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Raised with the Ragnarok: Experiencing Death as the Essence of Life

"After the sun swallows the Earth, will Pokemons live on another planet?"

This is the kind of question my daughter asks me on a regular basis (even when there hasn't just been a super blood moon--How metal was that??). She seems to have a cheerfully apocalyptic worldview--that although we're all going to die in the end, that means any wonderful thing is possible in the next cycle of time.


As a Wolf Mother, this brave and optimistic view on mortality gives me peace.

My husband and I believe that death is not the opposite of life; it is a part of life's natural flow. Although there are biological reasons why we all fear death at some level, it is not something we should fear thinking or talking about, and there is nothing scary in the concept of "after death." As Nabokov wisely points out at the opening of his autobiography, it's the same as not being alive yet, and nobody looks back on the time before their own conception with horror.

It is true and unavoidable that death comes with grief, sadness, and other unpleasant realities. So in our family, we treat death just like every other difficult topic, such as racism, religious differences, and reproduction--with non-anxious mindfulness. We try to respond to all our daughter's questions with calm warmth so that she never starts to think any topic is too scary for Mommy and Daddy to discuss with her. We encourage our daughter to ask questions about, think about, and explore her feelings about every difficult topic she can imagine, so that she can grow up without developing a bunch of pathological anxieties or repressed fears that she feels her parents are unable to face.

And knowing that modeling is the best way to encourage a child to talk, think, and express feelings about a topic, we are aware that dealing with our own baggage is necessary to raise a non-anxious child.

One way that we honor our grief and other feelings about death is to celebrate the Day of the Dead in our home. The year of our wedding in 2007, my husband and I visited the family of our maid of honor, Esperanzita, who offered to host us through Dia de muertos. We visited the markets selling giant marigolds, papel picado, copal incense, calaveritas made of sugar, and colorful confections made to look like tiny feasts and indulgent treats for the dead. We nearly had the living breath sucked out of us in an encounter with Santa Muerte. We listened to pop songs and pop covers of traditional folk songs sung cheerfully, cheekily, and passionately about death, grief, and loss. We stood in crowds of mourners at public ofrendas in the former palaces of French and Spanish colonists, among paper-mache figures of every size and every attitude, from awe-inspiring to comical.

At the home of Esperanza's Roman Catholic parents, we watched the family build an altar to the memories of lost loved ones--complete with a crucifix, which made Esperanza uneasy but without which Esperanza's father felt uneasy. Because Day of the Dead is a folk tradition that lives outside the lines of official religious observance, one that reaches out and around to embrace that which is shadowy, mysterious, and impossible to reconcile, in loving warmth and light.

The experience touched us profoundly, and we brought it back with us--mostly in our hearts, as the materials used in the rituals--pan de muerto, comfort foods, fresh flowers and fruits, burning resin, delicate paper lacework, handicrafts made of sugar--are appropriately perishable. Like all of life, like everything precious and savored, they die.

We have developed our own Midwestern adaptation of this regionally diverse, culturally fluid festival. Each year, we build the altar in a different position of our home, using different materials. We cover it with mums and autumn leaves, different kinds of incense, and the colors of a Michigan autumn, where the oranges of fall come from gourds and tree leaves instead of fields and vines laden with flowers. We invite in the ghosts of our grief with a trail of maple leaves instead of bright petals.










The last time we visited my husband's father's grave in the family plot, a cousin had decorated the graves with thoughtfully chosen, humorous garden gnomes that corresponded to each deceased family member's personality. We thought it was touching and comforting, bringing the humor and lovable spirits of the departed to light; others felt it was sacrilegious or somehow disrespectful. Sometimes, it is impossible to reconcile one person's grief with another's.


But the truth is that we all grieve. We all die. And we all create stories to comfort us in the darkness of the unknown.

The next time we drove past a cemetery, our daughter called out, "Look! It's one of Grandpa John's sculpture gardens."

In moments of beauty like this, I feel the courage to embrace death as one with life. I lay the Celtic cross on my own altar, pagan symbol of fertility resurrected from cultural obscurity as a symbol of hope for immortality, and I take comfort in the regenerative powers of the human soul that extend the essence of our lives, through our children and our ideas and our love and our creations, beyond the limits of our mortality.

Until the Ragnarok!

Comments

  1. As I was writing this, something disturbing occurred to me. While I think it's fascinating and kind of beautiful that Dia de muertos has become so interesting to the U.S. lately, it's also a bit gross how it has entered the U.S. mainly in the form of inorganic knickknacks, not the actual practices or materials that carry the spirit of the festival in Mexico. This article sums it up at the very end: "Las flores de cempasúchil, el copal, el aserrín de colores, así como las fotografías, comida favorita y efectos personales de los difuntos a los que se dedica la ofrenda que son parte de la tradición mexicana aún no forman parte de la asimilación estadunidense." - See more at: http://pulsoslp.com.mx/2015/10/25/fiesta-mexicana-del-dia-de-muertos-se-mezcla-con-halloween-en-eua/#sthash.AbZk5Mmi.dpuf

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In short, only the images that can be made cheaply by factories into objects easy to ship, shelve, and sell are entering our buy-more-crap culture. It's similar to how other indigenous American symbols have been cheapened for the non-indigenous economy up here.

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    2. Day of the Undead commodities for a zombie culture? There's a scary story.

      Delete

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