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Dia de Los Muertos

Scene at San Gregorio Cemetery near Mexico City

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.” 
— Malcolm Lowry

Anita seemed perplexed.

Lara, Emma and I were all standing in the middle of San Gregorio Cemetery with tears streaming down our cheeks. It was all so beautiful. So sad. So poignant.

We were surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican families who had flocked to the cemetery on Nov. 1 to remember the dead. Mariachis played. Candles flickered. A glowing orange snowfall of marigold petals covered everything. Incense drifted through the air, kindling pungent memories of my altar boy days at St. Anselm Catholic church.

It had taken us three tedious hours to reach this graveyard on the southern edge of Mexico City. The traffic was insane. Everyone was out celebrating the dead. I wondered if we should just give up and turn back. I’m glad we didn’t.

I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. Every time I saw a stunningly cool post card, I thought of my recently departed friend Barb Page. If only I could send her one more card, one more random reminder that I was thinking of her.

The frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zocalo conjured memories of Phil Pollard, who I was shocked to learn had died suddenly while we were in Mexico. Phil was one of those defining personalities of our years in Knoxville, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans.

“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.

The entire trip had somehow seemed fated. Lara and I discussed it jokingly over a few glasses of wine several months ago. We realized it had been a long time since we took a vacation. We should do something, anything, to get away.

Another trip to Jamaica? Not quite right.

“How about Mexico City?’ I asked. Our friend Anita and her daughter, Emma, had recently moved there, so we’d visit with an insider’s perspective. And Dia de los Muertos was coming. We’ve collected Latin American art for a long time, including a fair amount of works celebrating the Day of the Dead. But we’d never actually visited during the holiday itself.

The next morning, when the wine had worn off, the idea hadn’t. We cleared the dates with Anita, booked the trip and were on our way. Looking back, I realize it was inevitable. Irresistible.

Standing in San Gregorio Cemetery, watching Mexicans embrace death in the flickering light as something familiar and unavoidable, the tears came. Not mournful tears. Sweet tears spiced with the memory of lives lived fully.

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Remembering the best copy editor ever

Every day after deadline at The Albuquerque Tribune, Barb Page would start her rounds. We called it Schmooze Patrol. She’d set sail in the back of the room at the copy desk. Wade through the city desk. Drift past the features and sports departments. And moor at the front desk, loaded down with a day’s worth of gossip, anecdotes and newsroom drama. Along the way, she’d also engage in a few hearty arguments about our news strategy and offer writing tips to cub reporters.

Barb died today, and I already miss her. I’m proud to have been one of the stops on her Schmooze Patrols. As a young, arrogant copy editor I learned a hell of a lot from her. And 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 schmooze 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.

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to her life is the Facebook group that emerged when we found out she was entering hospice. It was a reunion of sorts for the Tribunistas, as we Tribune employees forever refer to ourselves. There’s been a lot of great schmooze on that Facebook group, with all of us catching up with each other and remember Barb’s greatest headlines. She affected a lot of people. And we’re better for it.

The Tribune closed several years ago, another victim of the struggling newspaper industry. But it lives on in everyone who passed through its doors. We were more than co-workers. We were family, united in a cause to commit great journalism. I like to think that as the Tribune lives on in all of our memories, so does Barb. And 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 reporter’s prose sparkle.

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2010: Ashes to ashes

When Xena died last summer, I didn’t really write about it. I couldn’t. It was one of those rare times when words fluttered away from me like a flock of frenetic finches.

Tonight, as 2010 gasps its last and the Knoxville Years draw to a close, I decided to scatter the big dog’s ashes in Lake Loudon. There were tears. But I also paused to remember what she meant to me. I thought about a time almost 12 years ago to the night, when I looked up from the couch to see a Newf puppy charging at me in wide-eyed terror, a string of twinkle lights wrapped around her hind legs and a 12 foot Christmas tree tumbling behind her. Christmas ended early that year. But it was OK.

I thought about the time 11 years ago when Xena and I drove back from the Knoxville News Sentinel after delivering a batch of pretty awesome black-eyed peas to the staff there. The Mingus Big Band played on the radio as the clock struck 12 and the year 2000 kicked into gear. The world kept turning, despite prophesies of computer-assisted doom. I swear I could see Xena grinning in the rearview mirror.

Maybe that’s why a tear came to my eye when the Mingus Big Band came on tonight while Lara and I drove back form an early New Year’s Eve dinner at RouxBarb, our favorite Knoxville restaurant. I knew it was time to scatter Xena’s ashes. To bring closure to the Knoxville Years.

The lake was fizzing with reflected fireworks. Partying people laughed in the distance. A blue heron squawked through the darkness like a blind man tapping his way across a busy intersection. Gray ashes filtered down from the dock, into the black water and back from whence they came.

Lara and I leave Knoxville fondly. This place has been wonderful to us and we’ll never forget it. I enter 2011 confident that there will be more dogs, more love and more Mingus down the line.

Happy New Year, y’all.