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Pocket of Joy: Catching More Grief with Sugar

A few days ago, I wrote about the irrational anger at death that I discovered lurking under my grief and fear. Then I saw this poem by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and it broke my heart open in a different place.

It is said in pop psychology that sadness lies beneath anger, but in myself I find layers of both, one upon another over and over again, glued together with veins of sticky sweet frustrated longings and backed up affections and other feelings wedged here and there untidily, which cannot be easily peeled apart and healed. I suspect that most people are like me in that way, more or less, and so they have patterns of mixed up emotional tissues unlike mine, in other disordered arrangements.

Last week I realized once again, as I must do from time to time, that I am a coddled pet of this world, with so many privileges that a sense of entitlement sneaks up on me whenever I forget how astonishingly fortunate I am to exist, here, now, in this body, at all, and that the circle of life owes me nothing.

I am reminded of Anita Diamant's brilliant prologue to her Old Testament historical novel The Red Tent, in which the narrator calls us readers "women with hands and feet as soft as a queen's, with more cooking pots than you need, so safe in childbed and so free with your tongues." 

I was not safe in childbed, but I survived it anyway, in a world of medical salvation that allowed my grandmother, my mother, and me to survive childbirth complications that have been traditional death sentences for homo sapiens over the course of a half million years. I owe my very existence to hospitals several times over, and now my demographic of soft-handed, pot-rich women protests and scorns hospitals because they aren't "baby friendly" enough. Who birthed this customer-service-scorn for those who work modern miracles to save our lives from an agonizing and commonplace death? And why are we doing this now to the nurses and doctors trying to save us from a plague we refuse to not die from, even though its prevention is easy and comfortable?

It still makes me angry, the unnecessary death and suffering, but what I keep forgetting is that my life floats upon clouds of unnecessary life and luxury too. A large portion of the human population has always been stupid, selfish, and violent. And living among such creatures has never been easier or more convenient for those of us who try to be better. Both are true.

Anyway, sometimes I can turn it around and find solace in the gratitude for everything I've ever had and everyone I've ever loved and lost. Every moment in the world is a gift.

The second time I went to Mexico, as a newlywed on a sort of delayed honeymoon, our dear friend Esperanza invited us into Day of the Dead celebrations both public and private, rituals to honor lost loves that I encountered in a time of lighthearted happiness and hope for my own life. This was back in the 2000s, before Day of the Dead became a subject of fascination and capitalist exploitation in the United States, so I knew little about it and didn't have to unlearn a lot of stuff about what it is not. I was also naive about the complexities of participating in these rituals myself, as an outsider to Mexican culture and to any remembered culture within my own heritage that still practiced open-hearted celebrations of our ancestors and friends who have gone on before us. I still don't understand everything about these folk traditions, celebrated differently from country to country, state to state, region to region, family to family, nor does anybody really, because the mystery is sort of the point. But one thing I learned after that trip, after I came home with different wisdoms and teachings inside of me and was tested by an ambush from death where I least expected it, in my fancy and privileged estadounidense life, and which helped me to grieve with more tenderness for the rest of my life, is:

Catching More Grief with Sugar (and Salt)

A spoonful of sugar helps the dread of mortality go down.

I had an unsettling experience yesterday. Thursdays are my busiest days at the UU church office. I spent a long morning putting together Sunday's order of service, paying bills, keeping volunteers busy, answering the phone, and doing all those other odds (and I do mean "odds") and ends required of a covenantal church office worker. One of my jobs that morning was to create a bright orange flyer for the November 1st Day of the Dead celebration. When I finally took a lunch break at 1:00 and walked a few blocks through the misty autumn rain to a cafe, my mind was on my own altar that I plan to build in my house this year.

This past year has been characterized, in part, by frustrated mourning. No one very close to me has died, but people on the edges of my life, just close enough to have changed me in some way, have gone this past year and in the last few years. What do you do when someone like that dies? A new coworker, family members of good friends, a well-loved great aunt only seen at family reunions, a former middle school student, a high school teacher. My heart aches to think of them and the loved ones they left behind, but it feels fraudulent to talk about my feelings of loss for someone I did not know very well. I cried over just one of these people, but only because I happened to be at her side as she was dying, and I couldn't help myself. Now that it's a wet, windy autumn in Michigan, with leaves the colors of fire raining down outside my windows and over me as I walk to lunch, thoughts of these people hover at the edges of my consciousness and lay a dull pressure on my heart.

So I decided I would honor them all this year with a Día de muertos altar. I am not a pagan, nor a Catholic, and the holiday is a hybrid of such religions. But spirit communion has deep roots in the human psyche and in every culture on earth, and Catholic rites drilled into my mind since early childhood still reverberate in quiet moments like echoes of a faraway cosmic explosion. I don't believe in ghosts wandering the earth, but I do recognize that the ghosts of our past do wander in our own hearts until their business is done.

I was daydreaming about my altar as I walked into the cafe to buy lunch. I went to the counter, ordered a bowl of soup to go, and then glanced at the front page of the local paper and saw the face of one of this year's lost loves smiling back at me. It was a picture of a boy I had substitute taught at my old Catholic middle school many times--one of my favorite kids at that school. In his picture he is young and handsome, with unusually kind eyes for a teenager--a boy with enough happiness and love in his life to be generous, even at that age--and an almost-laughing, lopsided grin. He was the class clown, a comedian and charmer, popular and well-loved, and the only African American in a mostly-white private school class. He was funny and bright and good-natured. He disrupted class a few times, as I recall, but always with a joke that was so culturally relevant, hilarious, and educational that I always laughed instead of telling him to shut it. His humor was always for the benefit of his peers, never at their expense. At lunch, he always pestered me to go to McDonald's and buy him French fries so he didn't have to eat the school cafeteria food. He stood out to me among his peers because he was just too darn happy and confident for a boy his age, especially a minority in a small, not-so-diverse school where I have my own memories of kids like him being treated unkindly. When I saw the picture of his mother, too, on the front page of the newspaper, I could see why. She had a mile-wide grin that looked ready to burst into laughter, just like her son's. Her face was kind and joyful and open. The article detailed how Star Student and his mother were killed this spring by a drunk driver, a white man in a pickup truck driving on a suspended license, in broad daylight, in my own childhood neighborhood, while they drove to rent a video, leaving behind his father, her husband.

When I saw their faces laughing back at me from the front page, I picked up the newspaper and walked back out into the rain. I didn't realize I had left my lunch behind until I was sitting at my desk.

Next weekend, I'm going to buy lil' Star his French fries. I'll burn copal underneath his smiling picture and sprinkle marigold petals from my altar to the door, to welcome his happy ghost to a private midnight party. I think he'll get a kick out of my great aunt, and my good friend's grandma, who both love to shake their asses on the dance floor. I'll cook sweet bread for everyone, and pasta for the big Italian eaters. I'll pour the drinks and put on music and say hello, and goodbye, and I love you even though you're gone before I had a chance to know you well enough. I am grateful to have met you at all in this wildly improbable world so abundant with sweetness that much of it goes to waste.


  1. Jeannie I love you. And Gramma Audrey always got a thrill out of a nice glass of cheap beer. How shocking and wonderfully un-ladylike, right?

  2. Oooh, cheap beer! There's another thing to add. I think several of our ghostie guests will appreciate some PBR.


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