(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)
Friday, October 26
“Only against death does man cry out in vain.”
— Malcolm Lowry
At this time of year, my mind wanders the streets of Urubamba in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I brush past the spirits of Incan warriors who roamed the area centuries ago until I come to a heavy wood door secured by an imposing padlock.
I enter after being granted access by Hernan, who grew up here. We come to a second door, which opens into a courtyard lush with corn, herbs, tomatoes and clucking poultry. But before we enter this domestic Eden, I look up and spot several human skulls perched on a shelf above the doorway. They are surrounded by fresh flowers, chicha corn beer and other tributes from the living to the dead.
I’m taken aback to learn these are Hernan’s ancestors. The skulls aren’t clay replicas. They’re the bony remains of real people. In return for the humble offerings surrounding them, they guard the home from threats physical and spiritual. Perhaps that’s why Lobo, the German shepherd padding along behind us, seems unperturbed by the presence of a strange Gringo. Hernan’s ancestors have the situation under control.
It’s disconcerting to be in such close proximity to the dead, to have them occupying the same space as the living. But as the writer George Saunders has said, the dead are always with us, “whispering lovingly or harshly” in our ears. “We all carry dead people around with us, and we carry the prospect of our own death around with us.”
We all navigate this confrontation with mortality in different ways. I take great comfort in the approach I’ve encountered during my travels in Latin America, where life and death aren’t segregated to separate spheres. T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, for it reminds those of us plodding through middle age that the passion Spring once provoked in our youth is far behind us, beyond our reach. Perhaps October, then, is the most bittersweet month. The Autumn days tick down toward Winter, and El Día de Los Muertos awaits us at the gateway to November. This holiday is much more than candy skulls and dancing skeletons. It’s a time to pause and reflect fondly on those who are with us only in memory and to remember that we inevitably will join them on the other side. There’s a tinge of sadness in this, but it’s also life-affirming and conjures a flood of wonderful memories.
Life lessons in a cemetery overlooking the Mon Valley
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. “
— Edvard Munch
I’ve been meditating on the Monongahela River valley during my time here in Costa Rica. I’m working on a book that’s steeped in the smoke and fire and cacophony of the steel mills that dotted the river. I remember drinking beer perched high on a hill overlooking the Homestead Works and Carrie Furnace back in the late ‘70s when I was a feckless teenager, marveling at the furious orange glow pulsing down below, never fully ceding the valley to night.
When I return to Pittsburgh, I always make time to stop at the Braddock Catholic Cemetery to visit my childhood buddy, Jimmy Shogun. Twenty-nine years ago we carried him there and lowered him into the ground. That was the first time death sucker punched me, beating back, at least momentarily, my cocksure belief that I was eternal.
Shog, as we affectionately called him, was my next-door neighbor growing up in Braddock Hills. We played street hockey together, fought each other, competed on rival Little League teams and attended the same college, Edinboro University. Shog always stood by me, even when I alienated many of my other childhood friends with a college-boy’s arrogance fueled by strange ideas, new musical tastes and non-Yinzer influences. “Benzy, you egghead!” he’d chide, shaking his head, grinning broadly and giving me a shove stiff enough to get my attention but not hard enough to knock me down. He was a big guy, Lunk Yargish, as one friend referred to him. There’s a massive hole in my life where Shog once stood. He died in October 1989, just a few months after I married Lara. I remember bawling like a bullied child as we carried his casket to that plot with a sublime view of the Mon, taking a modicum of consolation in the fact that Shog had met Lara when I brought her home that summer to introduce her to friends and family before our marriage. Shog and Lara hit it off immediately. I saw that as a benediction of sorts, his blessing of my marriage and my post-Pittsburgh life.
I think of Shog often. I have his picture within view of my favorite reading spot at our house in Athens. The approach of Dia de Los Muertos always conjures images of us launching Big Wheels off ramps and building shacks in the woods. The big guy lives on as long as I draw breath.
The dead are always with us. Sometimes, they send us postcards.
“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James Joyce, ‘The Dead’
During my most recent visit to Mexico City, I met Alex Dorfsman, an artist who lived upstairs from the AirBnB Lara and I rented in the Condesa neighborhood. He invited us up to his apartment, where we sipped herbal tea and listened to classical music in his bright, uncluttered apartment lined with book shelves that sagged under the weight of myriad art and photography books. We talked about a wide range of topics, including how social media is having a chilling effect on letter writing and other more calculated forms of communication. Alex focused his curious, intense green eyes on me as he told me about his latest project, Correspondencia, which he was working on with a local yoga studio. Participants were encouraged to pick up one of his art cards, fill it out and send it to someone, anyone. He gave me five of them, which I promptly addressed and sent to friends back in the States.
I couldn’t help but think my friend Barb Page was looking down from the great Copy Desk in the sky, smiling as we had that conversation in Mexico City. Barb loved to travel, and she always detailed her adventures in a swarm of postcards that would arrive in clusters. The narrative flowed from card to card, and each was numbered so I could reassemble them in order to read the message. Sometimes it would take weeks to assemble the verbal puzzle, but it was always worth the effort. Our friendship was punctuated with postcards. They came from Europe. From James Buchanan’s homestead in Pennsylvania. From New York City. From Albuquerque. From thrift shops. It was always a delight to receive this stream of smart, encouraging, literate correspondence.
Barb ventured to the other side in 2011. I’ll never forget the winter evening when she called to tell me she was ready, that she was going to refuse to be connected to machines that kept her alive. She’d had a nasty fall, which resulted in a broken hip and a domino effect of health problems. Her eyesight was going. I was disembarking from a Metro Bus in Washington, D.C., and as I walked the four blocks to our rental house in the Brightwood neighborhood Barb broke the news to me. I wanted to argue, to protest, to insist that she reconsider. But I knew Barb. She didn’t do anything without a lot of thought. So instead I listened, tears streaming down my cheeks as I approached the house. As a young, cocky copy editor I learned a hell of a lot from her during the time we sat side-by-side at The Albuquerque Tribune, the greatest paper I ever had the honor of working for. Through the years, we never lost touch. Sometimes our communication was a tenuous trickle of postcards. Other times it was random gifts we sent each other. Best of all were the out-of-nowhere phone calls, where I filled her in on my latest life updates and received thoughtful advice and encouragement. She always seemed so filled with wonder and amusement at my antics. Her approval buoyed me like the praise of a parent.
The Tribune closed years ago, another death in the family. It lives on in the memories of those of us who thrived there, and so does Barb. I’m confident she’s sitting there at the copy desk, trying to get the hang of whatever new technology the afterlife has dropped in front of her and making some post-mortem reporter’s prose sparkle.
A Boogie Down Production
Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
— Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5
Few losses in my life were more heart-breaking that Lynn Rawlings’ premature death. She and Lara were best buddies in college, a friendship I had the privilege of piggybacking on during my Birmingham years. Everyone called her Boogie, a nickname she earned in college. I remember the pain in Lara’s voice when she called to tell me Lynn had died. I was in some soulless hotel room in Atlanta, suffering through another in an endless series of business trips. I cried all night, unable to come to grips with the news.
Some of my most outrageous times in the Deep South were punctuated by Boogie’s infectious laughter. We were together at Honey for the Bears, an after-hours dive bar in Montgomery, Alabama, when I talked a gun-totting idiot into stepping out in the parking lot to talk, where I slowly, gently convinced him to put the gun away. I plucked her out of the Alabama River when she overestimated her limited ability to swim on a crushingly hot day. And she was the maid of honor at our wedding. I’ve never been so sad as when I sat behind Boogie’s children at her funeral, wondering what would become of them in a world devoid of their mother’s love. But Boogie lives on. Her daughter is still a key part of our lives. She’s a police officer in Alabama and comes up to Ohio about once a year to visit us and remind us that her mother lives on in our memories.
Finding transcendence in a band of humans
I ain’t no Sylvia Plath
I ain’t gonna die never
— Phil Pollard, ‘Sylvia Plath’
I learned Phil Pollard had died when Lara and I were in to Mexico City to celebrate the Day of the Dead at San Gregorio Cemetery, surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicans gathered around the graves of their loved ones to celebrate their lives. I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. News of Phil’s death hit me hard.
I wouldn’t say I knew Phil. My relationship with him was like a pebble skipping across Knoxville’s night life. He was one of those defining personalities of our years there, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans. He and Sara played our Christmas party on several occasions.
“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”
Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.
During a subsequent trip to Mexico City, I bumped into Phil again while watching the frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zócalo. He lives on in every drum beat of every song I listen to.
Fallen Alpinians and other friends gone but not forgotten
With all darkness closin’ in
Will the light reveal your soul
Yes one sweet kiss on your clay cold lips
I’ll know sleep you’ll never know
Where do we go, where do we go
Where do we go from here
— UFO, ‘Rock Bottom’
A frightening number of my high school and college friends are no longer with us. I remember them fondly. I remember hanging out in the rocky parking lot of Alpine, a dilapidated ice rink in suburban Pittsburgh. Shog was there. And Bilson and Glenmo. Carmine roared through occasionally in his revved up Datsun 280Z. Micki Simko showed up more than a few times. A beautiful breeze that made those Pittsburgh summer nights shine. I learned so much in that place, at that time. Those of us who survive serve the memory of those who departed much too soon. They ring as true as the notes of a Michael Schenker guitar solo.
Canines I have known and loved and lost
King went a-howlin’ after a deer
Wasn’t scared of jumpin’
off the truck in high gear
King went a-sniffin’
and he would go
Was the best old hound dog
I ever did know
— Neil Young, ‘Old King’
Mitzie, the dog who brightened my childhood and never lived up to her alleged Britany spaniel pedigree but was my constant companion; PigPen the black lab/golden retriever cross who emerged from the dust in Algodones, New Mexico, and won his name on the way home while we listened to a bootleg tape of the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan howling the blues at the Filmore East; Crystal the cocker spaniel, daughter of Brandy, another dog I loved and lost during the Birmingham years; Fluffy, a poorly socialized chow cross, unpredictable, snappy, but fiercely loyal to me; Kesey, a tired old collie abandoned at a Tennessee park and rescued on the day Ken Kesey died; Ozzy, another dumped Tennessean who won our hearts and was stuck with the name of a bat-eating metal maniac he had nothing in common with; Gilligan, a black and tan coonhound found emaciated, frenetic, plagued with worms, craving a pack to join on the day Bob Denver died; Xena, the Newfoundland who lumbered into my life and never left, still roaming my dreams whenever water is the central theme; Mully, a frustrating adrift Maltese we took in when Boogie passed.
by W S Merwin
For Galway Kinnell
The rust a little pile of western color lies
At the end of its travels
Our instrument no longer.
Those who believe
In death have their worship cut out for them.
As for myself we
Scar of light our trumpet
Pilgrims with thorns
To the eye of the cold
Under flags made by the blind
In one fist
Their letter that vanishes
If the hand opens:
Charity come home
And finally, a few words from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps now I understand the grateful part of their name …
There comes a redeemer
and he slowly too fades away
There follows a wagon behind him
that’s loaded with clay
And the seeds that were silent
all burst into bloom and decay
The night comes so quiet,
and it’s close on the heels of the day
— Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, ‘Eyes of the World’