Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day of the Dead, Celebration of the Living

Saturday, November 2, 2019
3 am

Sitting in the laundry room again, on the drier, this time, since it is running. I like its gentle rumbling and warmth, and so do Em-dash and Stet, who are curled up at my side. Barsook is snoring on the floor.

I am happy and exhausted. Cliff is on the mend, the Bakery is restocked with flour, the grant proposal is in, the fish tanks are still running and all is right with the world. There are eleven people sleeping in the house tonight (Cliff in our bedroom, Flaco and Dolores in the guest room, Evita, Juan Pablo and Chevre bundled together in my study, Zuza and Cintio in the living room, our friends John and Julianne on the futon on the third floor.) The detritus from 60 other happy guests are scattered about the house.

Yesterday was the first Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)--a holiday celebrating the memory of friends and relatives who have died. For over a decade Cliff and I have thrown a party on DOD, at first semi-ironically adopting the trappings and traditions, and using it as an excuse for great food. Over time, and especially since the ReDS epidemic ramped up, it has become much more serious. The Offrenda is crowded with pictures of the many friends and family members we have lost. The sugar skulls bear names of people we know, not just the famous and infamous, as the collection originally began.

This year the crowd was bigger than ever. Flaco and Dolores brought many friends from the Smithsonian, including a large Mexican contingent whose contributions put my cooking to shame. Everybody pitched in, stretching the food to feed a multitude, hauling out instruments and making music on the porch deep into the night. John brought his ukelele, Cintio has a "seis" (kind of like a guitar) and Angelita, from the SI, brought a very impressive set of samba drums. Vitali brought his electric guitar and a very large amplifier. The neighbors would have complained, I'm sure--if they were not already all at the party!

We were in flagrant violation, of course, of "assembly 12" guidelines but frankly, we didn't care. And the amount of alcohol consumed was presumably sufficient to kill any microbe unwise enough to make an appearance. Everyone needed release, for one night, from the unending pressure to be responsible, to be careful, to be obedient. Day of the Dead, All Hallows Eve, Chuseok, Bon--many cultures have festivals asking the dead to protect us in life. We need this protection now more than ever. And we need to feel comfortable with death, uncertainty, chaos. We need a night to cozy up to the fearful and unknown and reassure ourselves that it is, in fact, a normal and inevitable aspect of life.

It was a raucous release of frustration, worry and fear, a celebration of life and an optimism. Evita supervised the many, many children making sugar skulls on the third floor, but foil, sequins, beads and tissue paper are scattered throughout the house none-the-less. Tenciero and Iphan helped me in the kitchen, turning out 247 tamales (Iphan counted, of course), dozens of flour tortillas, as well as iswas dulces (fresh corn tortillas) and sopapillas (fried dough.) A fierce but civil discussion about health care (or lack thereof) raged in the dining room. Lewis, on learning my neighbor Ed is an expert on the Ottoman empire, cornered him for an hour to get background for his historical novel (third in a modestly successful series). After everyone had moderately too much beer, some of the fencing crew got their equipment from the cars and staged a demonstration on the second floor balcony. (Conveniently just big enough to accommodate a standard fencing strip.)

Finally it wound down, people drifting off into the mild night clutching sugar skulls, pitching marigolds at each other, singing the tail ends of songs. A dozen or so of us remained, sipping home-made wine in front of the fire, washing up in fits and starts, talking quietly about the lost ones we honored this year, and speculating on what this next year would bring.

At last I extinguished the last candles, checked on Cliff (he is still weak, though much improved, and conked out early) and came down here to meditate awhile before heading to the Bakery. I'm contemplating how this celebration exemplifies much has changed, in the last ten years, and how much remains the same. There are so many people missing--dead, displaced, or afraid to attend a large gathering--and more new faces than I could have imagined. It is so much more complicated to find the food to feed such a crowd, arrange transportation, ensure the police turn a blind eye (fortunately the local patrol is very, very fond of Badger Bakery cupcakes.) Ten years ago I did almost all the work myself, with Cliff, John and Julianne pitching in. This year all our house guests, and a dozen others, started in on Friday afternoon and made quick work of everything.

Well, off to the Bakery for a few hours, ensuring that Pruittiporn and the boys (who went home early for a few hours sleep) actually show up and are functional after the modest amount of alcohol I let them consume. Then home for a long nap myself, and a good brunch and a proper day of practice, not these short stints of bouting I have been getting in.

Oh, and before being dragged off to bed, Evita whispered to me my Spanish word for the day--"puta." I really am going to have to supplement my vocabulary, or I am only going to be suited for the very rudest of conversations. Goodnight.

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