The Halloween fear factor stopped grabbing my attention years ago. Adrenaline shows up enough in my life at irregular intervals without my courting it. The allure of tiny candy bars and packages of promising an immediate sugar lift has taken a little longer. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s something even more primal than cortisol and sugar about this time of year.
The slant of light. The rapid encroaching darkness. The allure of a good bonfire. It’s bone deep. And so for a while I‘ve settled into Celtic New Year or Samhain, which better fits the feel of the season for me. Bonfires. Pumpkins. This ancient pagan tradition honors the thin veil between the living and the dead, and it also falls exactly between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice on Oct. 31st. It’s a time when the mysterious space between the two reveals itself. The next day, All Soul’s Day, in many Christian traditions, a time to pray for the dead. I’ve done all of the above.
For many years I’ve heard about The Day of the Dead in Mexico. I love the Mexican people. I loved the Coco movie. I’ve been particularly intrigued for a long time by the indigenous cultures in southern Mexico. Then a few weeks ago a friend offered us his place in Oaxaca, Mexico next week for the festivities. It’s a city full of art, life beauty. So how could I say no Muertos? I’m delighted as a metaphysical tourist, but I’m intrigued at a much deeper level.
Lately my life has been reminding me of the encroachment of the ultimate Mystery, as loved ones leaving this world one by one. My brother. A beloved healer and friend. There’s a sense of loss and grief and then a wondering. The numinous space between worlds has beckoned in recent poems I’ve been writing,. Some of my buddies have called them my “Bardo poems.” (In Buddhism, Bardo refers to the transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth).
And so next week I’m extending my curiosity about the season celebrating the living and the dead by traveling south to Oaxaca City to share in the joyous reunion of families. We plan to walk in cemeteries, appreciating the beautiful connection between families alive and their departed. I plan to admire the beauty of the family ofrendas and build one for my own dearly departed.
There’s a certain soft, numinous beauty in anticipating it all. To be continued…as life and death seem to just keep playing on the edges of my everyday reality.
I have two younger brothers. I only bit one of them. Honest. It was during a heat wave mid-summer. Mother spread a quilt in the yard under the locust tree. I was five, and my baby brother was four months old. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the cutest, sweetest, softest thing ever. I wanted to pinch his cheeks. No. An urge came over me. I wanted to bite him. Just like in the Gingerbread Man story. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so much. And so I took a bite of his little thigh. He wailed. Mother searched for clues. a bee? A diaper pin? I put on my already perfected innocent face, and I got by with it. Good job, me.
For years I secretly believed that this impulse made me abnormal. But it turns out that even regular people barely contain their urge to pinch cheeks or hold cute things a little too close. Or bite them, even. Social scientists have labeled this “cute aggression.” More about that here.
About forty years later, I got word that the same brother was entering end-stage liver failure. I took a red-eye from Oregon to Missouri. When I got there, the doctor said he had about 48 hours to live, so we all went about saying our goodbyes. At first he was non-responsive, and then at one point he asked me to call his friends. He talked to each of them and told them he loved them. His daughters, ages 9 and 11, were in the room with us. I mopped out his mouth with a swab, a palliative care practice that the nurses had suggested. There was a sense of completion.
His eyes popped opened and he looked at me straight on.
What’s going on, Susan?
I decided there was no point in hiding the truth.
You seem to be dying, Mark.
He pointed his finger at me and said,
Seriously? I thought. How did he know? This was spooky. I imagined that his life had flashed in front of him and he had finally seen through me. The gig was up, I thought, after all these years.
I can’t die. I’ve gotta help raise my girls, he said.
I stayed with him as he went in and out of a coma state for three weeks.
During visiting hours I was assigned to the corner space.
Then he’d point at me and say, My sister says I’m dying. But I’m going to be around for my girls.
I was glad to serve as motivation, and he did rally. All grown-up, instead of biting him I gave him lots of shoulder and back rubs. And he was able to get a new liver, thanks to the donor and many angels along the way. It lasted him 16 years.
And he did indeed raise two amazing young women.
But last week it was time to really say goodbye, as organ after organ failed. I will miss him, but I find solace in knowing that he completed his mission. Without biting or being bit again, as far as I know.
I keep forgetting and remembering and forgetting everything I know to be true. In the rapid flow of things, keeping track of habits that no longer serve me is often beyond my mindfulness capacity. But when I take time out of my life to slow things down, an insight almost always emerges that allows me to remember again. And so for many years I’ve used my mid-summer birthday to do just that. This year I indulged myself in an introvert’s delight: a (mostly) silent retreat dedicated to quieting down.
I joined a very small group of women, blanketing ourselves in meditation and yoga and nature. I took slow walks, determined to steer my thinking back to these things: A lake. A hillside of rhododendrons. A blue ceiling peeks through the giant fir and cedar trees. But it was a little madrone tree that caught my attention.
The Pacific Madrone is native to a small swath of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s a bit exotic to a not-native Oregonian. At first I was struck by its sheer beauty, its shedding paper-like layers exposing a rainbow in a natural palette. As I stood in quietude, I reflected on the layers and layers of life I have lived in the last seven decades, the last fifty years of marriage, the last forty years of householding and family. The papery bark was splintered and worn, even more beautiful contrasted against other times, other layers.
Then I learned that the madrone sheds its bark every other year, and I wondered whether this was its birthday. As I walked along, I came across another tree, a smaller and older one, with a grey body and leafless limbs. I looked closer. Inside the carcass a hardy green stem was volunteering. Soon the old limb would fall away to make way for the vital green center. Life was already beginning to renew itself. I stood still for a few minutes, my mind further silenced by the Way of Things.
In the days that have followed, returning to this everyday world, I have forgotten and remembered and forgotten many of the things I learned. But the beauty of those layers and the brilliance of the green core of life have stayed with me. I begin again, a little shabby from wear, but retreaded and ready for the next year.
But just for good measure, when I return to my everyday life, I take myself out for a manicure and pedicure. I quietly celebrate the layers I continue to shed, and I choose a color that reminds me of the newness waiting to be discovered. For a time, these often-busy hands will remind me of what I might forget.
As solstices go, the winter one gets most of the press here above the equator. Perhaps it quells the primal need for the comfort and serves as a cosmic reminder that the darkness of the season is not a one-way ticket into forever darkness. For whatever reason, nearly every culture north or south, the longest night of the year is met with candles, lights, fires. We gather in the cold and dark for the warmth of the human community and to remind ourselves that the sun (or son, however we spell hope for the future) is once again being reborn.
But Summer Solstice is like a younger sibling that doesn’t stand a chance here in my hemisphere. After all, there’s so very much to do in the warm weather. Graduations. Weddings. Festivals. Road Trips. Air Trips. Home Improvements. Family Reunions. Not to mention Gardening. Swimming. Hiking. And then there’s the summer Beach Reading List, somehow closely tied to the imperative to relax! Quick! And on. And on. Most of us are so carried up in the joyful whirlpool and the busy-ness of summer activity that there’s no time out until fall.
This is the exact opposite of the actual source of the word Solstice itself (rooted in Latin for “sol” or “sun,” combined with “sistere” for “standing still.”) Especially at Summer Solstice, ancients observed that the sun seems to stand still in its seasonal movement before reversing direction and moving on in its inevitable trajectory to the next season. Situated as we are in our whirlpool of activity, we tend to forget the “standing still” part. Whether or not it’s possible to set aside the actual longest day of the year for some stillness, most of us can use a little time out sometime during this week to catch our breath (if nothing else) before jumping back into the whirlpool.
I write this now as the sun stands still above me for a few minutes, as I reflect on sundown two days ago, on June 21. For the very first time this year I was privileged to honor the season in a way that fit me just right. I’m a member of Jubilate, a choir of women of all ages. This year we sang at a benefit for a local wildlife refuge, to celebrate the upcoming full dive into summer. During rehearsals last week, we listened between songs, inviting migrating birds to join us as we sang. The quieter we got between practicing our parts, the more willing they were to show up.
Then we gathered on Solstice itself to sing and celebrate nature under a canopy of tall trees. The resulting performance/ritual was a potent combination of praise for the earth and a plea for justice in the world. As we sang and listened and sang and listened, poetry of birdsong and woman-song merged, and the movement of the earth seemed suspended in the stillness. What emerged was a deep gratitude for this world, punctuated by birdsong. And so it is that I’m doing my own personal re-branding of Summer Solstice. Birdsong Solstice. A time out. A sweet pause in this greenest of seasons to thank the world for continuing to spin.