Some reflections on how we live our lives.
Ever since my mother died I’ve tried to celebrate the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. It’s my favorite holiday, honoring those loved ones who’ve passed on and, because the heavens are said to open and their spirits return for a brief visit, we get to spend a day celebrating their loves and interests. It also happens to be near the anniversary of my mother’s death in October 2015; I held her memorial with a big Day of the Dead shrine on November 1 of that year.
The holiday reminds me of the many different ways that cultures celebrate death. But it also shows the different ways we celebrate life. Dia de Los Muertos is one of the most touching, joy-filled, colorful and lovely events I have ever experienced — and I’ve done my share of travels. The focus on family, good food and sharing, honoring our loved ones, and celebrating a life well-lived. Couldn’t we all learn from this?
This holiday is not the only reason I go to Mexico. I schedule it so I can also fit in much needed medical appointments, dental visits, my favorite hair stylist, some awesome dance classes, and some shopping at the Tuesday market (with palettes and palettes of clothing usually dumped from US factories for pennies on the dollar). This last time I fit in some great dance classes and also got my nails done.
My dermatologist in Mexico is extraordinary. She scans and photographs every part of your body with a thoroughness that can be intimidating. This past visit included the removal of an “unusual” spot on the back of my calf, which I wasn’t able to do in the US. Unfortunately, my dermatologist in Santa Fe moved away years ago and I have yet to find a good replacement doctor (with a six-month wait just to get a consultation a melanoma could go haywire). The same goes for my family practitioner and annual exam. In the US I was offered a video consultation in lieu of my annual exam… and even that was with a four-month wait. Ummm…. do I use the speculum on myself??? I can’t even go there. So that will be an additional appointment for my next return to Mexico.
This past trip reminded me of how strained and inefficient – and flipping expensive – our medical system is in the United States. Sure, we have extraordinary doctors at certain hospitals, but if you can’t access any of them, their skill doesn’t mean much. I’ve said before that when I returned to the US after four years living abroad, my biggest shock was the level of anxiety and strain I felt in everyone around me, particularly where it came to medical issues and insurance. Part of the American psyche includes a low-level stress that comes with knowing that most people are easily one medical issue away from bankruptcy, or maybe homelessness. It’s as if I could feel the collective stress of barely paying one’s bills, or having a car issue that could eat the entire month’s budget, and maybe the next month’s budget, too. It was palpable.
As I slowly adjusted back to this American lifestyle I took comfort in the intentional community where I live and which I’ve written about here before. It helps me feel less lonely and allows me to reach out if ever I were desperately in need of something (like chicken soup when I had Covid). In fact, during COVID we could see the fruit of our efforts in community building: we formed our own pod, we cooked together and helped each other when things got tough. We started a Friday happy hour.
It’s not perfect, of course. We have long discussions about how to age in place and not strain younger generations with elder care they didn’t sign up for. We have disagreements, contentious meetings, and lots of little personal issues. But we’re also a kind of family, and we look out for each other the best we can. I think it is the reason I can stay in America at all. Otherwise, I’m drawn to cultures and places where community is much more a part of the social fabric. Now when I travel, I want to find — or create — community wherever I go.
Which brings me back to the Day of the Dead and my love of Mexico. Because thinking about death and family who have passed, allows us to also examine our lives. This year, I dreamt of my grandmother’s house for the first time in years. There was a young family there and I apologized for entering. Afterwards, I wondered if I had walked into my grandmother’s life when she was a young mother raising two young children. Was she trying to show me something? I’m currently in the process of trying to settle the affairs of my recently deceased aunt, and it’s one big mess, and an exceptional financial strain on me. Much of the mess is due to my aunt’s “failure to launch” until she was 78 years old, which didn’t give her a lot of time to learn any practical life skills. When she died at 80, she was paying a housekeeper to sleep with her because she was afraid of the dark.
Maybe the visit to my grandmother was a kind of insight into the ways we struggle to raise our children well, and sometimes we fail. I’d argue that my grandmother failed a lot, despite (or maybe because of) easy financial resources. Because I’m family, and easily the most competent member still standing, I’m left to pick up the pieces. So this Day of the Dead was more an examination than a celebration, not just of the dead, of course, but of how those who have passed continue to impact our lives. I welcomed the visitation of spirits as a way to gain clarity and to understand the pain that generations carry. That I still carry. It’s a long process that I’ve begun, but an important one. And seeing it through the eyes of a culture that each year bursts my heart open, certainly gives me hope.
Now if I can only figure out how to do that self-administered pelvic exam…