Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's on your altar?

I barely had the courage to reach out and touch the old man's diary. It felt like I was going to disturb something silently sacred, but I couldn't help it. I picked up the leatherbound notebook and held it respectfully before touching its dry pages with my fingertips. I looked at the thoughts handwritten in dark blue ink and wondered about the dead man who had made sketches in his diary of the birds he used to like to observe as a hobby. My eyes wandered over the rest of the small table and stopped for a few pensive moments at the framed black-and-white photo of the old man at whose altar I stood. An old pair of eyeglasses lay neatly near an empty bottle of Dr. Pepper. A pair of binoculars together with an old hat and cane completed the altar of the man who's name I have forgotten.

It was the night of El Dia de los Muertos, or the celebration of the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead. A local art gallery in Tulsa, OK, USA, had been converted into a mausoleum of sorts where people had set up altars in memory of loved ones they had lost. A common practice in Mexican and Latin American communities around the world, these altars are decorated with items that represent the life and personality of the deceased relative or friend. Loved ones remember those that have passed on by retelling favourite stories about them at the altar. Some say that this makes the souls of the departed happy when they visit Earth on the day of the festival. It is a time of celebration, not of mourning.

The little art gallery was crowded with altars, the people who had made them, and the people who had come to see them. A crowd of merrymakers in the blocked off street outside was cheering on the fire-eaters that were breathing hot light in the dark night. A local band was performing near the stalls that were selling Mexican handicrafts and music.

The light inside the art gallery was yellow. I detected the musty smell of age at some of the altars. I saw one altar for a young girl that had her ballet shoes, bottles of nailpolish, and favourite music. Another young man's life was showcased by his guitar and songbooks. There were photo albums, clothing, perfumes, food items, certificates and prize ribbons, books, pieces of art, stationery, and other mementos. God knows when these people had passed away, but they looked at me through their photos and their belongings, like static phantoms from yesterday.

I wondered how I would be remembered after my passing. What would people put on my altar? More importantly, what would I want to see on my altar? I noticed that no altar bore any indication of the person's wealth, employment, or general status in society. What was I going to leave behind? How would people remember me after death snipped off the artificial labels?

What do you see on your altar right now?

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