I am called to reflect, with gratitude and love, on my first experience of Day of the Dead a decade ago. I am called to share how I have seen it celebrated in Oaxaca, México, where the traditional is still very much alive, and I am called to thank those who introduced me to this tradition and those who have shared it with me in the years since.
November 1st, 2012
10 years ago today, I woke up in the small, cement floor home that my friend Cynthia Caballero Rojas shared with her mother, Serbia Rojas, in Southwest Oaxaca City, México. We made breakfast to feed ourselves and to offer fresh food and chocolate to the altar that we had spent the last two days preparing for our muertos (our dead).
I’ve always regretted not taking a photo of that altar, because in all these years it is by far the most beautiful one I have helped build. It was made tall by the two milpas (corn stalks) that Cynthia had lashed together to form an archway, and which we had then stuffed full of cempasúchil (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cock’s comb) flowers. From the apex of the arch, Cynthia hung an apple. The altar was covered in photos and candles, fruits and nuts, marshmallows–because they were her brother’s favorite food–hot chocolate, beer bottles, and tamales de mole negro that we had wrapped in banana leaves under the expert guidance of Serbia and cooked over a fire in a hug pot in the dirt floor kitchen yard. On the ground we had made a tapete (floor mosaic) of flower petals around the stone bowl in which we burned copal. Alongside Cynthia and Serbia’s loved ones I placed my wallet photo of Stevie, my high school best friend who had killed himself two years prior, and a little piece of paper on which I had written “ti voglio bene.” For the first time since his death, I had found a way to pay attention to and honor this young friend I had lost in a way that was both solemn and joyful, and that was culturally-supported and in community. I was gifted this by Cynthia and her mom, who knew I needed it, and by the people of Oaxaca who have held to their indigenous traditions and could therefore teach their children and the world to do this.
Of course, the gift was not simply the altar and my own relationship with my muerto, but seeing how this relationship with our loved ones and ancestors is celebrated on a community level. The night before, our Oaxacan friends Cynthia, Claudia, and Gil had taken me and another exchange student, Katherine, to the village of Xoxocotlán where the people spend the entire night of October 31st in their cemetery, holding vigil and sharing food and music with their muertos. The 31st, Gil explained, is the day in which the dead are called back with music and good smells, the day in which they first get the message to return. For this reason, many communities have musical events in the street on the 31st, and some, like the people of Xoxocotlán, stay up all night.
On the morning of the 1st, Cynthia explained in the morning, we welcome back the angelitos, the spirits of children who have passed away. With this in mind, Cynthia, Serbia, and I brought tamales over to the neighbor’s house and paid her angelitos a visit. Serbia was speaking animatedly to the neighbor when all of a sudden she noticed the neighbor had placed a petate (a woven grass rug) under the altar. Serbia began to cry: “Se me olvidó poner un petate bajo nuestro altar. Dónde se van a sentar los angelitos?” (“I forgot to put a petate under our altar. Where are the child angels going to sit?”) It was clear to me then how real this was. These altars and these visits to the cemetery were not simply remembrance or ritual; they were an earnest invitation to those who were gone.
Cynthia and I walked to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, and back through neighborhoods whose streets were filled with comparsas: men dancing to brass instruments in full costume. Some were dressed as Vicente Fox or George Bush with plastic masks and suits. A good number of men wore various kinds of sexy woman outfits, replete with very tall heels (and they sure could dance in those heels). Inviting back the dead by offering them a raucous good time.
The next day, November 2nd, the primary day celebrated as día de muertos, the five of us set off to see how the day was celebrated in the neighboring pueblos of Teotitlán and Tlacolula.
After a day of bus rides, churches, copal, dirt streets, and eating fruit and tortillas bought in the markets, we made our way through the Tlacolula cemetary at dusk and then another in the dark. It was there in the crowded cemetery, its darkness illuminated by so many flickering candles, that Gil explained to us the theme across many places in the Northern hemisphere. At this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinner. As the earth dies for winter, food–life–is harvested from the earth. Life and death meet, cross paths, co-exist. It is for this reason that the pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhain, when spirits would come back to visit (the origin for trick or treating), that the Catholics worldwide celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, that the Aztecs have the mythology of Quetzalcoatl going into the mountain for the winter at this time of year, and why Mexicans sit at their altares to chat with their ancestors as they come back to visit. (Indeed, Gil told me a year or two later that the year after his abuelita died, he was crying as he built her altar, so she came back and scolded him for crying and told him to appreciate her visit.)
As we arrived back in Oaxaca City, we came upon a group gathered on the stone plaza outside of a church built a few centuries before. There was an altar built over the ground, and in front of it, a tapete made of beans, flowers, corn, and other plant materials in the shape of a woman. The scene was lit by candles and accompanied with a man’s soft playing of the guitar. People wrote messages into the paper laid over the stone walls of the church. Pamphlets were distributed that explained the messages and explained the woman in the tapete: this altar was dedicated to women lost to gender violence, including domestic violence homicides, human trafficking, and the hundreds of rapes and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border. The group organizing this was La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, who would eventually become the organization on whom I based my undergraduate thesis research. They represented the somber side of this day, but did so in a way that was beautiful, congruent with the tradition, and that brought community together.
A year later, back at Mount Holyoke College, I called on my Oaxacan friends for help explaining día de muertos to my friends at school, who had agreed to bring their muertos and build an altar with me. For the first time, I was able to gift–to some small degree–what had been so kindly shared with me. I have tried every year since to celebrate by building my own altar at home (which always includes salmon, Stephen’s favorite food), and by sharing altars and celebrations with others, making a space for our muertos and our memories and our love and to be together. As a 3rd grade teacher, we had a día de muertos celebration in the classroom and parents came for a potluck and art. In grad school, as an effort of the Latina/o Social Work Coalition, we built an altar in the common area for women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Last year, Oscar and I invited friends over to eat and make art and build things for the altar. Among other things, the event served as a way to honor a baby lost from our community and lost to our friends, little Seketl’e, who you can see in our altar this year.
One of my most significant experience of día de los muertos since returning from México was in 2010, when I worked with artists Dena Drake and Melanie Lombard to create an altar at the Out North exhibit dedicated to the topic of suicide in Alaska. The altar attempted to honor those who we’ve lost and to use art and metaphor to explore the feelings that might lead someone to suicide, alerting friends and family to what they could do to help prevent suicides in their communities.
What I’ve found is that there is no way that I will have here an experience like that I had in 2002 in Oaxaca. But I can use each día de muertos, each Samhain, each time in which the veil between life and death is thinner, to reflect on and give great love to those who I have lost and to share the space so others can do that as well.
This year, we add la abuelita Betulia to our altar. This year, I honor my grandmother Pat, la abuelita Betulia, my great-grandmother Ann, my grandma Dianne, baby Seketl’e, and my friends Stevie, Anthony, Lorenzo, and Sig. (Yes, and the dogs Ruby and Nena too.)
If you are in the Anchorage area and looking for a way to celebrate, Out North is hosting the 8th Annual Día de Muertos celebration and exhibition of altars: http://www.outnorth.org/events/DiaDeMuertos.php
Mama’s in the Mountains
For this Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mama the way we celebrate all holidays as a family: with a hike in the Chugach Mountains. We trudged for five miles up and down the steep, muddy trails, looking out over Anchorage and the Cook Inlet through bare birch trunks and last year’s cow parsnip stalks.
This is what we do on holidays. This is how we prepare, in the morning, for a Thanksgiving Feast, and how we give thanks. This is how we recover from Christmas breakfast. This is how we celebrate anything: with nature and sweat. So of course this is the most natural way to celebrate my mama on the occasion of Mother’s Day. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
She is, after all, the mother who broke her ankle at age 48 while bouldering on the South Side of Flattop, but didn’t want to cancel the glacier camping trip we had planned soon after. So while we skied up the glacier’s slope, not wanting to be left out of the fun, she got out of the sled in which she was being towed and crawled up the slope. This is the same mother who subconsciously knew when I was hungover as a teenager and would drag me out on 16-mile runs to the Williwaw Lakes or up Wolverine Peak. She is the mother with whom, at the age of 54, I had a harrowing camping trip in the Chugach in which we got lost and hypothermic, but made it out okay after climbing about 7,000 feet of peaks with wet backpacks on. She is the mother who broke her humeral head 6 weeks ago skiing from Arctic Valley to Indian, and had to hike uphill for an hour holding her broken shoulder—this at the age of 59. Of course, arm in sling, she was back to hiking a few weeks later.
I’ve been thinking of my mother’s tenacity, strength and wisdom leading up to this day that is meant to honor mothers. Quite different from its current, highly commercialized face, Mother’s Day’s has its origins in an 1870 declaration by Julia Warde Howe in response to the loss of so many husbands, sons and fathers in the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. In Howe’s declaration, she called for mothers to have a role in shaping sane public policy and promoting peace, and asked that people listen to women’s wisdom. I find this a very appropriate way to honor mothers, and so I found myself reflecting, as we hiked past the spring shoots and ice-splintered mud of the Bicentennial Park, on the wisdom that my mama’s relentless desire to be in the mountains teaches me.
She teaches me, and everyone who knows her, that aging is not that land of maladies and lost opportunities our culture so often portrays it as — that no-mans-land of kitsch and irrelevance that is the stuff of comedic stereotypes. In a youth-centric, media-driven society such as ours, aging is seen as undesirable, as something to avoid at all costs. This is especially true for women, who don’t get lauded as being “distinguished” looking as they age, the way that men like Sean Connery or George Clooney do, and they certainly don’t play action heroes into their middle age. Just as I hear people my age afraid to get old, I also so often hear people much younger than my mom limit their outdoor activities or use of the stairs, saying—“Oh, my knees; I’m too old for that.”
Now, I know that there are many reasons—genetics, environment, structural inequalities, etc.—that contribute to people having disabilities that truly can limit physical activity. But I’ve always been puzzled when I hear people name age as the culprit for those limitations. It doesn’t make sense to me after I’ve spent so many years watching my mama, whose wisdom has been to eschew the notion that aging is weakness and serious limitations are inevitable, and who has just kept playing. This is, perhaps, a later-in-life version of the way she ignored her father’s admonitions that college education was a waste of time for women, and went anyway. As a result of her resolution, my mama’s broken ankle healed far beyond any of the grim predictions offered by the doctors. She and my dad can still enjoy long excursions into the mountains together, and she has remained tough, fast, and lean as she approaches 60.
As an athlete, a nature-lover, a midwife, a vocal advocate for women’s healthcare, and someone actively engaged in politics, my mama demonstrates that people don’t have to lose their passions, their relevance, their power, or their ability to have fun as they age. So in honor of Mother’s Day and Julia Warde Howe’s 1870 cry to elevate women’s wisdom, I offer you the wisdom of my mother: keep playing, keep yourself connected to nature, and keep on keepin’ on, no matter what people might say.
I was reminded recently of why I should share my undergraduate thesis. Janie, the intern at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, where I work, found online a Master’s Thesis about the very little researched topic of Iñupiaq women’s pregnancy and birthing beliefs and experience. This was very useful for the work we were doing. I felt grateful that this young student researcher shared his work publicly online. I told Janie about my student research and thesis, and she suggested I share it too. So here it is.
Despite having written this thesis 8 years ago and it containing some errors, and perhaps there being moments of naïeveté in my theory, I decided I should make it available because it is useful. It is original research that has not been published anywhere else, as far as I know. It brings together original research with feminists in Oaxaca and global human rights theory to make an argument about the need for dialogue about justice and gender justice across cultures. It makes an argument that I still stand strongly by and practice in my daily life and work, in ways beyond what I would have imagined when I wrote this as a 21-year-old.
This is my honor’s thesis from my senior year of college at Mount Holyoke College (2004), based on interviews I had conducted in the summer of 2003 in Oaxaca, México and a lot of immersion in history, feminist theory, sociology, political discourse, etc. Unfortunately, I have lost the cover page, which had a wood block print I made of downtown Oaxaca City, and I’ve lost the table of contents.
So, to give you a brief preview:
The introduction explains how I came to this topic and why it matters, and the theories behind it. It introduces why I think we need transcultural feminist dialogue in order to arrive at globally-valid concepts of justice and human rights.
The 1st chapter provides a history of feminism in México and its ties to other social justice movements there.
The 2nd chapter covers what I learned from the feminists at La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, a feminist organization based in Oaxaca City. (Oaxaca City is the capital city of the state in México that has more ethnic diversity, in terms of indigenous groups, than any other state in the country.) This chapter discusses the organization’s work, how each woman became a feminist, how each woman conceives of the concept of justice, and how that translates into the feminist work she does.
The 3rd chapter uses the themes about feminism, gender justice, and justice that the women from La Casa de la Mujer brought up to make the argument that feminism arises organically out of everywhere. Because feminism arises out of different environments, it is necessarily different across cultures, countries, etc. At the same time, there is an “hilo conductor,” that is, a wire that connects all feminisms everywhere. This hilo conductor is the idea that we should be able to live lives with dignity and free of violence. Because feminism is both universal and grounded in the local, we need democratic, equitable, transcultural feminist dialogue in order to establish what about gender justice–and justice in general–is universal and what isn’t. That way, we can create human rights standards that people all over can buy into and feel a part of.
I sent this thesis to La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos in 2004. When I visited in 2005, they were almost done translating it into Spanish, so I got to assist with some of the translation. I have not returned to Oaxaca since, but when I do, I hope to find that is has been useful. And I hope that is is useful for you. If you do use it, here is a suggested citation (although when I wrote it, my last name was Norton-Cruz…):
Avellaneda-Cruz, Laura. (2004). Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue. Undergraduate Thesis, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved online at author’s website: www.lauritadianita.info/?page_id=458
FULL PDF HERE:
I have waited so long to write here about my travels to the Northwest Arctic villages of Buckland (Kaniq) and Noatak (Nautaaq) in January and travel to Georgia and Alabama in February because, being sort of a perfectionist, I want to write the perfect thing, but being an epidemiologist and adjunct faculty member and volunteer, I don’t have time to write the perfect thing. And what would the perfect thing be anyway? I am a visitor to both places and still know so little. So I will, instead, leave you with a few photos and these links to my Flickr collection from rural Alaska and The South. The photos on Flickr tell many stories through the captions.
Oscar took this picture of me as I was preparing for the trip to the Northwest Arctic region (Nunaqatigiich), where it had been -30 to -50 for the last month before we left. I didn’t end up using the goggles while there, in Buckland’s -35 or Noatak’s -48, but instead let my eyelashes turn white only a minute or two after going outside. I liked this feeling, and liked being able to see clearly. I also felt like Arctic Darth Vader with them and everything else on and I wanted to look as friendly as possible. Meeting people, conversing, gaining trust, forming relationships, finding out who you have in common, all these things were the basis of our work up there–and if mouth and nose are covered, I at least needed to show my eyes to do so.
The wolf parka, borrowed from our friend, Kiatcha, helped as well. It is so beautiful, rare, and warm a parka that many people came up to me and touched it, saying, “Aarigaa! What a parka!” I would tell them how lucky I was to have been able to borrow it. One man hugged me because he was so happy for me to have this parka. As I told Kiatcha when I returned it, her parka is truly magical, and I feel blessed to have worn it.
Much of this talking and relationship-building happened indoors, of course, after we had stripped off a few of our layers. One of the most memorable conversations of the trip was with a woman we met in Buckland and her elder father. They told me and my colleagues about their reindeer herd and how every once in a while, the caribou will migrate through right by the herd, and some will stop and mate with their more domestic counterparts. The children of these couplings, the elder told us, are wilder than regular reindeer and harder to contain. This image of animals that blur the lines between domestic and wild—being a part of or leaving behind their herds—is one that I layered, in my head, with the white and sometimes pastel ice fog hanging over that beautiful, flat land of tundra and waterways. This image of animals and land and sky is one of the images that I most carry with me from this journey in Nunaqatigiich.
I miss it there. A lot.
I took this picture with my Holga. In it, I am on the rocks jutting out of the Chattahoochee River , between Alabama and Georgia, with our 3 and 1/2 year old niece, Lilly, teaching her how to hop from rock to rock, how to balance and climb and descend, how to trust her body and eyes. She was an avid and quick learner and it filled my heart up to see her move from fear to courage so quickly. I love the sponginess of young children’s brains and the adeptness and energy of their bodies. This capacity of theirs to absorb so much, however, is also what makes them so vulnerable, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I get more involved in the epidemiology of Adverse Childhood Experiences and health, and as I teach about determinants of health. Children, because they are so open to learning at this age, are also so vulnerable to the violence they see around them or experience, to poor eating habits, to a sedentary lifestyle, to television and computers, to neglect. These years are so important. I’m glad I can be a part of her life and take on the awesome role of auntie during these years, if only in little bursts or via Skype. I’m so happy I can do this with the young children in our community in Anchorage as well. I am so glad that when Oscar and I have children, we will have aunties and uncles—both biological and not—to watch over and teach them as well.
I dreamt about Stephen last night, my dearest friend from high school. He came to visit–back from the dead, but just for a little while, he said. In my dream, it seemed normal, but also very significant and powerful that he was allowed this quick visit with me. I cried as I hugged him and touched his face. He was back in the flesh, looking like his grinning, strawberry-blonde, 17-year-old self. He was wearing the red Bad Religion hoody that he always wore, the one I wear right now as I type this, the one I inherited, as an 18-year-old, after his suicide and have kept since to wear in my home.
Waking up from that dream was really hard. Today is really hard. While I am grateful for this dream visit (I haven’t had such a dream in years), I am also shocked by his presence, his absence. It’s been 11 years since his suicide, and most of my days go by just fine. We learn to cope with loss and have healthy lives. But today I am shaken, sad, vulnerable. I’ve been re-experiencing my grief all day. The wound is freshly re-opened and it feels like I’ve lost him yet again.
During the day, I couldn’t quite put words to this vulnerability that I was experiencing that made it hard to concentrate at work until that Adele song “Someone Like You” came on the radio and she sang:
“I had hoped you’d see my face and you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.”
As tears poured down my cheeks I thought, “That’s it. Suicide is NEVER over.”
It’s never over for the survivors. Yes, it gets farther into the past, and if we are allowed to grieve, then we can continue to live our lives well (and if we aren’t, then it has even more serious long-term consequences). But a dream like this makes us grieve all over again. Or another suicide in our community sets us back into hurt and guilt. Or a song transports us to a deep sadness, like the way “I See a Darkness” by Johnny Cash did for me two months ago when I first heard it.
Most importantly, suicide is never over because we can never ever have that person back.
I write this not just for my own processing. I write this to tell you, if you are considering suicide, to understand this fact of suicide. It may be quick to kill yourself, but the pain is never over for the rest of us. You leave great scars behind you that never quite close. Forever, there is someone missing who is supposed to be here. We always feel that absence. We always hurt from that absence. You are supposed to be here.
Please, if you are in pain, if you see no light in life, if you have been abused and mistreated and see no other way out, please call the suicide hotline (# below). Or please tell a counselor or teacher or friend and if they can’t get you help, tell someone else until you find someone who can. You do not deserve abuse and you do not deserve to die.
And to the friends, family, teachers, and counselors: Please ask. Notice that they are sad. Invite them, with compassion and a non-judgmental tone, to talk. Show them love. And please ask them if they are considering suicide. I wish so much that they had taught us this when we were in high school. I wish I had had some tools to keep Stephen alive. I wish our high school teachers had brought in suicide prevention experts after the first suicide in our school. Or, better, before it. Silence won’t keep your loved ones alive. TALK. ASK. Be there.
I keep hearing in my head Adele’s song:
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”
Love is supposed to hurt sometimes, but not like this. Never like this.
Alaska Careline (Suicide Hotline): 1-877-266-HELP
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK
For those of you in the Anchorage area or wherever KSKA comes in, on December 1st at 2 pm and 7 pm they will air a panel discussion on preventing youth suicide.
Bring “The Winter Bear,” a thoughtful, funny, and powerful play about preventing youth suicide (set in Interior Alaska) to your community: www.winterbearproject.com or look for “The Winter Bear Project” on facebook.
My husband, Oscar, and I recently combined our last names after getting married. Beyond the ordinary awkwardness of having to introduce myself by a new last name and sign with different letters, plus the burden of having to explain to confused people that, yes, my husband changed his name too, I also have to deal with my name changing colors.
My name used to be:
And now it’s:
This is a significant change. Those aren’t just the colored pencils I happened to choose. Those are the colored pencils that represent as closely as possible the colors that those names are. The names are those colors and there is nothing I can do to change that. This is because I have a condition called synestesia.
The word comes from the Greek “syn” (together) and aisthēsis (sensation or perception), referring to the crossing of multiple types of sensory information. Some people see music or smell touches, but the most common type is where people automatically assign colors to graphemes (written symbols such as letters or numbers). This is called grapheme -> color synesthesia. Some people project the colors; that is, they see them out in the world, while others just see them in their mind. I am off the latter type.
Growing up, the fact that every letter, number, and word had a color—an absolute, unchangeable color—seemed to me a useful and enjoyable fact of existence. It never occurred to me that this was unordinary or that in the medical literature I was known as a synesthete.
I loved my systems and colors so much, having learned to use them for remembering words, visualizing numbers, and even teaching concepts to my third grade students, that I never felt the need to question where this came from. It wasn’t until I was 23 and visiting my then 8-year-old cousin, Keilee, that I learned that it was not universal. I was in the backseat of my auntie’s minivan as we drove through the desert, past the deep red sandstone of Red Rocks Park outside of Las Vegas. I picked up and read the back of Keilee’s book, Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. It described, in dramatic terms, a girl who saw colors for all numbers and words. I thought, “What’s so dramatic about that? I do that…” and then it occurred to me to ask, “Wait, does this mean not everyone does that?”
For whatever reason, I didn’t revisit the thought again until I was 27, on a Spring Break climbing trip during graduate school with some classmates. Oddly enough, we were driving through Red Rocks Park after a day on the sandstone and our friend Becca was describing her synesthesia as a crossing of multiple senses, such that she sees music and sees colors for everything. I described to her my colors and she told me, “Yeah, that’s a mild form of synesthesia.” I was so excited to have a name for this experience, or condition, or, as I like to call it half-jokingly, superpower.
My good friend Virginia Speciale, a Special Ed & bilingual ed teacher, just finished reading Mango-Shaped Space and asked me to describe my synesthesia to her. This is more or less what I told her:
“I love it. The colors are absolute, meaning I can’t just willfully go and change them. Two is blue and there’s nothing I can do about that. Virginia is green because of the V and Speciale is yellow because of the S, although the reddish dark pink of the L sort of seeps through near the end. Ginna [her nickname], however, is light orangeish brown and Gina [her other nickname] is a slightly darker brown. I think this is because the N is a lighter and more orange brown than the G, so the double N in Ginna changes the color some. Shunashee [the nickname that only I call her] is very decisively yellow.
Usually the first letter decides the color of the word but some middle letters have an influence, especially green letters like K & V. W is also green, but it’s weaker & lighter and therefore does not exert the same influence. Oki [my husband’s nickname] is green, despite the white O starting the word, while Oscar is white and yellow.
Vowels are white, except Y. But y’know, Y plays for both teams, so that probably explains it.
As for numbers, usually I see the distinct color of each digit even in multi-digit numbers, and especially in dates (today is a very gray & blue set of numbers, but, to give a more interesting example, the Fourth of July next year will be yellow/orange/blue.) However, if I am thinking of periods of years, there is a dominant digit’s color that determines the color of the entire number. The 1900s are maroon. The 1800s are brick red. The 2000s are blue.
If I am thinking of precise years, the last digits’ colors show up. The 60’s, as a decade, are all green and the 70’s are all yellow and so on. If I think of a specific year, such as 1574, it’s 3 different colors (green, yellow and orange.) 2011 is blue and silver.”
I read recently that in addition to grapheme -> color synesthesia, that there is another type that describes the way I see: number form synesthesia. This is described on the Wikipedia page as “a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers.” I have always had a very useful and, indeed, involuntary way of organizing numbers visually in my head.
This drawing can’t really capture it, but it at least shows that numbers under 100 are as though under a roof; they are inside. The numbers climb up towards 100, segmented by the tens, each of which has its own color. I found this enormously helpful in arithmetic, and parts of it are certainly in line with the recommendation for kids to draw number lines and segment them by the tens. This is probably because synisthesia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our brains make via visuals and colors out of the graphemes we learn in school. I learned to think about ones, tens, and hundreds, so I imagine my mental map was derived from my early mathematical education.
Similarly, I learned to first associate colors to English words. As I learned Spanish words, I began to associate colors to them. Unlike English, though, Spanish words usually reveal more of their colors to me. For example, tener is mainly blue, but for some reason that orange/brown N stands out. Pusiste is pink, yellow, blue, and white. English words are rarely so multi-colored. I wonder if this has to do with how late in life such associations were made, or the amount of consciousness I learned to have about the endings of Spanish words in order to conjugate verbs correctly or have adjectives agree with the noun or use the right gender.
I have no idea how this association-making would change if I began to learn Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, or Cantonese. I don’t remember what it was like to begin to associate a color to a brand new letter, and so I don’t know if it would happen as I learn a new alphabet or not. Nor do I know if synestetic children growing up with character-based written language have the same process of color association.
I actually know very little about the science of synesthesia. It’s just exciting to learn that other synesthetes (it’s fun to have a new label for myself)experience what I do, but in their own way. And, of course, a minority of synesthetes experience it in much more vivid and intense ways, with colors projected in front of them for music and words. Virginia, ever a Special Ed teacher, asked me to reflect on any ways in which it has hindered me academically. Honestly, I can’t think of any, and my mom told me yesterday that the reason she never looked into it or told me that it was unusual when I was a child was because it didn’t seem to cause me any problems. However, I would be interested to hear if some forms of synesthesia can be debilitating. My experience of it is just useful and beautiful, and I hope I can pass it on to our future children.
When I met Rita Pitka Blumenstein for the first time last winter and she hugged me, I thought, “Oh. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the hug I’ve been thinking about and needing for years.” And I knew that she knew that.
For those of you who do not yet know her, Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a traditional healer, the first tribal doctor in the Alaska Native Health System, a midwife, an esteemed elder, a spiritual leader, and founding member of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She is Yup’ik primarily, from Nelson Island, Alaska, but also part Athabscan, Aleut, Russian, and a smattering of other European backgrounds. She speaks, sings, and prays in Yup’ik, in the complex and deep understanding of the Yup’ik language that I am told only the elders still have. She is called around the world to pray for people, to lead ceremonies and songs, to heal people from diseases and injuries in the body, the mind and the soul. To heal, she uses her hands, plant medicines, talking and prayer.
Recently, she was invited to attend our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training for rural Behavioral Health Aides held in Fairbanks in order to provide prayers, songs, stories and guidance. Since I work with Rita and have had the honor of learning from her in the past, I had the even greater honor of spending nearly every waking hour of that week with her walking to restaurants, attending the training, preparing salad in her hotel room, making sure that the baggage handlers treat her drum well, etc. I feel bless to have learned so much from her in our time together and want to share with you, dear readers, some of the wisdom Rita offered me. I think I also share this story of Rita because in writing it I reinforce what it meant to me on a deeply personal level in my own growth and becoming.
Two important notes
1.) I asked Rita if I was allowed to share her teachings with others on my blog and she said yes. She said she’s publishing them all into a book anyway, so they will become public soon. Furthermore, she sees it as her duty—as a spiritual person, as an elder, as a member of the 13 Grandmothers, and in her job at ANTHC, to teach—directly and through others, including non-Alaska Native others. She also consented to me using this photo that I took of her. If I have misunderstood or missquoted her, however, I apologize and will make changes if they come to my attention.
2.) I am sharing her teachings because I think she has great insight into the world. It’s not because I claim she is speaking directly for God or Truth. I won’t join any religion because I can’t just believe whatever it is that its leaders or books tell me. But I am inspired and moved by what Rita has observed about the world, which is different than believing that it is the one and only truth. In fact, I don’t think Rita claims to have the one and only truth either. She works to heal the world; that is her priority.
The traditional word for creator in Yup’ik is ellam yua, which sounds something like “Chhhhamyua” though with a more g sound and throaty sound to the first consonant. As Rita explains it, the word means means “awareness of the universe.” The “yua” part refers to the person being aware, the Chhham part the universe—the dust that makes up life. It can be awareness of pain, awareness of all that is around us, awareness of that which can’t be seen, presence.
Rita begins prayers with a call to ellam yua and to agayuun. This is the idea of creator that is more the Christian idea–a creator or king that rules. Yuun means ownership, so all is owned by the creator.
She also calls out to the ancestors. As Rita explains, our ancestors are our bone marrow, our parents our bones. We are made up of them. As she wrote in a poem:
We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.
Rita also includes “Mother Earth” in her prayers at times, both praying to the Earth and for the Earth. What it seems she is teaching us is that that we ask agayun—kin, ancestors—to be a part of our healing and blessing, and the healing we do affects them. Likewise, we pray to the creator/awareness of the universe and to Mother Earth for wisdom and healing, and in healing ourselves we share that healing with the Earth and universe—perhaps because, as healed people, we take better care of the Earth.
Rita tells me a lot about her life story, of going from a rural village on Nelson Island to Montessori School in Seattle and staying there long enough so she could make sure to be able to write her dreams and visions (yes, she was having spiritual visions as a young child). She was then raised in Catholic schools and in a community with Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism all around her. But her grandparents never converted and always practiced the old ways, and I imagine this is part of what made Rita’s connection to the faith traditions of her land and people so strong. She quotes her grandmother—and this is one of the best articulations I’ve ever heard of what I believe—who said, “I don’t understand why we would need to go worship God inside a building, facing only one direction, when there is the land and ocean and the four directions all around us.”
In conversation, Rita teaches me bits and pieces about the medicine wheel and the four directions. She tells me how the colors (gold, red, black and white) relate to the elements and how some believe that they relate to the continents of people. She told me that all journeys start in the East. The gift of the East is the ability to concentrate fully on what one is doing, the way that children can concentrate so fully on the object in their hands, the way that our mouse sister concentrates on her work. It is the gift of presence, of not being distracted by the past and the future. I tell her that I struggle with being present. She smiles with understanding.
To heal, Rita says, is to become ourselves, to become the light within. It is to accept ourselves and what we feel, and in doing so accept others. It is to be a real person.
Rita tells me that she loves me and trusts me to learn about healing, and that I have a good Native spirit. This is because I am a real person, she says, because I am not pretending, not fake, not closed, but selfless and real and open. I tell her thank you, and that I don’t know how to be anything but open and anyone other than myself, but that I do struggle with accepting myself fully. She says that struggle is okay, and quotes the elders who mentored her, who said that it is okay that things are not okay, that I should just feel what I feel. What I suppose this means is that to be a real person, to be someone good for the world, you have to be open and giving, but you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have arrived. Rita says she is always learning more about herself, always becoming herself more and more. And if Rita, at 78, is still in that process, that must mean that I’m okay.
I ask Rita what is the importance of faith, because it is not something I always have in abundance. She tells me:
“If you believe in yourself, you have faith. Faith provides the courage to face the present with confidence and the future with expectancy.”
Rita also reminds me that faith and acceptance are not about accepting all behaviors or accepting injustices. Rita, like me, has always had a big mouth and has spoken up to people when they are being racist or cruel or unfair to women. She has always been unafraid to express her opinion and disagree. This is not antithetical to loving acceptance. In fact, it is crucial to creating a better, more healed world. This is why I can learn from this woman.
Rita tells me that childhood is the time for children to learn from the legends and stories of elders, and from the plants and animals and rocks and air, from all of life. Rita tells me about the wild vegetables they harvest:the lovage and Eskimo potatoes, the grass and horsetail roots. She tells me about the knikinik (labrador tea) they use for smudging and that the shamans (herself included) smoke in order to ground themselves after spiritual travelling. She tells me how to brine, dry and smoke salmon strips and how to boil down fireweed syrup. She tells me about plant medicines made from Devil’s Club and raspberry bushes and yarrow and birch. As I learn all this like a child, I think, “Yes, this should be in every child’s education. If it were, we would see so much less environmental devastation.”
We talk about childrearing and potty training (Rita potty trained her children after a few months by keeping them on her body and putting them on a little pot whenever they squirmed around like they needed to go). Rita tells me she is very excited for me to be a mother, that I will be a great one. I tell her I’ll be calling her up for advice on this potty-training-in-the-first-few-months practice.
Rita talks about race, cultural difference and colonization comfortably, neither shying away from its ugly history nor writing off all white people (after all, she was happily married to a Jewish man from New York for over half her life, until he passed). This is a good example for me of how to bring these conversations into groups where they don’t currently happen without triggering people’s defensiveness.
If any of this resonates with you, you can follow the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers online (http://www.grandmotherscouncil.org/), read Rita’s book when she publishes it, or look for other opportunities around Alaska to learn from her or from other teachers of indigenous worldviews. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending a presentation by my Cup’ik colleague, Uyuriukaraq Ulran, who speaks beautifully about Cup’ik worldview and ethics. And certainly pay a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Regardless of your faith tradition, I think it’s okay to be open to Rita’s teachings and to Alaska Native worldviews. Rita’s idea of becoming yourself, of knowing yourself, is something heard in Buddhism and parts of most other world faiths. Her idea of thanking the universe for what we have and asking for blessings from the universe, kin, the Earth and the directions, is not unlike thanking God or Allah, in that it is an act of appreciation of all that is larger than us. It is an act of prayer and thanks that is grounded in the land, water, air and fire, an act grounded in the preservation of this planet. In that way, it is particularly salient for our rapidly-changing world.
On a personal level, one powerful thing I take away from my week with Rita and from knowing her is a more firm sense of who I am. If I fail, if I feel desparate or sad or find myself making mistakes, I am now more likely to say, “I am a real person. And this is a struggle” rather than doubting my integrity and worth. This is a gift from Rita, as well as a gift from my best friend Jessica Laura who always helps reinforce to me who I am. It is a gift from my husband, Oscar, who always reminds me of why I am worth love, and a gift from my parents and friends who know me and believe in me. And we have to believe in ourselves (in a deep way, not in the way of the popular self-esteem movement) in order to move forward and do the work we must for the world.
I will end with Rita’s words (paraphrased because I could not write fast enough for the exact quote):
“Some people dwell on their past lives to look for answers. But all we need to learn will be placed before us. Our job is to move forward.”
Post-script, December 6: Rita just gave me the proper spellings of ellam yua and agayuun, and a bit more clarification of those concepts, so now I have added this to the original post. The old version had my phonetic versions only, and a mishearing/misunderstanding about agayuun.
My wedding to mi querido amor, Oscar Avellaneda, is in 3 ½ weeks. In about 2 weeks I am officiating the wedding of my two good friends, Garret and Mystie. In light of these VERY serious events, I have been asking for relationship/marriage advice from everyone I know who has been happily married for a long time—my parents, colleagues, Garrett’s stepmom, my boss, whomever, and from those who are divorced as well. I also ask it of my best friend who has been with her wife for 6 happy years now. Here is some of the advice I’ve gotten:
1.) You are responsible for your happiness. Take care of your own happiness.
-everyone I’ve asked
My mom adds, “Your partner can only fulfil, I don’t know, maybe 50% of your needs. Of course they have to be the most important needs, and then there are some needs you can’t get outside of the marriage, like sex. But you have to find ways to fulfil your own needs. You have to take care of yourself.”
2.) Let your partner be him/herself and you be yourself.
– Connie at work, many more people
3.) “Commitment is what drives the engine, not love.”
-Garrett’s stepmom, Amy
4.) The secret to a good, long-lasting marriage? Hard work and every once in a while a good therapist.
5.) Don’t sweep things under the rug. They won’t go away; they will fester and grow.
6.) Let your partner grow and learn their lessons at their own pace.
6.) Touch each other a lot. Gentle, loving touch bonds people and diffuses anger.
7.) You choose your partner to be your primary healer because there are some lessons and types of healing you can do only with them. There are lessons to be learned from the difficulties. Take the time and have the faith to learn them.
-Doris, our LCSW
8.) Have fun together.
-Doris & Oscar’s sister, Erika.
So, commitment and work.
Honesty and communication.
Patience and compassion.
Nurturing one another and yourself.
Acceptance. Acceptance. Acceptance.
I presume that’s why Jessica Laura and her wife Julia said, in their marriage vows, “I surrender myself to who you really are.” Because as hard as it can be, you have to be willing to do that, to truly accept, to surrender your hang-ups and fears to that true acceptance.
I am willing, but I will need the support of teachers and friends to know how to do that at all times. I guess that’s why we get married in communities of loved ones.
For that support, for this advice.
I am counting on your help, community.
Thank you for all you’ve already done.
And Oscar, I can’t wait. I am so excited.
I’ve been meaning to write, needing to think out some ideas thoroughly the way only writing can help me do, needing to share and dialogue. But I don’t know how to make time to write when…
- buying a house
- planning a wedding
- dealing with a torn something in my shoulder and an obdurate and dishonest insurance company
- planning somewhat regular presentations or speeches
- until recently studying for my MSW licensure
So I will make a list instead! (Always a more fun and less intimidating undertaking.)
List of things I want to write about (and/or talk to y’all about in person):
1.) A research conference in Germany about Latin America, identity, and intersectionality, paid me to use one of my photos for their poster and conference materials! Super excited. And I have Flickr to thank.
2.) How house buying seems to bring out the classist in us. (e.g. When you invest in a home, you want to think about resale value, and resale value depends on your neighbors, so if your neighbors have trashed-out cars in their yards…you get where this is going, right? We find ourselves in a position we never imagined ourselves in, with ideas we had scorned before now here in our palms…It’s an important thing for me to see, to better understand how disparities widen.)
3.) Did you know that some guy named Satoshi Kanazawa who seemed to have miraculously landed himself a professorship at the University of London (lord knows how, since the man seems to have no concept of scientific rigor or even basic tenets of science) wrote an article that Psychology Today was dumb enough to publish on their Scientific Fundamentalis Blog the other day. The title of the article? “Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women?“ Hm. I thought we had put an end to eugenics being accepted in the scientific world. I…could go on here, at length, but the point was a list, not an essay, so I will direct you to one of many blogs about the “study”: http://www.theroot.com/buzz/black-women-are-less-attractive-oh-really
4.) I want to talk about this concept that keeps coming up in my work examining health disparities in sexual and domestic violence, and keeps coming up in pop culture: this idea that some people, and most often, some women, are more “rapeable” than others. That is, in various eras of history (and today) social norms are created, often as a consequence of colonialism or slavery, that make people view forced or coerced sex against certain groups of women as more natural or inevitable or even justified. Therefore, victimization rates are higher and prosecution and conviction rates lower when someone rapes a woman from one of these groups. Some of the things that have brought this up lately:
- The scene in the (1950’s?) musical “South Pacific” where the Lieutenant, who previously had his eyes on the Southern white woman but had kept his respectful distance, is presented to the very young Polynesian teenage girl. They immediately have sex on the ground. He claims this is love. And all the other men go over to the island to have sex with the Islander women as well. All this sex with the “Natives” is seen as comical and light and romantic. Meanwhile, the courtship of the Southern white woman by the Frenchman is proceeding in an entirely different manner.
- When I was in Dillingham for a Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training, I met a wonderful Yup’ik man working as a Behavioral Health Aide Practitioner in one of the surrounding villages. He told us stories about military training officers he met in college who would ask him, “Oh, is it true what they say about Native women, that you can give them a bottle of vodka and they’ll do the whole barracks?” He told us how his son in the Marines heard over and over again that soldiers were lucky to be stationed in Alaska because of what they can do with those Native women…And they seem to act on that encouragement. Both this Behavioral Health Aide Practicioner and Shirley Moses, the director of the Alaska Native Women’s Coalition, spoke to the incredible number of rapes and pregnancies, many of them drug and alcohol-related, caused by men from the barracks in Fairbanks. I imagine this dynamic exists from our military here in Anchorage too. And not just the military, either. My friend Dena, who is Yup’ik and grew up in Bethel, was always sternly warned by her dad not to hang out with pilots because he had heard so much racist and sexist talk from them about Native women. We need good data on this issue and don’t have it yet.
- Wonderful forms of media: Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ powerful film “No! The Rape Documentary”; a radio interview with her, Marc Anthony Neal and others in which they talk about the way forced sex with Black women in the South was not considered rape—not only during slave years but well after them–; and Andrea Smith (Native American anti-violence activist and academic)’s book Conquest, in which she speaks of the US colonization of American Indian land and the way Indian women have, like their land and treaties, been seen as inherantly violable, an attitude reflected in the disproportionate rates of victimization of Native women and children).
5.) How I get frustrated when I hear social scientists or social critics talk about health problems such as obesity, violence, lung cancer, etc. as being caused primarily or overwhelmingly by only one thing or the other. Even after we get through the nonsense of those folks who claim that all disease—including social disease–is largely genetic, there seem to be divided camps within those who look at environmental factors. There are those who say it’s an individual’s experience of trauma, (for which there IS overwhelming evidence) and those who point to the larger societal messaging about food, body, smoking, gender, etc. and strucutral barriers, such as lack of safe exercise space or fresh veggies in urban centers, etc.–there’s also a lot of evidence for this. I encounter people so often who concentrate or offer only one side of this, skipping by the other factors with an almost dismissive mention, if anything. My response is that, uh, it all matters. And not only does one causal factor add on to another, but they intersect in really powerful ways that I’d love to see explored more. I’d love to see more research on, for example, how experiences of trauma shapes one’s reactions to racist and sexist messaging in the media and fast food and alcohol advertising. Can’t we combine these critical analyses and get somewhere deeper?
6.) Unresponsive and disconnected institutions and people within the institutions that are supposed to help people but don’t buy into the basic tenet of asking and involving the people they are supposed to serve. (I’m dealing with this from a particular Federal Government body right now at work. They seem to be very out of touch and non-participatory, very top-down. This is not effective, especially when working with indigenous peoples who have very good reason to mistrust agencies of the Federal Government.)
So if you want to talk about one of these things or argue about one of these things, please, when you run into me, just start. These are conversations I want to have. Or write me (though I can’t promise I’ll be quick in responding, what with moving and the wedding coming up in a month and a half).