Monday, November 05, 2012

dead reckoning

"Who am I?"

Over a year ago, I started an essay tackling that question.  The catalyst was the recently-released Autobiography of Mark Twain.  When I read the last page, I realized I knew a lot about Mark Twain, but next to nothing about his creator -- Samuel Clemens.  Clemens spent decades weaving a cocoon around his own life while creating the comfortable façade of the witty Twain. 

That may be one reason we find it so easy to believe Hal Holbrook successfully channels him.  Twain was simply another of Clemens’s fictional characters.

Of course, we all try similar legerdemain in our lives.  The role we create for ourselves is often not how the rest of the world sees us.

Last summer I received two email from long-time readers of this blog.  Both of them described me as being a social extrovert.  When I am actually a painfully shy introvert.

We see that disconnect around us every day.  Especially in the west where we invent First World Problems for ourselves.

You can hear it in the plaintive postmodern cries demanding the world to see outliers as they choose to portray themselves.  Creating fodder for the mangers of political correctness.

Modernists (especially the traditionalists in their ranks) are not so subjective.  What they think of other people is what they objectively observe.

So, what does all this have to do with the Day of the Dead?

My fellow bloggers told me I would never forget the experience.  That it was not like anything I had seen.  Part of that is true.

I will never forget the 16 hours we spent in the area around Lake
Pátzcuaro observing how Purépecha (and other Mexicans) remember their loved ones who have died.

We started with a daylight visit to the cemetery at Tzintzuntzan.  The cemetery had a large police contingent for security -- and an even larger contingent of boys carrying plastic jack-o-lanterns begging for pesos (no candy, thank you very much) from well-heeled tourists.

The light gave us an opportunity to see why the graves are lovingly prepared.  Usually decorated with orange marigolds -- lots of marigolds -- and purple-hued cockscombs.

As is true in most cultures, the wealthier the family, the more elaborate the display honoring the dead.  You might not be able to take it with you.  But your survivors can spend it on the glory of your memory.

And that is what this day is all about.  Remembering.  If we are what people know of us while we are alive, we have a certain immortality as long as there are those who will remember us.

Like this display.  There appeared to be no grave.  But Miguel was either a child or an adult whose life was somehow touched by trucks -- a fitting memorial for my own father.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon in Pátzcuaro.  You have read my comments about the town’s most honored benefactor -- Don Vasco de Quiroga.  How do you honor a man you revere, but have never met?

With a stylized altar as mythical as the heroic statue of the man that rises above the display.

Or maybe it is the heritage of the dancers that still perform for tourists each weekend.

Nightfall changed everything.  After all, it is only in the night that the spirits of the dead will visit the graveyards or their former homes to communicate with the living.

That sense of reverence and memory thickened in the graveyard of Arocutin -- a village on the western side of the lake.  And the only stop where the cemetery is in the walled yard of the church.

The candle light and the marigolds created an orange light making it easy to see why village relatives were spending the night where they were.  A rite that was communal, but also exclusive to each clan.

From Arocutin, we drove over to the former island of Jaracuaro -- famous for its production of hand-made straw hats.

Even though the hat sellers -- and other vendors -- were not going to miss the opportunity for selling wares to tourists, most local people were  there for a long night of Purépecha-inspired song and dance.  And food.  Lots of food.

We then drove to the other side of the lake.  To Ihuatzio -- best known for its archaeological site.  But on that night, its graveyard was the star.  With both the young --

-- and the elderly remembering those who had taken a journey every one of us in that yard will take.  And realizing we may be next in line for our own memorial service.

On our way back to Morelia, we stopped in the small graveyard of Tzurumútaro. Where the wealthy were easily distinguished from the graves of the poor.

Or where an unusual mix of Hummel-style figures kept company with the photograph of a couple now deceased.

And where the ubiquitous march of Halloween has made a beachhead in the land of tradition.

The next morning in Morelia, I found this interesting twist on tradition in the courtyard of one of the city’s larger churches.

For those of you who are not familiar with Mexican stores, Oxxo is the equivalent of 7-11 or Plaid Pantry.

For me, the tradition of remembering the dead was not new.  Even though Memorial Day was initiated as a way to honor America’s military dead, some families -- including my own -- would use it as a day to remember all of our deceased family members.

My mother and her sisters would drive to cemeteries to decorate graves.  When we were in southern Oregon, my mother would always buy flowers to decorate the graves of both her and my father’s families.

And we would reminisce on who they were.

Do the spirits of the dead visit graveyards on certain nights?  It seems to be a universal belief among pagan tribes throughout the world.

I don’t know.  But I do know that as long as we remember those who have gone on to the undiscovered country before us will remain alive as long as we maintain their memory.


EricChaffee said...

A powerful question, Steve: Who am I?  CS Lewis somewhere observes that I AM is God's name, and we use it as stolen property. Yet the question you pose is THE central question of life. We evade it to our detriment.
Thanks for a poignant tour of the land of the living who have recently been reflecting upon the gifts bestowed upon them by the dearly departed. And thanks for mentioning that hat-making town, which I must someday visit.


Felipe Zapata said...

 Very nice wrap-up of your Muertos experience.

As for your being a "painfully shy introvert," I don't buy it. Most people think introvert and shy walk hand in hand, and I imagine they do on frequent occasion. But one does not require the other.

You may be an introvert, but you are not painfully shy. You're not shy at all, I do not think. I too am an introvert, but not shy in the slightest.

Most people tie these two qualities together, mistakenly.

But, like Sam Clemens, you do hide a lot, true.

There will be no charge for today's psychiatric session. It's on the house.

tancho said...

One of the better wrap up's of the celebration I have read. I think you escaped the poor weather that followed.
 Looks like you had a swell time.
There are no shy barristers, just doesn't happen....well if it does they usually will switch professions immediately after getting their bar.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks.  It was quite an event.  The weather could not have been better. The rain in Morelia on the evening of 31 October was a bit limiting.

Steve Cotton said...

The wise Clint Eastwood once mouthed the words of a writer: "it is a wise man who knows his limitations."  I am still working on wisdom.

Steve Cotton said...

 Eric -- You would find Jaracuaro to be a chapeau heaven.

Jose RPHS said...

Who am I, but more important Who is my Computer!

barbara eckrote said...

Great photos!  Thanks for sharing.........Glad you saw more then one cemetery..........and the flower market!

Steve Cotton said...

Unfortunately, we missed the flower market in Pátzcuaro.  But we did get to see the free-lancers.

Steve Cotton said...

I fear my computer is now me.