Charles Feildelson Jr., Yale professor, said that “Life is a series of little deaths out of which life always returns.” Most of us, at least by midlife, have discerned the truth about this affirmation. Life is comprised of loses, some gut wrenching and perhaps others more benign, but with each transition or death something new is brought forth. We all know the adage “when one door closes another opens”. However, in the midst of transition, we often feel like we are trapped in a doorless and windowless room, dark, alone and hopeless.
Many years ago, in my 20s, I remember making a long journey from Long Beach, California to Mexico City, Mexico. I was exhausted even before I embarked on my trip, worn out from being a full time student and social work intern and no doubt from living on a steady diet of Diet Coke and unfulfilling relationships. I woke up mid-way through my taxi ride with the thriving sights and rich cacophony of sounds of Mexico City in my midst and glimpses of the great Diego Rivera’s murals depicting the communist movement whizzing past my taxi cab window.
When I arrived at my host family’s home, another student from the U.S grabbed my luggage and insisted I go to the movies with her. We arrived at the theatre with no empty seats left and found a place to sit on the floor in front of the screen. Although I understood very little Spanish, given my shameful lack of academic discipline in high school, the film we watched, Like Water for Chocolate (Coma Agua Para Chocolate), completely captured my imagination. The themes of love, transition, death, suffering and rebirth were illustrated in a magical Mexican style.
Cut to nearly 18 years later, I am a friend of the wonderful Laura Esquivel who wrote the book and screenplay for Like Water for Chocolate. On November 1, 2009, in San Francisco, Dona Laura narrated for El Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) celebration with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall and I was in attendance.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated by an expanding group of people from all over the world. Commemorated on Nov. 1st and November 2nd, The Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous of Mexico. “Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years.” (Wikipedia).
Often on November 1st the passing of children is memorialized and adults who have died are commemorated on November 2nd. People honor the ritual by building altars encouraging the spirits of the dead to visit. Graves are often decorated with marigold flowers, believed to attract the souls of the dead. Offerings such as sugar skulls, trinkets, alcohol, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead-often baked with a skeleton toy inside) are placed on the altar. Food is frequently prepared with the intention that the departed will dine on the spiritual essence of the gifts.
One of my favorite aspects of The Day of the Dead celebration is the humor depicted in some of the activities and imagery. “Those with a talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called calaveras (skulls), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes.” (Wikipedia) Some of the skeleton figures used as decorations are also quite humorous. Skeletons are often depicted with clothing and playful hairdos, whimsically suggesting that the dead live on.
As with the film and book Like Water for Chocolate and The Day of the Dead celebrations, we are called to see death as part of life. We may be dealing with a transition, a death of a stage in life or a shift in personal or professional status. We may be facing metaphoric deaths such as a diagnosis, a divorce, a bankruptcy or the death of a hope or dream. Perhaps, we are dealing with the death of a beloved.
In any case, the wonderful works of Laura Esquivel and The Day of the Dead offer us a way to be with death; to suffer with it, to laugh at it, to embrace it and to mourn it. One of the greatest gifts in death is rebirth, the cycle of life and love. Love, the only truly eternal force, always lives on. Like Tita, the main character in Like Water for Chocolate, who secluded herself in a dovecote despairing and broken and who eventually emerges, we can all transcend death to live and love again.
(c) 2009 Jeanine Austin, Ph.D., C.Ht.
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