By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.

Making Saints

Some places are inaccessible in the academic world. Or perhaps invisible. I couldn’t help but have Santa Muerte on my mind as I visited the Phoenix/Tempe area of Arizona. I knew from reading Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death that the skeleton saint has a large following in that area. Having been raised in a working class religion in a blue-collar household, I also knew that such trappings might not be entirely visible around a university setting. Arizona State is a huge school and my minimal free time on the trip only permitted a wander-radius of a couple blocks from around the campus. Many universities are, because of their property-value-lowering non-profit status, on the edge of sketchy neighborhoods where work-a-day people live. It didn’t seem that way in Tempe. The areas I reached all seemed to have that adobe-solid middle-class feel to them. Not that I go looking for seedy neighborhoods when I’m traveling by myself, but I do like to see stores that aren’t part of a chain, and to get a sense of local culture. For most academics, the pedestrian devotion to Santa Muerte is below the radar.

The concept has haunted me ever since reading Chestnut’s study—why would people find appealing to death attractive? Santa Muerte has the trappings of a Catholic saint, but she is, plainly put, death personified. She is a favorite among drug lords and criminals, and that is somewhat understandable. Her Hispanic devotees, I realize, often live lives of desperate poverty. The well-heeled saints of conventional religion might not be able to see things from their perspective. Although the Catholic Church continues to make saints, many of the traditional saints predate capitalism. Capitalism creates its own insidious disenfranchisement. I realized this already as a child growing up in a setting where just about everybody I knew had it better than my family did. For some to prosper, others must suffer in such a system. I knew which end I belonged on.

As in my visits to Santa Barbara (a much more conventional saint, by the way), Austin and Houston, in Tempe the Hispanic population was evident mostly in the menial labor sector. The person who makes your hotel bed or brings the hot plate of food to you in the restaurant. The person who mops up your spills or picks up your trash. And they are the ones who’ve made it into the earning bracket of the minimum wage. Why not worship personified death? Does not Santa Muerte remind them that we all face the same rictus grin at the end of our days? Isn’t it best to be on good terms before we reach that inevitable place? It was clear that on my visit I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough from prosperity to see the skeleton saint myself. At Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my 11:30 p.m. flight back to cloudy skies, all the shops were closed. I passed by a boutique with local art, and there I possibly glimpsed her. A small statuette, possibly just the grim reaper, among other Day of the Dead motifs. Was it inspired by Santa Muerte? I would never know, I pondered, as the Hispanic airport attendants, still at work around me, were busy emptying the garbage.

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Phoenix Rising

As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.

Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.

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What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.