In the last two days we have passed beyond the veil on the Celtic new year of Samhain and emerged into Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
This has been a hard year, with heroes, inspirations, leaders and friends crossing the veil, making the journey, going into the earth and simply slipping beyond our grasp. We have lost many, I have lost many, but they remain with us, or so say our old traditions and I am all about old traditions.
Within a ten day stretch this year, I lost two absolutely amazing friends.
The first, Kevin was a kid when I met him. He was a young, enthusiastic, funny and caring guy who loved nothing as much as he loved magic, illusion, the thing that he chose as his path, his career and his calling. I was managing the Funnybone Comedy club in Pittsburgh at the time and a hobbyist magician myself.
Kevin and I met at a shop called The Cuckoo’s Nest, a local magic shop that always had one or two magicians working behind the counter that could demonstrate tricks for you before you purchased them. Kevin was a demonstrator and his enthusiasm was infectious.
He was a gifted kid, with great hands for magic, and he was funny, created clever banter and had a gift for improvisation that set him apart from many of the socially awkward young people who fall in love with magic.
Kevin and I became friends quickly, and over the next few years I worked very hard to see that he got noticed in the industry. I did not make him famous but I introduced him to some people that helped him find his way in and in return, I was lucky enough to watch him blossom and become Kevin Hurley: Magician!
After I left the Funnybone, Kevin and I lost touch for a while. I was pleased to run into him here and there and we would catch up, always picking up conversations as if we had never left off and he always was most understanding about my obsession with beautiful decks of playing cards and would always have new ones to tell me about.
Over the last couple of years, we had taken to exchanging emails through facebook and I noticed that he did not seem to have the same enthusiasm, and in the final months before his death, he seemed to be ready to give up on magic, a decision I tried to guide him away from, explaining to him that he had discovered his bliss and to love that thing and it would find a way to provide for him.
I had no idea that it had gotten so bad.
No one did, but isn’t that what we always say?
“I didn’t know…”
On July 30th of this year, Kevin took his own life and the world lost magic.
Not just the sleight of hand kind of magic, but the making strangers laugh kind of magic, the making children gape in wonder kind, the drawing people together kind, and the distracting people from the pain of life kind of magic.
I attended his viewing and moved among the mourners quietly, finding his mom and letting her cry on my shoulder. I gave her the only gift I could, a story of her son that made her smile, made her laugh, made her remember something other than the hollowed out image of her son that lay in the box in the front of the room. That wasn’t Kevin, Kevin had moved into all of us, all of us that carry stories and memories of our loved ones. Because after all, that is all we ever really have of them to begin with, their stories and their memories, which are also stories…
Only a few days later, I learned that another friend, one of the greatest storytellers, poets and personalities that I had ever known had decided to go into hospice as his body was shutting down on multiple levels.
Oscar Carpenter was one of “those guys.” A larger than life guy was a booming voice, a laugh that could bring down walls and a mad love for his family and for all things Irish. There were few if any folk songs he didn’t know the words to, he lived to be in a pub atmosphere with a band singing and playing the songs he adored and he wrote poetry that shined with his love for his heritage.
I had known Oscar since I was a child and he had been a huge inspiration to me as a storyteller. He and my dad would bring Mac’s Donut shop in Aliquippa to a standstill as they traded tales of a hundred subjects and you never left those meetings without either having learned something or laughed yourself sore.
We gathered around Oscar, asleep under the influence of pain meds, and we told stories about him. Musicians came, storytellers, family and friends and we surrounded him with the things he loved most and eased him along.
We visited Oscar on August 6th and he slipped quietly, painlessly into the dark on the afternoon of the 7th.
My heart ached. I was still in pain from the loss of Kevin and though Oscar’s was timelier, as he was 88, the scars were open and I was in tears quite a bit for a few days there.
Oscar’s funeral was a less solemn affair as was his wish. We laughed, we sang, we traded stories, we joked about him watching us, making sure we weren’t moping around, but I am pretty sure that was actually the case.
The service itself was filled with poetry, music by the amazing Terry Griffith and a priest who was as big, loud and raucous as Oscar had ever been. We sent him off well, and then all retired to his favorite pub where the musicians that loved him played for hours and we all got a little wobbly and remembered…
There is a shop near here, one owned by a lovely woman named Lisa. It is called Mexico Lindo and it stands in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and it is an amazing and beautiful place to visit.
Each year Lisa (with a lot of help) erects a huge Ofrenda, which is an altar which is used in the celebration of the Day of the Dead. The ofrenda is built as an offering to those who have passed on and exists as an invitation for those restless spirits to come and visit us. The altar is typically covered in orange flowers, as orange is the color of death. It also contains things such as cakes, cigars, alcoholic beverages and photographs of those who died in the previous year. It also may have sugar skulls, statues representing death and masks, all brought together to act as gigantic celebration of those we have lost.
Lisa allows people to come in and write the names of loved ones on paper monarch butterflies, which are then added to the ofrenda, and thus adding the invitation for our departed to visit us. This is an important event for me, because remembering Kevin & Oscar allows me to assure their immortality.
We can never own a person. No matter if we give birth to them, love them, are lovers with them or any other imaginable scenario. We cannot possess another person for even a moment, and so in truth, all we ever have of them is our memory and our stories of them, and so as long as we re-tell those tales, as long as we re-visit those memories, then we truly own as much of them as we ever have.
Tell the stories of your parents, your loved ones, your friends, tell me and tell each other about them and as long as those stories exist, those people become immortal.
It is within our power to grant that amazing gift.
But with the passing of Samhain/Halloween and Dia de los Muertos comes something else, the darkening of the year. In a week we will set the clocks back, the temperatures will fall, the days will shorten and for many this brings on a bad time of the year.
Seasonal depression, piled on top of a nation already tearing itself asunder with hate and disorder and coupled with higher financial struggles make autumn/winter one of the hardest times for some people to get through.
I am asking you, begging you, look out for each other and for yourselves. Find reasons to gather. Let’s start doing potluck dinners again, let’s get together for movie nights, let’s find excuses, or make ones to simply be together as families, tribes, whatever you want to call it but let’s return to warm nights filled with laughter, stories and life.
At one time people used to gather together for more than just the hallmark holidays. We used to gather for birthdays, made up holidays or just because everyone had a free Thursday. We would all cook or bring things, we would share, we would taste new dishes, we would all help with the clean-up and we would talk. No television, no big game, perhaps a card game or a board game, but they were incidental to the act of being together.
Those kinds of gatherings have become rare, and as they have become ever more rare, we as people, even with all of our options for communication, have become terribly lonely. That is one of the saddest things about us. We have become pack animals with no pack.
We need each other, so let’s be there, before we have to do it only through an altar and a story…
I want to know more about you.
Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other…