I wrote the draft of this last year during Day of the Dead during our Women’s Creative Writing Workshop, and recently rewrote and edited it to read at SOMOS The Taos Literary Society last night. It was well-received and I want to share it with you. Creative writing is an important aspect of my life — in Oaxaca and in Taos. That’s why we continue to offer creative writing workshop retreats. We all have something to say, and it’s important to express ourselves in whatever way seems most meaningful. To get on the mailing list for the next workshop retreat in January 2025, please send me an email.
Day of the Dead in Five Parts by Norma Schafer
1. A mirror of my mother
I am adorned in a crown of flowers. Silver skeletons dangle from my ears. My black velvet blusa, Frida Kahlo style, is heavily embroidered with white orchids and doves. All appears as it should be, still I look in the mirror trying to find myself. Trying to find the woman I used to be. Instead, I have become my mother. Perhaps a reinterpretation of reincarnation. My body has morphed from hourglass to square. My hips have narrowed; my belly expanded. The once imperceptible lines are now etched deeper across my brow. The best night cream does not smooth them. In this reflection I talk to her, mostly at night as I prepare for sleep, as I wash my face, brush my teeth, examine the shape of my nose that more and more resembles hers, elongated with broad nostrils, shaped by stoicism. I see the silver hair, complexion the color of chamomile, skin like an iguana. This is how she was when I thought she was old. Today is Day of the Dead, and I remember her.
2. Death and the ego
Day of the Dead is a celebration of life. Yet, tonight as I lie in bed, I think about what it will feel like to die. I cross my hands over my chest, take a deep breath, and sink into nothingness. For the moment I will sleep, and wonder, Will I awake in the morning? I envision being surrounded by loved ones, saying I love you, saying goodbye. Will they sit at my gravesite, sing and dance, dine on memories? Then, I cannot imagine it and pull back and tell myself, Stop thinking about it. Death will come soon enough. Or maybe I will live forever? Though no one does, not even the most brilliant, the most beautiful, the wealthy and notorious. All this becomes too overwhelming to imagine, and this is when I begin to question my ego.
Who I am and what I do is valuable and important. But who am I kidding? All organisms die. I am having an intellectual discussion with myself, and I am afraid. Fear grips me. I cry for the loss of self. For the body that is not working as it once did, for what hurts, what needs correction. Is it time to say, I am and beyond is nothingness? They say people with high self-esteem do not fear death. I don’t believe it.
3. I count time by medicine
Every three weeks, I pull out the three plastic dispensers to apportion the medicine into each cubicle, labeled Monday through Sunday. The clock ticks. The cubicle empties. I refill it. I count time by medicine. Mostly, these are vitamins: Magnesium, D3, a multivitamin designed for women of a certain age. Each Saturday I give myself a Vitamin B12 injection for more endurance.
I need to fix my aching back, the right knee that’s getting close to replacement time. These days, I worry more about the tremor in my hand as I grasp a cup of coffee, the cramps and numbness in my feet that set me off-balance, the small pockets of skin collapsing on my face. Sunken cheeks and deeply etched lines are not glamorous for seventy-somethings. We used to talk about our children. Then, about our work. Now it’s about medications, doctors, and appointments. Some of us join book clubs, play dominoes, struggle with Wordle. We may even think we have something to say and write.
4. This is all preparation
At two in the morning, I awaken and think, this is all preparation. I go outside my mind and observe my body from a distance. Is this container all of me? As I yield to insomnia, I walk outside to embrace the stars sparkling clear in the Oaxaca sky. This is a perfect moment to take note of the changes. Yes, my body deteriorates, I am increasingly aware of how imperfect it is and will be. I tell myself I must make a shift in vocabulary. Stop saying, I’m old. Maybe I’m older will do. I say, I’m old, forgive me when I forget an important date. I’m old, I excuse myself when my feet go numb and I land on the kitchen floor, grateful I didn’t break a hip. How do I change the narrative when this is happening to me? If I ignore it, will it go away? They say those who have a positive outlook about aging will live another seven years.
How do I describe myself now, a once-energetic woman with limitless stamina and a capacity to wander, explore, discover, reach, inquire, and connect. The days, months, years go by now all too quickly. I look back at the intersections, the choices I made. I have regrets. Yet now I understand contentment and know that all roads taken, lead to where I am, here, in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, to celebrate Day of the Day one more year, and that is good. What will I say about now in ten years, when I look back?
Suspend your ego, I tell myself. This is my preparation.
If you are in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, consider our specialized day tours–see the right column.
5. It’s fresh up here on the terrace
Fresca. Fresh is what they say here in Oaxaca to describe the movement of cool air. Look beyond this roof-top terrace. See the twelve-thousand-foot mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Clouds float as if they were meringue topping a pie too delicious to eat. This is my pueblo, Teotitlan del Valle; it’s a miracle I live here. But things don’t just happen, they present themselves, and we get to choose to embrace them, or not. A journey of almost twenty years was determined in the moment I met the Chavez Santiago family then.
Now, during Day of the Dead, cempasuchitl, wild marigold flowers, paint the landscape. On November 1, the ancestors will return to visit loved ones. We revere the altar where we honor them, we serve them a meal of mole amarillo yellow mole and mezcal, then on November 2, we guide them back to the cemetery lured by the scent of copal incense, aromatic with notes of cinnamon and brown sugar, assuring them that they will rest in peace for another year and visit us again.
This thousands-year-old ritual tells me that eternal life may be possible if we remember and honor those who came before us. It is said that the memory of an individual will last for only two generations. Collective memory may be everlasting. This is comforting as I sit on the terrace, solitary, quiet, protected. Below are voices, the whir of a moto-taxi, a cooking fire crackling, aromas from the outdoor cooking fires wafting scents of tortillas, salsa, beans, the bark of street dogs, the beat-beat-beat of a loom.
I recognize that all that I am is the sound of the Teotitlan del Valle church bell ringing for Day of the Dead, strong and clear, then fading into nothingness.
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I want to give a shout out of thanks to my two best editors: Carol Estes and Kathryn Salisbury! This piece would not be as written without them.