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It’s a beautiful Saturday in Southern California: bright blue, cloudless sky; trees still full of green leaves; temperatures in the mid-seventies at the coast, in the eighties only a short drive inland. The few trees in my neighborhood that drop their leaves won’t finish doing so until January – mere weeks before the new leaves arrive in our early spring. By January I’ll be delighted to be strolling along the beach in the sunshine rather than shoveling snow in Massachusetts. But there is something about New England in the fall. I miss the gorgeous autumn colors, of course. But I also miss the sound of leaves crunching underfoot; the sight of the first frost glistening on the grass; the smell of wood smoke and earth and rotting leaves in the crisp, chilly air; the annual ritual of putting the garden to bed for the winter, and bringing the wool sweaters and mittens and heavy coats out of storage. Fall in New England is a poignant time, a time for letting go of the long, hot days of an all-too-fleeting summer, and preparing for the endless, dark, cold winter. It’s a time that lends itself to reflection on the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth.

In New England, it seems like no coincidence that the Day of the Dead comes in the fall. There is something about pondering death that just feels right when you see it and feel it and smell it all around you. That cycle is less visible here in Southern California, at least to my eyes. Last year, my commute took me past huge farms that grew something all year round. The crops matured, were harvested, and were replaced with something else at a startling pace. One month I’d smell cilantro; the next, onions, then strawberries, as I sped by on the freeway. I’m sure locals recognize seasonal cycles here. But for me, there is little about the subtle change in climate in the fall that stirs the associations I made as a New Englander between autumn and death. Yet this time of year, with Halloween and the Day of the Dead just around the corner, still makes me think of those I’ve lost, still makes me ponder change and mortality. So I’m delighted that there are so many Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events at my college. When I left the Luria Library on Friday afternoon, the installation of the annual exhibit of traditional altars was underway. I can hardly wait until Monday to see it. I want a visible, tangible link to the season.

One of the Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events is a poetry reading outside the library. The event prompted me to look back at (and edit) a couple poems I wrote a few years ago about death. I don’t know whether I’ll have the nerve to share them at the open mic, but I have just enough nerve to share them here:

POEM FOR OCTOBER, 2008

This morning
breathing the crisp autumn air
and holding the new lump
in my mind like an ember

I stood in the perfect, golden light
waiting for my ride and listening
while the leaves clicked off the trees
like little suicides abandoning burning edifices

The sound reminded me
of the shrimp jumping in the mud
in the green Carolina spring
the year we kayaked and fought

and of how tired it made me
to listen so hard
for that small sound
behind the big ones

I want to hold this moment
with the leaves and the light and the perfect air
without knowing
the bleakness to come

But as I watch the red and white pickup
stir up then disappear behind
the swirling cloud of yellow leaves
like something out of a movie

dramatically I think
that I may not be here long either
in this world with the leaves and the shrimp and our tears
and the exquisiteness of their passing

by Ellen Carey
2008/2011

DO THIS AT MY FUNERAL
with thanks to Jane Hirshfield for her poem, “It Was Like This: You Were Happy”

Read the poem, the one
about persimmons and how it was
the sadness
and the happiness
and the turn
of days into years
of words into silence
The one that tells
of the inconsequence
of what was
and was not done
The one
that reminds you
your stories
do not belong to me

Play the song, the one
about loss
and redemption
The one that strips you
of everything
but your perfection

Dance. Embrace
your beautiful,
temporary weight
on the earth
Allow the center
of your being
to spin
into every borrowed cell

Sit. Be still
and silent
Become
the witness knowing
there is no tether
but the roar
of your own thoughts

And remember this:
Your stories
will become air
even to you
in the end
Water and fire and stone
are all that is
and even these
dissolve
moment by moment

Do not turn away
no matter how painful
from the letting go
that will lead you home

You too
will step into this water
You too
will let the bright robe fall
You too
will be surprised
by its weightlessness
after all these years

You will know
what you have always known
That each of us
is filled with light
That each of us
is just
as insubstantial

by Ellen Carey
2007/2011

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