Sitting among the spirits on the evening of November 1st, I watched people take photographs of and with beautifully decorated graves on the island of Janitzio. Though I didn’t know the words, I listened to a mixture of Spanish and one of the four Aztec languages surrounding the lake (as unrelated to each other as the many languages of Guatemala, as unrelated as any of the hundreds of languages of North America), as two women spoke next to me. The words danced together, sometimes bubbling and warm, sometimes deeper, like an ancient chant. All words hold power. At the moment, I felt like I was listening to existence being created and recreated with every syllable.
I sipped a hot apple/cinnamon/hibiscus drink, called ponche, from a ceramic mug, and poured some on the ground for the spirits to drink the essence. We had talked with a man who lived on the island and owned a restaurant. His wife cooked delicious food, and ponche. He said he loves when people come to appreciate the culture of the area. People dress in traditional colorful garments all year, hand stitched with images of flores and mariposa. I’m wearing one as I write this. It has a red flower in the center that looks like a heart. I watched women in long dresses walk through the graveyard. My mind might have been primed, but it felt as if they were protecting the space.
The man from the restaurant had said that, as the night wears on, visitors tend to loosen their concept of respect in the name of alcohol. Decorations on the graves get knocked over. Objects wander off that should stay put. He attributes it to money, for money makes people think they are immune to things. It makes me sad. Money is useful for many things, but I tend to lean toward his way of thinking. Maybe it’s just the election in the states right now that is swaying my thinking. Maybe it’s a social experiment I heard about. At the same time, I know plenty of people with money who will drop anything and share everything. I know people who drink and laugh, and people who drink and break things, and people who do both. The point is, everything everywhere gets complicated and there are so many perspectives that I don’t think only one thing about anything.
Overall, I like to focus on the beauty, because that’s what I want to see, and that’s what I want to increase. Not ignoring the difficult stuff, but putting energy toward what I want to see more of makes more of that stuff.
And there were women who were protecting the space. Maybe they were visiting. Maybe both. In my mind, initially, entering the graveyard would bring everyone to a solemn state. People talked and laughed and took pictures. People sold churros. I thought of how I would feel if I put beautiful flowers – cempaxóchitl/flor de muerto/marigolds – and candles on the graves of my loved ones who have passed on, and people came to take pictures. I think I would be honored, especially if the people left some thoughts of gratitude, life, death, the in-betweens. I thought back to every time I visited Nonnie and Poppie. I’ve only visited their graves with other family. We always laughed. We always cried. We always told stories. We always hugged. I love hugs.
One thing that everyone on the island had in common – whether they were partying, feasting, buying, sitting, walking, trick or treating – was that each and every one knew death existed. And we all celebrated life in our various ways.