Every once in a while I run across the Dead, lying in gutters, their faces sometimes peaceful, sometimes locked in a final grimace of pain, eyes milky or shriveled shut. I almost always stop to witness and pay my respects.
A teacher of mine, Martín Prechtel, talks about an old Tzutujil Mayan practice of throwing pottery, greek-wedding-like, against the stones and crying, “Hesh!”, which I understand means, “eat!”.
The Tzutujil do this to feed to unseen other, the divine, because we take so much from the world, they give back in this way. A gift has only been fully received by the divine when its physical body is destroyed. And so they smash cups, plates, bowls.
A good friend of mine, Hedieh, a woman of Persian descent, told me that when people in her culture accidentally break a cup, plate, or bowl, they thank it – because it took the bad luck meant for them.
This arrow of this idea hit its mark in me when I lost my favorite tea mug, a magnificent gentleman of Finnish extraction, and a twin to one I brought back for my sweetheart.
As I looked at the shards of my beloved cup scattered across the kitchen floor, I thanked him/her/it/ze for taking my bad luck. And feeling overwhelmed me – suddenly I had been drinking from the cupped hand of a hero, a protector. I felt deep gratitude, and the colors of life felt richer. I still think of that cup fondly and wonder what bad luck it grounded.
I’ve witnessed those raised by this culture often offer pity to the Dead lying by the road. Opossums, squirrels, raccoons, cats, rats, we usually see on the streets and in our gutters. On paths we might find moles, shrews, mice. These wild people, lying there, having lived their tiny heroic lives in the midst of all this madness, elicit “awwwws” and “that’s so sad” from passersby.
On the one hand, a cat, a family member (I wept for days when my cat died), we tend to treat as infants or children, and I understand the offering of a parental pity.
But for the others – adult heroes and heroines, raising children and not giving up their wild lives in the midst of industry, I find pity a poor offering for such beings.
Parents offer pity, sure, but we wander far from the path when infantilizing these wild beings. They come here to teach us, to remind us what a well lived and wild life looks like, even raised on garbage and poison.
In some stories, these beings participated in the actual building of the world itself, that we only came later to live in. And here they lie, still building it, still living in it.
I think by offering thanks for their heroism, we dignify both them and ourselves, and come just a little closer to our human selves that these wild beings would then thank in turn when Death comes for us.