There's something about Tucson.
What it is exactly, well, that's what Jhon Sanders and I discuss one late afternoon in the Menlo Park backyard of Flam Chen co-founders Nadia Hagen and Paul Weir with A Mountain our instant backdrop.
Sanders, director of the Procession of Little Angels since 2007, got involved in the All Souls Procession shortly after moving here from Seattle and he's never really been able to figure out what it is about our desert city that makes certain things take root.
There's our reality: The caliche in many a Tucson backyard, despite being unbelievably hard, is actually fertile and loves nothing more than a good, long monsoon and cactus of every sort. Kind of like those of us who've been here a long, long time. There's also this other more ethereal reality: Tucson, in all its weird unorganized glory and ugly gravel-lot politics, sometimes brings people together in the most impossible ways in love, change and yes, creating the All Souls Procession.
The procession was started in the early '90s, by Tucson artists Mykl Wells and Susan Johnson, inspired by Dia de Los Muertos celebrations they saw in Mexico and their own personal loss. In the mid-'90s, the procession was formally taken over by Hagen and Weir, and eventually, it's developed this life of its own, with different people taking up a laundry list of duties that somehow always come together.
This is what Sanders and I are wondering about—how this amazing collective energy happens in our city and why that energy seems to gather more than 70,000 people on Tucson's downtown streets and compel them to walk for almost two miles carrying memorials, large papier-mâché puppets and other expressions of life, love and loss.
Sanders and I decided there's no clear answer, but he thinks back to other city festivals he's seen, like the annual Fremont Fair, a summer solstice fair and parade in one of Seattle's more funky neighborhoods. It's fun and surely in that big Pacific Northwest city it brings many people together. Yet, never in a million Mt. Rainiers, does that event even compare to what has taken place in Tucson the past 25 years in numbers, volunteer initiative and creative expression, Sanders says.
Typically the first Sunday of November, this year, the procession was moved to the second Sunday to prevent it from falling on the religious observances of All Souls, All Saints or Dia de Los Muertos—take your pick. But before the big, big night, there's Sanders' project—a celebration of life and loss, kid style.
"It spoke to me," Sanders says, describing why he's continued to be involved in the All Souls through the Procession of Little Angels. He first participated peripherally in All Souls and then as an attendant for the processional urn that carries paper messages of loss, grief and remembrance, burned at the finale. In 2007, in an effort to expand community involvement, Hagen and Weir put a call out for people to take more ownership over different aspects of the procession. After some thought, Sanders volunteered to run the Procession of Little Angels.
This year, this event strictly for the younger set, is Saturday, Nov. 8, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Armory Park, and is expected to bring together more than 6,000 people, children and their families.
Every year, Sanders says he's amazed at the number of people who gather to participate in the Procession of Little Angels and the All Souls Procession from what looks and feels like a variety of religious, cultural and economic backgrounds. "All have lives, loves and loss."
He looks at the Procession of Little Angels as an opportunity give those same experiences to young children, but also give them a chance to understand the importance of creating community. "These can be very strong long-lasting impressions on life," he says. "I do this just to be able to provide that, to give young people those experiences and hope they will support events like All Souls when they are grown and understand the importance of participating."
Sanders, who works every summer in Alaska, usually starts thinking about Little Angeles as the summer starts to wane. Once in Tucson, he starts to put together all the pieces that make it happen including making sure there are more than 350 cardboard wings. This year, those wings of varying shapes and sizes, were cut by City High students as part of a community project. Last weekend, the wings were painted white in the Midtown backyard of another volunteer's home.
In the beginning, Sanders says he was worried he wouldn't be able to pull it off and take over Little Angeles—he didn't have a car or cell phone at the time. But he did, and continues to bring together other volunteers, and every single one of those wings ends up on a child who participates. The community-building he believes in, happens.
"That's what makes Tucson special. I've yet to really put my thumb on it and I've thought about it a lot," he says. "But special things are always able to happen."
HEARTBEAT OF THE URN
How it all occurs in Tucson—this creation of community and a cultural event that extends to everyone—well sometimes, like with Sanders, it starts with someone just saying yes and just giving a little bit more.
Like many Tucsonans, Karen Falkenstrom knew very little about the All Souls Procession until she actually participated. Her first experiences were watching it in the early 1990s after she first moved to Tucson. That was when it was probably only about 50 people. Then in 2002, she and Rome Hamner co-founded Tucson's Japanese taiko drumming group, Odaiko Sonora, and in 2005 they were asked by Hagen to participate in the finale.
It was the first year the procession introduced the urn, the large metal case at the head of the procession that carries hundreds if not thousands of paper messages (and sometimes more), placed into the urn before and during the procession. The messages are lit on fire and the urn carried into the air by a crane during the finale. This year, once again, the finale takes place in the large empty lot east of Mercado San Agustin in Menlo Park south of Congress Street.
"We were supposed to perform this three-minute piece, but we didn't know we had to play until the messages in the urn burned. It ended up being seven minutes. It was intense and taxing. We were completely exhausted," she says.
"I remember in that crazy euphoria, feeling it was a complete religious moment, watching the urn burning. The whole thing affected me deeply and I wanted to make sure we did it again."
They did, and continue, often being referred to as the "heartbeat of the urn." Although half Korean, Falken strom says the practice of taiko drumming and participating in the procession, makes her often think of Obon, the Japanese festival that honors ancestors. With Obon in mind, Falkenstrom and Hamner felt it appropriate for the drum to be on the cart accompanying the urn, something done in many Japanese villages—a large taiko drum pulled through the town in celebration.
However, this year, they are changing it up. Through October and November, Odaiko Sonora hosted a series of lantern-making workshops. People created remembrances on paper surrounding the lanterns, a little light inside. The lanterns will be carried by volunteers during the procession. In Japan, the lantern ritual is called Toro Nagashi, with the lanterns placed on a body of water. Being this is the desert, the paper around the lanterns will be taken off and placed in the urn at the end of the procession before the finale.
Another new approach to the procession is a chant that Hamner and Falkenstrom hope causes more people gathered at the finale to participate. There will also be special guests accompanying Odaiko Sonora—what Falkenstrom refers to as a national group of taiko all stars—Tiffany Tamaribuchi from Sacramento Taiko Dan, Shoji Kameda of On Ensemble, Aki Takahashi from Nagata Shachu and Ten, Kyle Abbot and many more. The chant, commission from Takahasi, will close out the ceremony with an Obon dance.
As seriously as Nick Tomazic takes his role as an urn attendant during the All Souls Procession, caring and preparing the urn for another procession is equally important. On the side of Hagen and Weir's yard, Tomazic with another procession volunteer, empty the urn of whatever survived in the burning the previous year and start gingerly scrubbing it down, inside and out.
Tomazic holds up a utility bucket to show me the remnants—whatever people chose to burn in tribute, memory or loss last year. The scraps, he says, will be put back in the urn at the beginning of the procession to burn again—there's always something left over and it's always treated with respect and tossed back in for the next burn.
The ER nurse, has been part of the procession's spirit group since 2009 with his wife, then girlfriend—accompanying the urn in respectful silence and participating in the finale at the end. Tomazic says it's a job the attendants take seriously, accepting the paper offerings placed into the urn in the beginning and along the procession route. His own personal experiences of loss and grief, as well as what he's seen in his career as an ICU and ER nurse, have provided him with additional experiences that inform his volunteer work with the procession.
"The procession is all about honoring individuals and those who have suffered a loss," he says.
"This is universal, no matter where you come from, and can affect everyone on so many levels. But there aren't many rituals, especially surrounding death, as community, especially in the U.S., a space to celebrate death and rebirth."
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, an original French settlement, Tomazic says his hometown has one of the second largest Mardi Gras in the country and is very festive, so that kind of environment isn't new to him. He's also familiar with the traditional Jazz funeral, which starts off in one neighborhood with a small group of musicians and ends with a large procession in honor of life and death.
The spirit group is a mix of urn attendants and ambassadors led by Tucson artist Toreenee Wolf. The attendants, like Tomazic remain silent, while the ambassadors help explain to people who often come up asking about the urn and in need of paper to fill out a remembrance. Attendants meet a couple of months before the procession to talk about costumes, choreograph their movements at the finale and in an intimate setting, discuss the serious nature of their work honoring and accompanying the remembrances in the urn and discussing their own personal loss and thinking of who they want to remember during the procession. "Who we will walk for."
The work involved getting ready and the procession itself can be emotionally taxing, Tomazic says, but at the same time the experience each year is personally gratifying.
"It's an emotional commitment," he says, explaining that each attendant, in costume and make-up, carries a small container to collect remembrances along the route and then place in the urn. In silence, they always make sure to make eye contact with the other person.
"I think this gets to the heart of why everyone is part of the procession," he says, allowing every individual a chance, in their own way, to take a moment to deal with loss and the understanding that death is something we all face, eventually.
REMEMBERING JAN. 8, 2011
In a warehouse space adjacent to the Small Planet Bakery, sits Susan Furr, along with Lorna and Amber Wells.
They are there, manning a workshop space for anyone to come in and make something for the procession that they can envision from cardboard or papier-mâché. They are also there to work on a memorial for the six victims killed in the Jan. 8, 2011 shooting that left 12 injured, including former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and U.S. Congressman Ron Barber.
Furr, founder of the Tucson Puppet Arts Guild, says the January 8th Memorial Foundation reached out to Hagen in hopes that a procession memorial could be made from some of the hundreds of tribute items painstakingly catalogued and boxed since the tragic incident. Many of those items will be part of a permanent memorial, but others were released to creative groups, like the Alls Souls Procession, to be used for community projects.
In the warehouse space, boxes of silk flowers, saints' and Safeway votive candles, deflated cellophane balloons and other items are waiting to be placed on a cart the women are putting together. First, there will be six pillars of light currently being made—each representing one of the six killed in the shooting. The tribute items, which came from the northwest Safeway where the incident occurred, the front of University of Arizona Medical Center where Giffords and other survivors were treated and the front of Giffords' former office, will be placed on the cart. "A landscape," they explain.
"We're excited to be part of the releasing of these items," Furr says.
On a nearby table sits a large, oval papier-mâché head that will be made into a large puppet, Furr refers as a guardian spirit that will accompany the memorial.
"It's important to finally do a procession memorial and enough time has passed to use these items. It is part of our ongoing healing process," she says.
"Only other communities who have experienced this kind of loss understand what it is like, this kind of tragedy."
And everyone remembers what it was like that day dealing with the loss of people they knew and such a violent incident that rocked Tucson to its core. Furr says she remembers having to go to Phoenix that day, and feeling like she had to return to Tucson as soon as possible, just to be home.
Lorna Wells, mother of Tucson artist Mykl Wells who organize the procession workshops and annual Cardboard Ball, says she's particularly thinking of Phyllis Schneck, a 79-year-old homemaker killed that morning, who happened to be in Wells' quilting group. Her daughter Amber says it's difficult not to think of those killed and wondered what they would have done with their lives if they survived.
"We need to remember Jan. 8," she says. "I feel like it's an honor to be involved in this."
Furr says they want to make sure, from this point on, that Jan. 8, 2011 is remembered every procession.
"This is where our community can come together to remember. The pain is still very real for many of us, and how we've had to deal with that pain has happened in different way? This is the right time for this."