One of the drags of not subscribing to a particular flavor of religion is that you don’t have access to the rituals that accompany faith traditions. This becomes especially vexing when you could use the crutch of a well-worn set of actions that are meant to help you through the tough times, just as they’ve helped generations before you. One of the good things about not subscribing to a particular flavor of religion is that you’re free to pick and choose from all options, creating your own personalized mix.
Living in a heavily Hispanic city, I’ve always found Dia de los Muertos to be an intriguing holiday. The images of dancing skeletons and altars for the dead have popped up every year around Halloween, grabbing my eye but never inspiring me to dig deeper. Until this year. We are approaching the one-year anniversary of my brother Mason’s death. I’ve been struggling with how to mark his passing in a non-maudlin way, and I’ve wanted to participate in a ritual that could be repeated year after year.
I decided to celebrate Day of the Dead this year. I sought assistance from Marcario Ramirez and his lovely wife at Casa de Ramirez in the Heights. They were very kind and helpful, explaining the basic architecture of and symbolism behind the altar. They let me know that though there are traditional items used in many altars, it’s perfectly acceptable to tailor yours to whomever you are commemorating. The idea is to draw their spirit back on November 2 so they can sit a spell, enjoy earthly things and listen to the people who miss them tell tales about their life on earth.
So on Halloween, I built an altar for Mason. Instead of a loaf of pan de muerto, I put out bags of chips and packs of gum. Instead of cocoa, I offered Gatorade and Mountain Dew. I chose photos of Mason that captured just a few of his myriad interests. Hung his ACL passes on the wall near his fantasy football trophy. Sunglasses. Cellphone. Monkeys. Rocks from California. His tee-shirt from NYC. Music that he loved. Incense to clear the air and provide a beacon. Candles to light the way. And I left him a letter, which included this poem from Li Po:
But since water still flows though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns though we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way answer our craving,
I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat.
What started out as just something to do turned into a cathartic experience. James and I spent the night of November 2 laughing and crying through various stories about Mason. Don’t know if he heard us or not. If he did, I think he would have been laughing right along with us.
As for me, I’m going fishing.