Four Lessons from my Ofrendas

lessons from my ofrendas.

Reclaiming what once was lost

This has been a difficult year of loss for so many of us. This year I’ve lost a dad, a grandpa, a great aunt, two cousins, my dog, and more friends than I can bear to describe. And collectively we’ve lost nearly three-quarters of a million Americans from COVID over the past twenty months. It’s hard to wrap our heads around that level of loss. It was hard enough to understand that massive, sudden loss of life with 9/11, but now, it feels like we’re almost numb to the pangs of regret, the sorrowful wails of grief, the tearful goodbyes. Even for an empathic woman like me, if I allow myself to feel too much of the gravity of our situation, I’m not sure I could continue doing anything else but just weep all day and night.

My lovely family altar.

Too many new faces are gracing our ofrendas this year. Ofrendas are the altars of offerings that those from Mexican, Latinx, Chicanx traditions create to commemorate Dia de los Muertos. During this time of year, we honor our family and friends who have passed, celebrating their life and legacy, sharing little offerings of things they enjoyed in life. It’s just one of many ways cultures commemorate their dead during this time, sharing in a common belief that the veil between worlds is thinnest.

Which makes a lot of sense to me. Our world is slowing down into winter, we have gathered the last of our harvest, the leaves create a golden carpet on the earth, and frost is starting to chill the air. For so many, this is a time where our minds are particularly drawn to those we have lost, who are resting eternally – our elders, our chosen family, our ancestors, the ancients of our earthly lineage who came before us.

After so much loss this year, it was important for me to make an ofrenda in my home, to reclaim a bit of my Chicana/Mexica heritage that didn’t initially survive assimilation…to highlight a portion of my family’s history that now influences my future. By connecting to my roots, asking my elders to intuitively guide me as I constructed this altar, I could feel the blessings of the past in the present and invited the support, love, and fiery spirit of my ancestors to help me along with my next steps. Adorned with photos of my loved ones, treats that they enjoyed, like biscochitos and candies, my wall held paintings that honored the artistic talent that both sides had (but that I didn’t inherit), sharing my prayers and deepest wishes with watercolors on tissue paper formed into the same kind of flowers my mom made with me.

In reviving this tradition for my little familia, I could hear the whispers of my ancestors and guides, my dad and my grandpa, revolutionary forefathers and homesteaders, broken soldiers and unsung heroes, the curanderas and pretenders. Reaching out with the wisdom we need:

1. All death brings a chance for rebirth

While I have faced loss this year, I have also faced a rebirth, a deliverance of grace from the shadows of my life. Shortly after my grandpa passed, I could feel each of my loved ones, each of my ancestral cheerleaders starting to line up, holding a lantern of hope to light my way. They offered me the gift of warmth and unconditional love, which made me feel safe enough to crack open my heart bit by bit. They illuminated the pattern of generations that have been stripped of their pride and the guilt of those who have imposed the same on others. Confidence that was confiscated and consecrated in tribute to patriarchy, to capitalism, to white supremacy; vulnerable people exploited and dishonored for someone else’s gain. They revealed not just the trees, but the forest too, helping me find my way through the conflicting emotions so I might regain my own voice and accelerate my healing.

It started with my dad as he was dying. As I held his hand in the emergency room, his organs slowly shutting down, he made me promise that I would end these cycles of guilt, shame, and trauma in our family, for myself, and for my kids. It stops with me. It all ends with me. I’m the one who can choose to heal.

Old yellowed photo of a bearded man with a baby on his lap, with her hand on his hand as he plays piano.
My dad taught me how to play around with music at my godmother’s house.

Dad knew that I had been called to be “the hands” of something bigger than myself, a force for kindness and compassion.

For all that I’ve accomplished in my life, for as mentally strong as I felt I was, I was transported to my childhood again, holding my daddy’s hands, afraid to let go. The same hands that held me as I danced while standing on his feet as a child. The same hands that held mine when I had nightmares. The same hands that I held for dear life the first time I got on a ski lift. The same hands that showed me how to change the first of many flat tires. His hands held me up as I walked down the aisle. Those hands squeezed mine in a movie theater as tears ran down his face during Lincoln and when he saw Leonard Nimoy reprise his role as Spock in the Star Trek reboot. These hands were again gifting me with a profound ability to unravel my past, to write a new legacy for him through my life moving forward.

Letting our loved ones go is painful AF. But it allows us to transform our relationship with them beyond just the physical presence. They get to truly live through us. Each day we draw breath, they are reborn through us. My dad, who was a light for others, now exists beyond the flaws and foibles that caused him so much distress in his life. He lives on with a magnificence he might never have seen in his physical life, but I can be a witness to it now. For I can carry his dreams with me, share every moment I want with him because living my authentic life honors his.

2. We all are being called to heal ancestral wounds

Whether it’s unraveling the twisted cords of shame or curing the deep wounds of assimilation, I inherited patterns & beliefs that have kept me wrapped up in anxiety for most of my life. I’ve been examining those wounds carefully, curiously & compassionately so I can heal myself, my kids, and eventually those corners of the world where my influence can be felt.

I also know I haven’t been alone in this inquiry this year. Too many new faces grace our ofrendas which begs the question: what have we learned? What we once thought were well-worn scars of battle are revealed as festering wounds of trauma hidden under paper-thin excuses for inhumanity. What fears were we taught to listen to? Which pleasures were we taught to shame? What temptations offer the favored illusion of escape? Only by examining the limited or incomplete choices our ancestors faced and listening to the wisdom of their experience can we hope to find better solutions for humanity as a whole.

Black and white photo of grafitti against white paint on a brick wall that says, "The future will only contain what we put into it now. May 1968.

Most of us actually do want equality and harmony for all, but we were all born within the well-worn grooves of dysfunction that society gave us. It’s only when we understand how we got here that we can conceive of better ways toward our ideal world. That wisdom shows the way we can deconstruct the patterns and traditions of fractured, forced capitalistic resilience passed down over generations, altered by the lens of the world, laws, and society around us.

We can create something new: a world built on traditions of equity and hope.

A critical first step is admitting that none of us are immune to histories of victimization; nor were all of our ancestors “good people”, some were downright evil and reckless with human life.

Each of us arrives in this life carrying the traumatic debt of those who came before us. Sinners and saints alike, regardless of our heritage or background. Humanity is regularly exposed to oppression, appropriation, neglect, betrayal, abuse, suicide, war, sexual violence, suppressive regimes, and community upheavals, just to name a few. Our families have hurt others as others have hurt them and now we’re collectively hurting the environment around us as it starts to hurt us back.

If you’re a fan of Battlestar Galactica, you’ll know what I’m going to say next…”All of this has happened before…all of this will happen again…”

…but tell me, does it really have to happen again? What if… we choose differently?

If I am to be part of the solution for a fractured world, I need to own the responsibility of restoring ancestral wisdom that was stolen, repurposed, commodified, appropriated, skewed, and demonized. My responsibility is not just to reclaim the lost wisdom of my own lineage but to change my practices to restore and stop appropriating those of others, to stop the cycle for all of us. I don’t need to wait for a sign – I can and should do this right now.

3. We are all connected; Choose accordingly

Loss has become such a daily part of our lives that we almost forget that most of us didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to people who have passed. That for every COVID death, there are the people they left behind, grieving. A hole left in their life that is worn ragged by the collective trauma we are facing. I wince whenever I hear the persistently acerbic denial of anti-maskers and “frEeDuM” fighters, so insensitive to the loss of others. I’m embarrassed that there are whole sections of humanity who claim to be about love, yet are so unapologetic about carelessly gambling with the lives of others. And I’m ashamed of family members whose refusal to listen to science, reason or even a conscience were the proximate cause of others’ deaths.

At what point are we going to stop accumulating traumatic debt like a bad soap opera and start reconnecting to the singular truth of our world – we are all connected.

I feel the tsunami of tears and loss rippling out from families, from those who were left behind – intersecting and colliding with other ripples of loss emanating from those around them. Like raindrops falling on a lake during a cloudburst, each loss disrupts the smooth surface, this loss interrupts our practiced and projected image of calm. Each loss reminds us that the storm isn’t over yet. And worse yet are those who could have stopped the storm but chose disruption, heartbreak, and selfishness instead.

We are not okay. I feel it – why can’t anyone else?

Image of planet Earth with a interconnected geometical grid called the "flower of life" glowing gold behind it, against a field of stars as if in outer space.
We are all connected.

I know the compassion fatigue that comes with having to endure “too much”. I’ve tried to keep it together through these losses. First my dad and grandpa in January, a childhood friend in February, my dog in April, a friend each in June, July, August, and September. And I feel like I just keep absorbing more and more. Adding more faces to the ofrenda in my heart.

It’s been impossible to ignore the presence of grief, but hard to allow myself to truly feel it. The emotion feels stunted, stuck in a bottleneck. Too many of us are living on the edge, that this bottled-up grief threatens to burst over everyone around us. Even if we’re not feeling it ourselves, we are surrounded by others who are, whether they discuss it or not, whether we know it or not. Just like our laughter can be infectious, a dark, brooding mood can be as well.

As I write my first novel – about an interconnected queertastic soul family that finds each other lifetime after lifetime – I am desperate to describe this ripple effect we have on each other. We have the power to bring out the best in each other, to witness with awe the light that makes every person shine. We have the power to comfort and collaborate with each other, making the world feel less lonely. But we also have the power to inhibit and restrain others with our disapproval and judgment, dimming their light, making it harder for them to shine. The impulses of violence, jealousy, control, and fear rage in each of us, each leaving wounds that may heal physically over time, but may leave an enduring emotional mark. It is entirely our choice.

The same is true of our elders and ancestors. They too had the choice to nurture and enlighten or to shame and degrade. Some of them stood in the way of people doing amazing things and others pitched in to help them. They had the choice to help or hinder. And so did their children, their grandchildren, all the way down the line to us today.

By connecting to our roots with honesty and humility, we have a chance to recognize the patterns we carry with us. Ancient fears of separation keep us from recognizing the interdependence we naturally need to have as humans. Once we see that interconnectedness, we see that life is not an “either/or” proposition. That it doesn’t have to be a competition with winners and losers; it can be the collaborative evolution of us all.

All we have to do is choose to see it and act with responsibility for something bigger than ourselves.

4. No more dimming to fit in

Close up photo of Janet weariing red lipstick, a black lace gown and a skeleton cameo.
#Samhainblessings to you. I carry the memories of both Celtic and Aztec people in my veins. I can honor this heritage by just being myself.

We live in a world where we don’t have to dim to fit in if we choose. We live in a world where legal barriers based on gender or race do not immediately disqualify our dreams or potential. But societal stigmas still exist, haunting the memories in our bones, rattling the reinforced fears that oppression demanded of our elders and ancestors. The fear of judgment, the fear of being known, the fear of rejection are intimate memories that threaten to hinder us all the time.

And yet, our ancestors remind us that we have a freedom that they did not have. We have access to a far greater global awareness than any generation before us. We have the tools and resources that they did not, including more accessible and responsible treatments for mental illness and research to help better inform our decisions. We have mastery and access they did not. And as each year moves forward, we have fewer excuses not to be living our best life.

How many of our departed elders and ancestors were unrecognized musicians, artists, philosophers, scholars? Who was a healer, an astronomer, or leader who was persecuted by a dominant faith? My grandpa had read nearly every book in his local library and could give you a dissertation on the intricacies of jazz but because he was Mexican didn’t get the kinds of promotions he deserved. My dad, a psychologist, was an aspiring writer who created “Sparky the dog” a comic about an innocent puppy trying to make sense of our political world. How many of them were denied the opportunity to follow that spark? What about the women who could have been legendary architects, chefs, or diplomats but were denied the opportunity due to their gender? Who had to hide their sexuality or true gender identity to stay alive? How many were thwarted from pursuing the gifts and dreams that set their soul on fire with an even greater brilliance? How many lacked the privilege, opportunity, and security we have now?

The longer we keep ourselves small, the longer we prolong the suffering within our bones. Our healing requires us to bring our full selves to the table – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sexy, the sad, and the blissed-out best of ourselves. For when we show up fully – we allow our ancestors to shine through us – our glow-up is theirs as well.

Honoring the magic of legacy

So as we close this blessed Samhain and All Souls season, we take down the marigolds of Día de los Muertos 💀 and sneak some candy from our kids’ haul, I invite us to take one more moment to truly honor the legacy we have inherited. We are the result of our ancestors’ choices good and bad…let us learn through their wisdom what we can do to make the world around us shine brighter with authenticity and hope 💖

Tonight, before you go to bed, take five minutes to just sit with your eyes closed, focusing on your breath. Consider the generations of souls whose choices made your life possible. Meditate on loving images of your departed beloveds, cosmic connections, and blessed ancients, inviting them to light the way to your highest self over the next few months. Approaching them with humility and grace, thank them for what they did to make you a reality. Praise them for the talents and gifts you inherited, your beautiful eyes, your stunning smile, your sense of humor. Bear compassionate witness to the truth of their decisions and hear their wisdom in how to make a better choice. Ask for their guidance with a difficult situation and hear their answer in the whispers of the signs they will want to send. You are the sum of their hopes and dreams, allow them to help you realize yours. When you are ready to end, say the following blessing:

Marigold across the top of a black background. in white script it reads:  I lovingly receive the blessings of my ascended elders, my beloved companions on this journey of joyful growth. I vow to honor their memory by living my life with an abundance of gratitude, a passion for purpose, a reverence for nature,  and an elevated responsibility to the sacred connections we all share. I am loved and protected always. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
A blessing as we close this season of All Souls.

I lovingly receive the blessings of my ascended elders, my beloved companions on this journey of joyful growth. I vow to honor their memory by living my life with an abundance of gratitude, a passion for purpose, a reverence for nature, and an elevated responsibility to the sacred connections we all share. I am loved and protected always. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

So may it be.

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