The priest who guided me through catechism, old wotshisname with kebab skewer eyes, liked to remind me that since I was born immediately after all the saints had scoured the earth of Satan’s minions, I had a special duty to be a vessel of purity for the sake of All Souls my every birthday. Right. If you shake young Catholics they tumble into two bins. One for those who ask questions, and one for those who don’t. I was definitely in the former category, which ensured a pretty short expiry date on the grace of my soul. I remember wondering “whose crazy idea was it to put me in charge of the whitewash kingdom on my birthday?” As long as I can remember, what I’ve wanted most for my birthday has been serenity. Serenity and purity sure as hell don’t go together. At least not in the Catholic conception of purity.
Just look at those two in the painting. Does that look like a pre-teen’s idea of a birthday? I guess between my priest and the painter Bouguereau, that seems about right. I suspect that if Rome would learn a thing or two from Mexicans (for example) on Día de los Muertos, they’d have a bit less trouble retaining the candidates.
Killjoys aside, I guess I counted myself lucky that my Mom always had a dozen or so toys nicely wrapped up for me on my birthday. I don’t think my Dad ever approved of her profligacy, but for my sake he kept the racket down and just handed me the dozen or so books he’d bought for me at the thrift store.
Later in November I would definitely have fun with the toys, but on the 2nd, I would typically spend a good deal of quiet time in my room with the new-ish books. I’d tolerate a party just fine, as long as no one stirred up any trouble, and I had some spiritual vacuum time left over after the guests had gone.
I’ve never really worried about aging, and there’s no way I’d ever spend my birthday fretting about the approach of my Appointment in Samara. I usually indulge myself materially throughout the year, so presents are no big deal, though I always appreciate a gift of an apt book (like the Collected Aimé Césaire a friend gave me last year). All the day really means to me is that I crave a lack of malaise and a lack of drama. I’m satisfied if I can walk with my pockets full of Tao Cha-Ching. I can brave the solstice once I’ve pampered myself with Epicure.
I don’t mind sharing my day with the throngs of unsettled dead, as long as they keep it cool, and that’s never really a problem, since they need the serenity even more than I do. When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Don Juan Diego, legend has it she directed him to gather blossoms on a hilltop even though it was the middle of winter. I imagine that aside from all the other meanings assigned to this portent, it recalls most strongly how we can gather a live tradition from the barrows of our ancestors. Shedding tears and blood over the soil in high Catholic style is really bad form, because tears and blood contain salt, and that’s no way to nurture flowers. There’s no better communion with the dead than the fresh, clear pool of self-reflection.
As Césaire says in “Births” (my own translation from the French):
We shall lap up
The spilt blood
And grow from it into strong wheat
Of more precise dreams
Of less splintered thoughts
Don’t blow at the motes of dust
The antidote set in the awe-inspiring rose and glass shall counter the ancient venom.
Moralizing is what blurs the dreams, and what shatters thoughts in the first place. Religions too often call us to mortify our flesh, and when we glumly go along with it, I’m sure it just infuriates the departed to see us waste the warmth of our existence.
The quiescence Césaire describes, in which the ashes and dust of All Souls can settle on my sense, giving me true clarity, canceling out the poison of the ancient terrors told to humanity–that’s my dearest birthday gift, and also my gift to others. My born role is Virgin of Guadalupe, somewhat related to the sterile duty suggested by my old priest, but flavored richly with pagan spices, and fortified with the meat of imagination. What more could you possibly ask from a feast day?
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