn’t telling their stories bring them if not their spirits into momentary being? I think so.

My parents have died, physically. I don’t know if they now “live”, as I understand conscious living, in some other dimension presently inaccessible to me. It’s an open question science can’t answer. Some fundamental questions – like those of faith and meaning – lie beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry because the spiritual doesn’t conform to physical laws. I think of my parents as living in what orthodox Christian creeds affirm as a “communion of saints”, a unity of the living and the dead in a relationship with God as they know God.

A wall in the alley.

A wall in the alley.

When I lived with a family in Puebla several years ago, my host asked for my impression of Día de los Muertos. Our conversation unfolded as I explained some of the differences between American and Mexican concepts of death. Then I described how my mother had died several years before, at home, in her house, as she had wished. As I described her, I drew on memories of her face, her voice, and her mannerisms. The description of my mother’s character and virtues, like the flowers, pan de muerto, cigarettes, and bowls of chocolate, created a verbal ofrenda every bit as real as any physical items. In speaking of her aloud, I invited and then felt something of her presence in the moment.

These are subjective and personal experiences but I believe they are accessible to anyone who pays attention. My understanding and observance of this day is a fusion of my rationalist training and religious formation. For a day, I can pass beyond the limits of linear time and spend a moment in the eternal.

I published this post a year ago, but repost it for you because it aptly sums up my experience and understanding of life, death and what comes after.

[i] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, (Shambhala, 1993), p. 10.

We’ll always have Puebla

It is Mother’s Day. Since 1911, the Mexican Mother’s Day falls on May 10 regardless of the day of the week. In the United States (and much of the world), Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. This second weekend in May is also the opening of fishing season in lake-spangled Minnesota, the land with the most boats per-capita, where many mothers feel abandoned by husbands and sons off pursuing walleyed pike, the state’s fish.

Mother’s Day misa or Mass in the Mexican congregation of Santo Niño Jesús, where I am a member, ends with music and a special blessing. Well-dressed women arrive with husbands and children in tow. Afterward, las madres gather for a group photo in front of the altar and the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then all adjourn downstairs for cake before going to their family celebrations.

My mother died 15 years ago but I offer a silent prayer of gratitude. My greetings for this day go to my daughter, who is a mother herself, and my wife, every bit as dedicated to being a grandmother as a mother. My mother, raised in an upper class household outside New York City, cheerfully accepted and surmounted the challenges of life on a small Minnesota farm. She died before I took up Spanish but I know she would have encouraged me. Encouraging others was one of her greatest virtues. She believed in possibilities. Seeing me take up a new language, she might have glimpsed herself at age 13, becoming fluent in French. I wish she were here to see her son’s late in life achievement.

It is 9:30 p.m. Central time, and 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. I punch a Los Angeles area number into my cellphone. A phone rings several times in Anaheim before I hear an unmistakable woman’s voice.

“Lupita!” I say.

“¡Ay! ¿Cómo estás?” she replies, her voice ringing with excitement, as if she has been waiting all day for my call. She recognizes my voice instantly, as I do hers.

We haven’t seen each other since 2012 but we stay in touch. Lupita is the woman whom I have adopted as my madrina or godmother insofar as I have one. Godparents play a formative role in the lives of Mexican children more so than with American children.

Her role as my padrina  began eight years ago when I boarded with her and Julián, (my adopted padrino) during my first Spanish immersion in Puebla, Mexico. She began drilling me in the pronunciation of accented words. Over the course of three years and five immersions, I lived in their home until it became my home away from home, and our relations deepened from acquaintances, to friends, to family.

“¿Cómo está tu nieta hermosa?” Immediately, she wants to know about my lovely granddaughter, a toddler, who has assumed great importance in our conversations. I tell her I just returned from visiting her and she is well and growing fast. Lupita keeps track of my family, asks after my wife, and after my other daughter, the actor in New York. I tell her my wife and I saw our daughter in an off-Broadway play in February. At our ages, (she is 85 and I am 71) our successor generations become important signs we haven’t lived in vain.

She says Julián just turned 90. He and Lupita, married at the ages of 23 and 16, and I remembered they were about to celebrate their 67th anniversary. At some point in their lives, their children took up residence in California and became naturalized U.S. citizens. I have never met their children – now grandparents as well – but I know about them just as Lupita knows about my daughters.

A year after I finished immersion classes, they sold their house in Puebla, and rented a smaller house in nearby Atlixco to spend summers near her sister. I saw them there in 2012 at a reunion she and friends arranged for me, and to meet my wife. Travel and two residences took energy and last winter they gave up the house in Atlixco. Now they travel only for shorter visits with her sisters and friends.

Our charla or conversation rambles on with small talk. Will they return to Mexico this summer, I ask. She says yes, in July. Am I returning to Mexico? I say yes, but not until January. I plan to spend much of the winter teaching English in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, we will miss each other, again.

The cellphone distorts her voice now and then, and I can’t understand everything she says but no importa. It is enough that we reconnect to fan the embers of friendship and rekindle familial connections.

We last talked in November. She called from Atlixco while I waited for a friend outside Oaxaca’s Iglesia Santo Domingo. She had missed me when I was in Puebla, and Atlixco is a six-hour bus ride from Oaxaca. I couldn’t travel there before they return to Anaheim. ¡Qué lástima! What a shame. Our conversation flows on for a while as I pace the sunny plaza in front of the exquisite Baroque church.

Beside board and friendship, I owe much of my cultural education to Lupita and Julián, whose off-hand examples taught me mexicanidad or Mexicaness – the daily courtesies, gestures, and phrases that define Mexicans. It was a labor of love on their part, the work of godparents or padrinos.

As our November conversation ended, she switched to English to say – unmistakably – ‘We love you.’ I replied that I loved them too. Then she said, ‘hasta luego,’ or see you later but never ‘good bye.’ After the call, I stood in the empty plaza feeling blessed and wiped my eyes.

Given our ages, limited opportunities, and the miles between, I doubt we will see each other again (but I’ve made that mistake before). We are both old enough to accept this reality and cherish the memories and limited contact. For that reason, there is no need to talk about it. Love never dies.

Our Mother’s Day call ends, as they always do, with ‘hasta luego, ten cuidado,’ see you later and take care. It is still too soon in life to say ‘good bye.’

The call reminds me how human love, intimacy, and friendship are realities occupying places of their own. No one will ever replace my mother in my memory or usurp my love for her. However, the heart is a great continent with territory enough for others to reside there in a community of affection. Lupita and Julián have acreage in my heart. We may never see each other again but, to rephrase a line from Casablanca, ‘We’ll always have Puebla.’