Day of the Dead Celebration and Sweat Ceremony, Springville, California
Folded into a fetal position, my back is pushed against a hard wall. My bottom hurts from sitting on the hard ground. I can feel the women adjacent to me shove against my sides as they writhe. The lady on my right is violently coughing "it is hurting my lungs"; the other on my left is awkwardly unsure in the darkness. It is dark beyond dark, where I can’t tell if my eyes are open or shut. The air is thick with dusty particles from herbs smoldering on the rocks. It is hot. Sweat drips down my forehead onto my eyelashes and onto my cheeks. I can’t get past my physical discomfort.
I was a guest at a small ranch along the Tule River near Springville; neighboring the Sequoia National Monument and the Tule Indian Reservation. Xico, an Aztec dancer and our host, invited my Burning Man Earth Guardian friends and me to join an Aztec Day of the Dead Celebration and Sweat Ceremony at his home.
The event was conducted in purposeful parts, the construction of the alter commemorating the dead, the celebration, and the sweat ceremony.
Hummingbirds buzzed the bird feeders and Little Toes the cat stared at something in the shrubs. A wind chime rang like a grandfather clock and ripe black walnuts fell to the ground. First thing in the morning, ceremony set up began.
Earth Guardians helped hang banners and a large bucket of marigolds arrived. The water jug was filled, the rugs were arranged, the tables were cleared, the kitchen was cleaned, and all the dishes were put away.
Altar construction started.
Shells, vases of mixed wildflowers, mangos, bananas, apples, dried corn, photos of departed family, herbs, and marigold petals were spread in a cloverleaf pattern. Clay figures of people, dogs, and an adorned barn owl theatrically took a place on the stage. Contributions were placed with respect, precision, and grace. Beauty and completeness were valued.
That evening, the full moon rose over the mountain behind us. The clouds glowed in the night and headlamp lights bobbed up and down along the road as people approached the altar. My throat burned from the sage smoke that now hung thick in the air.
Ladies in long skirts vigilantly tended to burning sage bundles and resin from the copal tree.
People trickled in as the final touches were added and the area was given a final cleaning and arrangement on the altar. The crowd was mixed apparel, mixed age, mixed size, mixed race, mixed language, and mixed culture, but all were respectful.
Sandra, our celebration leader, spoke only Spanish and a volunteer translated in English. She welcomed everyone: “Our roots unite us.” Today there is so much division, but we are more alike than different. Death is not something to fear or avoid, but something to celebrate. Loved ones no longer need their skin on their passage. We celebrate when someone dies and we wish them safe travels on their journey.
I recognized only a few Spanish words, but I do understand: camino (path), pero (dog), nueve (nine), muertos (dead), gracias (thanks), quarto (four), Este (East), Norte (North), Oeste (West), Sur (South), silencio (silence), and permiso (permission to speak). All words reverentially and joyfully recurring through the observance.
The translator helps give context to the emotive songs of the four cardinal directions and the four sacred energies, the value of the dog that accompanies the warrior on his journey, travels through the nine rivers, nine songs, and nine levels of awareness.
There was a request for participants to offer a song and the thanks to individuals who are no longer with us. Permission is given to address the group or offer a song. The numerous vocal gifts were compelling and were felt even more than heard. There were long complex songs and short rhythmic phrases, always accompanied by the drum, the rasp, and the conch shell.
During the evening’s journey, participants were permitted to speak to late friends, family, and loved ones.
In turn, each shared feelings aloud. “Thank you grandfather for what you taught me…” “Thank you for being my best friend…” Thank you for the changes that you brought to my life…” Thank you for being there when I needed someone… you would be proud to see the person I have become.” I was too shy to say my offering aloud, but quietly I thank my cat Annapurra “You were the best cat ever. I miss you.” And I told my late parents that they would be proud to see their grown grandchildren; once beautiful babies, now responsible adults.
Beautiful voices, poetry and rythem filled the night.
The group buzzed when attendees were invited to join the Sweat Ceremony. “Are you going to sweat tonight?” “Have you done this before?” And a crowd of about 35, gradually gathered at the sweat lodge. "How are we all going to fit in there?" My Earth Guardian friend Karen and I checked in with each other. "You still want to to this?" "OK?" "OK, let's do this."
The fire was lit and stoked. Animated small groups conversed in anticipation. Ladies were dressed in t-shirts and long skirts; men in shorts with no shirts. As the flames grew, so did the nervous energy in everyone’s voices.
The flames blazed warm in the night. We lined up. In turn, each was invited to introduce ourself and enter the sweat lodge. First-time women first, then returning women; first-time men, then returning men. No jewelry, no glasses, no shoes, no electronics, only your “genuine self” was allowed to enter.
Inside there were no stones; no heat or steam. Only a candle burned. Sandra asked for songs as the red hot glowing scoria rocks were brought inside one at a time. A half dozen or more stones were handled with two antlers and placed into the center ring. The door closed and the candle was extinguished.
No one said it was going to be pitch black dark, cave dark, blacker and deeper than any night dark. It was dark.
Someone was chanting, droplets splashed onto my face, sage smoke fills the air, and I was not comfortable. It was really dark.
During the first session, participants were asked to go around the circle and say aloud their intentions for the night. My time in the circle came: “Give up my attachment to physical objects.” The sweat ceremony is a return to the womb and a re-birth. Participants sweat, pray, and prepare for the future.
For a moment, there was no sense of time. There was no sky. There was no earth. There was no space. We howled together like coyotes, I murmured along with the songs and listened to the prayers. We were all one in the sweat lodge together.
During the second session, the group was asked to say their name and two words that describe their duality. My time in the circle came: “Cynthia - new and old,” aware of my transition from career self to my retirement life and my preparation for My Big Walkabout. I hoped to learn from this experience to carry into my future plans to travel the world.
I tried to concentrate on something other than my discomfort. I began to wonder “how long is this going to take?” and I realized “I have a bad attitude,” but I wanted out A. S. A. P. “They must open that door sooner or later.” It was still damn dark.
Eventually, the door opened.
The fresh night air was a relief. It was 2:30 am. I drank some water, ate a leftover piece of apple pie, and climbed into my cozy sleeping bag, exhausted.
The next morning, my Earth Guardian friends asked, “Would you do it again?”
Even as I write this blog, my memory, perspective, thoughts, and feelings about the sweat ceremony change. When I was contemplating "my attachment to physical objects," I was picturing items like tables and chairs, forks and spoons, pots and pans, not my body. But maybe I shouldn't be complaining. “How arrogant of me to grumble in my few minutes of physical anxiety!” Some people live their life with constant pain. How thankful I am for my chance to know that my distress was only temporary! It was a privilege to be one with the group in the discomfort of the darkness.
Generally, "Mexica Tiahui" refers to an effort through education to renew interest in and respect for the art, music, dance, and food of the Aztecs. It also is used as a call to go forward, do something, discover. It sounds like going on walkabout.
Yes, I would do it again.