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Día de los Muertos

I don’t mean Halloween. Día de los Muertos is a distinct holiday, although Halloween has appropriated some of its trappings in my local mix of culture. Día de los Muertos is for remembering the dead, those we love, those we grieve.

Every year around this time I start to think about Bob Sheldon. Besides everything else he did (labor organizer, anti-war activist, info-shop visionary), Bob was a really nice guy. He was even nice to pudgy fifteen year old bookworms who didn’t have many friends and loved to hang out in his bookstore. When he was killed… well, I got really sad. It seemed to me that first I had glimpsed that there could be something right and true in the world, discovered this miraculous source of dangerous knowledge, and then I had seen how casually that thing was snuffed out. And no one caught. And everyone knew but no one could prove anything.

Fifteen was a very low year for me. The bright point was when I heard rumors that the store would re-open, that people were organizing a collective to keep it running. I was among the first crop of volunteers. And that fall we held a Día de los Muertos vigil, for Bob, but also to mourn, together, for all of our lost loved ones.

The night felt holy. I dressed up, and felt like I was going to church. The crowd shuffled quietly among the ofrenda tables. Shorter than most of the crowd, the candles people held at their chests were at my eye level, and I viewed the scene through too-bright spots of light. On one of the tables there was a picture of Bob in a brass frame, surrounded by meaning-loaded objects people had left there. A stack of books, of course. I left the letter I had written to him and started to walk away. And then I stopped and started looking at the other tables.

There were so many dead to mourn, among the exiled, the fled, the refugees of war, of colonialism, of “free trade.” I spoke to people who had lost huge close-knit family networks, people who had lost children, family farms, holy places. They told me why they had brought a certain trinket, a child’s drawing, a favorite dish. We heard of massacres. Acteal hadn’t happened yet, but the story was similar in other places. Pregnant women cut open with machetes, because although their people had lived there since before reckoning, someone “owned” the land now.

I felt what I now can name as compassion for the people I met, and they, those who had lost so much more than I had, recognized my grief and welcomed me to their circle. We mourned together, and somehow it helped.

On this day of the dead, I remember Bob Sheldon and the people whose stories I heard that night. I remember those I grieve, and I feel compassion for the suffering we all feel in the face of death. And I also feel gratitude for those who pick up the pieces, even in the face of grief. Who find a way to come together and build something new out of the ashes.

I’m flying back to Chapel Hill tomorrow, to celebrate my sister’s wedding. I can’t wait to swing by Internationalist Books.

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