by Karen Falkenstrom
Who am I to understand this weaving?
Growing up, holidays were a reason to shop, eat too much, and plan stressful (but mostly pleasant) family gatherings. I hadn’t experienced the ecstatic, rarified state said to come from spiritual practice yet (which came upon reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” in a dusty aisle of the high school library). I didn’t really have a sense of which holidays were “spiritual.” The 4th of July was on even footing with Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en and Easter. Christmas and my birthday were placed at the apex because I got presents.
My heritage made things complicated. My mother’s Korean relatives were the only extended family nearby. Their history of Buddhism, Shamanism, Christianity (meaning Protesant), and Catholicism (seen as different from Christianity by many Koreans, but don’t ask me to explain how) forged my aunts and uncles into open-minded, intellectual, spiritually aware but essentially secular humanist folk.
Our holiday gatherings were a heady mixture of cultural practices. The rice pot jiggled and steamed beside the simmering gravy of turkey drippings. The Betty Crocker Cookbook oranges stuffed with sweet potatoes and topped by tiny marshmallows made orderly little rows next to a jar of kimchi. We did not say grace, we appreciated holiday music from an aesthetic standpoint, and the TV provided a daylong sermon of football coverage and commercials, with classical opera and violin concertos wafting in from a radio in another room.
I can’t separate these strands of culture and belief and communal gathering. As woven as these strands are, as complex as they are, I’m sure they all spring from the same source: the human ability to feel wonder and connection, to pause to reflect: our need for sacred time. As internal as the state of grace is, what we do about it on the outside is shaped by where and with whom we live. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Korean-Norwegian ex-Methodist Buddhist or a European-American pagan. As humans, we all feel the need to congregate, acknowledge present circumstances, put those into perspective, share, give thanks, and set intentions.
All of us alone together
I moved to Tucson in 1989, far from my relatives. A couple years had passed before I realized I was missing something. I discovered the Yaqui Easter ceremonies and was deeply moved. The feeling they invoked in me very much resembled how I felt growing up as the half-white cousin in a houseful of Koreans.
I sat in the dark, surrounded by families casually discussing everyday topics. A mere twenty feet from these conversations about pulling weeds and getting chocolate stains out of denim, the Passion of Christ was melding with the Yoeme flower world, and, it turns out, existence as the Yaqui know it could cease to be if not for this ritual. I couldn’t help but feel that aside from the sacred ritual part, the fact that this ceremony had called all of us to come sit in the dark and simply be was just as important. I did not feel connected—I’m neither Yaqui nor Catholic—but I felt aware, at least, that real connection is possible through such practices. It was my first true experience of communal sacred time.
Naturally, Yaqui Easter is not my ritual. It belongs to the Yoeme, and I am not a member of their community. However, nearly every culture throughout history has ceremonies to mark critical life events: birth, death, spring, harvest, and honoring ancestors are a few that come quickly to mind. I tell my students: Every culture has a drum; learn about your peoples’ drum if you can, but know that playing a drum is everyone’s birthright. If it happens to be a Japanese drum they’ve chosen and have access to, then so be it.
Which brings me to the All Souls Procession as directed by Many Mouths One Stomach. I’ve heard people refer to it as the “Day of the Dead Parade,” or even, disparagingly, as an appropriation of Dia de los Muertos. Certainly, the Mexican holiday inspired and colored the event. It has been equally colored by the proximity of the US Mexico border, our desert setting, Tucson’s growth into a city of over a million people, and our incredibly rich creative community.
My own participation in All Souls Procession has evolved since 1990, when I watched (peripherally and from a distance) several of my friends take part in the first ritual. I had almost no awareness of All Souls again till 2005 when Odaiko Sonora played the grand finale music and the first crane lift happened. We were, admittedly, clueless. The song we had chosen, Nintai, was our most strenuous and impressive. However, it was also too short. We ended up having to loop it endlessly. Playing yoko-uchi, or standing style, is strenuous even when not playing a song as hard as Nintai. We were all screaming “Don’t. Stop. Playing!”, ready to keel over exhausted, when the aerial rig flew over the backdrop, aerialists spinning madly in their harnesses. At that moment, I became a true All Souls Procession participant.
Every year since then, Odaiko Sonora has played the drum that accompanies the Urn. We’ve created a bon odori (ancestor festival dance) for the Procession, so each year, the drum is followed by a growing retinue of community members dancing. And this year, we’ll once again be part of the finale music, as guest collaborators with Ensphere.
Some people only believe old, time-tested ceremonies are real, as though we’re not genuine enough in this era to create meaningful rituals of our own. I think it’s the other way around; we must constantly re-fresh or invent practices that spring up right here where we live, that belong to everyone who participates, and whose connective power can be felt by anyone attending. That’s what Susan Johnson did when she created the ritualistic performance piece that launched All Souls Procession. She wished to honor her father who had died. She used her creativity. She gathered her friends to share and celebrate. That’s for real.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Equus, by Peter Scheaffer. If you know the play, you know it’s deeply disturbing, which is part of what makes this passage such an ecstatic moment:
… ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones with names like Zeus—no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! … Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you will, and slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people, and slouches’… I’d say to them—’Worship as many as you can see—and more will appear!'”
Every culture has a drum. Grief is a common experience. Celebration is a common response. Rituals and practices are as real as you make them for yourself. Find what works for you as sacred time to acknowledge, grieve, let-go-of and celebrate. Bring that to the Procession and feel the power of communal sacred time at work: we dress up and dance; we make meaning of our lives; we hold the community together. It has always been that way.
—Karen Falkenstrom, Odaiko Sonora