What if there were no endings, only beginnings?
In our American culture where we are taught to fear death, I always look forward to the approach of Dias de los Muertos. Ironically, it feels to me like a transfusion of life and gift of another cultural perspective. A complete lack of Mexican heritage has not prevented me from fully embracing this holiday as my own. Dias de los Muertos speaks very deeply and directly to my gringa soul. Dancing skulls and vivid colors laden with symbolism. Courting death instead of fearing it. I’ve been obsessed with it for so long, I can’t remember how or when it first came into my sphere of awareness. But now I know why.
It is believed that at midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of deceased children, or angelitos, are released to reunite with their families. Toys and candies left on Dias de los Muertos altars are there for them. Rural Mexican families and indigenous people are known to spend the equivalent of two months of their income to honor their dead. They see it as a worthwhile investment — knowing that happy spirits will continue to provide them protection, wisdom, and good luck. From a young age, children are taught not to fear death — with skeletons incorporated into their games like loteria.
To the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London, death is a word never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and most permanent lover. — The Life of the Dead in Mexican Folk Art
It gives my spirit such lift to ponder the way the Mexican people live in perfect harmony with death, simultaneously respecting and mocking it. This can be seen in the art inspired by Dias de los Muertos in music, dance, painting, sculpture, and poetry written in a sometimes humorous hand. Around the time of the American colonization of funerary rites in Mexico when ecclesiastical ordinances were introduced, the custom of writing verses called “skulls” emerged. Just as skulls and skeletons permeate Mexican folk art, skull verses speak to social and political satire. Since the authors of these verses were thought to be ‘dead,’ such writing had the unique ability to criticize all dead people for one day; in essence, making fun of the entire human race without fear of reprisal.
It is a sincere truth what this phrase tells, that only he who is not born cannot be a skull. — Anonymous Skull Verse
So it was as if this lifelong obsession with Dias de los Muertos was preparing me for the confluence of two very important life events. On the side of joy was a trip to Sayulita, Mexico to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary. On the side of sorrow was losing one of my most precious loved ones.
Auntie Karen made me into, well, me. Without her, there is no me — at least no me you’d want to know. And she did this without the benefit of proximity for much of my life, until I turned 18 and she invited me to come and live with her family in Washington D.C. so that she could finance the remainder of my undergraduate studies. She was able to do this as a co-producer of Broadway hits such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. For my readers who aren’t also personal friends, please read more about Aunt Karen here…
Auntie raised a third of the budget for the original London production of Les Mis, about $300,000. It opened in October 1985 and served up a return of 167% to investors in the first year and a half alone.
As much as I’ve tried, I can never seem to quite capture the right combination of words to express how much I love this woman, although I am convinced that there has never been anyone like her and there never will be again. Even when I was on a real bad path as a teenager, her voice was the one I always heard in my head from 3000 miles away: I see you. If she couldn’t be with me in person, she was going to scaffold my shaky existence with books that showed me a way to think in the way she did.
She sent me so many books over the years that I could build a home out of them. And I have. What’s that you say? YOU don’t have a book on Hildegard of Bingen?? Well Aunt Karen would have made sure that there was a copy for everyone who wanted one! Who knew how much there was to learn from the German Benedictine abbess and writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and polymath! Auntie was one of the most impressive polymaths I have ever encountered. I believe this is why she took so much inspiration from Hildegard. Through Hildy and others, she introduced me to the concept of the sacred feminine. Every book she ever gave me included a magnificent inscription in a hand so distinctly Karen’s…
From the jacket cover of this book:
Some unconscious myth has been at work on us, forming us, and serving up our fates. For the soul is an old, old thing that goes back to the beginning of time, formed slowly and in layers of dreams and shadows and repetitions determining the future. — Here All Dwell Free, Gertrud Mueller Nelson
While I was wiling away the dreamy days in Sayulita, I did not realize how quickly my beloved Auntie was slipping away. Her bionic Mama Bear instincts meant protecting this cub from anything that could potentially destroy me emotionally. (That bar is actually kind of low.) So for example, when she was the victim of a shooting that occurred when I was in high school, she made sure that I was not to learn about it until much later when my school year was over. She knew she couldn’t keep this secret forever, especially because she had to walk down the aisle at her wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with a cane wrapped in white satin.
Likewise, during her protracted battle with breast cancer that included successes, remissions, and recurrences, I never got the full scoop from Auntie because she didn’t want me to hurt. She was stubbornly protective. She’d been receiving the best care in the world at Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York City, and as a woman of strong faith, she never stopped believing that one day this cancer would be gone from her body for good. She’d traveled to Lourdes in the hopes of a miracle. She gave me only the broad strokes of her battle, which has my heart in a million pieces just thinking about it. What was happening then, leading up to my trip to Sayulita, is that the cancer had become much more aggressive than most of us around her knew.
I was in the dark about the cold hard truth of her health when I left for my 20th anniversary trip. To use an Auntie word, I was rhapsodic about the celebration. I’d found a spectacular house on the hill overlooking the bay that had an open-air living room and kitchen, and an outdoor shower. The temperature of the ocean in June in Mexican Riviera is about 75 degrees, where pelicans nose dive at an amazing rate of speed and precision, entering the water inches from swimmers. This also happened to be during the World Cup in which Mexico was competing, so that made it even more festive. That and the fact that we ran into some very sweet friends who just happened to be there the same week. Sayulita is a small fishing village, with horses that roam the streets, because why not? We only had a rented golf cart to get around and since the town’s dirt roads have lots of holes, I’m quite sure that we wouldn’t have ventured too far from our lodging had it not been for Scott and Daphne who were staying on the opposite side of the bay.
Our friend Scott is the kind of dude who does enough research for a dissertation before any trip in order to find the best kept secrets. It is all thanks to his efforts that we were able to enjoy one of the most magical spots I’ve ever been to — a beach called Playa de los Muertos. It is so named because of the only route to get there, which is through a beautiful graveyard of multi-colored tombstones, where candles burn day and night and graves are adorned everyday, not just during Dias de los Muertos. Once you wind your way through this hilly enchanting stretch of remote road, you come to the cove of Playa de los Muertos, Beach of the Dead. To some, this may sound morbid and I suppose I can understand some people may not like the idea of swimming so close to bodies buried in the ground, but trust me when I tell you it was the most mystical and extraordinary beach I’ve ever been to.
James and I returned to Playa de los Muertos on the night of our anniversary. I’ve never been a big nighttime ocean swimmer, but something was calling me out there. Now I can’t help but wonder if it was a salt water cleansing that I needed to face the days ahead. I dragged James to come with me, and as we began to splash around, reveling in the bath tub temperature of the Sayulita Bay, we began to notice the bioluminescence in the water, surrounding us. We began to whirl in circles dragging our fingers across the surface of the water to light up the night. I gasped and laughed and cried.
We turned around to face the shore and far off in the background was the flickering of the candles in the graveyard. No, not candles. Fireflies! Just to add to the visual symphony — turning on and off, according to the chemical reactions in their tiny bodies. I later learned that female fireflies chose mates depending on specific male flash patterns. And there I was in the water with my chosen mate, feeling that I’d chosen well as he was just as ecstatic as I was in this moment, and then just as devastated the following day when we’d learned that Auntie was not going to make it.
As I stood in the water of Playa de los Muertos that night, I let my spirit out of its cage and found it curious that it seemed to want to drift in the direction of the graves that were so lovingly bedecked with flowers and the favorite foods of the dearly departed. I don’t know how many hours removed it was from the time that Auntie left this earthly plane, but I felt that a seed of some kind was being planted in my soul. The beauty of the beach and the agony of the graveyard were crashing into one another like the waves hitting the rocks in that dark cove.
When I returned home, I got to work right away on this ofrenda for Auntie. I didn’t put much food or drink on it, because I hadn’t yet learned that the reason for creating such strong aromas on the altar is to capture a unique, not-smelled-every-day combination. These usually include foods with strong flavors of their own — moles alone may have hazelnut, sesame seeds and chocolate — sweet smells of flowers, earthy smells of tobacco, the smokiness of mezcal — all work together to attract the souls back home and satisfy the dead who can no longer eat. Hungry ghosts.
With Auntie gone from this world, I started to notice a new visitor in the backyard and got such a strong sense that it was her — or at least a messenger sent by her to let me know that she was okay.
I’d had a strong feeling that spirits can and do return to us in the form of butterflies. Around 2000, at a benefit concert in Avila Beach, CA to raise money to help clean up oil spillage from from Unocal pipelines that had been leaking since the 1950s, a group of Chumash Indians came to bless the event and pray for the renewal of the land. As the leader, an Indian woman was singing and calling on their ancestors to help them in their efforts, a swarm of butterflies appeared around her on stage. I was so struck by this and what I thought it could signify, that I asked her afterwards that if in her culture it was believed that spirits could return in the form of butterflies. She told me, “Spirits can return in many forms. But especially butterflies.”
But it was just a few weeks ago that I’d begun to wonder if butterflies were connected to Dias de los Muertos. It turns out that there is a stronger connection than I could have ever imagined. You see, there’s a mountain village called Anguangeo in Mexico where every year for Dias de los Muertos on November 1 and 2, millions of monarch butterflies stream into the groves of oyamel fir trees in the hills above the town. I was in utter disbelief, remembering that my butterfly visitation was a monarch.
The locals have long believed that these butterflies are the returning spirits of the deceased loved ones, mysteriously returning to coincide with Dias de los Muertos. This belief dates back to the Aztecs who saw the return of the departed in butterflies and hummingbirds and there is plenty of evidence for this in the stone carvings of them in many Aztec monuments. As sure as autumn follows summer, they return for the 3-day period between October 31 and November 2: All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day (honoring the souls of children) and All Souls Day (honoring adults), celebrated collectively as The Days of the Dead. This is the time that the Mexican people believe that the veil between the living and the dead is lifted.
With the advent of the first frost of fall in southern Canada, the monarchs begin their epic journey. They are drawn south by some unseen compass that remains a mystery to scientists. They fly 50 miles a day for two to three months — a journey that is 3,000 miles in total, culminating in their ancestral wintering ground in central Mexico. Here they spend five months huddling together against freezing rain, fog, and even snow some years. They cling to the trunks of the firs in a semi-dormant state until warm spring winds return and send them north once again. It takes four to five generations of monarchs to make this journey, as one butterfly only lives 3-4 weeks. But they all play a part in one incredible cycle.
Could it be that we are we in the same kind of cycle? The single unique migratory generation born in late summer lives eight months, and flies all the way back to Mexico. No one has yet to figure out how these particular butterflies manage to find their way to Anguangeo, having never been there before.
Can the intergenerational aspect of this tell us something about our own existence and the unspoken communication between generations? Even communication from beyond the grave? Is it coincidence that Auntie’s inscription makes reference to a ‘queen’ (monarch)? Are the vibrating wings of monarchs connected to the energy of our loved ones from the other side of the veil? Geez, I have a lot questions.
What is for sure is that monarch flight is different than other butterflies. Described as slow and sailing, their wings flap much slower than other butterflies — perhaps as an invitation for us to get a close look at them as they stop time around us momentarily. They also happen to fly with their wings held in a ‘V’ shape. To guide us beyond the veil through their calming vibration?
Ancient Mexico did not know the concept of hell. It is possible and even probable that in the subconscious of the people, a faint remembrance of the life beyond. — The Life of the Dead in Mexican Folk Art
As if to offer a piece of final punctuation, as I write this at my beloved Altadena Library, I look outside to see the street sign, Mariposa. That’s Spanish for butterfly. This week, don’t miss the invitation to transcend fear and be on the lookout for those whom you have loved and lost — they could be fluttering by this very moment. The cult of death in Mexico could really just mean life everlasting. No endings, only beginnings.
Death was not life’s natural end, but rather a phase in an infinite cycle. — Mexican poet Octavia Paz
To help the spirits: http://www.monarchwatch.org