Well, are you?
Okay, I admit it. I am much too bold; crossing the line into a Class-A Jerk category that is not at all ingratiating even under the best of circumstances; by presuming the right to inquire about such a personal matter.
After all, at most we are literary acquaintances, unless you happen to be my wife, or my small circle of close friends, in which case I would not be asking this question for which I already know the answer.
Or maybe you have read some of my other comments, or short stories, or tomes masquerading as novels. Maybe we have mingled at one or several of the other literary soirees for which I have served as court jester and black tie host.
But even if that is the case, then at most we are cocktail friends. We see each other’s faces warmly; exchange the kind of pleasantries that, after two or three rounds of martinis, descend into ribald humor; but I cannot quite recount your name, except to the extent that “the girl who laughs through her nose” or “the guy who just stares up at the ceiling, while his bird brain wife chirps every last word that ever needs to be said, and then some” will suffice as your name.
So, yes, unless you are my wife or one of my close friends, I should close my mouth right now, blush crimson red, and wander aimlessly into the crowd of guests as if suddenly lost in the deepest thought.
And when you are stepping out the front door later this evening; putting on your lady’s fur coat or your gentleman’s overcoat, depending upon which of the two genders you have chosen for the particular soiree that is to be found in these pages; I should pretend to be so engrossed in conversing with some other guest that my wife steps forward and bids you the pleasant adieu.
That is what I should do. But I am not. I am going to violate the very first commandment of any host (though not at all a commandment for a court jester it should be noted). I am going to make you uncomfortable right now by asking you a loaded question that I really have no proper business asking you.
Are you afraid to die?
Well, are you?
Before your jaw drops, and you begin to stare at me as if observing a fat booger snaking out from each of my nostrils, maybe I should explain why such a personal question pops into my mind in the first place.
First of all, it has nothing to do with you. I am not suggesting that, in my eyes anyway, you seem like the kind of person who really should be asking such a question in his or her own mind. I am not picking up any death vibe from you, though that will change if you sample the Oysters Rockefeller any time tonight.
Really, the question has everything to do with who I am and where I am.
I am a precocious dreamer nearing his fortieth year in this strange world of ours with more than enough rearing and education in traditional Catholicism; not the happy-clappy kind, but the spooky variety that prevailed in those black crypts we called churches before the Second Vatican Council; to be guilt ridden and gray when it comes to matters of faith, death, and salvation. I really try to mask such grayness behind a veneer of learned reverence at Mass and detached propriety at coffee hour (an affectation achieved in smiling affably at whatever the blue hairs may be mumbling through their cheese and crackers), but all the pretense of Christian joy falls away when the gray shadows come out to play on the mind. I have no doubt that you know of which I speak, whether or not yours is also a guilt ridden and gray faith, because we all have experienced once, and some of us many more times, the sense of hopelessness that prevails during the witching hour. You know, the fear transitioning into a realization that the dead are just dead and that Aunt Mildred is not waiting for us at the end of a tunnel.
In the daylight hours, I have said on several occasions that there is really no reason to fear death. If there is an afterlife, then we live on in a manner we may presume will be better, or at least much the same, as our present lives on this fruited plain. No afterlife worthy of the name can be worse than a hot and dreary afternoon of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-10. If instead there is no afterlife, then everything just goes black; and, very mercifully, we have no real consciousness that everything is going to remain black forevermore, sort of like watching in eternity back to back episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
But during the witching hour, I know that, when I release my last breath, everything just goes to black, and I remain conscious that everything is black. I know that death is a consciousness trapped in on itself; a ghost moan that is far too weak and insubstantial to sift in the breeze, let alone be heard by the ones still hating and loving and dreaming in the living world; a prison sentence really that never tick-tocks any closer to the moment that the good ole boy warden is going to release me from my cell, because time is stuck in that eternal present that only makes sense to people waiting at airports and to the dearly departed.
And that is beyond scary. It is despair hunching its shoulders forward and curling its fingers into rat claws. It is madness drooling spit down a wrinkled old chin and chewing ravenously at a Black Death wall that is not even really there.
It is the fun house mirror inside of which you are observing timelessness; a fun house mirror in which you are dead bones cackling beneath the surface of an endless sea; the same dark gunk everywhere; the odd creak in your joints the only sound you can hear in an underwater grave of eternally still salt slime; and the teeth chatter the only sensation of the silly god in your everlasting life.
Well, that is who I am, at least when I am peeping out from beneath thin sheets and observing how the gray shadows line up along the sides of my bed. I tell myself that they are illusions; you know, like the ghouls inside of fun house mirrors; but I know that they are real, or at least more real than probably I am.
As for where I live right now, let me first say that I forgive you, really, if you have had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to read the back cover of this book. I pay attention to the front cover, and sometimes the reviews (not the “official” ones from those esteemed book reviewers who have some sort of an ideological or stylistic axe to grind, so much as the “amateur” ones from the good people who are still living in their parents’ basements, or working way too many hours at a dead end job, or taking care of snot nosed ragamuffins, or just enjoying their golden years, but who still manage to drop into soirees, now and then); but I have been known to delve into the pages without even a slight care in my heart for the biographical sketch that the author provides at the back. In my view, this is as much “living on the edge” as any of the sex dares out there.
But I digress. Is it really all that strange that a budding wordsmith should dabble so promiscuously with the tools of his trade? I do not believe so, though I admit that my penchant for the tangent may get a bit tiresome even for those fine persons like yourself who have decided to drink my cocktails and to eat my hours devours (though, again, I would hope not the smelly Oysters Rockefeller).
Anyway, I live with my wife and our Shih Tzu in San Miguel de Allende, a Spanish colonial enclave of artists, writers, and hippie retreads nestled within a grouping of high mountains a few hours north of Mexico City. Ours is an oasis of Gringos and Mexicans living anywhere between thirty and fifty years in the past and indulging whatever right-brained pursuits would have eluded their financial capacities and their limited talents north of the Rio Grande. There are genuine stars here, but most of us are wannabes with just enough delusions of grandeur to keep the little town hopping in dance and in song well into the balmy nights.
It does not take very long to recognize that Mexico has three matriarchal icons. Together, they comprise the Trinity of the land and of the people; a kind of Mother Earth yin (indigenous paganism) to the Father God yang (Catholicism) that seems to keep everything in a balance here that we Gringos often perceive as indications of sleepy sombrero laziness and “mañana” irresponsibility.
There is laziness and irresponsibility here. I am not denying it. But there is also a groove that is quite appealing to we Gringos who want to pretend for a season or two that we are latter day Ernest Hemingways, donning the panamas and the khakis of mid-twentieth century O.S.S. operatives, and lounging away a mind fit for slaying dragons on Wall Street in the small talk of bored bohemians and make believe intellectuals. There is a real opportunity here to waste a life.
And so, as counterparts to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there are La Reina del Cielo, the Mother of Eternal Life; La Calavera Catrina, the silly skeleton woman in Victorian drag who is in essence the Daughter of Everlasting Death (a rebellious daughter, notwithstanding her old lady garb, who is kicking her heels back in that flippant manner that suggests that the existential finality of death is absurd); and Frida Kahlo, that mid-twentieth century mannish artist whose very life is a surreal blending of life and death motifs, so that she stands as if a Holy Spirit sharing equally in the energy of the Mother and the Daughter.
Okay, I admit it. I borrowed from Saint Augustine’s allegorical treatment of the divine relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and I did so as a shameless advertisement of my precocious theological education. I am the host of this soiree, after all, so is it wrong for me to rub my ego a little?
Regardless, death is everywhere in Mexico. It is the very fabric of life for a people accustomed to conquest and deprivation. It may be an excuse for lazy and irresponsible behavior, but I do not think so. An excuse is an attempt – very often a poor attempt – to explain away condemned behavior. It implies that the person making the excuse had a choice. After all, since when do we feel a need to offer up an excuse for an Act of God that is obviously outside of our control?
Death is so much in the cultural blood of the people here that it is really not a choice for them to insist that it is somehow totally separable from life. In our Anglo-German world, we can philosophize all we want about how death has no bearing on life; but for the Mexican, and frankly for most people in the wide and mysterious world beyond “Gringolandia,” eternal life is in the here and the now, and the ghosts wallowing in their chains routinely creep up on us at night.
This is scary, especially if death is what we fear it is: consciousness of an eternal blackness all around us; awareness, but with no more ability to cry out; and a fear that time just tick-tocks into an oblivion that will not include a light at the end of the tunnel, or an Uncle Ernest waiting to greet us with open arms into a land of milk and honey somewhere over the rainbow. It means that a life can be a living death; that the eternal blackness can be everywhere, even prior to our last breath on a deathbed; and that sorrow is never too far from our joy.
No wonder we latter day Ernest Hemingways are wasting our years in old and worn out cantinas. We are drinking in the death here and fancying that it is the elixir for what troubles us. It is our preferred señorita when life is too hard.
And so I ask myself every day: Are you afraid to die? Well, are you? Or do you think that somehow you can make death afraid of you, and if so then what?
Good questions, I think. And so I shall smile, and turn them back to you.