A new tradition on this Day of the Dead
Before my twenties, cemeteries had always been the place for tightlipped, somber occasions. I only ever visited them for the burials. Knots would tense and tangle in my belly. And if we spoke, we only spoke in whispers.
So imagine my happy disorientation when friends brought me to my first Italian cemetery on November 1st, 1975, All Saints Day. When I walked through the gates of their Camaiore cemetery, my jaw dropped. It was a wild, exuberant, joyful riot of flowers and family full of love and respect for their dead.
Since then, I have always celebrated this day by setting up a temporary altar with pictures of my deceased family members (both two-legged and four-legged). I’ve made it as beautiful as I can; and I’ve let my love and gratitude flow to those who came before me to enrich my life. I’ve lit a candle and kept it lit for the day of November 1st and through the night.
This has brought me peace, but it always seemed like something was missing still. I think back on the Italian cemetery, and an idea sneaks up on me. It’s the idea of celebrating not only those who have passed, but the past itself, especially the past that haunts us.
Maybe what’s missing is that, in addition to creating an altar for the dead, we might also incorporate candles, incense, feathers and fresh flowers to our fuckups — for helping us understand what doesn’t work.
Our whole lives are spent living. Well, you can’t really live without learning. And there’s no way to learn without making mistakes. We wring our hands over our mistakes, wishing we were different, or ‘knowing’ we’ll never be good enough. I say phooey to that.
What if we laid lilies of praise on the graves of everything we messed up? Or sprays of baby’s breath on everything we did right, but can’t possibly do anymore? What if we bowed with reverence to everything in our past, without exception…and held all those things dear, because of how they pointed us toward home?
We can honor our painful regrets, our unfulfilled triumphs, our missed opportunities like we honor our dead. We can sit in the crypt of our crises… listening, opening, holding them in our arms.
Today, as I honor this Day of the Dead, it means I also invoke that raucous Italian cemetery; and I give that same love to every single thing I’ve done. I bow and leave my bouquet for all my blunders. And I sprinkle rose petals all over the gravesite of my hard-trying, scared-shitless, well-meaning, blind, didn’t-know-any-better, lying-to-myself, well-hidden, well-shielded, super clever, and absolutely clueless, adorable, tender self.
I kiss her forehead. I smile into her eyes.
And I say, “Look! Look at the wonderful, complex, skilled
and surprising human you’ve become!”
Let’s bow to this together.