Monday, October 22, 2018

Day of the Dead #7: More about the experience of death in Guanajuato

"Guanajuato Afternoon: by Joyce Wycoff
Four years ago, I took an excursion to Guanajuato from San Miguel de Allende. It was a lovely day of touring a city so close in geography, yet so different from San Miguel in energy and culture. It wasn’t Day of the Dead, but I had a close encounter with death … fortunately, not my own.

Guanajuato (GTO) is a college town and feels young and vibrant. Which is good since it’s also a step-filled town built on hills with delightful, challenging alleys snaking ever upward. Guanajuato was where I realized that Mexico’s relationship with death went far beyond the holidays in November. It was there I visited my first panteón as well as  the “mummy museum."

The colorful panteón we visited was crowded with graves and walls of burial nooks. It made me realize I was missing the nuances of burial terminology. Here’s an attempt to sort them out (corrections appreciated): 

Grave … below ground burial.
     Casket … the structure that holds the remains of the deceased.
     Vault … sealed outer container that protects the casket.

Tomb … above ground burial.
     Mausoleum ... independent above ground structure built to hold the remains
                              of a person or persons.  

     Tomb … the structure holding the remains is also called a tomb.
     Cremation niche … where ashes are stored, usually in an urn.
     Columbarium ... a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns
     Crypt … burial spot, built to hold a casket in a concrete or stone chamber.  

So, the wall of niches in the Guanajuato panteon is called a columbarium. Here’s a description from the blogger at Nomad Women, Because Experienced Women Travel, talking about the columbarium in San Miguel de Allende:
"I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.

"The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone." 
You can feel it when you enter a cemetery in Mexico. The ones I’ve been in are not quiet, serene, deserted places. Even when empty, they pulse with a kind of energy that sometimes makes me feel like an intruder.

                                                                Onto the Mummies 
Click here for more info
Mexico experienced a cholera pandemic in the 1830s - 1840s. Hundreds of thousands of people died and some of those people who were buried in Guanajuato became “mummies” because of the dry climate. Over the years many of them were discovered and had to be reburied. 

However, there was a tax to be permanently buried so many of the bodies were just stored until the Museo de la Momias de Guanajuato was opened. It’s a weird experience seeing the shells of former lives in such non-living detail: shoes, clothing, facial expressions on adults, children, infants. 

Beyond cemeteries and mummies, Guanajuato is a wonderful walking town with vendors dotting the streets and surprises around every corner.

The Diego Rivera museum is housed in a home he had lived in early in his life. The exhibit was a fascinating review of Rivera's art and made me appreciate the artist beyond the muralist.
While Diego was being honored, there was only a glancing mention of Frida. Down the street, however, I found a cafe that had not forgotten her.

And, of course, Elvis lives!
There were lots of little surprises found in GTO, but one that amused me a lot was a wall stencil of Elvis. Just seeing his face on a wall overlooking the city was a shock but I was even more amused when I translated the words: I was not always this person.

I have thought a lot about what the artist meant with this photo and portrait. I think it reveals a sense of humor and and awareness of the dance of life and death. 
It will always be one of the many reasons I love Guanajuato.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The other side of the lake and 5 tips for finding magic when traveling

I live in Ajijic, one of the villages stringing the northern shore of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. This side of the lake is closer to Guadalajara, the airport, and all the commercial aspects of life. I have lived here for about a year and a half, looking at the other side of the lake but knowing almost nothing about it. Friends have mentioned driving around the lake but the common response was that there wasn’t much over there. 
Blue: Planned Neill James stops; Purple: actual stops
 Therefore, when Bette Brazel and I decided to follow Neill James’ footsteps in her trip on the southern side of the lake, my expectations were close to nil. We had mapped out a tour of 6 villages which she had visited, hired a driver for a day, and decided to play it by ear, somewhat expecting to be back on the second day. We just got back on day 4 and didn’t make it past the first village on the plan … Jiquilpan.

We actually did visit other villages on Day 1, ones not on the plan, because we kept finding charming places that deserved more than a drive through. When we stopped for lunch in Sahuayo, we liked it so much we decided to spend the night there and had a great time exploring and being given a wish by the boy saint, Joselito. (1) 

The next morning we decided to get back on plan and taxied to Jiquilpan, where both of us almost immediately fell in love ... and off our planned route ... again.

I’ll talk more about Jiquilpan in another post, but what struck me about this trip was how much we found on the other side of the lake when we expected so little. Because we had so few expectations, we agreed to stop whenever something caught our eye and our driver Miguel Lemus seemed to enjoy stopping as much as we did … and suggesting places he knew of that he thought we’d like. It made for a slow, but wonderful, day. 

As I ponder the magic of the past four days, I’m trying to clarify what happened and how to allow it to happen again. I’ve come up with 5 travel tips, which I’m sure aren’t new but I want them as reminders for my next trip. Here are five tips I have gleaned:
  1. Let go of expectations. Much easier said than done. We had two expectations of our first stop, San Luis Soyatlán: to visit Bette's friend Carol Bradley who lives there and visit the former home of Glenn Yarbrough, a favorite singer of our youth. Carol lives in a stunning home on the lake and we enjoyed seeing “our side” of the lake from her side. Then we went to the Yarbrough house and found Rivera de Moras, an event center … closed.
          This is what we didn’t see: 
Next time!
However, poking around, peeking over fences, we came to a place next door with a beautiful gate … closed. While I was trying to get a picture, a man opened the gate and Miguel and Bette asked him if we could see their property … and this is a peek at what we saw of this amazing evento property.
Flooded lake view
Tree house which is more of a tree-mansion
  1. Pick compatible, and flexible, travel partners. Bette and I have discovered a broad overlap in interests and an ability to help each other see things of interest which we might have missed on our own. Our pace, as well as our eating and sleeping habits, are compatible and we’re flexible about shared and individual time. This compatibility and flexibility is key to fun travel experiences.
We both like meeting new people such as the Valencia family and friends.
  1. Keep your heart and your time open. Travel, just like life, is full of surprises. We were surprised by the mournful sound of mariachis when we stopped at the Tuxcueca church. A funeral. We watched for a few moments before heading down to the malecón, where the egrets were perfectly happy in spite of the flood conditions. Taking time to see and feel death and life interacting gave us a better sense of this small, photogenic village. 
    Later, in Jiquilpan, we had tried to find a museum, but couldn’t until we met someone in the plaza who told us that it was in a university building that we had seen but hadn't recognized as the museum. 
    When we went there the next day, it turned out that it was the anniversary of the death of Lázaro Cárdenas’ first President of modern Mexico (1934-40) who was born in Jiquilpan. A special tour for dignitaries was just starting and they invited us to join them. Fortunately, the exhibit is largely photographic so Bette, who is fluent in Spanish could listen to the guide giving a detailed description of the life and work of President Cárdenas, while I engaged with the photographs, such as this one of the mercado that still looks much the same today. 

  1. Ask for what you want … or “closed" doesn’t necessarily mean closed. Bette is far from being “pushy,” however, she is willing to go the next step for what she wants. One of the first places we went to in Jiquilpan was Casita de Piedra, the summer home of President Cârdenas. It was closed. 
    That was a disappointment on two counts because we wanted to see it, and even more, wanted to see the silk-making workshop there. We started wandering around and, while I was taking photos, Bette managed to find someone who agreed to show us around. We spent a wonderful hour or so being shown every detail, including actually holding silk worms, by the director of the project. We both came home with silk rebozos, of course. 
    Throughout our trip, we kept finding places that were closed ... until we looked hopeful and wound up getting tours anyway.
    Silk worm in my hand
    Director Juan Rodrígues Martínez with antique rebozo 

  1.  Expect magic. This sounds like it contradicts #1, but is actually quite different. While expecting certain things to happen can create disappointment and frustration when it doesn’t happen, expecting an undefined magic that you will know when you see it, creates an openness and anticipation that seems to draw things to us. 
    One morning in Jiquilpan after my morning walkabout, expecting nothing other than a quiet moment on the plaza with a cup of coffee, I started talking with the two guys in line behind me. One of them asked if he could interview me. That’s not all that unusual, sometimes people who are trying to learn English like to “interview” visiting English speakers. 
    Carlos Flores: Amazing photographer/interviewer
    One of Carlos's model shots in Jiquilpan
About the time we settled in at a table, Bette showed up so he interviewed both of us. During the interview, I mentioned that I would like to find a place to rent for a week or month for a return visit. Carlos Flores, our interviewer, called a friend and by the time the interview was done, Sergio Valencia was there to show us an apartment that is available for rent and to give us a tour of the new hotel he’s building. 
Later that night, we met up with Sergio and his family to hang out and talk while classical guitars played at the music festival at the other end of the plaza. (See group shot above.)
Meeting people, hearing their stories about their lives and their communities, is one form of magic that lifts travel out of simple observation into true connection. Just because someone else didn't find magic somewhere, doesn't mean you won't.

More Information:
  1. Saint José Luis Sánchez del Río (March 28, 1913 – February 10, 1928) was a Mexican Cristero who was put to death by government officials because he refused to renounce his Catholic faith. His death was seen as a largely political venture on the part of government officials in their attempt to stamp out dissent and crush religious freedom in the area. He was dubbed "Joselito”. Wikipedia

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Day of the Dead #6: The Legend of the Cempasúchil Flower

Frida in Cempasúchils
One of the most important symbols of the Day of the Dead ceremony is the abundance of brilliant orange flowers ... cempasúchil or marigolds.The color and smell are intended to guide the path of the ancestors to their altars. The fragility of flowers is also a symbol of life. 
 On my journey to find out more about this ceremony, I met Lorena at La Bella Vida (see below) and she told me about the legend behind the flowers. 

Once upon a time ...
there were two young Aztecs, Xóchitl and Huitzilin, who were friends as children and lovers when they grew up. One of their favorite activities was hiking to the top of a near mountain where they would offer flowers to the Sun god TonatiuhThe god seemed to appreciate their offering and would smile from the sky with his warm rays. 
On a particularly beautiful day at the top of the mountain, they swore their love would last forever. However, war broke out and the lovers were separated as Huitzilin went off to fight. Soon the news came that death had separated the lovers and Xóchitl’s heart was broken and her world shattered into pieces.
She decided to walk one last time to the top of the mountain and implore the sun god  Tonatiuh, to somehow join her with her love Huitzilin. The sun, moved by her prayers, threw a ray that gently touched the young girl’s cheek. Instantly she turned into a beautiful flower of fiery colors as intense as the rays of the sun. 
Huitzilin, the hummingbird

Suddenly a hummingbird buzzed around the beautiful flower and lovingly touched its center with its beak.It was Huitzilin that was reborn as a handsome hummingbird. The flower gently opened its 20 petals, filling the air with a mysterious and lovely scent.
The sun god had granted them eternal togetherness as long as cempasúchil (marigolds) flowers and hummingbirds existed on earth. Thus, the cempasúchil came to be the Day of the Dead flower.
For what it's worth ...
Chickens from a market in Chiapas.
Chickens and egg yolks in Mexico are both a rich, yellow-orange. Why? They feed them marigolds, not only for the color, but because marigolds are rich in antioxidants.
Source: The legend of the Day of the Dead lovers comes from Inside Mexico.
Special thanks to Lorena at La Bella Vista (Constitucion #6, Ajijic) for telling me about the lover's story of the marigold and the hummingbird.  La Bella Vista is a lovely gift store and offers a good variety of Day of the Dead items and arts and crafts from around the world. They will be open on November 2nd. They will have an altar and offer talks and snacks about the day around 4pm.
Day of the Dead items at La Bella Vida
All of this series is available at the Day of the Dead tab at the top of the page.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Day of the Dead #5: 4 quick overview videos

Four short videos about Day of the Dead. People throughout the world have different customs for honoring their dead. In Spanish-speaking countries, the primary celebration is Dia de los Muertos, celebrated November 1st and 2nd. 

The first, of course, is the "Coco" trailer. The movie is going to be re-released ... don't miss it. You will understand the true meaning of the celebration and the beauty of the movie is stunning.

Click here to watch
The second is a beautifully animated, and heart felt, short film about a little girl who visits the land of the dead, where she learns the true meaning of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. Student Academy Award Gold Medal winner, 2013
Click here to watch.
If you're in a hurry, this video gives you a quick overview of 5 things you might not know about this celebration.
Click here to watch.
This video from the National Hispanic Cultural Center offers a more in-depth overview of the historical and cultural aspects of the celebration.

Click here to watch.

All of this series is available at the Day of the Dead tab at the top of the page.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Day of the Dead #4: Ancestor Reclamation Project

A few summers ago
New Mexico morning
found me on a remarkable piece of land in northern New Mexico. Fields of wildflowers blanketed the labyrinth where I walked every morning and dramatic displays of clouds and thunder lit up every afternoon, sometimes with rain, sometimes just with cool winds.

I was with a group of seekers working with a shaman when the conversation turned to honoring our ancestors. My life rather uniquely separated me from my blood kin so I questioned what ancestors I should be honoring.

The shaman listened and then mainly left the question for me to chew on. Out of that experience in a sprawling wilderness, I came to a commitment to make gratitude a bigger part of my life, to actually  practice  gratitude using a journal I designed to be fast, easy and based on the latest research. After weeks of using the rough prototype of this journal and improving the process, I published it as Gratitude Miracles, the 5-minute journal that could change everything!

available from
After about three months of religiously recording my gratitudes and watching for miracles, I came to the sudden realization that a good many of the miracles in my life were dead. People who touched my life, changing it forever, making me the person I am today, then continuing on their own journeys. These are my ancestors. Perhaps they didn’t give me their DNA but they gave me a piece of their spirits and nurtured something they saw in me, something I couldn’t see for myself.

Ancestor reclamation project

I have now embarked on an ancestor reclamation project, remembering and giving thanks for those people who are woven into my spirit. Some stayed for years, some handed me a gift and moved on. Each of them are as much a part of me as if they had passed along their genes.

Polly took me by the hand and led me into an art supply store, convinced that I needed to start painting. She also showed me thousands of photographs that changed the way I look at the world. Polly was a woman ahead of her time: a southern woman with little interest in marriage and children. She finally relented when Hank begged her to marry him and promised to clean the house if she would. They were together over fifty years until Alzheimer’s  carried him away.

My aunts Wanda and Lerrea were best friends
Lerrea was always there. I was one of the many stray children she fed, loved and encouraged. Long, late night, Pepsi-laced conversations about spirit and life spread over almost four decades and wove our spirits together, changing the very fabric of my being. I got to spend two of her last years with her and she left me with Missy, the toy poodle we shared and who reminded me of her every day.
Wanda was a non-DNA aunt who inspired me with her life and love. In her I saw the relentless force of creativity that pulled her into music, ceramics, and creating beauty all around her. I also saw someone dealing with a beyond-fiction life of abuse with unceasing kindness and love.

Maggi, 80, dying, laughing all the way
Maggi, magnetic, colorful, dancing Maggi, drew me in at a time when my spirit was arthritic and needed the salve of her love. She was a whirlwind of abundance, lighting up the world with her smile, listening to my tales, encouraging me to go forth and create beauty. She made my heart bigger and brought joy to everyone who entered her dance. Preparing for her last Thanksgiving, we went to Costco where she was an absolute terror on her motorized shopping cart.

Richard and Ava in the Sierra
Richard, sometimes the wisest man I would ever know, sometimes not, but always loving and kind. He supported every new direction I wanted to take and gave me the courage to take leaps into the unknown. Not all of them worked, but he was always there supporting my next try. Marriage to him was a 26 year adventure.

Jerry said yes to a ridiculous idea in a way that made me think it might not be so ridiculous. For twenty years he shared his ideas and encouraged mine. When we talked and he called me “Joyceeeee,” my spirit felt like seeds were sprouting after a spring rain.

Layne chose to spend a lot of his last year of life involved with one of my projects. I met him when he walked up to me after my first Innovation Network Convergence and gave me a check for the next year. Being around him made me a better person, humbled me and made me work harder to make our time together meaningful. About a dozen of us were part of the project he chose to support in his year of dying and his spirit hovered over everything we did long after he was gone. I still think about him whenever I’m taking on a new project and wonder if it would meet his standards.

Becoming an ancestor and wondering about my legacy

These are just some of my ancestors. Thinking about them and the gifts they gave me fills me to overflowing with wonder and gratitude. And, as I grow closer to the time when I, too, will be an ancestor, I wonder if I’m making as much of an impression on those coming behind me as these amazing ancestors made on me. 
What gifts am I leaving? Whose lives am I touching and changing? What will my legacy be?
Who are your ancestors?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Day of the Dead #3: Three Deaths

Ofelia Esparza, an “altarista” featured on an intercultural video series, “Craft in America: Border Episode” says each of us dies three times: once when we die physically, once when we are buried and will never be seen on the face of the earth again, and once when we are forgotten. It is that third death that is the hardest and is the primary reason behind the Day of the Dead ceremonies.

Click to watch video:
Of course, as a child, I wasn't thinking about any of those deaths when I decided that I didn’t “like” death. I was one of the fortunate ones, however. Death barely whispered to me until I reached my 60s, and then it began to roar.
Richard and Ava in the poppy fields
My husband, a kind, sweet, funny man was my first major loss that came after three years of dealing with cancer. I remember asking him as we neared the end if he feared death. He said, “No,” but added that there was one thing he did fear … being forgotten. Those words broke my heart because there was nothing in our lives that would make him believe that we wouldn’t forget him. We had no rituals of remembering those who had gone before us.

Perhaps that was the first significant shift in my acceptance of death as a part of life. The losses multiplied quickly after Richard died as I quickly lost all of my elders and began to lose friends and colleagues.

Day of the Dead as a celebration of Life

 In the "Craft in America" episode linked above, Ofelia Esparza states, “For Day of the Dead, we don’t celebrate death; we celebrate life. We invite the souls to come visit us.” 
Everything that is done during the celebration is done as a way to help the departed souls find their way back to their loved ones and to feel honored and cared for. As we, the living, are preparing their favorite foods, creating an altar in their honor, and cleaning and decorating their graves, we are remembering them, softening that third death that will come to each of us eventually.

My own death day celebration
In a Oaxaca frame of mind
As my resistance to death began to soften, I created my own “death day.” We know when our birth day is but most of us never know when our death day will be. So I decided on June 17th as my death day. The intention was to use that day as a reminder that I will die, but, until then I should live fully. This past year as I grow ever nearer to the close of this earth adventure, I decided that the 17th of every month would be honored as a death day, reminding myself to do everything I want to do while I’m still healthy and alive …  and, also, to get my affairs in order so that there is a minimum of mess for others to take care of when I leave.

Moving to Mexico was a major decision related to that commitment to live fully and lightly for the rest of my time. I had always wanted to live in a different culture and learn a second language. It was time to make that happen.

So, here I am living by a beautiful lake in a charming village in Mexico. I am healthy, energetic, delighted by the art I’m making and the interesting people I’m meeting. In the 1980s, it was common to hear people say, “This would be a good day to die.” Widely attributed to Crazy Horse, apparently it is more correctly attributed to Oglala Lakota chief Low Dog.

Whomever deserves the credit, I have reached a place where I can honestly say, “This would be a good day to die,” which actually means I am free to live and would have no regrets if this were my last day (although I hope I get to see many more.) And, being here in Mexico has brought me closer to an appreciation for the rituals of death and honoring those who have gone before us … which actually helps us savor life more fully.

Last year my altar was dedicated to the "ancestors" who enriched my life and helped make me who I am. This year, I'm going to add my "art ancestors" to the altar. Artists who have brought me joy and artists I hope to learn from.

All of this series is available at the Day of the Dead tab at the top of the page.

Song of Mexico

My apologies for presuming to tell a story too big to be told,
a story of a world not mine, but one that sears my heart, 
a vain attempt to catch lightning with my fingertips.

Song of Mexico

The explorers came with greed in their hearts.
The priests came with God in their hearts.
The Conquistadors came with disease on their breath.

The People gave them their gold,
Accepted their God,
Died in waves.

Only the hardy remained,
Went within,
Scratching ancient dreams onto their pots,
Weaving rainbows of tears into their serapes.
Hiding stories in the sacred bark paper,
Surviving on frijoles and tortillas,
Building homes from cactus and clay,
Drawing family close and singing
Of love and death,
Dancing their connection to
Sun and earth, 
fire and water.

Grew strong.
Rose up.
Built a nation.
Became Mexicans.

***** Behind the Scenes: *****

This morning words woke me up. They didn't care that the story they were telling wasn't their own.

Yesterday a friend sent me the results of Nikon's Small World 2018 contest. Mind boggling stunning. I have "borrowed two of them for the Song of Mexico image above because they are so beautiful and appropriate for this piece. Special thanks to the incredible photographers.

Photographer Norm Barker: a human tear drop
Charles Krebs: acorn barnacle