Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead / Harvest

Autumn equinox was remarkable to me this year; I think it's the first time in my adult life that I've really noticed it. The light had a certain quality, and the shadows had a -- well, it feels a little silly to say it, but they had a powerful feel to them. They were inky and seemed energized with the spirits who come to visit us this time of year. And even though most vegetation and trees are fully green here in this Mediterranean climate (one of the 5 on the earth), what few dead leaves there were did rustle in the wind in a mischievously spooky way. I imagined my brother was giggling at me from the shadows as I walked the path up on Twin Peaks. All of a sudden it felt like Autumn, and I thought to myself, "Gee, no wonder they called September 22nd the first day of Fall."

The harvest moon was on October 4, and it felt like the full moon of November 2 was marking a completion of sorts. This is because November 2 was the second of the Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. November 2 is the big day of celebration here in San Francisco. Happily, I found out about it when I was exploring the wonderful, lively Mission District a few weeks ago. The San Francisco website for this widely celebrated Latino Holiday makes a nice statement; "The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away." I find that very comforting. The holiday is celebrated by making altars for departed loved ones. Candles, mementos, photographs, and especially food and drink are placed on the altars for the dead to come and enjoy. The Latino bakeries on 24th Street have Pan de los Muertos, Bread of the dead, in a couple shapes and sizes. I bought some, and it tastes like nice, sweet challah or brioche.

I went down to the Mission District procession, as I found in the listings, equipped with a few items to put in an altar. I was surprised and disappointed to find that it seemed to be a continuation of Halloween to most of the participants, and I doubted they knew what the meaning of the festival was. Nonetheless, I did see some lovely altars in Garfield Park, nestled in the surface roots of the giant trees. It was very touching. But it was so crowded, I didn't feel right trying to make an altar there, so I went up a quiet alley. I found a nice spot with a most interesting bush that had large, cream-colored flowers hanging down like trumpets that open up into stars. It had a gorgeous, sweet scent. There was an old, dilapidated kitchen chair next to the bush that somehow made the spot seem just perfect for me to make an altar for my brother, Brett. I put 3 yellow candles in jelly jars that I had been saving, not knowing why, but realizing they were perfect because Brett loved jam on biscuits. I left him a peanut butter and bacon on white (no crusts) sandwich, a cup of Sanka (his weird love), a cigarette, and a shot of whiskey. I figured that those things won't hurt him anymore; he can just enjoy them freely. I bought some potted marigolds that afternoon, and bought them because I learned that they are symbolic flowers for the festival. I also left his photo, with a frame of black licorice around it (another of his joys).

I sat for a long time, just looking quietly at the altar. I sat until my bottom was cold, and when I finally stood up, my lower back was aching. But it was worth it for the settling, peaceful feeling it brought me.

I took the bus home, and there were all sorts of people on it, one of the wonders of San Francisco for me. A man had a floor lamp that he managed to hold upright and not fall over as the bus lurched up 24th Street. There were people with skulls on their clothing, faces painted white, and people who seemed to be on their way home from something not at all related to Day of the Dead. Indeed, when I had my job downtown I would often ride that bus home at 9PM, tired but content with my efforts.

I wasn't tired, but I was content. I got off the bus to walk up the hill, and under the full moon in the quiet residential neighborhood that gives way to Twin Peaks, the last islands of nature in the middle of this vibrant city, I thought about Brett. I began to think that if he could only have come to San Francisco five years ago, he'd still be alive. Poor Brett was just so gentle and fragile. He had the build, but not the callousness of all the TOUGH MEN in the family. He was not able to joust with them in the way that is expected of men back home. He just wasn't interested, even though he was plenty strong and had to prove it more times than I care to recall. I should've left sooner, and brought him with me. But that's irrelevant because none of us knew, and anyway the time has passed, and taken Brett with it.

It is weird here, and just because I haven't mentioned it, don't think that I haven't noticed the variations on appearance, behavior, and belief here; they exceed mightily anything I ever imagined was possible in people. Especially all gathered in one 7-mile by 7-mile city. It is difficult sometimes, too, believe me. I don't always know how to interact with all these strange new people, but the over-arching wonder is the sense of acceptance and tolerance here. It is refreshing and far more relaxing than back home, however calm and slow the pace was there. Brett would have had a chance here. Even with all the drugs to tempt him, there are so many services, and I'm sure he would've found a community to fit into and feel comfortable being his true self in. He was so lonely.

I stopped on the Market Street bridge, at the top of the spiral where the City opened up in a blue panorama under the fat moon. I breathed in and when I exhaled I imagined Brett's soul soaring free, over the sparkling city and the bay with the moonlight reflecting in a wide swath. That's when I felt the sense of the end of Harvest. The spirits were content and went on their way, their visiting season complete. Until next year, Brett. And you'll be in my heart every day, like always.

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