Thursday, October 05, 2017

Mourning in a Culture that Denies Death

For years now, I have visually tracked the differences between Day of the Dead and Halloween. I started doing this one year, when I was traveling a lot to the Southwest, because I noticed there was a huge difference in the felt tone of visual representation of death in the two main cultures I was witnessing. I hadn't noticed Halloween decorations that directly - not their violence or oddness - because I grew up with them. More noticeable to me were the relatively new-to-me symbols and representations of Day of the Dead. After being immersed enough in those, turning back to Halloween felt like culture shock. Sickening culture shock. I started to photograph that.

1. Most of my life, I have hated Halloween. Resented it, even. As a kid, I occasionally liked costumes, but once I hit my teens and twenties, that no longer suited me. I take the "holiday" too seriously. I am irritated at the college girls dressing up in sexy versions of working costumes, annoyed with the massive consumption of alcohol and resulting noise and violence, and at best, find decorations amusing. It's helped a lot to have a way to photograph Halloween decorations, one that reveals the edge of how it seems to force our faces into horror and death, without ever dealing with it directly. This is actually what I think about the most with Halloween - how it represents white North American culture's avoidance of actually dealing with death. It leans into horror and humor without any nod to actual impermanence. Ugh.

I hate horror movies for the same reason. I've dealt with a lot of death in my life - though little of it has been violent, it must be said - and it feels almost offensive to me how I was not, as a teenager completely freaked out by death, able to share my feelings or be heard, but my peers and adults I knew would flock to horror movies and happily dress as ghosts, zombies, skeletons. How come there's so much focus on that and not on real loss?

I was into horror novels in my teens. I only realized a few years ago this was because I was looking for something more awful, more horrific than losing my dad when I was twelve to cancer after a multi-year battle. So when I'd see kids get a kick out of a horror flick, I'd cringe.

"Have you ever been haunted by your dead father?!" I wanted to scream at them.

The answer is: even if they were haunted by something, no one was talking about it. All metaphor or secret, as kids, as adults. That bugs the fuck out of me.

2. Day of the Dead is a holiday I can sink my teeth into. It is honest. It honors those we have lost, encourages us to discuss them and make connection with them. I am very, very careful about appropriation. I was not raised in any of the cultures which celebrate this holiday. But over time, I have collected experiences, images, and objects that help me lean into the reality of death around this time of year. Most of those come from Mexican culture. I've also been influence strongly by Tibetan Buddhist culture, which uses the reality of death constantly in liturgy and images to help fuel the fire of our practice, and remember to celebrate life as we are living it.

On Day of the Dead, there's room for celebration of someone's life, and for community with others who live and remember those we loved and lost. These were all things I missed as a teenager and person in her twenties mourning my elders. I felt alone. I felt isolated. I felt out of my element, and, at times, like a weirdo. As if I were in the wrong culture.

I am not claiming I should have been born in Mexico. Not at all. But something feels at home in Day of the Dead than in Halloween. I can bring my adult self to it, and I can bring my kid self, the one who felt so adrift for a decade, trying to find a place to both mourn and celebrate those she lost.

3. I have only realized recently how angry I am about this. Enraged, really. It is most accurately directed at whiteness. Whiteness, in the North American form I best know it, required - and requires - of me and mine to overlook impermanence. To leave behind any rituals acknowledging death and focus only on life, in a sick, confused way. When we discuss death, it should be in hushed tones, mocked, or exaggerated to horrific proportions (not just for Halloween; look at the way media deals with death on a daily basis).

In my experience, the "mainstream" white approach is to not discuss death, to use euphemisms and hint at things without stating them directly. To channel all our fear about death into an absurd day that involves extreme comedy, degraded social norms, candy, costumes, and scaring the shit out of each other in hyper unrealistic ways.

4. I'll be keeping an eye on all of this in October. Noticing my anger, tracing it, as I prepare to re-bury the ashes of the seven elders of our family who all died before I turned 22. As I insist on talking about death with myself and those I love, not to horrify, but to acknowledge. I'll be leaning into altars and shrines, candles and food offerings, blending my Tibetan Buddhist beliefs with Day of the Dead in a way that attempts to respect the fact that I was raised in neither.

The culture I was raised in doesn't mirror the truth my face was forced into by circumstance. No one in the communities I have practiced observing death with in a real way has been bothered by me dropping in and taking part. They don't want me to be alone in death. I don't want to be alone in death - not when I know full well I am not. This incidental isolation has done more damage to me than all the grief. This is what I need to return to when I feel the loss - we will all die. All of us. I find comfort in the universality of this, relief in the honesty. I wish more folks did. I wish they could.