Friday, November 12, 2010

on celebrating the dead

Every year in Tucson, just after Halloween, thousands of people come together to celebrate the dead. Drawing mainly on traditions from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), we gather wearing masks, face paint, and costumes, and bearing lanterns, flowers, candles, altars, and signs which honor those who have passed, and we walk through the streets. Tradition has it that the veil between the living world and the spirit world lifts during this time, so that the spirits are free to roam the living world. By wearing masks or face paint that hide our living form, we invite the spirits to come amongst us, as no one will be able to tell who is living or who is dead. We wait for our ancestors and loved ones who have passed on- as they will surely visit us. We set a place for them at table, and leave a special bread (pan de muertos, or bread of the dead) on the altar, and the spirits are thought to consume the essence of it. If we were to eat it the next day, it would have no nutritional value because the spirits would have taken that. Some families have feasts in the cemetery, to honor other family members buried there.

At the Tucson All Soul's Procession, the creative community puts some major effort into this celebration. There are performers of all sorts, vocalists, musicians, stilt walkers, fire dancers, aerial dancers, artists, and more. The parade of souls comes to an end, and a performance ensues, which honors and celebrates those who have passed. A large paper urn has led the procession here, and within this urn are thousands of papers with messages, thoughts, and prayers written by Tusconans. The urn is lifted by crane, and lit on fire in front of everyone. Thus, our words are sent up and out into the universe. Such a symbolic community prayer is so powerful.

I really love this celebration. I think that our American culture does a really lousy job of dealing with death. Death is the one thing we can be certain of. And we avoid it, run from it, and do not talk of it. Funerals here are somber and grief filled things that most dread. Why? When in so many other cultures, death is celebrated. I'm not saying that grief shouldn't exist- grief is there and necessary and good and hard and human. Rather, we should embrace that grief instead of hiding from it. We should celebrate the lives of those who have passed, and whose impressions remain. Life is a beautiful thing, and to have lived it at all is quite phenomenal. We are thankful for those who have made these impressions on us, that we had the chance to know them at all during their time here. We celebrate and honor the love they showed, the things they did, the people they touched, the passions they shared. These things are beautiful. And regardless of your beliefs about life after death, the people who have passed are never completely gone. They live on in our hearts and our memories. And we miss them. And this celebration honors that. That we miss them, and that a part of them is with us always.

I have learned much during my time in Tucson, and when we move away this spring, one of the things I will take with me is this celebration. Wherever we are, I will honor the dead in this way- with celebration and offering.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

on the passing of one who lived well, fully, and with vigor

I found out yesterday that one of my history teachers from high school was killed in a car accident in Greece. Mrs. Sarah Bayrd was fortunate enough to die doing what she loved, and with a friend no less.

I was shocked by the news, as one always is when death knocks so close to home. But, it is good to always be reminded of the fragility of life, as you never know when he will come knocking for you.

So I remember her. She was the most unique teacher I've ever had (or known for that matter). Vibrant doesn't even begin to cut it. Her energy engulfed the entire school, it seemed. I can't remember her without a smile on her face, and a little sparkle (of mischief, perhaps) in her eyes. I was never very enthralled by history in general, and I certainly fell asleep trying to read history textbooks (too bad I only discovered historical fiction novels later on), but I remember her class. I remember that she brought history out of the text and into your face. We were always engaged in projects, and the class was always interesting. The things I remember the most, and which I feel helped to shape the person I am today, are her "muckraker" lessons. This is when she challenged us to do as Upton Sinclair did in "The Jungle," and dig up the muck. In this context, I remember the famous lecture on how hot dogs are made (what they are made of, to be more precise). Same for canned meat. Meat packing plants. And then finding out about genetically modified foods. And to this day, I have a fear of hotel/motel rooms because of her lecture on all the cleaning practices/ bacteria lurking in them.

I feel like this sort of digging and questioning has helped me to be a more conscious consumer, and a much healthier person overall. Thank you, Mrs. Bayrd.

What blows me away is how many lives she has touched. Within a day of the news of her death, almost 2,000 people had already posted memories, anecdotes, and messages of love and admiration on a facebook page created for her. She affected so many lives in such positive ways- inspiring, teaching, loving, laughing, and spreading her passion for history, for travel, for teaching and learning, and for life in general. What a beautiful legacy to leave behind.

Sarah Bayrd, your passions live on in all who knew you, and may your spirit always find adventure.