Dia De Los Muertos
“Are you serious dom? Not only are your novels long, now they’re in Spanish?” Si! Now let me give you folks a little history lesson.
This year’s Stachetoberfest lands on October 29th, which will be the latest in the year we have ever held the Fest. Four days later, Latin America and its patrons will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” to the gringos. You have all seen the face paint but let me explain the background because I believe it is pertinent to this vocation.
All Hallows Eve, (Halloween) is the eve of All Saints Day (November 1st), the day we honor all the Saints. November 2nd, is All Souls Day, the day we remember all the dead. In the Mexican culture, as seen in the movie “Coco,” altars are built with pictures of the deceased. They’re honored with treats, booze and other trinkets that memorialize their memory. “Polito! You can’t say ‘Mexican!!!’ Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say Hispanicor Latin American? Let’s try and keep it PC huh?!” Listen here gringos. First of all, when are these emails PC? And second, Hispanics are from España! Spain. And Latin Americans are from Latin America! Mexicans are from Mexico! Can I get an órale! …Any ways, back to the Mexican holy day:
Death. Back in the day the faithful would spend much of their time praying for a good death. As you can imagine wayback in the day, there were plenty of ugly ways to die. (Reference the movie “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”). A good death, was a sign of honor, proof of a good life. The faithful made devotions to the Rosary reciting 53 times, “…pray for us, now, and at the hour of our death, amen.” It was a spiritual investment made for the end. The Day of the Dead is the day all spirits are resurrected in the hearts of their loved ones and the two share intimately those 24 precious hours.
“Thanks for the history lesson dom but what is the point?” The point is, the fire service (police, military, etc.) has a very intimate relationship with death. How many of your non First Responder friends have witnessed frequent death in their lifetime? Some may have been at their parent’s/grandparent’s bedside when they passed. Some may witness a traumatic accident in which someone is killed. But most of the world’s experience is infrequent.
Ours is not. We are present before it happens. We are present after. We all have a handful of precious calls in which we escorted them through death’s door. Sometimes we are surprised to find one of their witnessing loved ones, a spouse, a daughter, a son…in our own arms, looking for a strength to carry them through this foreign moment that has become so familiar to us. There is an unbreakable connection with death. Like a familiar relationship. You know when He’s near and you know when He’s far, far away. I saw him in the eyes of a 33-year-old mother of two toddlers last week, who was navigating the new effects of chemo. Sometimes He’s welcome but other times, I’m so angry when I smell him.
If you know or love a firefighter, cop, ER nurse, military, etc., this is important. They give up more than you know so that you can feel safe. So that you can live on the right side of the looking glass. There is more sacrificed than meets the eye. Let me take you behind the curtain.
As I mentioned, this high frequency of traumatic experience isn’t normal. Even the anticipation of it isn’t normal. I think of the first time I witnessed something traumatic. Elevated heart rate, heightened awareness, increased blood pressure-providing oxygen enriched blood at a furious rate, ready to feed the body for whatever it might need to do…fight…flight…? The body acclimates. Now, I picture my brain yelling at me, “Listen, I am not going to give you a full adrenal gland response 10 times a day, 10 days a month, this is ridiculous! We are gonna run outta resources down here! …Oh yeah…don’t test me, I’ll shut down your thyroid! We’ll see how awesome you are without your thyroid gland!”
My point is, death becomes normal. Trauma becomes normal. All these exposures to the dark side of life become normal. We become calloused, immune to the proper human response.
At first, this really bothered me. For a loooongg time, years. I didn’t like being desensitized to things that used to be important to me. I didn’t like being separated from the rest of humanity in these arenas. I didn’t like feeling less, reacting less. The body doesn’t just tone down the adrenal response to trauma, it tones it down on everything! Fear goes down, surprise goes down but so does excitement and joy.
But lately, I have started to see the beauty in it. I was on the Camp Fire last year as a Public Information Officer (=inform the public and the press of the happenings of the fire). 80-some people died in all the ways you can die in a fire and I found myself able to love with a full heart. My focus wasn’t on the feelings of loss, or the death around me. It was on those living in front of me. It felt like a holy gift. It was what the public needed. A level-headed performer in the face of tragedy. This is the paycheck we receive through the exposure we cannot avoid. We have the ability to love when the sky is falling.
Now let’s connect the dots. For Dia De Los Muertos, if you look at the most popular artwork worn on that day, you often see people with 1/2 of their face painted as a skeleton and the other half normal (often symbolic for a loved one taken too early, a child perhaps). This half painted patron is the one I want to focus on. I see a representation of the bridge between life and death. This is allegorical to the vocation of the first responder. We spend enough time in the arena of death to be comfortable with it but we are still condemned to operate and coexist among the living. This is not always easy. You can tell someone’s been a firefighter, cop or exposed to battle for a long time when they don’t like crowds, they do not like going to busy places and they don’t like environments they cannot predict. Everything comes at a cost.
You may have heard of The Divine Comedy. It is a 14th century Italian, rhyming poem, composed of 99 stanzas, 14,233 lines. The main character is led by a guide through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory and Heaven. In “Inferno,” Virgil, the guide to Dante, escorts him in a boat across the river Styx to the gates of hell. Within the river, are many souls that are just below the waterline. I picture this scene and I relate to it. Not the hell part or the condemnation part but the wading part. You see brothers and sisters, first responders develop their own boat in this job. Their own emotional membrane that they wade within. They can cross through death and trauma and some of the normally most awful situations and come out untouched.
We can wade through hell and not be touched by it. This is a gift! Not a free gift, oh God no! It is very, very expensive! But a gift none the less.
Now, to all you readers, this is the part where I want to address the firefighters, police, military, the damaged, etc. that you are or that you love. This part is crucial. The face paint! What is important in these half painted celebrators of this sacred day, is to remember that only half of their faces are painted. Yes, we first responders have forfeited half of our humanity for this job, in the service of others…and that is a noble thing! But, there is still half left, and that is the part that I want to bring to your attention. The human part is the part that we need to dive into! This is the part that we need to bring home, the part that we need to express and practice with our children and with our spouses. The dead part is a great performer! It is rattled by nothing, performs great under stress and it is unaffected by circumstance. But it’s not real. It needs a host.
We must practice our human side! We must allow ourselves to get excited about things that may seem dumb to us. We need to stop and enjoy beauty when it notices us. We have to be silly with our kids and act like a fool with our beloveds. We need to shut down the narrator and move on our joyful impulses or maybe even create our own. We need to forfeit our control, let life happen. Last night I set up a poker night for my wife and 5 kids. They all had real money (my money) and were allowed to keep what they made. We had candy, put on music, it was perfect. In the middle of the game, the kids started dancing to a song they loved and poker was obviously not the focus anymore. I became frustrated trying to keep everyone on task and found myself getting angry at their spontaneous joy. Then I suddenly realized -this isn’t a poker party anymore, it’s a dance party. It just happened. Life just happened. But the performer in me couldn’t enjoy it until I released my control of the outcome. We danced until bedtime.
You see the best choice is not always our natural choice. We need to practice empathy. We need to see situations through other’s eyes. That allowance is humane…human. Remember, there’s two sides to the face paint! That dark, melancholic perception may just be through the wrong eye. We must practice! You might feel like a poser at first. But who didn’t feel like a poser the first time they lifted weights in a packed gym. I started with the bar in 9th grade. But you have to start.
Now just to clarify, this article is written by a hypocrite. I suck at this. I am a poser. I’m trying to play poker at a dance party…but at least I’m benching the bar.
This year’s StachetoberFest t-shirt is a reminder. Under the face paint is a real human. He/She is still alive and well. We might have to do a little work to recover the heart, but it’s in there. We in North San Diego County just lost another firefighter to suicide. When the face paint stays on, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Granted, many of us come here very broken and that is a factor but we must fight! We must be the only living among the dead, not the opposite!
In a time where emotional health is encouraged, I would invite you first responders to look under the hood. We firefighters, etc., are great at taking a prejudice that applies to 5% of society and blanketing across the whole world. Wrong eye people! If you need to, throw a patch over that bad boy and pirate-it-up for a while. I promise the fruits will feel unnatural at first but you’ll find your loved ones responding favorably, they’ve got two eyes open.
We will release the details of StachetoberFest closer to the event. All you need to know now, is that it’s on October 29th at Stone Brewery. T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and apparel are available online at https://stachetoberfest.org/shop We have a new system this year, everything is shipped directly. The shirts are already printed. You buy it online and it is shipped to your door immediately following. We are working on the hats, those are not printed yet, so there may be some lag time for those. Thank you so much for supporting this great cause, so much good has come of it.
That’s all folks. God Bless America!
Ps. Yes the shirts are black again. We forgot to tell the artist to produce a logo that would accommodate a shirt color other than black…oops. Next year. Black is slimming, own it!
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