October is a memorial marker for me, like a temporal headstone in the year. It's not because of All Souls' Day or Dia de los Muertos, it's because I always seem to lose loved ones in October. It is the month that took my grandfather, then years later, my grandmother. It was also the month in which I lost my father. So when I see its balloon-like O come up in the calendar, I take a deep breath and grit my teeth.
The older I get the more loss I face. That's life, I guess. I know their is an adage that says 'time heals all wounds', that's a bit of a distortion if you ask me. Time forces us to step forward unceasingly, well, until our own denouement. Most of us are pretty "scarred up" by the time we reach 50 or 60, but having survived our losses, we've also learned some essential lessons about life.
I've learned to use October as a time to give thanks for those I've lost. It's a time to remember the sound of their voices and special things they said to me. I remember the best things we shared and replay memories of them as clearly as possible.
I can't count how many wonderful memories I have of my grandparents. They taught me to speak Spanish from the time I learned to speak. They taught me about my ethnic identity and about our culture. It didn't matter to them that I was born in the U.S., except that it meant I didn't need to earn my American citizenship. Papa taught to appreciate the flamenco. Mama taught me about Spanish food. Abuelo taught me about orgullo: pride, and the importance of doing well in school. Abuelita, who died when I was seven, taught me that a woman could meet the demands of anything asked of her. My father, who did not believe in God, gave me a sense of the whole world as a mysterious and sacred phenomenon. Their legacy is an enormous part of who I am.
I've also been forced to face the loss of friends and colleagues. People my age. Somehow their passing brings death closer. Once the tears have subsided, I realize that the only thing to do is remember and give thanks for the time we had together. This year I give thanks for Peg and Karen, two redheads who never knew each other, but were always the life of the party. They had a way of surrendering to fun, that I always admired. And Ann, who read so many paperback books that they practically lined her walls like wallpaper. (We bought a memorial tile for her at the library.) I give thanks for Robert, who was as elegant a dancer as Fred Astaire and as sweet as a boy of six his whole life. It's still hard to put Felix among these memories, he just died on Labor Day. He was one of the most talented cartoonists I've ever known. And he proved to be as courageous as he was creative when his biting cartoons critical of the junta were published in a well-known Argentine political magazines during the Dirty War.
I remember my mentors with special gratitude. I was so fortunate to have been in the path of their very unique lives. Mary Caroline Richards was a poet, potter, and internationally known educator. Though she lived well into her eighties, she always met the world with the wonder of a child, and the grace of an angel. Her books of poetry and her brilliant essays are still available. Sr. Jose Hobday, a firecracker of a nun, was half Irish Catholic and half Native American. She was outspoken and fun-loving, and most of all, wise. At the University of Creation Spirituality we displayed photos of her in a public dialog with the Dalai Lama.
The painting I've included with this post is called Sisters of Clouds. I painted it from an improvised meditation prayer that came to me some years ago with my friend Ann Hawthorne as she lay in Stanford Hospital in the final weeks of her life. My prayer took us into the sky where clouds change shape without pain or fear. We are just like clouds, I said, shape shifters, and sometimes we even disappear. But our nature to love and to remember never changes. Our humanity unites us and keeps us united. We age and we move on, yet we can see each other in the transparency of memories. We are connected by the nature of our being, just like clouds. And from that prayer came the painting. Not long ago I saw a woman in a department store who looked so much like Ann, it was hard to believe that my friend had not come back to life. Then I thought about our prayer and about the painting. I smiled. She had come back to say hello, I thought. It didn't have to be her person, her spirit was certainly there, evoked by the resemblance of a stranger and the power of my memory.
I hope my reflections have inspired your own beautiful memories. You don't need to paint them, but spending time in the realm of remembrance can be a powerful meditation. In Mexico families gather at cemeteries on Dia de los Muertos. They bring the foods that were favored by the deceased, sing their favorite songs, and really celebrate their life. But we don't need to get that elaborate to appreciate our departed ones. A candle next to a photo, or a small vase with some flowers can suffice.
And this simple practice can introduce a profound dimension of gratitude to our daily life.