Category Archives: Carol Merchasin

Marigolds, skulls, and altars to departed dogs

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Carol Merchasin, author of How It Goes in Mexico, reflects on how she came to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

I remember when my housekeeper suggested that I might want to create an altar to celebrate death.
“Death?” I thought. “What’s to celebrate?” But since I was living in Mexico where Day of the Dead is a national tradition, I went with the flow. After all, what harm could come from participating in what I saw as a “quaint” ritual of my adopted country?
First I created an altar filled with marigolds. There are so many marigolds used for Day of the Dead that I was convinced there must be a Hallmark-like conspiracy of marigold farmers driving this so-called death celebration.
“Now, you must add alcohol and food and things that the spirits of the dead will be happy to see when they return,” my housekeeper advised. So I added photos, alcohol and candles, worried about the likely danger of an explosion and placed food and objects into the tableau. I prepared an altar for the animals now gone: Chloe and the many cats, Max, the dog.
It was colorful and unique, but I cried every time I passed to see so much death right there in front of me. After a week, I packed the mementos and photos away in a small blue cardboard box and placed it on a high closet shelf in the unlikely event I would want to bring such sadness down on myself again.
The next year, I took down the blue box once more. I noticed that the communal marking of death, so wonderfully Mexican, made me less sad, or maybe sad but also joyful. I went about remembering my absent loved ones, not in the privacy of my own sorrow, but in the company of a whole community, an entire nation. Just the physical ritual of making the altar—choosing the photos, thinking about what mementos to use, going to the market for flowers and tiny sugar animals brought me a flood of unexpected pleasure and solace.
That year the blue box got a label: Celebrating Day of the Dead.
Every year now, it seems we add someone new to our altar, a sharp remembrance of the passage of time and our own mortality. This year, we add Robert’s mother, Dorothy. We welcome her presence there—for at 102 years of age, hers was a death worth celebrating. We add Penny and Big Brown, dogs who have passed into the Heaven where only such loyal friends can go.
I still cry. But the humor of the display takes over as I put out spaghetti and whiskey for my father, catnip for the cats, a book on how to train a dog for dogs who were always so poorly trained and I smile. Es la vida, I say. That is life.
Day of the Dead may be “quaint” to our US eyes, but its sophistication is in putting death into its rightful place as part of la vida. The truth is inescapable. As the years march by, we will surely need yet another blue box to hold our celebration.

Q+A With Carol Merchasin

Carol Merchasin, author of the Shebook, How It Goes in Mexico, explains how she swapped out her life as a lawyer for her new post as an expat essayist.

What prompted you to write How It Goes in Mexico?

After I moved to San Miguel de Allende, I was stunned by my own ignorance about Mexico – history, culture, honestly everything except maybe tacos and tequila (actually, including tacos and tequila).  I began to write these essays to try to help my family and friends understand the magic of living here. I wanted Americans to glimpse the Mexico I experience every day – a place so rich, so different and so misunderstood.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I heard Anne Lamott on the radio doing an interview for Bird by Bird in 1995.  I was driving and I had to pull over into a parking lot to make sure I could hear every word.  I was not a writer then, I was a lawyer, but I took an index card and wrote “index cards” on it. Ten years later, I read Hiruki Murikami’s story about how he decided to become a writer in What I talk about when I talk about running and I took out the carefully preserved index card and decided to become a writer.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I occasionally consult with companies on harassment and discrimination training.

I was a waitress when I was a teenager and that was probably my most interesting job.  As Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the people you’ll meet…..”

What is your favorite word right now?

“Village.“ I love the word “village” and its denotation of a small place, a cluster of houses and shops, as well as the connotation of a less frenzied, more human scale, unfiltered life.  I am living in a Mexican village now and it fascinates me!

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now?

Yes. I read on my iPad, which is an extension of my right arm. I usually like to have a lot of books going at once so I can chose according to how I feel.  Right now I am reading The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

What’s next?

I am finishing up the remaining essays for How It Goes in Mexico to be published in early 2015.

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