Death dance: Livin’ La Santisima Muerte
So much death this year already. Not only have we lost beloved celebrities, but family members, friends, pets, jobs and relationships. It is a year of tremendous clarity and I am not surprised that even this early on, Death has come calling for me on a more personal level, especially in a year when I have changed so much about myself and put to eternal sleep parts of myself that impeded my success and happiness.
In my life, I have worn many hats. I was a childbirth instructor for almost twenty years. I was a HAZMAT specialist for McClellan Air Force Base. I was a librarian. I worked for NASA at Edwards Air Base on a top secret fighter jet. As an author, I have written more than 30 books since I published my first book in 2012. These are just a tiny representation of the jobs I have had since I entered the work force at 16. Of all of the something-over-twenty jobs I have had, my favorite is my current primary job. I do three others (author, life coach, web designer), but this one is my defining act of the week. I run a botánica on the weekends.
What is a botánica?
As the name implies for those who know Greek roots, a botánica is involved with plant matter, particularly in the making of oils, washes, baths, incenses and burnables that help people. The last part of that sentence is what really defines a botánica, however and that is helping people. In the Hispanic culture, it is known that a botánica is a place where you can go for help when all other attempts fail.
The beliefs that surround the botánica culture are rich and intense, largely drawn from Catholicism with folk magic included. I have studied Conjure tradition (HooDoo), Appalachian Folk Magic, and Pennsylvania Dutch PowWow techniques, so for me, those also come into play in my work.
Some of our clients come by just to purchase candles or incense, but others need more help. Some days, my husband and I spent hours working through a line of people, all of whom have very real and troubling problems. One person has a neighbor who is harassing her. Another has a spouse in jail and is raising children alone. Another is desperately lonely and wants to find a husband. Another has a teenager who is out of control. It goes on and on.
Doing what I do, it is vital to suspend all judgment of anyone who walks in the door. Each client is just as important as the next one, whether they are old or young, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. Each one of them has a story.
Who is La Santa Muerte?
I learned so much from a venerated figure in the Hispanic culture called La Santa Muerte (The Holy Death) or La Santísima Muerte (The Holiest Death). She appears as the Grim Reaper, because the belief is that a woman brings you into life, so a woman escorts you out of it. What is interesting is that when we look at a depiction of the Grim Reaper, even though all we see is a cloak, bones and a scythe, most people presume it to be male. Why, when there is nothing we see that indicates male over female?
There are La Santa Muerte temples throughout the Southwestern US and Mexico, often with nondescript doors where you have to know where you are going to even look for it. Followers of La Santa Muerte span all social classes, but because of her complete lack of judgment, she is popular among gang members, drug cartels, prostitutes, addicts, alcoholics and other people on the outer fringe of society.
La Santa Muerte knows she is the ultimate end. She is the darkest thing that can ever happen to a person, so anything else pales in comparison. Our faults as minor compared to what she does.
She does not forgive, because to be forgiven, one must do something wrong. To her, we do no wrong. We just cycle through uninteresting combinations of human behaviors. She is there for us at the end and she is the one who closes our eyes on the world for the final time.
When I began studying her, I knew I should fear her but I did not. I felt comforted and strong in her presence. I knew I could be myself and if I brought my worst self before her, she would neither resist nor reject me.
She is not a loving figure, unlike some of the comforting, mothering female deities. She is objectively observant and knows that when someone calls on her, they have first exhausted all other resources and now must call Death into the mix. It can be death of a relationship, a way of life, a habit that does not serve us, or even a physical death.
She knows well the scents of devastation, desperation and tremendous fear. They do not offend her and are part of her world. She does not demand or even expect perfection. She holds no one to any code of ethics ascribed by society. She knows that when she comes for you, it matters not whether you were a holy man or a beggar, a thief or a philanthropist. Either way, she will lay you down to eternal sleep in the same way.
How Death helped me
As a Virgo, I am a judgmental bitch by nature. I can be harsh and sometimes, unkind. I have fought against that my whole life because it is not the person I wish to be. Some of the religious paths I explored before encouraged elitism. To be holier than another person was a desirable trait. To look down on and pity those who struggled with morality was the norm. Disassociating oneself from people who believed differently was expected.
I find that I like myself as a person a great deal more when I walk with Lady Death. Piety is a heavy load to carry.
This weekend, a woman who runs a botánica not far from mine honored me with the gift of a beautiful La Santa Muerte statue, which you see in the main image of this column. She and I shared an emotional conversation about La Santa Muerte that caused us both to tear up a bit. I was deeply touched by her generosity.
I never thought I would become a better person by welcoming Death into my life, but the peace I feel in that acceptance is as cool and tranquil as the grave.