I share my life with a household that started in Baltimore but which has grown and moved as the laborers with whom I have shared my home moved to new places. One of “my guys” lives in the Bronx now, and it is comforting to me to know that I can see him from time to time, to see how he is doing, to check in, to learn of the new relationships he is building. When I saw him last week, he had marigolds on the kitchen table.
Back in Baltimore, “my guys” have planted marigolds just about everywhere. In the terraced garden, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes share space with marigolds, just as in the gardens in the front yard, flowers share space with corn and herbs like cilantro and papalo. Marigolds are being picked, right now, to decorate the kitchen table and the little altar table, the ofrenda, underneath the pop-up casita on the patio.
We call the flowers by their indigenous Aztec name, cempasúchil, expecting that their pungent fragrance will help us reach across the divide of the living and the dead. During this season of the Day of the Dead, Dia de los muertos, the family pays attention to ancient ancestors. We consider those we have more recently lost, like our brother, Aurelio, who died in March. We remember my mother, Shirley, who died last November.
The fragrance of marigolds is thought to attract the souls of the dead. Ancestors are invited to follow the scent, to come home and to see how the family is doing. The household treasures the memory of the dead, and these souls can see the altars we build in their honor. They can also examine the way our household is kept and might lend a hand. We are called to show generosity in our home, and to exhibit hospitality to any who might enter. In my family, we try to be sure that there is plenty of food available for those who come to visit. We see that there is an extra chair on the patio for a visitor. We might even have a few extra bottles of cerveza chilling in the refrigerator.
Such precious family celebrations bring comfort to me, especially as I deal with grief I have processed for weeks and months and years. On the other hand, when I am coping with new injury, new loss, and new grief—as I imagine many of us right now may be—placing a few marigolds in the family altar, I find to be insufficient. To that simple gesture, I need to add other consideration. I must spend significant time, for example, usually in the early morning before the business of the day commences, to consider the state of the worlds. There is the larger world in which I live, often filled with conflict, pain, and disappointment. There are the smaller worlds in which I may exhibit influence and even control. When I am committed to a way forward to deal with social injustice where I can, I take time both to imagine how my ancestors may be calling me to act, and to think of others with whom I might work to impact social change.
We are a diverse religious community at Shelter Rock. Some of us are more comfortable with religious language, ritual, and practice than others might be. Still, we are a community of signs and symbols, and we are a welcoming and generous people. My hope—even my prayer, if a religious humanist like me is allowed to pray—is that we will place cempasúchil, or other symbols, throughout our lives to remind ourselves of the community we are. Let them attract the best our spirits have to offer. Let them remind us that we come from a line of generous and hospitable ancestors. Let them be a sign of our gratitude for the precious lives we are able to live.
Yours in a faith that is liberal and liberating,
Rev. David Carl Olson
Associate Minister for Congregational Life