This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s ¡Hola Papi! newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
I find myself alone today with my pets in a quiet space. My children are off to school. My partner is visiting their father. And yet there is no rest. Yesterday was my 36th birthday. My kids are finally of age to understand the importance of it, and I did feel celebrated. I got a text from a dear high-school friend and from my eldest child’s grandmother in Florida. The people that matter. I played myself an mp3 of my grandmother’s voice singing “Happy Birthday” to me the year before she died, 11 years ago. My kids were able to hear and say, “Wow, she really did have a heavy Spanish accent!” I thought of my father, who would have been 64 a week before my own birthday.
It’s hard to frame this into a question, so I’m kinda feeling it out as I write, so bear with me if you can! I guess what I’m saying is where do you find peace in a world where the majority of your loved ones have passed? They are with me always but have left a space in my heart. I give all of my goodness to my children and to my art. My grandma would be so proud. Her obituary said, “Everything she did, she did for her children,” and I strive to be the same.
I am grasping at the idea that I am now the elder. The rest have passed, and I have to carry the photos. The astrological placements of ancestors born 100 years ago. The traditions. Show the importance of where our family came from. ¡Jalisco! The burden feels so heavy. It’s exhausting!
Any advice on how to cope?
Becoming the Elder
Hey there, BTE!
It sounds like you’re trying to make peace with the unstoppable marching of time that is slowly guiding us all toward inevitable death. It’s moments like these that remind me of this column’s humble origins in Grindr, a gay hookup app. My goodness, how far ¡Hola Papi! has come. I went from answering letters like “I saw my manager on Grindr” to fielding easy questions like these! Some things do get better with age.
In any case, I understand your ennui, BTE. Thoughts like the ones you describe weigh on me from time to time as well. I’m definitely a person who dwells, ponders, and ruminates, perhaps more than I should. There are times in life, gaps, when things go still and quiet sets in and we become reflective. We become keenly aware that we are thinking, feeling beings caught in the merciless current of physics. It’s a miracle we make it to these brief islands of contemplation at all, fragile as we are.
As we catch our breath here outside the flow state, we will sometimes look back in astonishment at all we have survived, at the wounds we’ve accumulated while being dragged along, at what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained, and we might wonder what it’s all for, might begin a process of anxious arithmetic, hoping to arrive at some meaningful answer: I want more. I need less. I want, I hope, I love, I hate.
It’s all very heady. It can be nice to sit here for a while and take in the pleasures of the abstract, the nostalgic, and the philosophical. But this is also where dread, self-pity, and existential angst tend to creep in if we linger too long. Some of us are great at introspection, at identifying our thoughts and meditating on them, but can struggle with the part where we let go of them.
There’s a familiar trope of that person who distracts themselves with parties and substances and work because they don’t want to confront themselves or their pain. But there’s an inverse to that trope. There are people who spend too much time puttering about in the intangible interior, in the realm of emotions and hypothetical scenarios and the past, because it feels like a place where we are in control, where we can tune out the outside world and all its dangers and threats.
I’m not saying that’s you, BTE, only that it’s a balancing act. There are times when we must be brave enough to sit still and times when we must be brave enough to live. It takes wisdom, which, I think, is what “being an elder” is all about.
As you teach your children about where they come from, and as you think back to the loved ones you’ve lost, try not to lose your sense of self in all that. History is important, and it can take on even more significance when it’s a history that has endured multiple attempts to eliminate it (¡Chihuahua! here). But you should resist the temptation to cast yourself in the role of torchbearer or martyr.
If passing down traditions feels like a burden, maybe rethink your approach to it. Certainly, it is in some ways the very definition of a burden: something heavy that is to be carried. But there’s also a joy in it. We carry these things not out of stuffy reverence for the past but because they enrich our lives. Learning about our past can make legible new possibilities for our futures.
I think, for example, of the tradition of the Day of the Dead, how it approaches death and loss with gravity but also humor. Yes, it’s about revering the ancestors, but it’s also about laughing skeletons and treats and celebration. My hope is that you can bring that sweetness to your project of passing down the traditions, that doing so gives your children something, yes, but that it gives you something, too. Doing everything for your children is a noble idea, but you are also a person. And besides, you’re 36, not Mamá Coco.
Even the most ancient of traditions is destined for obsolescence, BTE. There will come a day, for example, when the very last jarabe tapatío is performed. The past matters, but it’s more important to be here in the present. The most important thing your ancestors have given you is a heartbeat. Use it well.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published September 12, 2023.
Purchase J.P. Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons here.