Or why I carry the dead with me
It’s time to visit the dead people.
On my travels I love combining being on the road with visiting the people that I call my “trees.” My friend Perdita (tree of Woodstock with her husband Clark) said to me one day at the beginning of our friendship: “You are like a hummingbird, and I’m a tree. I love when you come to visit bringing news and energy from afar.”
In that moment I saw how much I need my tree people in my winged life.
When I looked at my main friendships I saw that most of the people who I pal around with are trees: solid, rooted, stable. They’ve lived in one place forever, so this traveling pixie always knows where to find them, even when I’m not sure where I am.
Now, you don’t have to be alive to be a tree. In fact, some of the most deep rooted trees I know are my dead friends.
And I love visiting them.
For seven or eight years now I’ve been traveling to Mexico on the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) to honor and hang out with dead people.
While this yearly pilgrimage brings me closer to my ancestors and dead friends, the truth is they are with me all the time.
Our mind gets confused around death. We ignore it, pretend it is not going to happen, worry about it, demonize it. We often think as death as the enemy, something we have to fight against. We are so fixated on youth that we often don’t see the gifts of aging, the power of wrinkles and experience, and the poignant beauty of loss.
Without death it would be too easy to be complacent and habitual. Death offers a sacred limitation that encourages us to find meaning, delight, and connection in each day.
The truth is, as we get older we are all going to be facing death in more and more intimate ways. Our loved ones will be crossing over, dear friends passing suddenly or after long illnesses, husbands and wives and partners slipping away from us.
If we don’t cultivate a relationship with death, then people dying feels like a robbery, a punishment, or a great injustice.
When we learn to face death as a part of the cycle, and befriend this mystery, we can be more present with both our grief and our gratitude.
This is why I love coming to Mexico for Day of the Dead. At this time, the dead are celebrated and invited in. People make elaborate altars to their beloved dead, complete with pictures, flowers, and things their dead loved. Families travel to the graveyards to sit with the dead and picnic with them, making sure to put out favorite foods and drink for their invisible but very present companions on the other side. Images of skeletons doing very human things are everywhere.
The dead are not hidden away and forgotten, they are invited into homes and visited with great love.
So each year I come to Teotihuacan, Mexico with a small group to more deeply connect with death and the dead. We build personal and group altars. We share stories. We light candles and sit in the darkness with our ancestors and friends who have passed. We remember. We grieve. We celebrate. We listen. And the dead come to share and celebrate with us.
This time of year helps me to slow down, to let go of the demands of the living. When I open to the wisdom of the dead they teach me how to better live. They whisper about what is important. Their messages are always filled with one main lesson: Love. Love more. Love deeper.
As we enter this time where the veils between the worlds are thin, what my European ancestors called Samhain or Hallowmas, most Westerners now call Halloween, and Mexicans call the Day of the Dead, let’s name and remember and love our dead.
Who are your ancestors and dead friends? Name them below, share a picture or a story, and I’ll put them on my altar and remember them with you on November 2nd. Let’s take this time to grieve, to laugh, to cry, to mourn so we can love deeper and wider and dissolve the walls between the living and the dead.
Let me introduce you to a few of my dead ancestors and friends. This is only a tiny listing of the many ones who have gone before me. These beings are my roots, both literally (my departed grandparents and father) and energetically (my dead friends and students.)
Each of these humans are not in the physical anymore, but they are still the foundation I walk on, the marrow of my bones and the beat of my heart. Each are still friends and teachers and companions to me. I know their number will grow each year, and that one year I will join them and hopefully continue to be a light to the living.
My grandparents on my mother’s side: Mary and Kenneth MacKenzie. Both died long before I was born. My grandmother sometimes still comes and counsels me. Their blood ties me to my Scottish and Irish roots.
My grandparents on my father’s side: Joseph and Florence Gaudet. Joseph taught me to love gardening and tending plants. Florence taught me about being a matriarch of a large family: when she died in her 90’s she had something like 25 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. Their blood ties me to my French roots.
My father, Gerard Robert Gaudet. He passed after a battle with leukemia almost twelve years ago to this day. He is always there when I reach out to him, and we are now partners in helping others to cross from this world to the next.
Mother Sarita. don Miguel Ruiz’s mother, Sarita, continues to be a guide and teacher to me, many years after her death. I love visiting her memorial in Teotihuacan and staring into her twinkling eyes in the photo that rests there along with her ashes. She reminds me to stay humble and have faith.
Gaya Jenkins. Gaya passed suddenly last year, and I’m still mourning her loss as I celebrate her impact on my life. She can still kick my butt in the best way ever from the other side.
Jeannette. My ex-girlfriend’s mother who died suddenly of a heart attack many years ago. I sat many days consoling her daughter, and eventually carried Jeanette’s ashes to Machu Picchu where I lovingly placed them in the earth. I still have some of her ashes in a tiny box to remind me to do the living she never got to do.
Rachel, Melissa, Zaneta, David, Carmen. These five were students and friends of mine who died young. Rachel was killed in a head-on car collision, right after she had fallen in love and moved in with her new beloved. Vibrant, carefree, and young Melissa died in the hospital from a medical tragedy as she was being treated for her Crohn’s disease. Zaneta fought her diagnosis of cancer to the end, refusing to believe she was going to die. I spent many of her last days talking to her, making her fresh squeezed juices and taking care of her many dogs. She never finished her book. David called me from home after her returned from the hospital, knowing he was going to die of his complications from HIV. Our last conversation was bittersweet as he talked about the book he was working on, and not wanting to leave his partner alone. I’m grateful I was able to say goodbye to him and share love before he died. Carmen, who came to many Day of the Dead journeys with me, was killed last December in a car accident. She will be much missed and remembered this year, joining us from across the veil instead of laughing with us and helping build the altars.
Share your photos, altars, names, stories… I’d love to celebrate the dead with you. Below: Rachel Mossman, Gaya and me in 2015, Milissa Ann, Zaneta Matkowska, David Ray, and Carmen Trevino (fly free, Carmen…)
Each year I will continue to set out their pictures and the things they love on an altar, and each day I will continue to ask for their advice, help, and love as I share my love for them. Each year I will grieve and keen and sorrow for their loss. Each year I will do my best to love more.
If you feel inspired build your own altar this year especially for Day of the Dead; or create an ancestral altar where you can commune regularly with your ancestors and dead beloveds.
Who are your ancestors and dead friends? Share a picture or a story about the on this post on my Facebook page or in the comment of this blog, and I’ll put them on my altar and remember them with you on November 2nd. Let’s take this time to grieve, to laugh, to cry, to mourn so we can love deeper and wider and dissolve the walls between the living and the dead.
It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up – that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had. ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross