Tag Archives: day of the dead

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

Day of the Dead Preparations in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Life in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, centers around life cycle events. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — brings us together at the village market to prepare our altars to welcome the difuntos — the spirits of our loved ones who return to earth to visit us each year.

Teotitlan del Valle church atop Zapotec archeological site
Done with shopping and walking home

This could be considered the most important observance in Oaxaca, especially in the villages, where customs and traditions that survived the Spanish conquest continue. The most money is spent on altar and gravesite decorations during Muertos than any other annual holiday, I’m told. It looks that way.

Madelyn with marigolds for our altar. Pungeant aroma guides the dead home.
Flowers are everywhere. The aroma of flowers in the air.

For days, the streets surrounding the market are closed to vehicular traffic. It is packed with people and vendors from the countryside. Backs of trucks and stalls are overloaded with oranges and apples, pineapple, sugar cane fronds, pecans and peanuts, skeleton beeswax candles adorned with handmade wax flowers, tapers, incense burners and copal incense.

Massive flower displays will adorn grave-sites in coming days
Cane fronds signify the door through which the difuntos pass for their visit
Our retreat participants create our group altar

At the molino (neighborhood mill) down the street from where I live, women wait in line with their baskets of ingredients to get their turn at the grinder. Their men — husbands, fathers, sons — wait out front by the truck, catching up on village business. The women will make and serve mole negro, mole amarillo, toasted garbanzo bean soup, or atole — the pre-Hispanic corn drink flavored with homemade chocolate and vanilla. All these need ingredients to be ground. The women bring their unique family recipes, generations in the making.

Atole ingredients, waiting to be ground at the molino
Chicken enchilada with mole amarillo, market breakfast simply prepared

Ten of us are here for the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat. We come to express ourselves through the written and spoken word. We write about memory and loss, mourning and grief, forgiveness of self and others. In our writing we honor our dead, we cherish what we have lost and in the process we give life to those who have left us.

Claudia with cockscomb flowers for the altar

The culture that celebrates death, celebrates life, says Octavio Paz. Here in Teotitlan del Valle, we are privileged to participate in a sacred ritual of celebration, memory and renewal of spirit.

Pan de Muertos, Day of the Dead bread

We buy the ingredients to create our own altar, including those listed above. To this we add chocolate, mounds of marigold flowers, Pan de Muertos, mezcal and beer. We use a special quilted cloth made by Gretchen Ellinger who could not be with us. We bring photos of our dead to remember them. We remember them. We cherish their memories. We write about them, our feelings of loss, survival, making do without their day-to-day presence. We bring the practice of another culture closer to us to understand that there are different ways to approach life and death, as a continuum, as a process, as we examine and accept our own mortality, too.

There’s my mom and dad, United Teachers–AFT strike, 1960’s
Beeswax altar candles

I write about my father. It is my blessing to his memory, that his life informed mine and gave me meaning. I write about his love of coffee and cigarettes, how he quit, where he failed and endured, how he died. I write the vignettes of memory as a child turned adult. It is my portrait of him, my love for him, his quirks and idiosyncracies. This is my time to go beyond Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, into the depths of my family and my heart.

Claudia, Robin and Poppy buying tamales
Our tamale vendor, queso con rajas — stuffed with cheese with chiles

I savor Dia de los Muertos because of this. I think the women who are with me this week share in this sense of honoring our loved ones, discovering our voices, and giving words to feelings. As we said, we grieve many things: the loss of people in our lives, the loss of self as we age and change, the loss of circumstances that alter us, the loss of who we wish we had become and embracing who we are.

Turkeys and chickens waiting for dressing

I’ll be writing more about this in days to come. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of preparations. We were at the market today at 7:30 a.m. It was packed with people!

Sweet oranges for altars and gravesites
Siphoning Tobala wild agave mezcal, unlabeled deliciousness

Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead: Talking With the Ancestors

The altar is complete. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead– 2018 has passed. The difuntos, spirits of the ancestors, have returned to their resting places content that we have welcomed them back to earth for the day to celebrate their lives. Some of us talk to our parents, ask their advice, admonish them for shortcomings, appreciate the gift of life.

Mexicans know how to honor their generations with this day that is considered more important than any in family and community life.

El Dia de los Muertos is the homecoming of the spirits of the dead all over Mexico, a reunion of the dead and the living. The old ones say that when the spirits come back to the world of the living, their path must be made clear, the roadway must not be slippery with the wet flood of human tears.

-Salvatore Scalora, Flowers and Sugar Skulls for the Spirits of the Dead,                   Home Altars of Mexico, 1997

The Calavera Painter clay figure above is for sale. $75 USD plus $8 mailing.

I am not attempting to appropriate a culture that I haven’t been born into. I participate and create Dia de los Muertos to learn more about how to accept the transition from life to death and the continuum and cycles of life. It is a devotional practice like meditation and prayer. Finding comfort is essential for the human spirit.

Last night, a few friends gathered here at home in Durham, North Carolina, to pay tribute to those who have gone before us. Mostly parents and grandparents. They brought photographs to place on the altar.

Photographs, a recent phenomenon, help us remember. In Teotitlan del Valle, photos were not placed on altars until the 1960’s. It is said that after two generations, memory of a particular person is lost. Storytelling, recalling favorite foods, jokes, clothes, activities was and is essential to remembering especially in the absence of visual clues. 

We sat around in a circle sharing our memories, comparing how we prepare for death and dying here in the USA with Mexico. Of course, this depends on our personal upbringings and spiritual beliefs, and whether there is any ritual associated with remembering those who died.

I could imagine, as we sipped wine, beer and mezcal, ate tamales and enchiladas, and told stories of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings, that we could have sat around a family gravesite in Teotitlan del Valle, laughing, bringing up tears and feeling connected — to each other and to those who passed on.

We told stories about the love of music, literature, eating and drinking, a good joke, growing up on humble southern farms, sprawling suburbs, gritty city centers, of immigrant and refugee families, of missing a sibling to reminisce and remember details. Someone said that one never recovers from the loss of a mother, another that her father was the most important support in her life. We were real, talking about function, dysfunction and love.

Next year, 2019, I will be in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, with Professor Robin Greene. We will be leading the Day of the Dead Women’s Writing Retreat. A year away and we are half-filled — five spaces open. Will you join us?

The Aztecs, I read, believed that death fed life, that human sacrifice was necessary to feed the earth to make sure there is enough rain, fertile seeds and soil, an abundance of food. Death was not feared but celebrated, honored, even welcomed.

Zapotecs practiced ancestor worship and buried their dead in the courtyard of family homes so they would be close and could consult with them regularly. Bones are swept aside every ten years to make room for the next ancestor in the same resting space. This is still common in many villages.

I honor my parents and grandparents by remembering them. Sometimes, I feel they are with me, especially when I am saying or doing something that is exactly as they would have said or done it (or so it feels). I think about my own mortality and try not to be afraid, to accept the natural order of life that is synonymous with death. Will I live on? Yes, in the memories of my family and those I have touched. Is there comfort in that? Perhaps.

Day of the Dead diorama, tin, handmade. For Sale. $85 USD plus $8 mailing. Folds flat.

As we search for meaning, for connection, for intimacy, Day of the Dead gives us pause to examine our own lives and those who came before, those who gave us life, and to ride the tailwinds and not fight the headwinds.

Do you observe Day of the Dead? Where? How?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — Is it Halloween?

Today is Halloween in El Norte, the northern part of North America aka USA. In southern North America aka Mexico, the celebration is very different. And, the border is more permeable so iconic images of carved pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, and the call of trick or treat are becoming part of the Mexican holiday landscape.

Catholic Halloween (imported to Latin America from Spain) has three components:

  1. All Hallows’ Eve, October 31
  2. All Saints Day, November 1
  3. All Souls Day, November 2

It is likely the Spanish moved indigenous ancestor worship celebration and traditions to these dates to coincide with teaching the new religion. In many Oaxaca villages, the celebrations occur on one of these three days. You need to know where and when.

Here in Durham, North Carolina, Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, takes on the flavor of Mexico and is celebrated beyond the barrio. I suspect that many cities and towns with Mexican and Central American immigrants have incorporated the images, if not the practices, of Muertos into Halloween.

 My annual celebration is on November 2, All Soul’s Day, which is when Muertos is observed in my Oaxaca home village of Teotitlan del Valle.

I build an altar. Decorate it with cempasuchitl (aromatic marigolds), offerings of food and beverages that my parents loved. My dad gets a beer. My mom gets green tea. There is bread and chocolate — a requirement. No bagels and lox in Durham, so I make do with something else. I light candles. Arrange the sugar skulls. Put their photos on the table. Sit and remember. This is ecumenical.

Paul Cezanne contemplates mortality in this still life

Death in the Mexican culture is synonymous with life. It is a time to celebrate life in all its forms and think about the continuity. Muertos is when the loved ones return to visit. It is a chance to talk to them, to thank them, to honor them and to consider how they gave us life. If we had unresolved issues, we can discuss those with them, too. It is very healthy and healing, like a prayer.

2019 Day of the Dead Women’s Writing Retreat

Pan de Muertos

Here are some links of past blog posts I have written over the years that explain Day of the Dead. Please feel free to read and pass along. Lots of photos in these links, too!

Papier mache flying devil bridges the spirit world

Let us know how you will celebrate and remember.

Day of the Dead 2019 Women’s Writing Retreat: How Memory Inspires Us

Arrive Wednesday, October 30 and leave Monday, November 4, 2019. The retreat can accommodate up to 10 women.

We gather for Day of the Dead 2019 in the traditional Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico to write with intention for five nights and four days. Day of the Dead inspires us to revisit our memories of people and places, to dig in and go deep, and to write in whatever genre speaks to us: memoir, journaling, fiction, personal essay, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

New and seasoned writers are welcome. Come to kindle and rekindle the writer’s life.

Cost is $1,095 per person for a shared room, and $1,395 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space.

All single rooms sold out. Shared rooms only. 

During this time, Oaxaca honors her ancestors: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, young ones lost to tragedy. Loss surrounds us: loss of time, loss of relationships, loss of self and identity, loss of a loved one or someone with whom closure was incomplete.

Day of the Dead Altar

It is also a celebration of life, the continuum, the link between the generations before and the world we inhabit. During the workshop we discuss Day of the Dead symbols, meaning and concepts, comparing Mexican beliefs with those from our own cultures to spark memory and creativity. Perhaps we explore this in writing or use it as a device to trigger imagination.

Day of the Dead offers each of us an opportunity to explore the tenor of life, and the meaning of life and death, transition, passage, and relationships. Memory is powerful. Recall gives us permission to exhume and revisit, to sit with what is at the surface or buried deep within, to see beyond the mask. Writing gives outlet to self-expression whether your goal is to publish or not.

Day of the Dead, handmade tin, folds to 10-1/4×6-1/2″. For Sale, $95 + $8 mailing

Teotitlan del Valle is our base. It is an ancient weaving village about thirty minutes beyond the hubbub of the city where Day of the Dead rituals are practiced much as they were hundreds of years ago.

During our time together, we will integrate our writing practice with visits to San Pablo Villa de Mitla cemetery and a home altar on the morning of November 1 with a local weaver friend. Then, on the evening of November 2 we will go with a local family to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to guide the difuntos back to their resting places.

Calavera Artist, hand-painted, 8-1/2″ high x 3″ wide. For Sale, $85 + $8 mailing

Want to buy Muertos decor? Send an email.

There will be optional daily activities in our schedule: gentle yoga, afternoon walks, and mini-seminars on writing topics such as writing effective description and dialogue, grammar, or submitting creative work for publication. Each person will have a private coaching session, too.

Roses on the writing table with journal notes

Planned Itinerary: 2019

  • Wednesday, October 30: Arrive and check-in to our retreat space. Group dinner. Introductions.
  • Thursday, October 31: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional activities, group dinner, coaching session
  • Friday, November 1:  Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, visit to Mitla cemetery and home altar, independent writing, lunch,                afternoon workshop, group dinner, coaching session
  • Saturday, November 2:  Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, visit to Teotitlan del Valle cemetery, dinner on your own
  • Sunday, November 3:  Morning yoga (optional) breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional                    activities, group reading and celebration dinner
  • Monday, November 4:  Breakfast and depart

We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.

You can add-on days in Teotitlan del Valle or Oaxaca before or after the retreat at your own expense. We can arrange transportation for you to/from the airport and to/from the city at your own expense.

What is included?

  • Complete instruction with four workshop sessions
  • 4 dinners
  • 5 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches
  • 5 nights lodging
  • transportation to Mitla cemetery and altar
  • daily gentle yoga (optional)
  • mini-seminars on writing topics
  • one coaching session

Please bring a photo of a loved one. We will build a group altar, too.

Meet Robin Greene, Writer-Editor-Professor

http://www.robingreene-writer.com/artist-statement/

We are pleased that Robin Greene is returning to lead this intensive writer’s retreat. This will be her eighth year teaching with us to rave reviews.

Novelist and Poet Robin Greene in Oaxaca, Mexico

Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, where she held the McLean Endowed Chair in English from 2013-2016. Robin has published two collections of poetry (Memories of Light and Lateral Drift), two editions of a nonfiction book (Real Birth: Women Share Their Stories), and a novel (Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman). Robin’s second novel, The Shelf Life of Fire, is forthcoming from Light Messages Publishing in spring 2019, and Robin is currently working on a sequel.

Robin is a past recipient of a North Carolina-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing, and has published over ninety pieces of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in literary journals. She has received two teaching awards, the latest of which, the Cleveland Award, received in 2017, is the most prestigious award offered by her university. Robin has given over a hundred academic presentations, literary readings, and writing workshops in a variety of venues throughout the US.

Additionally, Robin is a registered yoga teacher (RYT200), cofounder and editor of Longleaf Press, and cofounder of Sandhills Dharma Group, a Buddhist meditation group. She holds a M.A. in English from Binghamton University and a M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Art at Norwich University.

Day of the Dead, Some Links to Culture and Traditions

What is a Workshop Session? The group meets daily for three hours to actively listen to each other’s writing, giving supportive and constructive feedback about what resonates or not. We offer guidelines for the process. Everyone takes a turn to read and everyone participates. Writers may accept or reject suggestions. Workshops offer an important learning tool for writers to gain feedback about how their words are communicated and understood.

How to Register:  Cost is $1,095 per person for a shared room, and $1,395 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space. Send us an email to say you want to attend and if you want a shared or private room. We will send you a PayPal invoice to secure your space.

Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health/emergency evacuation insurance with a minimum of $50,000 of medical evacuation coverage. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure. In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen! Be certain your passport has at least six months on it before it expires from the date you enter Mexico!

Plane Tickets, Arrivals/Departures: Please send us your plane schedule at least 45 days before the trip. This includes name of carrier, flight numbers, arrival and departure time to/from our program destination.

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept payment with PayPal only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2019, refunds are not possible. If there is a cancelation on or before September 1, 50% of your deposit will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: The altitude is almost 6,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have uneven paths. The stones can be a bit slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant across the sidewalk to the street. We will do some walking. If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please let me know before you register. This  may not be the workshop/study tour for you. Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.

How to Get To Oaxaca: United Airlines operates direct flights from Houston. American Airlines operates direct flights from DFW. Delta Airlines has a codeshare with AeroMexico with a connection to Oaxaca from Mexico City. All other major airlines fly to Mexico City where you can made independent connections on Interjet, and VivaAerobus. Check Skyscanner for schedules and fares before you book.  Note: I always book directly with the carrier for better customer service.

Workshop Details and Travel Tips: Before the workshop begins, we will email you study tour details and documents that includes travel tips and information.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact Norma Schafer. This retreat is produced by Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.