While school aged ninjas, princess ballerinas, and superheroes around the Portland / Vancouver Metro area were accumulating blisters and candy on Halloween last Thursday night, six women in Portland, Ore. were putting the finishing touches on a Day of the Dead celebration, held at TaborSpace on Belmont Street, Friday, November 1.
Earth-based belief systems around the globe believe that the days surrounding October 31 represent a period in the year when the separation between the physical and the spiritual is particularly thin. Unlike Christian sects that draw sharp distinctions between the living and the dead and prohibit fraternization between the two, folk religions tolerate a fuzzier membrane between the phases of life and have created rituals for acknowledging the contributions of ancestors and loved ones who have passed before.
Enter Day of the Dead.
It Started Like a Funeral and Ended Like a Wake
With a cadre of five other women, Erin Donley organized the community event where a crowd of about 150 gathered to make peace with the passing of loved ones, to tell stories of bravery and loss, and to let go of beliefs and emotional blocks which they were ready to release.
The women decorated the altar before participants arrived. Color-saturated sarongs and Mardi Gras beads, draped the alter. Glass jar Jesus candles, statues of Ganesh and Buddha, marigolds, sugar skulls, noise makers, and pictures of departed loved ones met attendees as they made their ways to the front of the sanctuary.
After some brief poetic readings, people were invited to approach the altar. Facilitators Donley and Jen Violi announced that the altar open for individuals to come and interact. “There is no “right” way,” exhorted Violi. People were welcomed to speak or not as they felt led.
Tears and laughs were universal throughout the gathering. Words ranged from irreverent, grateful, angry, and sad. Fond memories and sad losses took turns.
One man brought a basket of marigolds to share with the group. A school-aged boy couldn’t remember life without his dog. He heaved sobs over his dog while his mom hugged him from the side.
Violi told stories about the beloved mentor and English professor who literally extinguished her during a presentation when her sweater caught fire. Another woman placed the book “Vagina” on the altar and shared how the women who came before in her family all had tremendous body hatred and shame issues. She wished they had been free to care about themselves.
Two friends joined together to speak of a third friend who passed from cancer eight years ago. The one who spoke wanted to finally let go of the anger she had at her friend for not telling them how advanced her disease had been.
Husbands mourned wives and wives husbands.
One woman laid a mask down and proclaimed that she was finished living behind it and was now ready to live her life in full. Another man placed a mini quilt he had made in honor of his mother who taught him to “Do What You Love With All Your Heart.”
At the end of their times at the altar, each individual shook a noise-maker, and the crowd joined in. The act of making noise, according to Donley’s literature, is corporate acknowledgement for the individual’s intention left at the altar.
The evening ended with the cacophonous shaking of noise-makers and sounding of drums followed by a mix of disco music, milling, and familiar conversation. To keep a finger on the pulse of next year’s celebration, you can follow Donley on Facebook.