Halloween is kind of fucked up.

Ray Ban Grim ReaperCheck out the full post:

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/10/a-real-life-celebration-of-day-of-the-dead/

Of course I went trick or treating as a kid.

I would dress up and go door to door with a group of friends and ask for candy from mostly unknown neighbors in suburbia.

In high school, I don’t remember celebrating. In college and post-college, I would go to big, wild house parties involving a lot of alcohol and everyone in costume.

In Guatemala, the culture has been sufficiently “Americanized” (USAificated?) for some Halloween traditions to have arrived here, but the bigger deal is on November 1st — All Saints’ Day. On this day, families and friends gather in cemeteries to commune with their late loved ones. It’s similar to (yet different from) DIay of the Dead in Mexico, which is on November 2nd officially.

I so appreciate the Latin American culture’s attitude toward death and see it in start contrast to North America’s Halloween with its emphasis on blood, gore and fear.

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Death and the End of Luck.

Last week, on the day before his sixty-fourth birthday, my uncle who I never called uncle, left his earthly body.

I never called him uncle, because he was not in my life until about eight years ago. He was not in my life until then, because my paternal grandma got pregnant out of wedlock in rural Texas in 1949 and therefore hid the pregnancy and gave him up for adoption immediately after he was born. She then got married to another man—my grandfather—and had my aunt, my dad and my uncle in rapid succession in 1951, ’52 and ’53.

After his adoptive parents passed away, Don (my secret uncle) investigated and found his birth mother, along with the rest of us. He and his wife and adult son were integrated into our family, as much as one can integrate into a family fifty-something years late. We were welcomed into their San Antonio home for the holidays for several years. Don was always jovial, kind and genuinely interested in our lives and well-being. I can safely say he was my favorite Aggie.

Don was diagnosed with cancer around Thanksgiving of 2012 and had been in and out of the hospital during and after receiving aggressive chemo and radiation treatment. His wife of 40 years, Kathi, and son Barrett were with him when he took his last breath. I found out he died via Facebook later that morning.

I didn’t quite know how to feel. I was somewhat surprised, as last I’d heard he was doing better. I felt sadness, of course, to know that a dear and goodhearted person was no longer with us.

I felt (and feel) compassion for his devastated family and friends. Not being religious, I don’t seek or find relief in the idea that he’s with God the Creator in heaven. I do feel relieved that Don is no longer suffering. And grateful that we had the chance to know him and that he and my grandma got a chance to bond, albeit late in life.

I also feel guiltily lucky.

So far in this lifetime, I haven’t lost anyone really close to me yet, other than my two grandpas, who were both ill and in nursing homes when they passed away. When my friend Julie’s dad, our high school physics teacher, died of pancreatic cancer when we were in college, it hit me pretty hard. Likewise when Orestes died in 2012. But the truth is, the hardest death I’ve had to deal with so far was that of my BFF, Lucy, in 2011. Although she often seemed human, she was actually canine.

Theoretically, I know that my luck in the grief department will run out. I know that we all die in the end. Death is certain; the time and cause is unknown. I accept that ultimate fact. Through long-term meditation and contemplation, I have come a long way toward overcoming my fear of my own death, a fear that debilitated me as a nine-year-old kid after a tornado hit my elementary school.

What I still fear most is the death of my beloveds. I can’t (and don’t want to) fathom the moment when my husband, parents, siblings or close friends or relatives pass away. As I hold and play with my one-year-old daughter, Jade, so full of new life and vivacity (the girl can’t walk yet, but she’s already dancing!), it’s hard to imagine that she will grow old and die one day.

But she will, and so will I, and so will you. Time keeps on keepin’ on, sixty seconds per minute, no matter what. The best thing we can do is to be present for each and every moment, rather than escaping into illusion or delusion or addiction or avoidance.

If there is a heaven, no doubt Don Fischer is there.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Don.

Addiction is a brain disorder.

A self-described “rookie” blogger wrote a post four days ago called Phillip Seymour Hoffman did not have choice or free will and neither do you.

It’s gone viral, and I can tell you why. An amazing title, plus a fantastic image:

philipseymour

Also, a hot and timely topic: the death of a beloved and talented actor due to drug addiction and overdose. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the news Sunday. He was only 46.

It’s a long post, but it has a lot of quality information and ideas—most of all that addiction is not a choice but rather a mental illness.

My brother is an addict, and he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 14. My brother and I are not close, and after all he has put my parents and family through with his lies and manipulation, it’s easy to point fingers, lay blame and generally live in ignorance about the state of his life and the condition of his recovery.

A few months ago, I read Tweak, the memoir of a young San Franciscan crystal meth addict, Nick Sheff, immediately followed by Beautiful Boy, the memoir written by his journalist dad about his experiences dealing with his son’s addiction. Those books helped me better understand the workings of my brother’s drug addiction, though I can never claim to understand the addict’s mind.

One of my very best friends is an addict, too. Alcoholism runs in her family and several months ago, it came to light that she had been secretly binge drinking. She went to rehab last year and is living sober now. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

The most important thing, as the blogger so compellingly writes using Philip Seymour Hoffman as an example, is having compassion for the addicts in our lives.

Let us remember that while we are all addicted to some things—(I, for example, am addicted to yoga and meditation and chocolate and my daughter and love and my self-worth and plenty of other things)—we cannot understand the mind of an addict any more than we can the mind of a schizophrenic.

Addicts need nothing more than our kind, compassionate, loving help, society’s help and medical help.

Contemplating Death, Celebrating Life

Contemplating Death, Celebrating Life

Let’s celebrate the lives of our dearly beloved friends, relatives and pets who have passed away.

In Latin America, it’s a sacred time of year to honor them through our memories, stories, prayers and meditations.

Like a lot of kids, I was freaked out by the concepts of death and the afterlife when I initially began to understand them. I remember my grandpa saying he believed that after we die, that’s it. No heaven, no hell. Just black nothingness. Worm food. That sure wasn’t comforting to my already delicate young mind.

Throughout my childhood, Halloween was a fun day that was all about dressing up, trick-or-treating, watching Charlie Brown and Garfield cartoon specials on TV and eating too much candy—not so much about reflecting on death. In my roaring 20s, it was a fun day that was all about dressing up, going to wild costume parties and getting wasted. The only deaths contemplated around Halloween were the ones in bloody horror flicks.

Perhaps this is why I’ve come to appreciate Latin America’s cultural rituals and customs around death. It is not viewed as scary or taboo but rather a natural passage at the end of life.

Orestes in Peace

On Sunday, March 18, my grandma Gonzales (mom’s mom) turned 89 years old. Her name is Virginia and she lives in San Antonio, Texas. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which is truly sad but her personality has become a lot sweeter and more relaxed as a result. (She says to me, “You live in Guatemala? That’s nice. I bet it’s beautiful there,” rather than worrying that I live alone in Guatemala.)

That same day, my youngest amiga turned one. Her name is Lago, and she lives at Lake Atitlán here in Guatemala. I am not typically a baby person. I think my biological clock is broken, or perhaps I just “haven’t met the right guy yet,” but, uncharacteristically, I totally adore this baby. She’s beautiful and fun and funny and tranquila. It certainly helps that her parents are amazingly wonderful, down-to-earth, authentic eco-hippies.

The weekend of March 18th, I was visiting Lake Atitlán celebrating the beauty of nature, the joy of friendship, the community created by live music, and the drama of my latest romance. We’d attended a small music festival the day before, and I suspect that something I ate there caused some gastrointestinal drama of its own. The food poisoning, along with a heartbreaking conversation with my Colombian crush, led me to feel ill, tired and weak as I drove myself back to Guatemala City. But I made it.

I was sitting in my bedroom early that Sunday evening, feeling a little self pity, wishing things could be different, when I checked my email and got the most horrible news. Orestes was on his deathbed in the hospital. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and likely cancer as well. He was too weak for treatment and expected to pass away within days. He had been my best friend Amanda’s best friend for the past twelve years. She was there by his side almost nonstop for his last days.

We met Orestes in the year 2000 when he and Amanda worked together at a cafe. Over the years, we hung out many times and he even came sailing with my family once, but I never hung out with him one-on-one, without Amanda, until I last saw him when I was in Austin last December… just a few short months ago. He looked and seemed lively and good. He was not drinking. He’d been sober the past couple of years.

Though I never personally witnessed the dark side of Orestes’ drinking, just the fun-loving, cheerful, witty side, I now know it existed. Liver failure is not a sudden occurrence. We don’t know how long it had been since he had seen a doctor. He’d lost sixty pounds in two months. He was jaundiced, his stomach distended. Amanda said he looked like a Holocaust victim.

Though he had no family to speak of, Orestes had thousands of friends. His rapid decline and death coincided with the massive annual SXSW music festival, and at one point there were 25 friends visiting his hospital room. Though he could no longer speak, Amanda would put the phone up to his ear so that people like me who could not be there in person would have a chance say their last goodbyes.

Through tears, I told Orestes that I love him and he is an amazing person. I babbled for a while in English, but when I switched to Spanish, we think he understood because his breathing changed and he made some guttural sounds of recognition. The following morning around nine o’clock, Orestes Perez passed away peacefully, 12 days after being admitted to the hospital with a cough and abdominal pain.

Orestes was an incredibly soulful, hilarious, big-hearted, alive person. Of Cuban and Salvadorean descent. Born in LA in ’69. Moved to Austin in ’96. He practiced santaria. He was totally punk rock. He had sleeves of tattoos. I’m pretty sure he never did yoga, and yet he was the purest of yogis, overflowing with metta (loving kindness) for cats and people and all beings. His heart was so big and he had much love and laughter to share with everyone he encountered.

He left us way too soon, and in such an ugly and difficult way. It still seems surreal. Just a big practical joke. Orestes cannot be gone, his body cannot have been cremated, no. He must be cooking, dancing, crowd surfing, playing air guitar, singing, alive. But he is gone, he has left, and that is final.

May we each remember that we do not know what will happen in this life. Not in one minute, or one hour, or one day or ten years. We must be present and experience everything fully within this one precious gift of human life. Human nature is to attach to people and things but we ultimately have to let go, let go, let go… of everything, every memory, every organ, every book, every pair of shoes, every friend.

Anything can happen next, and you can be a pessimist or an optimist or a realist about it. Life is a paradox. Every thing matters and no thing matters. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

Te quiero, Orestes. Gracias por todo. Que tu alma este en paz.
I love you, Orestes. Thank you for everything. May your soul rest in peace.
~Michelle
A touching note from our friend, a great guy, Winston Parker:
Here’s to the guy that would always ask what I was up to. While I lived in Austin I worked at AMD. You would say, “you still working on that chip?” and then pretend to work with your hands with tweezers… “you got that thing figured out yet?” This photo is one that I scanned in for Amanda. It’s sometime in the 80s when you were just becoming a rock star. You’ll always be a rock star. Even if your body wore out, you will live on forever in all of us.

December 3 – Anicca (Change)


What did you let go of this year? Whom did you let go?
o
“When the heart truly understands, it lets go of everything.” ~ Ajahn Chah
x
I lost Lucy on March 27. It was the worst day of my year and one of the hardest days of my life. Yet, the worst moment was also a moment of epiphany. In an instant, she was gone forever, but (once the initial shock passed), as long as I was present, I could sense Lucy’s sweet loyalty and undying devotion. Tangibly. In my heart. And I still can. And I always will.

Life After Life

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

A tornado hit my elementary school when I was eight going on nine. I recall thinking, “I am going to die,” and not being okay with that whatsoever.

Then it went away.  The storm passed, as they all do.

But I was scarred. Something had changed in me, and I couldn’t help it.

I went to Mass the following Sunday and listened, probably for the first time, to what the priest said. We will be seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven… And His life will have no end… Eternal life… Forever and ever amen. I thought of the Earth coming to an end, the never-ending blank black sky. Nothingness. I fixated on these disturbing conceptualizations.

Around the same time, my grandpa told me that he did not believe in the afterlife. After this life, that’s it. You decompose. There’s no fluffy cloud heaven with angels. Life’s a bitch, then you die. And even after you die there’s no relief? Not what I wanted to hear.

[Read the entire essay on Elephant Journal]

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Post Tornado Stress Disorder

A tornado hit my school when I was eight going on nine.

It was April, 1989. I remember that morning the sky was clear, a perfect blue. Flawless. Not a single cloud. Dad drove me to school on his Yamaha motorcycle. I felt cool riding to school on a motorcycle. I liked wearing the helmet and holding on to my dad, I felt safe.

The most traumatic event I’d witnessed thus far in life was the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, which I quickly forgot about after it happened. I was a buoyant six year old. Nothing could bring me down.

My first clear memory of childhood is of riding in one of those beige colored hard plastic child-seats on the back of my dad’s bicycle. He and Mom were riding down a gravel country road on a leisurely evening in rural north Texas. I remember fixating on the endless rows of corn we were passing. I watched the corn rows with the simplicity and wonder of a toddler.

On that clear Thursday morning in third grade, I waved goodbye to Dad, walked into the school, to my classroom. I was a good student, quiet, studious, a “diligent worker,” as my report card always said.

While we were inside, the environment was changing. The sky darkened with thick clouds. By the time the power went out, it was almost as dark as night outside. Red light from the exit signs in the hallway lent the whole scene an extra eerie tone. The emergency bell rang. We’d done tornado drills before, and even those had made me uneasy. This was the real thing. I recall thinking, “I am going to die,” and not being okay with that whatsoever.

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