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You can say we’re sort of obsessed with the dead here in our predominantly Catholic Southeast Asian country, the Philippines.
Weeks and days leading up to All Saints and All Souls’ Days (November 1 and 2) this year, around 60,000 Filipinos showed up in just one major terminal in Manila and rode buses back to their hometowns to spend time with and commemorate departed loved ones with their families. Airline companies and employees must have also rejoiced seeing similar spikes in passenger numbers and more warm bodies swarming airports. (These numbers, of course, pale in comparison compared to our country’s pre-pandemic records during this traditional long holiday weekend.)
To avoid overcrowding, quarantine violations, and potential COVID-19 super-spreader events, local government units closed off cemeteries and columbaria during the long weekend leading to these two big national holidays. Some elderly couples and individuals did what they’re most comfortable with and made their pilgrimage back to churches, lighted candles, and said prayers for their dearly departed.
A popular parish church in my own city accepted prayer requests from their members and the general public, laid out on their altar individual flowers and candles in jars tagged with names of their late relatives, and live-streamed this and official masses.
To further encourage geographically separated families to still pray and bond together in remembering and honoring their dead, the country’s Catholic Church created Undas Online, an online prayer portal where they can attend mass and send prayer requests.
From national TV news, I saw traffic enforcers all decked out looking like the demonic entity in the movie “The Nun” regaling commuters into following rules of the road (more of a Halloween thing, really) and parents with young children riding bikes, indulging in picnic fare, and sharing pictures and stories of departed relatives in public parks. Right across from us, our neighbors chose to host a battery of party games and play nursery rhymes in loops to entertain their young’uns and those of their visiting relatives.
It seems that making perennially cooped-up children happy is now just as (or maybe even more) important for them as commemorating deceased loved ones. (I swear this pandemic just keeps making us more and more creative.)
To help our own family remember and pray for them on All Souls’ Day this year, our mother wrote the names of 32 of our dearly departed on a sheet of bond paper plus a short prayer on two more. Then, she laid these out with a candle-lit brass lantern and a tall vase of lemon yellow and pale pink Malaysian Mums to form a temporary altar on the work table in our shed. No picnic-inspired visits to the cemetery or zipper-busting “eat-togethers” afterward at home (what our Filipino or Pinoy family get-togethers essentially are) with other relatives for us on this second year of the pandemic.
To be perfectly honest, though, this more contemplative and soulful way of celebrating All Souls’ sits better with me. As I pause and thank all those who have gone before me for showing me how to truly live before dying (both sets of lolo and lola or grandfather and grandmother, some uncles and aunts, a few cousins and friends, all other people in our circles whom we’ve lost to Covid-19, several pet dogs and cats, plus the rare injured bird and discarded kitten adopted and cared for before their final breaths) this All Souls Day, I say this heartfelt prayer for all of us still living:
May we all accept each other just as we f*cking are, cut each other some sorely needed slack, and kindly allow each other to be and do as we need to within safe, healthy, and reasonable boundaries and limits.
I believe a lot of the societal problems we’re experiencing at such massive scales, aside from the coronavirus (e.g. stress, anxiety, depression, suicide, physical and emotional abuse, or violence of any nature) can all be traced back to a fundamental rejection of parts of ourselves (“that’s not me”; “I don’t like that”; “I hate that”) that becomes deep-seated intolerance aimed at anyone and anything we deem as “other.”
We can be so f*cking hard on one another, asking each other to be this or that kind of friend, partner, daughter, mother, father, sister, or brother for us without us even seeing and accepting who the other person really is and what she or he needs to be and do.
Practicing clinical psychotherapist, Dr. Glenn Doyle, who blogs at Use Your Damn Skills reminds us:
“They’re going to make you believe that you have to think, feel, and act the way they prefer to be a ‘good’ or ‘valid’ or ‘worthwhile’ person. But your self-esteem—your real self-esteem—depends on remembering you run the show inside your head and heart. No one else.”
Through my own bouts of depression and anxiety especially, I’ve experienced how damaging it is to live life rejecting parts of me and other people, in turn. I no longer want to live the rest of my life this way. I choose to be friends with whatever and whoever comes up. I choose to accept and be kind to all of me, just as I am, so I can do the same for everyone I live and interact with.
Instead of always asking others to be and do what I need them to, I choose to love, dance, sing, and live free so they can feel and do the same. Because as Dr. Glenn Doyle says (damn, this guy is good!):
“All that we can do is what we can do—be authentically us. And realize that being authentically us will please some people, and displease other people.”
That’s what I’m doing right now, however messy and unimpressive it looks: accepting, loving, and taking better care of me. I even wrote a haiku to remind myself how I choose to live. It has the same spirit of one of On the Road author Jack Kerouac’s most popular quotes:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
I wrote it to remind myself to live the way I want to die. It might seem a bit morose that being hale and hearty (as far as I know), I’ve decided to write my own epitaph but that’s at least one concern of the dying I can tick off now—yay. Even if it’s not always easy to do, it helps that it’s at least short and easy to remember. While other people have their semi-colon tattoos and mantras, this is mine:
“When I don’t make it,
be happy I lived loving,
For me, the coolest, most genuine, and truly creative way of respecting and honoring our dead is to love ourselves, our gifts, and sensitivities wholeheartedly so that we can do the same thing for the people around us. I believe we truly pay respect to and honor our departed loved ones when we care for their well-being and unconditionally love the living, just as we care for and unconditionally love ourselves.
“He told us we act as though we were going to live forever. ‘Wake up,’ he said.” ~ Natalie Goldberg on Zen master Dainin Katagiri Roshi in her memoir Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America.
All that loving starts with us, but it’s always meant to go beyond us. It’s all connected; the circle of life is never broken this way. (I can hear you bursting into Elton John’s lyrics right now…have at it!).
Grateful for the love and patience your grandparents showed you as a child? Your own aging temperamental parents can probably do with a little more quality time, focused attention, and genuine concern from you right now.
Sad that your uncle died too young and left his family unprepared, emotionally and financially? Ask your aunt and cousins how they’re doing now and if there’s anything they need that you might be able to help them secure.
Shocked that your younger sister’s friend, a pioneer in animal-assisted intervention therapy in the country, succumbed to metastatic lung cancer in her 30s? Check-in with her mom and brother again and support her organization any way you can.
While it may not always be easy, there will always be little things we can do here and there to love the living while we’re all still living. And since it’s easy to forget our good intentions, here’s a Thich Nhat Hanh teaching to help us remember them:
“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
When I forget and fail to do so, please remind me kindly and show me by example, too, what world musician Cynthia Alexander wrote and sang:
“Tell me how it is
To love and live and be
No promises knowing
There is only now
Knowing there is only now.”
“Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel