Pia's Dance

"Yemanja, my mother, pity us and help us. For though the world is great, your strength is even greater."

In the fall of 1987, my family moved to Rio de Janeiro where we lived for several months only one block from Copacabana beach. We were all struck by the extraordinary passion for life engrained in every aspect of the Brazilian culture and we quickly fell in love with the city.

Pia particularly found herself at home. She spent countless hours sunbathing in this terrestrial paradise comprised of creamy beaches stretching for miles in all directions. What Pia found even more alluring about this exotic landscape were the many religious ceremonies and rituals, far more colorful than any of us had ever encountered--moments of silence followed with songs of triumph; moments of prayer followed by dancing celebrations.

And then there was New Year's Eve. A night so memorable that even long-after leaving, Pia would happily recall the spirit of that joyful day.

Every New Year's Eve, the wide beaches of Rio undergo an extraordinary one-night transformation, changing from pleasure grounds for devotees of sun and surf into sanctuaries for believers in Umbanda, the city's largest spirit sect. As the sun sets, millions of people come together on the sands to pay special homage to the ruling divinity of the sea, Yemanja. Their prayers ask for blessings in matters of love; oftentimes they are outright requests for divine intervention. Gathered beside bonfires and candles, they swirl to the mesmerizing beat of drums and chant hymns. The climactic moment comes at the stroke of midnight when the worshippers rush to the water's edge and close their prayers by casting a bouquet of roses into the sea.

I remember standing there at the edge of the ocean with Pia and the rest of my family watching as millions of people, thousands of them women dressed in flowing white gowns, tossed roses into the dark waters. The collective desire to be loved was inspiring. The visual was simply breathtaking. There was a moment of pious silence where all you could hear was the surf. The faithful watched intently the flowers they had thrown, for if these flowers returned to shore, that meant their prayers had fallen on deaf ears and the new year would bring much heartache.

Pia was so taken by this moment that she commissioned a street artist to capture it with paints. Now that painting hangs above our chimney. Oftentimes I caught her looking at it. A look which said: if white gowns and red roses are the means to speak to God, what splendor heaven must hold.  Rio got under her skin. Her heart was in tune with this sensuous view of life, and ever since it has pumped to the exotic South American rhythms often heard playing in the streets of Rio. When she danced, her eyes sparkled like a million roses in an ocean of tropical beauty.

Pia is dancing alone now, across the skies on a shiny sea of stars. Arms arched above her, head thrown back, eyes closed passionately. But she is saddened by the music we are playing here below. Pia knows our pain and sorrow run deep. Today she casts a rose into our hearts, praying tomorrow our spirits spin a better tune. When we are strong again we will celebrate life. We will understand things we do not comprehend now. When this time comes, our world will fill with joyous music. It is then we will feel Pia again. When the saddness fades, she will come and dance with us again.