Finding Meaning: Day of the Dead Inspiration for Women’s Writing Workshop

We gathered in Teotitlan del Valle on October 30 for the Women’s Creative Writing Retreat to find meaning, reflect on life and death through the written word. Some of us were mourning recent losses: husbands, mothers, fathers, and yes, even self. There are those other kinds of losses as we age, lose memory, become infirm, face our own mortality.

Elaborate Day of the Dead altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca

Being here during Day of the Dead offers perspective on the Zapotec and Mexican way, gives us a point of comparison to our own culture. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, A culture that celebrates death knows how to celebrate life. We find spiritual meaning here in the notion that life is a continuum. Our references are the deeply incised stone images at the Mitla archeological site, stones embedded in the walls of the Teotitlan church built by the conquerors with remains from the Zapotec temple, depicting infinity, regeneration.

Mitla woman guiding her difuntos home with copal incense

On October 31, we go to the market to buy bread, candles, chocolate, fruit, tamales, beverages and flowers. We build an altar with these and place photos of our loved ones there. In the doing is the remembering. One of us buys sugar cane branches that will serve as the door from which the ancestors will enter and exit earth from the spirit world, a Zapotec tradition. They will visit us, too, for the 24-hour period called Dia de los Muertos.

Our altar to bring our own loved ones back — memory is powerful!

Our journey into remembering continues with a visit to the cemetery in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with Arturo Hernandez. He takes us to his mother’s tomb. Day of the Dead is practiced in this village differently than the one I live in where our workshop is held.

Panteon (cemetery), San Pablo Villa de Mitla

On November 1 in the morning, Mitla villagers lovingly tidy up the grave sites, removing spent flowers and adding new. They entice the dead to return to earth by burning aromatic copal incense, scattering fresh marigold flowers, placing sliced oranges and apples or an open bottle of Coke on the tomb. Aromas awaken the dead. At eleven in the morning, the cemetery is packed with people.

The tomb of Maria G, a child who died February 5, 1996. Remembered.

At twelve o’clock noon, the church bells toll and the cohetes (firecrackers) explode. This gives the dead an extra jolt to get up from their slumber to visit. One of us reports seeing a youngster leaning over a tomb and speaking softly. I explain that the tradition here in Oaxaca is to ask the dead for their advice, to commune with them, to respect their wisdom. There is a spiritual loveliness to this that evokes generational connection, I think.

Making a marigold path to help the difuntos find their way home

In our science-based western culture, we often eschew that which we know is impossible. The literal practice of talking to dead parents or grandparents is seen as abnormal, primitive, uneducated. But there is much to learn from other traditions, and that is why we are here. The experience opens us up to write about memory, family, loss.

By noon, the people of Mitla are exiting the cemetery, carrying bundles of marigold flowers so large that you can hardly see their bodies. Girls carry baskets filled with marigold petals, dropping them in a path of petals from the grave along the streets to their home altar. Men and women scurry, carrying ceramic incense burners, leaving a smoky aromatic trail. The idea is for the aroma to guide the difuntos home for this annual re-visit. Families walk together, grandparents, mothers, fathers, children. Some have returned to the village from far away places to honor and participate in this sacred tradition.

Robin, Debbie and Amy looking down at courtyard

We move to the home of Epifanio Perez whose elaborate altar draws visitors to enjoy the atmosphere and his daughter Reyna’s house made hot chocolate, bread and chicken barbecue. We sit and marvel at the piles of bread on the altar, the candle — an eternal flame, the fragrant wild flowers of the campo, the spectacle of yellow marigold blossoms, the memories it conjures up for us.

In the courtyard, writing professor Robin Greene (r) talks with Claudia

We return to Teotitlan to our base, to write, to read what we have written to each other, to understand our own feelings around celebration and honoring those we have lost. We experience grief, yet we can share this approach to death with equanimity as the Zapotecs do, with acceptance that without death there is no life.

Abundant bouquet in vintage vase

Ultimately, this leads me to looking at and accepting my own mortality without fear. I’m working on it.

Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic corn harvest festival, adapted to Catholicism

We will hold the 2020 Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15 to December 21 in Teotitlan del Valle. Holding the retreat close to over the winter holidays, just before Christmas, will give us an opportunity to reflect on celebrations here and our own family holiday observances — what they evoke, how they are remembered, the stories of holiday expectations and disappointments, the pressures for a perfect home and table, gift giving and symbolism. We will participate in the village Posadas, too. You might want to invite your family to join you after the retreat and stay on for Christmas in Oaxaca. It is magical.

If you are interested in participating, please send me an email: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Our writing group 2019, with weaver Arturo Hernandez

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