By Paul

I was born on the Day of the Dead, which has always struck me as more than a little odd.  November the 2nd, All Souls Day in the old Catholic tradition which I grew up with, is set aside to celebrate everyone who has died, or at least “all the faithful departed,” as it was said when I was young, since the unfaithful were damned to hell anyway, and there was little reason or need to remember them.

Somehow the notion of being given the gift of life (and it is a great gift!) on the very day dedicated to a special remembrance of death still strikes me as both curious and instructive.  Although as a child I thought of it as strange and a bit disturbing, as an adult, I have come to understand it in more of a mythic or symbolic kind of way.  It’s well known today, for example, that in traditional Mexican culture there has long been a close connection between life and death, and not necessarily a negative one either.  Indeed, almost all cultures which relied on agriculture, as opposed to primarily hunting and gathering, had a special place for death in the stories they told themselves about how to make sense of the world.  Everyone knew that it was only when the seed was buried in the earth that life could begin to stir.  Additionally, it did not take early farmers long to realize that the dead and decaying plants of the year before made excellent fertilizer, the very stuff in fact from which new life grew most abundantly.  So, the equation was a very natural one to make: from death came new life in a most dramatic and tangible way.  

In Aztec mythology too, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of Mictlan, the land of the dead and the lowest region of the netherworld, fought with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and bringer of rain, who had descended into Mictlan in order to gather the bones of the ancestors from the previous fourth world in order to make a new creation.  He was just about to escape when Mictlantecuhtli caught up with him, which caused Quetzalcoatl to drop some of the bones.  These bones fell and got smashed, which is why some people are shaped differently from others, and some are smaller, some larger.  The point to be made is that it was necessary to go underground to the abode of the dead in order to create new life.  So once again we see the emergence of these old agricultural myths playing out in the everyday lives of the people.  There is even speculation, as well, that elements of the Christian faith originate from these ancient mythic themes, with Jesus, the Son of God, who died and was subsequently buried in the earth.  New life sprang from him when he rose again from the dead, just as buried seeds do to this day. 

In Celtic mythology, too, we see the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) at this same time of the year.  Samhain was thought of as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  It was a time when cattle, those life-giving beasts for the old peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, were slaughtered both as offerings to the gods, and to sustain the people through the long, cold winter months to come. Bonfires were lit, and in some places still are, and the bones of the slaughtered cattle would be burnt therein.  It was also a time when the veil between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, was considered to be particularly thin, and the dead could come back and walk among the living.  As with Mexicans today, this was not necessarily seen as all that morbid or lugubrious, but instead as a time to reconnect with loved ones who had passed on.  Even so, certain rituals had to be followed very closely, or great harm could come to the living.  The sídhe (pronounced “shee”), those remnants of old Celtic gods now called fairies, were also known to frequent the world of the living on Samhain.  Some of these fairies were not necessarily thought of as all that benevolent, to say the least, and people would sometimes dress up in disguises in order to fool the sídhe into thinking that they were other than who they actually were.  Herein, of course, we see the beginnings of the modern costumes worn on Halloween, which is celebrated the day before All Saints Day (Nov. 1st), and otherwise known as the “Eve of All Hallows,” or “Hallows’ Eve.”  

Much of this mythologizing has become commingled in my mind of late with another event in my life which took place recently.  I returned just this past week to New York in order to attend the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class.  However, to refer to it in this way is actually something of a misnomer, because the group that gathered was much more than classmates who happened to graduate from high school at the same time.  Instead, at age fourteen we had entered into what was then known in the Catholic parlance of the day as a Junior Novitiate, a kind of very strict religious boarding school meant as preparation for entrance into a religious order upon graduation.  This was followed by the Novitiate year, when one takes the robe, as well as a religious name, and becomes a novice.  This is a year of the strictest possible religious discipline.  We kept silence almost all of the time, and spent the majority of our days either in private or communal prayer, or in manual labor.  People still do not believe me when I tell them that I remember digging sumac roots out of the solid, frozen earth in the middle of a snow storm, simply because the Brother Director had told me to do so.  This was known as “holy obedience.” 

Very few of my classmates remained in the religious order I had joined.  Some thirty of us showed up for the reunion, several with their wives, who must have thought us all very odd indeed, and I will admit that, before going, I had some degree of hesitation about attending.  I was wrong to feel any hesitancy, however.  In the end, I rediscovered a very fine group of men, many still Catholic, but some of whom (as I think of it anyway) have now outgrown any need for organized religion.  But all of them have gone on to distinguished careers either in academia, or the sciences, psychology and counseling, the military (perhaps not so surprisingly), journalism, the arts, and in even politics.  The timing of the reunion, so near to the old Celtic New Year of Samhain, or the Mexican Día de los Muertos was, I am sure, accidental.  If you actually believe in accidents, that is.  But it nonetheless made me think of the connection between these kinds of events. 

First of all, there is a way in which all or most of us have, if you will, resurrected into a new life.  We have gone on to create these new forms of ourselves out of defunct monastic ones and made lives which now fit our contemporary individual needs and our own requirement to grow and prosper in ways that corresponded to our talents.  In the process, we learned what we needed to discover both about ourselves and the world around us, a world which, prior to our departure from “religious life” was a thing of mystery, full of anxiety and fear for most of us. 

Having entered upon this life at age fourteen, it is obvious that six or seven or ten years later, when most of us had finally left the confines of monastic life, we knew almost nothing about “the world.”  It was of course a place of wonder and delight for us, as much as it may have caused a degree of trepidation and consternation.  All of the things that boys are supposed to learn during adolescence, how to date, how to work for a salary and make a bit of money, how to travel, to explore, to investigate the world, and especially how to rebel against outside authority and to create one’s own inner authority, all this was new to us.  In that sense, I suppose it could be said that we were, of necessity, late bloomers.  But bloom most of us did, each in his own unique way. 

So, it may have turned out to be quite appropriate that our 50th reunion took place so close to these other events in mythic time that I have mentioned above, when one year is ending and a new one beginning, and when what has died is now celebrated as the beginnings of a new life to come.  Mythology, in this sense, is still very much alive and applicable to our everyday lives.  And maybe it wasn’t so bad after all to have been born on the Day of the Dead, if we think of that day as the ending of one phase, and the subsequent beginning (the resurrecting) of a new one. 

In the end, I am glad that I went back to New York for the reunion.  I did almost, but not quite, get caught in Hurricane Sandy on the way out, but even that can be viewed, if you have a mind to, in a symbolic way.  I had visited my past, and I saw that it was still alive and vibrantly contributing to my present.  And I had seen, too, that I had been able to escape the worst of the roiling, crashing, battering parts of that past, which can cause such damage and destruction in a person’s life.  That, to my mind, is the real meaning of the Day of the Dead, a time when the past rises and contributes in a positive way to the lives we are actually living.  It is a kind of Samhain of the saints, a new year filled with hope, and with a renewed eagerness to go on living, laughing, and creating – always, let us hope, creating.    




Forma aucta  fuga, Ovid’s Metamorphosis

By Paul

Memory is a funny thing.  It can be fiction every bit as much as fact.  We sometimes use it to create in ways similar to the creation of the future.  In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we participate in the creation and the actualization of each of these phases of our lives, rather than that we actually create them. 

In Ovid’s story of Apollo and Daphne, Phoebus (Apollo) kills the great snake Python, and then, filled with pride, speaks dismissively to Cupid, that wanton boy, who possesses only what appears to Apollo as a toy bow, nothing compared to his bow of a true man.  As so often happens, the smaller winds up triumphing over the larger, and in the end Cupid shoots his dart of undying love and attraction into the great god, while Daphne he pierces with the arrow of eternal aversion.  She then flees Apollo’s advances, running breathless through the wood with the god just behind her in hot pursuit.  Forma aucta est fuga – “beauty is enhanced by flight,” Ovid tells us.  And who indeed has not experienced that in life?  It is the very definition of unrequited love.  In the end, the great deity of light manages just to touch the object of his love, but she prays to her father for deliverance and is immediately turned into a laurel tree, ever and forever more the favorite of great, grieving Apollo.

Not only does beauty flee from us, as in the story (our own as well as that of others), no matter how breathlessly we pursue it, but so does the span of our very lives.  I have been reminded of this lately, having recently received an invitation to a 50th high school class reunion.  How pedestrian and prosaic such an invitation seems, you may say, compared to the great stories of undying mythology!  But such stories are themselves the very narratives of our lives, are they not?  And a reunion is in essence no more than an opportunity to look back on our own personal life’s chronicle.  In youth, for example, we think ourselves to be invincible, or if not invincible, at least we are convinced that the tale of our life is an eternal one.  We believe we will be capable of ceaselessly pursuing the object of our attraction, however we define it.  And to be sure, that object is never merely one thing, but is instead a constellation of goals, of imagined prizes, that changes continually in accord with the various stages of our lives. 

For those still in the youthful stage, the figure of Daphne might well equate to an actual glorious young woman, or to a handsome man, someone whom we think we must possess at all cost.  Dream-like, we often find that the figure of this person changes as we ourselves change, and if we are lucky, it will metamorphose from the unattainable into the attainable.  We will seize upon it, that is, upon him or her.   Having found at last the object of our love, he or she is ours, and if fortune smiles, the attraction and the love will be fully mutual.  Even so, no sooner have we attained it than we realize that this, too, is actually no longer enough.  I am speaking here not of some never-ending search for a new and “better lover”, although some do get lost in the dizzying round of that endless circle.  More often, and more to the point, the new conquest, the new object of our desire is within the world of work, where each of us feels we must make our mark.  We have achieved one goal and found it wanting, that is, we have seen that it is not enough only to be a lover, or only to be an object of love.  No, we humans are an insatiable lot.  Always wanting more, we relentlessly pursue all of our needs and desires.  We also wish to be something in the world.  To make our life count, as we may think of it.  And if we fail at this, often we are faced with a mid-life crisis.  No one has written more eloquently, or at greater length, about midlife crises, than Dante Alighieri.  The very opening lines of his magnum opus, the Inferno, begin with this declaration:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi retrouvai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.   

(Mid way on the path of our life

I found myself in a dark wood,

The true way having been lost.)

Note in this clumsy translation of my own devising that Dante uses the term in the middle of “OUR life” – nostra vita – not “my life.”  He is speaking here not merely of his own journey, but of the one each of us takes in our life.  And a journey implies a destination, does it not?  In Dante’s case, accompanied by his mentor, Aeneas, he must travel through hell itself before he is capable of climbing the heights and merging with Beatrice, and ultimately with the Beatific Vision Itself.  We may quibble (as I do) in regard to some of the “sinners” with whom Dante, with his medieval sense of propriety and morality, populates hell.  But still, can any of us conceive of a greater personal voyage?

Not that anyone now, or even 700 years ago when it first appeared, takes the Inferno literally.  Of course, we are talking here about a dreamscape, a mythological landscape, a great fiction, which attempts to tell an even greater truth about ourselves.  Hell is populated by Dante himself, as well as by all of us.  Each of us carries within both our greatest dreams and our greatest failings.  Looking back on 50 years of one’s life can be a daunting challenge.  Who does not see things he or she might have changed, roads not taken, opportunities passed by, treasures left by the wayside?  These are beauties we may still occasionally chase, however much we know that the chase itself only makes them more desirable, and as much as we may never attain them.  As in the story of Daphne and Apollo, they metamorphose at the very touch.  But neither is life always and only about what might have been.  My own life, the life of any of us (again, remember, we are talking about “nostra vita) is also filled with real events, real people, real accomplishments.  For me, there are things I would never change, and for which I can feel only the greatest of gratitude.  My life with my partner is fisrt and foremost among these, as is the great gift of friendship with those most cherished by me.  Each person, no doubt, similarly cherishes certain things in life, whether it be the choice of a mate, the birth of a child, the selection of a career path that has actually brought us what we hoped we might have achieved.  Or it may be something as simple as a move from one place to another, which then opened doors we never even knew were there. 

Memory, never iron clad, may help us regulate and modulate the past.  But as for regrets, there is no point, as regrets only steal from us the joy of the present.  They are the darkened woods of Dante (he goes on later to describe those woods as “selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage, bitter, and strong), just as they are Apollo’s fleeting dream, which disappears at the very touch. And so, I will attend my reunion as planned in late October, but more to see whom we have all become, whom I have become, than to recall who we were.  That was a kind of fiction anyway, a creation of dreams and desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled.  Better by far to live in the present, with an occasional nod and a grin to the past, and a wish and a plan for an ever more present present in a future we dream we create for ourselves.