Thursday, October 27, 2011

Grandfather Die, Father Die, Son Die

One of my mother's most fervent prayers was that God grant her the privilege of dying before any of her seven children. "I'm am not sure I could withstand the agony over the death of one of my children", she would shake her head and say.

And she was granted her wish.

It reminds me of a story I read about a man in Japan who wanted a well known and respected priest to compose a special prayer for him. "I will pay you well", he promised. "It would be my honor and privilege", replied the priest.

However, months passed and there was no word from the priest. "I wonder what could be taking him so long?" Wondered the man. More time passed and nothing.

One day the man confronted the priest at the local market place. "Where is the prayer I have commissioned you with?" "Oh yes, the prayer. I am working on it. It will be ready soon."

When again the months passed and nothing was heard from the priest, the man decided he would travel to the monastery to demand his prayer. "I have waited long enough", he said rudely to the priest. The priest smiled and said, "I have your prayer ready!"

"Grandfather die, father die, son die." The priest uttered with a look of achievement on his face.

"What!?" "What kind of perverse prayer is this?" He demanded. "I will not pay you for such a morbid prayer! Are you mocking me?"

"This is the natural order. If the son dies first, the father, and Grandfather will grieve inconsolably. If the father, dies first, then the son and grandfather will be inconsolable. But if the grandfather dies first, it will be expected since he is the oldest. If the father dies next, that too will be expected. That the son dies last, is only natural."

At that moment, the man was enlightened and gladly paid the priest for his beautiful prayer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

La Muerte, La Calaca, La Pelona: Jose Guadalupe Posada and Day of The Dead

One of my favorite artists, is Mexican illustrator and cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). His drawings (engravings), reminiscent of Francisco Goya's work, are masterful satires of all classes of society, from the "Los Jodidos" (The "screwed" or poor) to "Los Ricos", the Rich, portray death is the ultimate Equal Opportunity

The pet names Mexicans have ascibed for Death speak volumes: La Calaca (Bag of Bones), La Pelona (Old Baldy), and La Chingada (The Screwed One).

Posada's death figures are not "monstrous" or "scary" but laughable, a thing not to be feared but laughed at and mocked, and they are not to be confused with the skulls and skeletons of our own Halloween. 

The beauty of Posada's work for me lies in how evenly his satire is distributed across society, and his piercing, unflinching eye for the whole laughable burden of human folly and suffering. No one is exempt; no one escapes.

His "Calaveras", the skeleton figures mocking life's brevity, and death as a grinning and fitting end for us all, have become the iconic image for Dia de Muertos, celebrated each November 2nd, in Mexico.

The annual celebration is a fusion of ancient Precolumbian Indian beliefs about death and the afterlife, and European Catholic ones. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Catholic church, in its quest to assimilate the local peoples, was quick to encourage "similarities" between European beliefs, and native ones, so All Saints Day, already celebrated on November 2, was combined with indigenous celebrations to honor the dead at that time of year, to become Dia de Muertos (Day of The Dead). 

Native peoples believe that for one day, the spirits of the dead visit with the living, so home and public altars or "ofrendas" are prepared to welcome and honor the wandering spirits.

These are laden with candles, candy, food, liquor, religious prints and statues and mementos, and decorated  with brightly colored "papel picado", cut tissue paper created especially for the occasion. It is believed the tired, and hungry souls will partake of the offerings.

Weeks before, the martket places are filled with candy, sugar skulls, "Pan de Muerto" (sweet bread in shapes of skulls), and a myriad of death figurines, to be used on the altars.

Unfortunately, the holiday also falls near Halloween, so people are quick to conclude that Dia De Muertos is a Mexican Halloween. It is not. And if anything, it is much more like our own celebration of Memorial Day where we take flowers and mementos to the cemetery to remember our dead.

Days before, the grave sites are cleaned and decorated with wreathes made of Cempasuchil (Merigolds), the ancient Flower of The Dead, and also laden with candles and food for the ancestors. The entire night of November 2nd is spent at the cemetery with family members sitting together on the grave sites, praying and singing, and serenaded by roaming Mariachi bands. The holiday is most popular on the island of Janitizio, Michoacan and in the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, and attracts visitors from all over the world.

At dawn, the souls return to their eternal dwelling in the afterlife, and the living clean up the cemetery, and tear down the ofrendas until the next year.

Not surprisingly, the holiday jumped the border (legally) sometime during the Chicano Movement of the 1970's when things Mexican became precious to us Chicanos in the U.S., and Chicano artists across the Southwest introduced Americans to this unique tradition, but with a touch of the North. Altars now became works of art, to be appreciated in gallery or museum settings and were sometimes dedicated to groups of individuals, musicians, artists, actors or to a social or political idea, AIDS, war, discrimination, immigration, instead of only family members.

Tragically, the holiday has been associated with "hocus-pocus", Black Magic, or Satanism, by certain ignorant do-gooders, or religious conservatives and incidents of parents trying to "sue" school districts because their son or daughter was forced to participate in this barbaric or heathenish ritual in the classroom of some liberal educator, are not uncommon.

If you want paricipate in this tradition on November 2nd, you can create a simple altar of your own on a table, dedicated to one or more of your own beloved deceased, decorated with candles, flowers, photos, food and mementos. It's easy and simple, and special.  (Avoid Halloween decorations).

And while you're at it, why not take a moment to have a beer or a shot of tequila with an ancestor for old times sake?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life As Seen Through The Third Eye

Ever since I read about the Eastern concept of the Third Eye I fell in love it. And after a lifetime of argument, debate, reasoning, and synthesis it is the view that makes most sense to me.

Why man gravitates to a dualistic world view is maddening. Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, love and hate, Heaven or Hell, up or down, left or right. But wait, there is a Limbo, a place between Heaven and Hell, according to us Catholics, though not much is ever said about it these days.

Yet, so much of human experience is a blend or combination of the two extremes. The view that all experience is amoral, and that it is we humans who declare its morality is also tempting.

"No hay mal, que por bien no venga" (There is nothing bad, that in the end, does not turn out for good) my mother-in-law was fond of saying.

Yeah, ok but how long does one have to wait for the good to show up? Like Eternity, maybe? But yeah, some nasty things that happened to us in the past, did turn out for the best (sometimes) and things we thought were "good" turned out being our demise.

You just can't win.

So right turns out to have a smattering of wrong in it, and wrong, we discover in the end, had a teaspoon of good in it, sometimes discovered too late! There's been a rise in the dip of home sales, did you hear? And a rise in decrease of murders? What goes up must come down.

The Third Eye helps us to see this. It is nothing more than Siddhartha's epiphany that a string that is tuned to tightly, or too loosely never plays the right note. But one perfectly stretched, not too tight, or too loose, gives birth to melody.

Jesus said it perfectly when speaking of giving,"Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing."