BOULDER, CO-

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.

The Day of the Dead, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

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?

Guadalupe de los Muertos

 

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6 Comments copied from the archived TNB site »

2008-11-03 07:09:35

Tao Cha-Ching.

This expression totally made my day.

Happy Birthday!

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-11-03 09:12:50

…going jing-a-ling-a-ling…

I hope that didn’t spoil it )

Thanks.

Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-03 08:04:07

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.
It is perhaps my greatest sin that I have not lived life to the fullest.

There’s no better communion with the dead than the fresh, clear pool of self-reflection.
Um… “clear pool” ??? I knew I was doing something wrong. All I’ve got is mud.

Did I ever tell you the time I was healed by the Virgin of Guadalupe? Oh that’s such a good story.

Speaking of good stories… you bring the serenity, Uche. Good tidings to you on this celebration of thy glorious birth. May every moment that follows be filled with abundant life.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-11-03 09:11:32

Um… “clear pool” ??? I knew I was doing something wrong. All I’ve got is mud.

Good one. Of course I don’t believe that for an instant ) The Catholic sense of “clear” is my whole problem. It’s clear when it’s all good and holy. I gravitate to the pagan sense of “clear”, where there is plenty of good and holy, and plenty of ungood and unholy, but rather than close your eyes and cross yourself against the mess, you just embrace it all whole. And that’s what miracles are really all about. Seeing clearly through the muckiest muck.

Did I ever tell you the time I was healed by the Virgin of Guadalupe? Oh that’s such a good story.

Well now you’re copped. I’m going to hound you incessantly until you share. There’s nothing like healing from Guadalupe or any of the other quasi-pagan apparitions you find far enough from the silly smells and bells of Rome. The beauty of these is that as they touch you, they’re touching you with all the humanity of others who’ve shared the experience. And that shared humanity is where the true healing comes from.

Thanks so much for the kind wishes. I’m a sucker for eloquent blessings. Namasté.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2008-11-03 09:42:03

“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.”

Your prose is filled with gems like this. Happy Birthday to you, Uche – may you have plenty of spiritual vacuum time today. And when you’re done…give us a ring and we’ll come celebrate with you.

2008-11-14 13:44:11

It’s great to read how other soul’s feast early in November.

Day of the Dead. One of my favorite times of the year. We usually get dressed up as skeletones and dance around. My oldest kid plays violin on that day in a Latino ska band. They get dressed up and painted up too. We usually drink a few and remember old memories with the spirits hurtling by our celebrations. Though, most reflections are usually saved for the following day during sombrero-less hangovers…

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards. To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

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