Monthly Archives: February 2012

On Death and Dying

Jack O'Lantern, 2008


Written October 22, 2011

For the past week, I have been teaching a unit on festivals of death: beginning with Hallowe’en, that strange mash-up of the ancient cross-European Celtic Samhain farmers’ new year/harvest festival with odds and ends of other harvest festivals like the Roman Pomona and the perhaps universal practices of small-scale personal divination (fortune-telling), global masking and role-reversal traditions. And, most of all, our intense need to remember, honor, and call on our dead ancestors for

Sincerely dead!

their ongoing advice, protection, and love, without, of course, having them return as ghouls, since they are, as the people of Oz declared of their wicked witch, “ Morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead . . . and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead. ”

Oh, and, lest we forget the water we swim in—this strange amalgam of global and local Hallowe’en heritage come to us all tied up in a package of opportunistic capitalist marketing of everything scary, or playful, or merely  orange and black, from jelly beans to kitchen towels.

This week, the class will explore a few of the world’s many festivals of death: the Mexican Dias de los Muertos, the Haitian Ghede festival, the Nigerian Yoruba Egungun ancestor masquerades, and the northern Michigan Odawa ghost suppers.


Kanaval, Jacmel, Haiti, 2012


Now, amidst this focus on the annual death of our brief summer luxuriance, and the forever deaths of humans, friend and foe, came a death. A death of a man not so very close to me individually or personally, but close to many people who have been close to my husband and me for the past 15 years.

So, yesterday and today, I have been participating in our own received rituals of death: the funeral home rites, church services, graveside prayers, and communal feast—all in honor of a gentle man, an ordinary man, a man like my own dead mother and father, an ordinary man and woman. A man who lived, worked, loved, and died, doing his school lessons and his work, caring for his wife and children, loving his homeland, loving his coffee, his cigarettes, his music, his dancing, his impassioned political discourses, doing the best he could.


I have cried a lot this past week, and I think: I am crying for my own losses. For my father’s joyful intelligence, his self-absorbed internal conversations, our comradely swims and sails, our shared tasks and disputations, walks up and down hills, into woods and quarries, through cemeteries. For my mother’s shrewd, sharp sarcasm, barely suppressed, her quick wit, her wise words, her quiet queenly sedentary ways, our shared coffees and teas and word games, our silently shared uncertainty about life’s truths.

Yes, I know that I am crying, too, for more losses yet to come: the day I bury my brothers, my husband, my friends. And so I talk with my husband about this: don’t bury me—burn my bones into ashes, and scatter them where you will. Or grant my body to a medical school. Or, if you cannot, if you must bury me, bury me in a simple pine box, and give a big party, in a big empty space, so everyone can dance.

golden grove unleaving


In my own internal conversations, I hear Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words repeated over and over throughout these past days, words penned in Lancashire in 1880, 131 years ago, but published in 1918, the year my father was born:


Spring and Fall

to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leaves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! as the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you will weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It is the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Tamboula Afro-Haitian Dance Company

This afternoon, as we left the post-funereal communal meal, one of my favorite dance partners took my hand, and said, “We must dance.”

This is the wisdom of Haitian men and women.

We dance while we are here.

We dance.


Martha Graham

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through another medium and will be lost. The world will never have it.” —Martha Graham.

Chai by Any Other Name?

homemade masala chai blend

Last year sometime, I found I had to go shopping for an inexpensive Chai mix, as my big glass jar from a now-defunct spice shop was sadly depleted. Lo and behold, I discovered that a jar of “Chinese Five Spice” seemed to have just the right mix for making Chai!

I revel in these late-life discoveries, though I always wonder why it took me so long to discover them. And I remember my mother’s joy when, pushing 90, one sunny summer day vacationing in northern Michigan, she finally gave in to my brother’s urgings to sample cappucino, and found a new minor thrill in life.

So, of course, I bought the jar of Chinese Five Spice, as it was much less expensive than any Chai mixture I’d found, and I took to scooping a teaspoonful of the mix into a pot of black tea for Chai, ready to embellish with honey and milk for a cozy treat.

Then, last month, I ran out of the Five Spice mix, and determined to make my own. Lo and behold again! In searching online for various mix proportions for Chai and for Chinese Five Spice, I discovered that Garam Masala is also basically the same spice blend. Life is sweet, indeed (and spicy).

Of course, everyone has his or her own version of these three amalgams, using different spices (even “five-spice” mixes with six or seven or eight different spices) as well as different proportions. I read up on Chai, Chinese Five-Spice, and Garam Masala, cruised a few dozen recipes, and then went shopping at my favorite spice shop (also, admittedly, my favorite shop for olives, nuts, fresh meats, and fresh fruits & veggies), Papaya Market. I needed to stock up on the ground spices I didn’t already have in sufficient supply. I didn’t want to grind my own spices this time, just in case my trusty little Braun grinder, which I use for spices and flax seeds, wasn’t up to all that work at once. I know the spices at Papaya Market are fresh and pungent.  The only change I’d like to make next time is adding a lot of star anise, which I can’t yet find locally.

Of course, once it was blended, I had to sample it as Chai (a.k.a. Masala Chai), and then package up some of it to share with five friends (if you didn’t get yours yet, just ask!). Here’s the current concoction:

Chai Masala a.k.a. Chinese Five-Spice a.k.a. Garam Masala

Make sure your spices are freshly ground and pungent. Thoroughly mix together these ground spices: 4 T cardamom, 3 T allspice, 3 T anise, 3 T cinnamon, 3 T ginger, 2 T black pepper, 2 T cloves. For Chai tea, mix with strong black tea (about one teaspoon per pot), real vanilla extract, honey (or sugar), and milk to taste. Mmmmmmmmm.

Cake by Any Other Name?

On Banana Bread:

This afternoon, stuck at home without a car, and without anywhere enticing enough to walk to through cold and snow, I decided it was time to turn those black shriveled bananas into banana bread.

As always, I first had to spend some time pondering why we insist on calling tea breads or quick breads “bread,” when they are clearly cakes, leavened with baking soda and/or baking powder instead of yeast, and concocted with prodigious amounts of sugar, honey, or other sweeteners.

To use the term “bread” for the savory variations, such as biscuits, cornbread, dumplings, fritters, beer bread, soda bread, or pancakes, would not seem out of place, as they usually contain little or no sugar—note, however, that we do say “pancake” and not “panbread,” despite the usually low sugar content of pre-syrup pancakes! Unleavened johnny cakes (a.k.a. hoe cakes) also are usually not sweetened. So–why are they cakes?

Using the word “cake” for unsweet floury lumps is not too hard to explain, given the Old Norse word for cake, kaka, seemingly a global word for lumps of shit. So, by analogy, any lump is a cake (as with mud caked on one’s boots).

Surely, though, the sweet “breads” should properly be called cakes? Some sweet yeast-less flour doughs have their own names—scones, brownies, muffins (not to mention pastas). We don’t have to fret over whether they are “cakes” or “breads.” A “cookie” is already a cake–the word comes from the same Germanic (ultimately Indo-European) root word as “cake”—in Dutch, cake and cookie are koek and koekje. But why do we say make cranberry bread and banana bread? Ginger bread and apple bread? Pumpkin bread and zucchini bread?

The most satisfying solution I’ve come up with so far is that “tea breads” are sweet because, in England, both children and adults like sweet cakes (breads?) with their afternoon tea. Thus, breads for tea, whether leavened with yeast or baking soda, are sweetened for afternoon tea.

And then, too, perhaps quick breads were all originally unsweetened breads—a simple soda bread, and the same breads, even when later sweetened, retained their original designation.

ultra-ripe bananas

In any case, I had nine nice flabby black shriveling bananas, filled with soft, mushy pulp, just waiting to be made into banana bread. And I knew exactly how I wanted to make it, since I’d previously used all whole-wheat flour, less sugar, and more fiber, and ended up with a truly delicious loaf.  I also like to use a lot of spices in cooking and baking, especially when there’s the taste of flax seeds to counteract. Feel free to use your own favorite spice mix!

So, here’s the recipe for two loaves, one of which was rapidly and ravenously devoured by friends and family:

Moist Whole-Wheat Banana Bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two loaf pans, 8 ½ by 4 ½. Stir together in a large bowl: 2 ½ c whole-wheat flour, 2 t baking soda, 1 t baking powder, 1 t salt, ½ t ground cinnamon, 1 t ground ginger, and ½ t allspice.

In another bowl, beat together well: 1 c unsalted butter at room temperature and 1 c brown sugar (light or dark).

Then beat in well: 2 c mashed ultra-super-ripe bananas, 4 large eggs, and 2 t real vanilla extract.

Stir in well: ½ c freshly ground flax seeds, ½ c rolled oats (not instant), and 1 c chopped walnuts (pecans are also an excellent choice, and raisins would not be unwelcome).

ready to eat!

Fold in the flour mixture until just mixed. Divide evenly into the two pans. Bake until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, Cool in the pans atop wire racks for ten minutes, then carefully turn out the loaves onto the wire racks and cool, completely. Eat and enjoy! Even better buttered, if you wish.