August 9th, 2017

5 Lessons for Surfing the Waves of Change

When my breasts were just buds, my Dad taught me how to be a surfer girl. I grew up in Southern California, and we spent our family vacations at San Clemente, camping every day by the Trestle, still a well-known surfing spot. We’d set up an umbrella, get out the Coppertone oil (yep, I had the darkest tan in town) and buy the best cheeseburgers in the universe at the stand on the beach. Every year I’d push the envelope a bit more.

At first I was only allowed to wade into chest-high surf. I could enjoy that, because the angle of the ocean floor is very shallow there, making series of waves. I would ride the little waves on my canvas mat (pre-boogie boards), while my Dad would venture out to the men-only spot way out where the big waves break.

Already, you can see there are metaphors coming (and you may know, I love ‘em.) My Dad was teaching me how to venture into men-only territory in the world of my future. What he didn’t know is that he was also a spiritual teacher. Today I’m in my 70’s, and I’m more amazed than ever at how big the surf is, even in Arizona. The world seems almost consumed by huge waves of change, and I feel more out of control than ever. Maybe I can’t make waves the way I once thought I could. These days it’s enough to just surf them.

So here are some surfing principles my Dad taught me that you could adopt for navigating turbulent times:

1. Dive under oncoming waves. To get out into the action, you have to go against the incoming waves. The trick: Don’t let them blast you in the face and knock you over. Go deeper than the incoming and surface on the back side of them.

Comment: If this metaphor works, it means trying to “Go deeper” instead of “Rise above it.”

2. Wait for the right wave for you to ride. Don’t start with a giant one, or even assume those are the best. Don’t crowd in front of someone already riding the wave. Pick the one that just beckons.

Comment: Guess this falls under the category of picking your battles–and your thrills!

3.  If you get caught in a riptide, don’t fight it. Be observant and try swimming parallel to the beach until you can catch a wave that will take you to shore.

Comment: Of course you’ll run into unseen forces that are big and dangerous, so be alert and stay calm and humble.

4. When you want to catch a wave, paddle like hell. You have to work for your thrill. Now let the ave carry you. See how you can work with it. What can you do to increase your still and your fun?

Comment: What if life is all about putting everything into the present moment?

5. Respect the ocean. It’s much larger than you are. It can be loads of fun and beautiful, and it can also kill you.

Comment: Like life.

How these principles worked was: Dad would take me out to the zone of big waves where I couldn’t touch. When the right wave came, he would give me a big push on my canvas mat, and off I’d go, paddling like hell until the wave took me. It was a great ride all the way in to the beach. In later years, I’d use fins to catch my own wave and then get up on my knees on the mat once the wave broke, tall and strong in my pink-striped one piece. Not hot, not cool, just me.

Thanks, Dad, for the mentoring. Even though I never made it onto a surfboard, all these years later I can still taste the salt air.

May 15th, 2017

Bringing Billy Home: A Tribute to a Fallen Marine

Some families appear to be elected, even ordained, to teach the rest of us about loss and suffering, and about the love and resilience that helps us bear the unbearable.

I met one of these families this week during an emotional reunion of the 3 Marine squadrons where Lt. William Ryan served in Viet Nam. My husband, Jon Trachta, served in one of these squadrons, so I went with him to Washington, D.C. for three days of events.

The keystone event was the funeral with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on May 10, 48 years after Lt. Ryan died on a mission in Laos. His remains were found and identified in January, allowing the family to plan for this event, called “Bringing Billy Home.”

Hundreds of mourners gathered on a hillside where a caisson led by 7 white horses received the flag-draped coffin. Ospreys flew over in the missing man formation, where one peels off and the rest continue. The family walked behind the caisson, followed by a procession of Ryan’s Marine brothers and the hundreds of family friends in attendance. (Arlington officials claimed it was the largest funeral there in memory.) It was hard to say which was more heart breaking: the family, the crowd, the ceremony, or my husband’s tears.

At the funeral site, Marines lifted the flag and folded it in slow motion. A Brigadier General carried it over to Ryan’s son, Mike, handing it to him and expressing condolences to his wife and children.

The full tragedy was that Mike’s mother, Judy, had been buried the day before—May 9. Literally the day after finding out that her first husband’s remains had been identified, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on January 17. She died April 11.This was after losing her second husband in March– the only father Mike remembered. For Mike, this string of losses is simply incomprehensible.

Gary Bain, the pilot who flew with Ryan, his backseater, knelt at the coffin and placed the patch from his flight jacket on top of the flowers. Gary, who spoke later at a dinner for the 46 fellow Marines who travelled to the event, admits to having struggled mightily with survivor’s guilt. He still does not know why, after agreeing they would eject, Ryan’s ejection seat was not freed. Hopefully Gary’s struggle has come full circle, and he has now been brought “home” as well.

As Jon and I watch video and photos, we are both moved by so many aspects of our journey. Of course the beauty of the ceremony and the reunion is bittersweet, overshadowed by the tragedy of war that brought us all together in the first place.

Jon has taught me that the bravery he exhibited in the 240 missions he flew was motivated by brotherhood. The mystique of the Marines has less to do with God and country than with being willing to die for another human who is your brother—or now, your sister.

I’ve not had to risk my life in war, and so I understand that I don’t understand. There is probably no way I can really know what these men have all been through and what it means in the secret chambers of their hearts. But one thing is clear: “Semper fidelis” has to do with love.

I imagine that’s what also motivated my own father, a bomber pilot who was shot down and killed in World War II when I was 21 months old. He flew the plane down while everyone else got out except his bombardier, who was trapped beneath the cockpit. His mother and my mother waited in anguish for four months of his being missing, until one of the survivors wrote my mother and told her he counted the chutes and saw the plane explode. So I do know something about how families are affected.

And so I’m left with the prayer that the love I witnessed last week continues, and that the beauty of the honor and ritual and ceremony continues. May we find a way as a species to love and honor each other without having to resort to war. In the same way that Mike and his family will find the resilience to live and love beyond their losses, may we find a way to recover from battling each other and find the beauty and honor encoded in every life.

If it’s true that “home is where the heart is,” then may all warriors and their families find their way home.

 

This post is also on HuffPost and can be seen at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5918f315e4b00ccaae9ea459.

April 2nd, 2017

The Secrets in a Rose

Photo by Pamela Hale

What do you see when you look at the center of this rose? What emotions do you feel?

When it appeared as one of spring’s first offerings in my garden, I marveled at the perfection of the folds and their graceful sweep. And, I am drawn to the center, wondering in awe at the source of this creation.

The center of all flowers must contain the mystery, the source of their blooming, the secret behind their fragrance and the perfection of their beauty. And of course, if we were to tear the rose apart to discover the secret, we would destroy it. Somehow it is the very form the mystery takes that is part of its perfection. The mystery unfolds on its own, in its own time and in its own way. Just as we do. Just as life does.

I’ve long associated the rose with the power of the Virgin Mary, especially since I live in Tucson, a region where the Virgin of Guadalupe is very present. My husband and I have visited the chapel and shrine to her in Mexico, where a peasant named Juan Diego had an encounter with her and found an imprint of roses inside his poncho afterwards.

For me, the energy and power of the Virgin Mary is paired with Mary Magdalene and the other Marys in the Christian tradition, and the rose reminds me of all of them. They are, for me, aspects of the Divine Feminine that we need desperately now, regardless of our religious beliefs.

And so I was delighted, after I took this photo, to read this article (https://www.thoughtco.com/sacred-roses-spiritual-symbolism-rose-123989 )on the sacred symbolism of the rose that expanded its meaning for me. It turns out that the rose is a key symbol dating from pre-Christian times and associated with devotion to the goddess Venus. For Muslims, roses are symbols of the soul, and are sprinkled through the ecstatic poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Hindus and Buddhists consider than to be expressions of spiritual joy. And when the fragrance of the rose is present and roses cannot be seen, God is at work.

As for the “mystic rose,” as the Virgin Mary is called, I had never thought of the prayer Catholics offer to her being the “rosary.” The repetition of the rosary is meant to be like a “spiritual bouquet” offered to The Virgin. And since women are particularly devoted to her, she is a powerful spiritual ally for the feminine principle.

I learned that essential rose oil vibrates at 320 megahertz of electrical energy, the highest vibration of any oil. The nearest competitor is lavender at 118. It was humbling to learn that a healthy brain vibrates at a range of 71-90!

If a loved one gives you a rose, no wonder it’s considered a sign of true love. And pay attention to the color. White is said to represent purity, red represents sacrifice and passion, yellow suggests wisdom and joy, and lavender symbolizes wonder, awe and positive change.

I say, be your own lover and give yourself a rose. And you might consider that an invitation for a miracle or angelic encounter. When the deep power of femininity is called forth, mysteries can be solved, wisdom revealed, and the perfection of Beauty can become the medicine for all ills.

 

This post can also be seen on Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58e17d4be4b03c2b30f6a7c2

November 22nd, 2016

Seeing Our Way Through the Pachakutiq

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The latest earthquake in Japan is said to be an aftershock from the one in 2011, and that means among other things that Mother Earth set a big change in motion back then, and the effects are still going on. Perhaps our electoral, political and psychic earthquake in the U.S. is an aftershock too, a manifestation of unseen forces of change that were already at work long ago.

The ancient Inka people of Peru and their current descendants refer to the pachakutiq, the force that turns the world upside down. The force was named after Pachakutiq Inka Yupanki, 1438-1471, the ruler who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into the Inca Empire.

Pachakutiq was a conqueror, an empire builder, whose name meant “he who overturns space and time.” But even Pachakutiq had to ultimately bow to death and to Mother Earth, whose power reminds us that we actually are not in charge here.

We live a multi-dimensional life, whether we are conscious of it or not. In our personal world, the pachakutiq occurs when we’re faced with a personal earthquake like a divorce or death of a loved one, or loss of a job. In the collective world, a pachakutiq has occurred with the recent US election, and the aftershocks continue. And in the cosmic dimension, the force you might call God or the Great Mystery is at work too, in ways that are unseen.

What do we do in times of the pachakutiq?

My brother-in-law taught me a lesson about this years ago, when he was suddenly stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome. Within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, he was unable to dress himself and bound to a wheelchair. By the time I saw him in a rehab facility, he was paralyzed neck down.

“How are you doing emotionally, Bob?” I asked timidly, knowing this was a pathetic, inadequate question.

“Oh, I’m actually fine, now that I made the psychological adjustment,” he answered quickly, as if he had been expecting the question.

“Come on, Bob,” I countered. “How can you make a psychological adjustment to being paralyzed?”

“Oh, but that’s the point. You must.” He had worked this through. “And now that I’ve made it, see those toes on my left foot? You come back next week and I’ll be moving them.”

Clearly he wasn’t paralyzed psychologically, and that’s because he had moved to acceptance. I’m sure he didn’t like being paralyzed, so acceptance didn’t mean approval. It meant he had ceased to allow shock to numb him into a state of denial where action is impossible.

I’m only now moving into a state of acceptance about the election. It does appear that it actually happened, and it also appears that it’s as bad as we originally thought. Given the severity of the aftershocks and the probability of many more, what do we do?

Bob pointed out back then that when we’re dealt a bad hand, we naturally want to give it back. Acceptance means we give up that fantasy. Now we can play our hand, even if it’s not the one we wanted.

Elizabeth Gilbert posed the question, “Who do I want to be in this situation?” Thank you, Elizabeth.

I want to look at the world through two lenses simultaneously, and to have the near view and the big picture work together, even though they seem opposed.

The big picture is that I’m a little creature in a magnificent creation, making me both tiny and grand, a formless bit of the Life force swimming in the great cosmic soup. So out of the big picture lens, I want to see everything as part of the One Being, part of Love. Despite appearances and conditions.

Out of the other lens I see smelly garbage I need to take out, and our latest empire builder making horrifying appointments that seem to overturn time and space. In this dimension, I will not be paralyzed or silent, but will stand for the truth I see with all my heart, wearing as much beauty as I can muster, and perhaps some combat boots hiding under the silk.

We must hold both truths to be self evident: that this is a sacred time when it is foolish to meet the beast with his own energy of fear; and that real Love can be fierce, shaking us all into a place of humility. If we can put these two views together, perhaps that will give us depth perception.

I do not forget that Bob did get up out of that bed and walk again, and even play his own version of tennis. He did not do this out of a desire to conquer, but out of a love for life. And, I know he prayed. I will do the same.

This piece also appeared in Huffington Post, and can be seen at:  Link to article.

August 25th, 2016

My Favorite Photograph

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Light.co, a camera technology company , recently posed the question: what is my favorite photo among all I’ve taken? This is like asking me what my favorite experience is. I absolutely cannot choose. But, I’m selecting a recent favorite from a wonderful adventure in Alaska.

This photo was taken on that cruise that so many have taken through the inland passage, where the views of glaciers and the big, big landscape of Alaska are so stunning. This scene appeared to me when we were on our way out of Glacier Bay, the most dramatic views of calving ice behind us, and the day almost done.

For me the beauty and power of photography is not about the technique, but is always about the gift of new sight. After about 40 years of serious photography, I am still stunned when something appears to me in a form that looks new.

In this case, the mountainside appeared to be curving up and around the valley like an enormous wave. The patterns of ice swept grand across them like clouds in a windswept sky. How could I capture this in a two-dimensional format?

It had to be a matter of framing. I tried enclosing just the ice patterns, and the effect was lost. But when I included a hint of earthy colors below, it gave just enough context. Still, I find viewers have trouble deciding whether they are looking at mountains or sky, ice or clouds.

I love any landscape that appears on its own to be painterly. I try to manipulate as little as possible, just accentuating the contrast our eye sees but the camera misses, and making the colors as deep and rich as they appeared in the moment. I’m after the same feeling I had when I saw it.

It was a thrill to be debuting my new equipment, and okay with me that the photo is a bit soft because of the movement of the ship–in spite of the image stabilizing lens.

I probably will never encounter a photograph that qualifies as my all time favorite. What I really hope is that the candidates will just keep on increasing. In that case, I’ll know I am growing as a seer—someone who pays attention enough to be present for the world’s incredible array of visual moments. They make me grateful every day for my eyes, and for the part of me who responds passionately to what I see.

 

 

March 23rd, 2016

The Power of Ritual and Ceremony

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The smoke from the copal grew thicker in the room, as Apab’yan fed the small container fire with the granules of incense, and his prayers. People seated around him and behind him prayed too, mesmerized now by the hypnotic chanting in the Mayan language, punctuated by English phrases so we could all track where the prayers were being directed.

The room was darkened in order to suggest the atmosphere of the caves where this water ceremony is usually performed. A bowl of water resting on the table received the blessing, and participants would eventually be offered sips of it, as in communion. Finally, roses were dipped into the water and used to shake drops of water on all those gathered.

It was a potent blessing, because the intimacy and power of ritual transcends cultures, language differences and even philosophical details. Spirit is Spirit in any language. And the language of Spirit is ceremony.

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Apab’yan Tew a Guatemalan Maya Daykeeper and spiritual guide, came to the U.S. as a guest of Kenosis Spirit Keepers, a non-profit headed by Carla Woody. Her spiritual travel programs bring North American people together with indigenous leaders. Whether in Hopi land, Peru, Bolivia, or Chiapas, Mexico, the traveler experiences first hand the reality that we are one.

In this case, a crowd of about fifty gathered at St. Philips in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson for a special event co-sponsored by Tacheria Interfaith Spirituality Center. Apab’yan taught us a bit about the Maya worldview, and then graced us with a water ceremony never before performed outside the mountain caves where foreigners are not permitted.

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And what was the result? Why do indigenous people continue to do ceremony, and what can we gain from participating?

First, there is a palpable power, a felt presence. It is both humbling and empowering. It is a mystery, summoned by a humble shaman.

Ritual and ceremony go beyond words. Through work with the elements: fire, water, smoke, and sacred objects, an atmosphere of mystery took over our rational minds and transported us to another way of being. The sounds of singing and chanting evidently impressed the birds outside, since they began to sing in response.

Culturally we are starved for ritual and ceremony and for experiences of awe and wonder. Indigenous people from all over the world continue to make such experiences central to their lives. We can learn from this.

You don’t have to be a daykeeper or a shaman or a spiritual guide to perform ceremony. Create a simple ritual you can do in your own home or in the back yard. Choose a surface that will serve as an altar. Decide how you’ll make sound: with a drum, a rattle, or with your voice. How will you add fire? A candle will do. And water? Just fill a small bowl. Place stones or sacred objects of yours in an arrangement. Say a prayer. Sing a song of praise.

Apab’yan teaches that this is a way of giving back, when we have received so much. He learned this from his village in the Guatemalan highlands, where people have very little. Gratitude doesn’t cost a cent, but it’s a way to repay whatever spirits you’d like to thank for all your blessings.

 

 

 

 

 

March 6th, 2016

Responding to Chaos with Compassion

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I love teacher, Lynne Twist’s observation that in these times, it is the role of those on a spiritual path to “do hospice for the old order, while serving as midwives for the new.”  (Lynne Twist) If you are one who believes that the earth and our species are in the midst of a great shift, then this observation can help us digest all that is going on.

As I watch the chaos and comedy of our political scene and the potential disintegration of the Republican party, it helps to think that we are watching the painful death of the old order. After all, who said it would go out without a whimper?

While it appears that things are worse than ever, and that the brash, juvenile, heartless approach of The Donald is evidence, perhaps the opposite is true. What if these are death throes? After all, even those who were “on his side” are finding him intolerable.

Even though on the world scene there is unthinkable violence, perhaps even the incidents of suffering refugees, terrorists crucifying their critics and Chinese mega companies raping the Amazon rainforest are last, frantic gasps of the old order.

The old order is the one where winning is everything, where money rules, where the end justifies the means, where power and force are synonymous. This is not the order that visionaries are dreaming into being. It’s an order that is dying—but not without an enormous, probably prolonged fight.

How do we do hospice for this old, dying order? It’s hard, but spiritual leaders tell us we must have compassion. These are people who are afraid, grasping for control, telling themselves a false story about how right they are. They are in the grasp of the ego.

And the truth is, every one of us struggles to avoid the grasp of the ego. Every one of us experiences being afraid, grasping for control and telling ourselves a false story about how right we are. So even though we are tempted to be morally superior, we are actually connected to the humans whose behaviors we deplore.

Sufi teacher Jamal Rahman points out the important difference between behavior and essence. We can absolutely reject reprehensible, abusive behaviors while remembering that people we think we hate were born children of God. We can draw a line in the sand while not exiling any soul from our hearts. This is like rubbing our heads while patting our stomachs, but it is possible.

And, I think it is what is required now. If we truly believe that love is the answer, that real power comes from the heart and not the fist, then we must stop the hate. Every time we vilify an enemy, we perpetuate hate and fear. What if we kept drawing lines in the sand while sending every supposed enemy love and peace?

This is what heart-centered leadership must look like. And it is how we act as midwives for the new order. I have to believe in the dream of a day ( one I may never see) when force will seem outmoded and weak compared to love, which will be the new currency, the new form of abundance.

We have it in us. This is the time to dig deep for it. We need to persistently seek for love in everything, especially in our own hearts. We are indeed the ones.

Note: This post is on Huffington Post and can be viewed at the author’s archive, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pamela-hale/

February 26th, 2016

Trump as the Shakespearean Fool

Shakespeare loved inserting the character of a fool into his theatre, as a way of being entertaining and pointing out bluntly certain truths that other characters of higher standing wouldn’t reveal. His fool was usually a clever peasant who used his wits and spoke outside the codes of morality. Not believers in the supernatural, Shakespearean fools had no idealogy or regard for appearances, or for law, order or justice.

Doesn’t it sound like Donald Trump?

Since the function of the Shakespearean fool was to wake people up, I keep hoping that Trump is among us simply for that. The way that he presents himself and the things he says are so utterly grotesque that one advantage is he makes it clear what we don’t want.

Contrast seems to be a necessary force on this human plane. We seem to need to know what we do not want in order to know what we really desire. And so maybe Trump plays an important role, in that he reminds us how much we do not want a country ruled by prejudice, mysogeny, brute force and disregard for the tenderness of the human heart.

If the great playwright in the sky placed him here for the sake of contrast, then time is growing short for us to stop snoring in our theatre seats. We need to wake up to the real dangers this particular jester poses.

First, the Shakespearean fool does not see how ridiculous he is. Unlike a comic who is doing a routine, he is serious. In this case, that is scary.

Secondly, people are falling for this stuff. Everyone loves to watch a clown, but who wants one for President of the United States? I hope both Republicans and Democrats think about this.

Thirdly, the man is using his wits. So far, he is able to live up to his name. He has trumped the pundits and kept on gathering steam, even while chalking up more and more hideous statements. In our culture, we may have reached a new low where entertainment actually trumps the dreams of our forefathers. Where is liberty, freedom and justice? “Winning” seems to trump these.

Before she died, my mother said through her morphine fog that “It’s all a play, and we are just playing our parts.” Let’s remember what part Donald Trump is playing and take a look at what we want to happen in the last act. Please.

My friend Richard Kimball, founder of Project Vote Smart (http://www.votesmart.org) recently wrote a letter in which he cited some depressing studies showing that candidates who lie most outrageously capture headlines and get the highest poll numbers.

To make it worse, other studies showed that people rarely change their minds when confronted by facts, and that they’d rather listen to a politician who will tell them whom to hate than one who tells them the truth.

Now that is not funny.

If you were in the audience watching a play about this, what would you hope the most powerful characters would do? Will they wake up? Will they act in behalf of the greater good? Or will they be trumped by the fool, who will end up with a crown on his head?

 

This post has also been sent to Huffington Post and can be seen at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pamela-hale/.

 

January 11th, 2016

Women Holding the Long Lens

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I’m visiting family and marveling at how long my grandchildren’s arms and legs have grown, how my daughter has become an inventive and creative cook, and how my ex husband has turned into a gentle friend. As this year just begins to unfold, I’m aware of the longer arc, and of the graceful way life changes the way the path looked …way back then.

I’m reminded of the story of how an apparent tragedy occurs, only to become s portal for a fortuitous event, that then morphs into the doorway for another downturn. Age at least provides a lens for the long story, and presents an option not to get too caught up in the drama and apparent truths of each chapter of this wild and beautiful journey.

On this annual solo road trip, I visit family, see old friends, and will end up with seven close women friends who have been a group for over 35 years. We’ve watched each other meet obstacles, embrace blessings, and survive dramas great and small. Perhaps to balance out the complexity of our own sagas, we always pepper our reunion with as many movies as possible, separated by walks on the beach, home cooked food and less wine than we used to drink.

In our seventies, we know we face losses in the upcoming episodes of our reunion series. One of us has already lost a partner to a sudden, deadly heart attack. Another is recovering from a knee replacement and can’t make it this year. What will it be like when our numbers thin? How will we all get to our destination if we’re disabled? Who will die first, and how will we deal with that?

These kinds of questions are a reality of aging, and yet so far there is a saving grace. We have each other. Friendships forged at a progressive Episcopal church we all attended back in the day, our shared values run deep. We taught each others’ children in Sunday school, and so we care who they’ve married and how their children are doing. We also care whether each woman is finding joy, discovering new meaning, and whether she can take a good joke.

We all have common political views, and so we complain about the state of the world. But these are women who are change-makers. We haven’t given up. Back in the 70’s we named ourselves the Women’s Quilting and Terrorist Society, which we thought was funny then. Now we just use the initials, but the desire to shake things up is still very much alive.

Everything has changed for the one whose husband turned out to be gay and still is her best friend. For the one who lives close to the bone, after using all her savings taking care of her father. For the one whose bitter divorce was healed by a surprise passionate romance and marriage, ending in her partner’s sudden death.

And nothing has changed. The big arc of our lives is trained by faith in the unseen. The dramas in each chapter have been tamed by good humor. And the shards of old stories are held in a sacred pot by women who will treasure them, laughing and crying together until we can’t do it in person any more

This year I salute these women and all women and men who come together in groups, urging you to put these meetings first, even when it’s hard to put the important ahead of the seemingly urgent. Every time you meet, you put money in the pot. And the older you get, the wealthier you feel, finding that life is made, after all, not of victories or defeats, but of the stream of love embedded in the entire adventure.

 

This post is also available on Huffington Post at my author archive, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pamela-hale/. Your comments there or here are appreciated.

October 31st, 2015

Honoring Death as Part of Life

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On the night of Nov. 1, the whole central plaza of most Mexican cities is ringed with altars (or “ofrendas”) like this one. Each is a unique creation made by family and friends to honor a loved one who has passed to the spiritual realm. When I spent two weeks around Dia de Los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, it was a carnival-like atmosphere, with music, vendors and crowds–and yet the process is a serious and meaningful one that honors death as part of life.

I felt again how wonderful it would be if we had a tradition in our country to collectively honor the dead. After all, death is even more a part of every life than Columbus Day or some of the other holidays we observe.

As Octavio Paz put it: “A civilization that denies death, ends up denying life.” Food for thought, no? And Mexicans have been celebrating some form of Day of the Dead for 300 years. 

When you look at this altar, perhaps what you see is the vibrant marigolds, the image of the skeleton (the “catrina,” or figure of the skeleton dressed and participating in life), candles and photos. What you may not see is the layers of symbolism encoded here. (I am drawing on information in a 2013 article in the San Miguel paper by Jade Arroyo.)

Here are some of the symbols:  The altar itself welcomes souls (children on Nov 1 and adults on Nov. 2) and guides them to loved ones’ homes. They are called “ofrendas”(offerings) because altars are for saints, and most of us aren’t those! The image of the skull is a tribute to one’s ancestors. The seven steps or levels in the ofrenda are traditional and represent the stages the soul must pass through before finally getting to rest. Items are places accordingly, so that on the top is a picture of a saint or the Virgin and the person being honored. On lower levels are salt, bread, favorite foods, and finally a representation of earth, usually done with seeds or corn.

Some ofrendas have just three levels: heaven, earth and the underworld. All of them include flowers, especially marigolds (called cempaxuchitl, their ancient indigenous name), baby’s breath and cockscombs. White flowers represent heaven, yellow the earth and purple, mourning. Sugar skulls are eaten or broken down when the ofrenda is dismantled. Often copal incense is included, as is pan de muerto, bread baked especially for Dia de los Muertos.

The cut paper banners that flew over the entire Jardin (as the plaza is called in San Miguel) represent wind and the joy of living. Candles can mark the four directions. Water is offered in clear glasses for the spirit’s thirst and is the energy of life. The person’s favorite foods are offered, along with folk art like catrinas, alfeniques (sugar figurines) and paper chains.

I always put up a Day of the Dead ofrenda of sorts in my house, and this year I’m particularly aware of honoring not only our relatives, but also our Mexican brothers and sisters. I don’t want to borrow this tradition in the spirit of cultural appropriation, but rather in the spirit of gratitude and honoring. In a country thirsty for rich symbolism, ritual and ceremony, we can be particularly glad when we’re inspired to honor all the dimensions of life in a beautiful way.

This article was adapted from a post that appeared at theSpiritedWoman.com, and also appears in the Huffington Post GPS for the Soul.