Call and Response: A Conversation

Muertos Altar

Let’s have a conversation. About death.

It’s been on our minds lately. Everyone seems to be talking about it.

This is the culmination of a season where, according to a panelist last night at the Viajero-Borish Dia de los Muertos Collective event at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, we have been observing the slow process of death, measured by the gradual change in the height of the sun in our sky. Mejica tradition says it spans six 20-day months. Dominican palo ritual says it is a time for offerings to the ancestors. In Haiti, it is a night of dancing for Guédé, a “flirtatious spirit.” You’d be flirtatious, too, if you were an intermediary between the living and the dead.

It’s a dialog we’re having and have always had. A way to keep up with the eternal task of salving the colonial wound. A few weeks ago, seemingly out of context but of course always within it, Cornel West critiqued the globalized consumer culture by calling out our inability to deal with death. “The problem with market culture is that nobody wants to die,” he said. “So you’re unprepared.”

This week I felt a little unprepared again. Elaine Rivera, a journalist and friend of mine, even if we didn’t see each other all that much in the last few years, died suddenly, too young. She was far more gracious and persistent that I probably will ever be, but how do I tell her? Doug Ireland, one of the more outrageously defiant political writers I encountered during my years at Voice died a day before Lou Reed, who provoked an ambivalence in me about his work that I was forced to reassess. It also led me to consider the role of his obscure ex-wife, Sylvia.

Then there was Tato Laviera. He had been unconscious for months, living a lengthy transition to the spirit world. They say your life passes before your eyes before you die. Maybe Laviera, who had pioneered the bilingual, bicultural safe space of border thinking and writing in a way that cleared up a lot of bullshit about who was Puerto Rican and who was American, had such a full life it took that long for it to pass before him.

Laviera has passed into the world of the ancestors, into the energy of other spirits. We live in a monotheistic society, one that defends itself by envisioning non-Western spiritual systems as polytheistic. But one of the panelists at the Julia said that it’s not so much deities that are revered, they are more like energies. These energies are often likely to be the residue of communication, or the dialog, between we, the “living,” and the ancestors, or the earth, and its spiritual manifestations.

The easiest way to understand this conversation is by listening to the drums. I can hear them on Saturday nights sometimes, defining the rhythmic energy for blocks all around me. I don’t always respond out loud, but in my head, I’m always answering back. The blues troubadour does the same–sings the blue notes, answers back on the guitar. It’s a matter of talking to the dead, and the dead answering back.

In the months leading up to this week of days of the dead, I have been writing, silently. I didn’t know it, but I was asking for something. I finally told a friend about it. A lot of times lately, I’ve been waking up with some kind of song in my head. Are you sure you’ve never heard it before, she asked. No, I’d never heard these songs. Sometimes it’s a like a post-disco r&b song, others it’s a jazz improvisation, others it’s just a piano, a series of chords, or a melodic progression. 

An old writer’s exercise is to write down your dreams as soon as you wake up so that you don’t forget them. It lets you listen to your subconscious. I thought maybe I could turn on a recorder and try to awkwardly hum these songs–who knows, I might be a composer and don’t know it. But last night, I realized I was reading this all wrong. I had spent days, weeks, writing, asking. And now, I was getting my answer. It was up to me to become conversant in the language being used.

It’s a conversation I needed to have. A call and response.

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