Just weeks after Juan and I got married, I found myself in his mother’s rural Oaxacan kitchen, helping to set up an altar for the Day of the Dead.  We had honeymooned for several weeks not too far away and Juan had wanted to come home to spend time with his family while we were so close.  As the newest member of the family I was initiated into the family with a rite both so heavy and light.

I was struck by the beauty of this ritual.  By the joy.  Sugar skeletons, sweet bread and bright orange flowers–not the stuff of mourning–all mixed up with keenings and tears and grief, raw and real.

I was struck by the healthiness of declaring a day, when everyone can grieve openly and remember those who have passed, no matter how long ago.  When the community can be together in pure empathy–all embracing loss together.  “Yes, you miss your mother /son /brother /sister /husband /best friend…I do too.”  What a more realistic way to deal with loss.  In our culture it seems that we give people space to feel their sadness intensely for a short period of time and then we expect them to buck up, move on, get over it, be well and fine.  

How lovely it was to sit around the gravesides and tell stories, to give honor to the ones who had touched so many lives while a mariachi band roamed and a man wandered through selling tortas and tacos and sweet rice drinks.  “This is the way” Tio Roberto el gordo said “that we don’t forget.  That our family stories get passed down.”  But as the mariachis roamed singing cheerful songs while candles burned and delicious, decadent picnics were laid out I thought that this day was so much more.  This holiday is really celebration of the power of our hearts, a recognition that we can hold deep loss and grief at the same time as we embrace great great joy.  That a heart can simultaneously weep and sing. 

I was struck by the large number of mothers, (my husband’s aunt and my own dear sister in law included) who made tiny altars for the children they had lost.  Whether the loss was recent or 30 years passed each altar was lovingly decorated with sweets, flowers and toys.  Juana, my husband’s oldest sister, invited me to the graveside of her young daughter.  Together, along with her three young girls we decorated the simple earth mound with bright orange flowers, the color of joy.    With tears in her eyes she whispered the family news to her beloved child gone too soon.  She told her that Paolina, the baby, had just turned one.  That los primos were visiting from Mexico City.  That her Tio had married an American, that she had come to visit.  That all these things made her so so happy that her heart was so full of joy and she wished she could share it with her.

I know deep in my soul that when any of us lose someone or something truly beloved whether a child, a spouse, a parent, a marriage, a dream, the grief never really completely goes away.  The loss stays with us, although over time the intensity mellows.  We may not even feel its presence for days, weeks, months or years but then it pops up again.  We measure our progress, not by the complete absense of  sorrow from our life but rather by the sting as we bump up against the edges of our loss.  Early on it is like bumping into a wall of broken glass bottles that pierce our sides and make us cry out.  But after awhile, we bump up against loss and it is more like a brick wall, and then more like a tree.  It still smarts but does not consume us, does not draw blood, does not leave us wounded for days or weeks. 

And its presence, no matter how intense or persistent does not preclude peace, joy and happiness. 

I have thought alot about that Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico as I have pondered where I am in my life right now.  While it is true that rainy November mornings can summon the deep grief of the loss of true love, it is also true that in my heart I am holding so much excitement, joy and silliness that I sometimes think it will explode sending confetti and sparklies everywhere.  Having survived my greatest fear I am marching through life so much more lightly, so much more gleefully, so much more openly than I ever would have if I was still comfortably married with a fear buried in my heart.  I am ready to embrace the next phase of my life.  I am hungry for new adventures.   I am in such a good space in so many ways.

Yes, the biggest lesson of all of this really is that my heart is big and wide enough to hold both sorrow about the loss of the past and great excitement for the adventures of the future.  The grief and the joy are both there, together every day, mixed up in one heart, like the yin and yang. 

4 Responses to “The Yin and the Yang”

  1. evan Says:

    That’s inspirational… I need to keep writing.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Jen Ballantyne Says:

    You really are amazing Meg. So beautiful again. How do you do it? So very talented, so very thoughtful. I will be up for a longer email chat very soon my dear new friend.xx

  3. evan Says:

    try setting up a forum!!

  4. Daily Bread - Meg Casey Says:

    […] 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 suddenly shallow. […]