On Saturday, after Max’s karate I went to the market and bought dozens and dozens of eggs, 15 pounds of high quality unbleached flour, fancy butter and sea salt. I was going to make bread, pan del muerto, for the Day of the Dead.
Ten years ago when Juan and I visited Oaxaca for my first celebration of El Dia de los Muertos I was completely bowled over and undone by the holiday. It was perhaps the most authentic and beautiful community celebration I had witnessed. Suddenly American holidays with their Hallmark sheens and their commercialized dressings seemed so shallow.
Deep raw grief and raucous silly joy were rolled into one big celebration of life. Sugar skeletons and bright orange flowers, mariachis and brilliantly decorated altars, tequila and tears and laughter and singing–all of it still swirls in my heart. Whenever I think about the the complexity of life, the reality that life is never one thing, the image that comes to mind is Muertos.
Even now, after Juan and I have separated, the holiday feeds my soul. Every year it speaks to me in new ways. Every year I find something new in it.
One of my favorite traditions Juan and I adopted from his family was the baking of pan del muerto. We bake a loaf of sweet egg bread for every loved one we are remembering. We use the best of ingredients, digging deep into the grocery budget, making sure it is a high quality. The bread stays on the altar for one night with the flowers and the candles for the spirits to consume and then on November 2nd, we distribute the bread to friends and family.
As I kneaded one batch of sticky dough after another into smooth elastic balls, suddenly it hit me like a truck–How had I missed this before? The ritual I had always loved as a sweet tradition suddenly took on deep spiritual significance for me…What better way to honor those who have loved us so well, then by baking bread for those who continue to love us now? What a beautiful lesson from my ancestors–“If you loved me, feed my people…If you loved me, keep living and help each other live”
Bread is the most basic form of food, simple. We all need our “daily bread”–it is what sustains us. We nourish each other now to honor those who have gone. By passing on the life giving gift of bread to those we cherish, we are saying YES and Thank You to the gift of love in our life now. In the baking and exchanging of the bread we remember not only the ones who have died but we celebrate the ones who are still alive. We honor the past by tending to the present.
Ever since Juan and I divorced I have wrestled some with the Mexican traditions I had adopted and how I should hold them, now that I was no longer part of a Mexican family. I wasn’t sure if I was “allowed” to claim them as my own anymore. As I walked through the neighborhood dropping loaf after loaf off on the doorstep of my community I knew that Muertos was not a tradition, but a spiritual practice, a practice I had been taught by my Mexican family for me to carry on, a practice that knows no language, no culture, no place. Love one another as I have loved you.