Día de los Muertos

When I was in Mexico, a friend asked me what I was most afraid of, and I replied, with not even a breath in between: “Death.”

He looked at me like I was crazy. “Aren’t you afraid to die?” I asked.

No, he said, unblinkingly. “When it’s my time, it’s my time.”

I don’t share his attitude, but I love the idea of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday dedicated to celebrating life by remembering those who’ve passed.

[Painting by Aunia Kuhn.]

In his classic treatise on Mexican life, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz wrote:

The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain, or irony …The Mexican’s indifference toward death is fostered by his indifference toward life … It is natural, even desirable, to die, and the sooner the better. We kill because life — our own or another’s — is of no value. Life and death are inseparable, and when the former lacks meaning, the latter becomes equally meaningless. Mexican death is a mirror of Mexican life. And the Mexican shuts himself away and ignores both of them. Our contempt for death is not at odds with the cult we have made of it.

I don’t think we can prescribe one homogenous view of death to every citizen of Mexico, but it’s a romantic notion, and certainly applicable to some people.

When I started Loose Gringa this year, I felt spiritually dead. You’ve heard the story: I was in a depleted relationship; I was bored, spent, exhausted creatively and physically; I needed rejuvenation. I had been living like a dead person. Carefully, routinely. I was living in fear of change as though it were death itself. I was backed myself into a weird little nest of familiarity and comfort, and I suddenly wanted OUT.

So I ended my relationship and went to Mexico.

Admittedly, I took a while to loosen up. Even with all the tequila readily available.

Did I want to learn to scuba dive? Honestly, I didn’t. I was scared shitless. I didn’t want to die. And on my first dive, on the way down, mid-panic attack, I forced myself to continue to descend. And I completed two dives that day.

Did I want to climb the Coba pyramid? No. I had visions of falling and cracking my skull along its treacherous steps. But I forced myself to haul it to the top, and it was worth it.

Swimming with the whale sharks? My first thought when I get in the water was, “I know they’re not dangerous, but will I die somehow anyway?” You’re being ridiculous, Sarah, I said. I even grabbed one’s fin and went for a ride.

But sometimes, I felt as though death was even trailing me. There was the fieldworker I helped usher to (hopeful) safety after he’d been bitten by a viper! Remember?

So much death. Death at every turn.

Pushing myself was difficult, but eventually I learned to let go of trying to control the outcome of everything. The release came in a Coba cenote, when I volunteered to jump from a ledge into an icy blue underground pool without even a second look, or an appraisal of how high-up I was.

I threw myself into death.

And I survived.

Now, on the eve of my 30th birthday, I commemorate my near-death pre-Mexico life. Now, I can’t imagine going back to the static world I’d been living in. Being in Boston is hard enough! Now it’s hard for me to stay in one place. I am constantly looking up places I want to visit: Colombia, Australia, Thailand … checking airline prices and struggling to keep my imagination, and wallet, in check. Now I daydream about quitting my day job and just fleeing. Teaching English somewhere, scraping by, and loving it.

And I will!

Life has opened up, and these are all things I’m working toward. When the world refuses to end on Dec. 21, 2012, big changes are in store for Loose Gringa and 2013. I wish my dreams were happening now, and that I could update this blog everyday with tales from the road … but, patience, dear reader. Soon.

I return to Mexico on Nov. 3 — my 30th birthday! — with ever more hijinks to report, I’m sure. So I promise more Loose Gringa posts. That, I can deliver.

But tonight I’m going to Ole, in Cambridge, to drink tequila with friends and celebrate my coming of age and Día de los Muertos in one rich, margarita-drenched, mole fiesta.

By Saturday, this is where I’ll be. Home, sweet Cozumel. For one week, you’ll have me.

Now a lingering cough is threatening to thwart my scuba diving plans. My, how life — and death — can change in not even a year.

The gringa rides again!