Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Dia de los Muertos 2016

Today is All Saints Day. It is also the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between the temporal and the spirit world is said to be thinnest. In Mexico this is a time to remember those dear to you who have recently departed. Notably, it is treated as a time of celebration. It is neither somber nor macabre. Gravestones are spruced up and altars are festooned in bright colors and momentos. Favorite foods are prepared.

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having experienced a long, slow dance with my own mortality this year (in the guise of multiple myeloma), I say bring it on!

This year I've lost two.

Fred Huebner (March 20)
Fred was my uncle, having married my Dad's only sister, June. He was well into his 90s when he died, so he didn't get cheated, and I'm pleased to report that he enjoyed reasonably good health (including golf) right up until the end. 

While we were not close, we were family. 

Sadly, my father had a lifelong enmity toward his sister (June, Fred's wife) and that severely limited contact between the families, even though we lived in neighboring suburbs of Chicago. When my Dad and June's father—my grandfather—was alive, he would insist that the families do things together. But that commitment died when he did, and there were no more joint Christmas or birthday get-togethers after 1972.

June and Fred had two children. Decades ago their daughter, Diane, contracted cancer and predeceased her parents. Their son, John, has suffered from disabilities all his life. He never lived alone (until now) and is currently wheelchair bound. In June's latter years her health was delicate and she required constant care up until her death a few years back. So Uncle Fred's family has endured more than its share of health challenges.
Like Job, however, Uncle Fred was a person who didn't complain about the hand he'd been dealt. Instead, he dedicated his life to being happy. I know that may not sound like much, but it was. Almost always we have choices about how we spin the events around us, and for Uncle Fred the glass was never empty. He would bring a bit of sunshine into any room he entered. Though not an ambitious man, he was a loving husband and father, and a curious man. (One of the last times we communicated he passed along photos of Saturn taken from outer space—he couldn't resist sharing his amazement at what we're learning about the universe.)

We could all do worse than be that curious in our 90s.

Joani Blank (August 6) 
I lost a friend and community lost one of its staunchest promoters when Joani died this past August of pancreatic cancer at age 79. She had lived a full life.

As the cancer wasn't discovered until June, the end came fast, but Joani made the most of it, spending her last few weeks surrounded by friends and family, celebrating their shared lives. She died at home in her beloved cohousing community, Swan’s Market, in downtown Oakland.

I first met Joani at the national cohousing conference held on the campus of UC Berkeley in 2001. Though it was a "home game" for her (as an East Bay resident she could sleep in her own bed each night), it was immediately obvious to me that she was a tour de force who’s energy would be strong in any setting. She was one of the early adopters of cohousing, and worked tirelessly to promote it all the years that I knew her.

Joani and I didn’t always see things the same way. For example, she viewed cohousing as the epicenter of community living, while I saw it as just one of many good choices available under the big top that the Fellowship for Intentional Community has erected for showcasing options in intentional community and social sustainability. Yet, in the end, our differences were minor and we recognized in each other the same burning desire to create a more cooperative and just world. We were fellow travelers.

On a personal level, Joani stood out as someone you could work things out with. As an activist, she was aware that feathers would sometimes get ruffled. Whenever that occurred she wouldn’t necessarily change her viewpoint (or her style) but she’d tackle differences straight on, being willing to hear your side and to work constructively to a mutually agreeable solution. She did not duck the tough questions. While I’d like to tell you that this quality is common in the world today, it isn’t—and Joani was all the more precious to me as a friend because that’s the way she lived her life.

Joan and I crossed paths early on as I helped organize benefit auctions for a number of cohousing conferences and she was a generous contributor, often sending something sizzling from Good Vibrations, the groundbreaking sex-positive business that she started in 1977, with the goal of providing a "clean, well-lighted place for sex toys, books, and [later] videos.” Long before she died, Joani had converted Good Vibrations from “her" business to one that was employee-owned.

While she was undoubtedly better known as the proprietress who started Good Vibrations, I knew her as an icon in the Communities Movement. I last saw her in May at the regional Cohousing Conference on Aging in Salt Lake City, and we had our last exchanges via email in late June after she knew she was sick.

She faced death as fearlessly as she faced life: directly and with her eyes fully open. What better epitaph could one have?

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