Keeping current in wellness, in and out of the water
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Beliefs about death and afterlife vary, but we all share the knowledge that we will die. If you have helped anyone with end of life issues you know each departure is unique. If you are close to anyone who has departed you have had the experience of some eternal bond that is not broken by that exit. Some essential part of your relationship remains and feels alive. I started to study my ancestry after both of my parents were dead. I had a few brief conversations with them about their families in history, but they had little information. My dad said he was Scotch Irish, which is true. My mother thought she was a relative of Zachary Taylor, which does not seem to be a fact. I believe they would have been very fascinated to learn about their ancestors, but maybe now they are one with all our relations.
My dad died in a a hospital setting, but my other died in her own home. She had severe dementia at the end of her life. We had excellent help from hospice for the last months of her existence. The hospice nurses know all about death since it is their specialty. They let us know that it is common to have visitations like my mother did before she passed. Some people have brief encounters but my mother had large crowds of visitors for months. It was clear that she was in touch with other beings, and sometimes we had the sensation of feeling their presence also. They were not ghosts, but were the ones who had come to accompany her across the bridge. She was able to die peacefully in her bed after all the interaction.
This week celebrations mark the remembrance of the dead. As we in the northern hemisphere journey deeper into winter and darkness the departed are free of time. Neither global warming nor the stock market has power over them. They are in an eternal state we will know someday.
I was told that Tucson’s Iron Chef had left Lodge on the Desert to be the chef at a new brasserie opening west of downtown Tucson at the Mercado San Augustin. The space will be renovated before opening, but I decided it was time for me to investigate what is happening at the end of the trolley line. For years Tucson has poured tax dollars into urban renewal known as Rio Nuevo to update and improve downtown. This often stalled project is finally showing some signs of progress. Next year we will have a short, but very cute tram that will run through the University, downtown, and end on the west side of the freeway exactly at Mercado San Augustin. There is building like crazy at the end of the trolley line; Residential condo lofts are being erected. The area is showing obvious signs of growth. The Mercado is part of that development. New and highly desirable businesses are springing up along what will be the route of the trolley. I am encouraged by what I found at the last stop.
Mercado San Augustin is modeled very much on the open markets of Mexico. In fact, on Thursday afternoons there is a farmers market held in the courtyard. The small stands and store fronts offer unique food choices along with clothing, art, and jewelry. There is a communal kitchen available for rent to producers of food products who need reasonably priced access to a professional facility in order to create small batches cost effectively. I sampled two kinds of cake at the Dolce Pastello Cake stand. Both the caramel and the chocolate were rich, delicious, and reminded me of Mexico. In fact, the whole open mercado with snow cones, coffee specialties, and a cake stand reminded me of Mexico when I was a kid and visited open markets with my parents. I used to be crazy about the markets in Guadalajara and Mazatlán in the 1960’s. So in a certain way my trip west of the freeway was a flashback. You might also say that I have seen some good news for the future of business development of downtown by using a sense of history and place.
I talked with María Elena about Day of the Dead, which was just last week. The altar is still up at La Estrella Bakery where she works. There are still sugar skulls in the case for sale. We talked about how the holiday is celebrated and why it is a chance to teach children that death is not something to fear. Business is good at the bakery for this holiday because pan de muertos is featured on home altars, and sugar skulls are not found in the regular bakeries around town. La Estrella has wrapped up a very busy Day of the Dead season, but customers stream in for hot tamales, baked goods, and basic grocery items from around the neighborhood.
The Celtic holiday Samhain is still celebrated by some on October 31. The city of Dublin is embracing the ancient holiday in new ways. Poetry is a way to create connection with the future and also with the past. Some poems and songs survive from anonymous authors, while ancient Greeks are preserved in drama, ode and epic. Translation is a tricky thing, especially when translating Pagan rituals to Catholic practices. My ancestors, the O’Byrnes, came from County Meathe where Samhain was and is celebrated. I hope someday to visit Dublin to see these Irish in action with their ancient tradition.
Since I am in Tucson, with a strong and popular All Souls’ Day party I plan to add poetry this year by attending the reading on Friday night at the U of A Poetry Center by our new poet laureate. He is from the border, our own very specific and special place. This border has been directly responsible for plenty of death, and plenty of opportunity. In a spiritual sense our border has never been real, but artificial, setting a trap, catching little prey. It makes crime irresistible to the desperate. It works to incentivize illegal behavior. If the dead are visiting this week they will have no trouble crossing the border, even though they may have died trying. I look forward to the experience.
The All Souls Procession each year in Tucson is a community event that takes mass coordination and will now cost more. Our new trolley system will complicate the planning and add to the expense. The volunteer organizers work all year to make it better all the time. In November another new and amazing, creative expression of this tradition will take place downtown.
At the end of October the costumes come out of the closet. This is the big masquerade time in the US. Other cultures have dress up traditions for Carnival and other holidays. The political side of costuming has always been woven into the idea of playing the role of another. Well known faces or looks are popular. In Tucson the Day of the Dead is celebrated in a grand public procession. The costumes in this event are not intended to mimic the living, but rather to show the look of the dead. The visit of the departed souls to earth is celebrated by glowing in the dark, dancing as skeletons, and enjoying the earthly pleasures our dearly departed ones chose while they were alive. The happy honoring of the souls of the dead is a symbol of our connection to all the generations who lived before us.
All Souls Day in the Catholic tradition is a time to honor and remember the dead. In native belief systems of the Americas death played a central part. Making fun of death, or mocking the fanciest parts of life have gone together forever, everywhere. In Basel Switzerland I saw a collection of art from the middle ages portraying the same dancing skeletons used in Mexico to show death as a fiesta. Being mindful of mortality is known as memento mori. Skulls and other reminders of the transience of life were used in churches and religious settings. Ancestors graves have been a place of reverence for almost all peoples. Art depicting death in a whimsical or dramatic way has been with us in many cultures around the world. To remember mortality is essential to living a full life.
If there are rituals in the entire culture that honor the souls of departed there is a continuity. Fear of of death is made comical when portrayed as the dance of death or the fancy dressed skeleton. The folly of amassing worldly goods seems obvious when the fiddler and the dancers have nothing but bones and clothing. In 1839 the possibility of capturing the image of a dead person became very popular. I have seen quite a few graves embellished with photos. Others use symbols. Have you ever given any thought to your own death, your own grave and epitaph?
Tucson celebrates All Souls Weekend in a mixed tech cultural expression of art and celebration. By building personal or community altars, by artful masquerade, and by watching or participating in the procession Tucsonans have the opportunity to bring mortality to life. Come on down to the Old Pueblo for an old time custom revived.