Sunday, November 04, 2012

Roots and Seeds

If you are a reader, you probably know the feeling.  Having moved from one house or apartment to another, you find yourself wanting to take down a particular book, and you know exactly where it is... in your old home.

That kind of phantom access, to a world that is no longer there, is more and more familiar to me as I age.  So often I will catch myself in a reverie, thinking of a friend or vista from my past... and somehow, the past feels like that misplaced book: I know exactly where it was, and it is a struggle, sometimes, to remember that I will never again walk down the halls of my old high school (they've torn the building down) or jump off the swingset I had as a child, or crawl inside the hollow log that used to lie hidden in a wood that is itself, no longer there.

The past feels present to me, and I reach out my hand for it, only to discover with puzzlement over and over again that it is gone--at least, gone in the shape I knew.

Last spring, we lost a neighbor.  This Samhain, we got a neighbor again, though of course, not in the shape we knew.

Image, Wikimedia Commons
Joyce and Pat lived next door when we moved in to our house, and had lived there long enough to have tales and stories not just of the seller of our house, but of the owner before that, a man named Eddie who loved to garden as much as Joyce did.  I can point out specific plants of hosta around the neighborhood that passed from Eddie to Joyce to someone else again, and I have plants in my garden that were planted by Eddie that I gave again to Joyce, and plants that she gave to me.

It is strange to contemplate the things that live on when we have gone.  Gardens, neighbors, houses... everything constantly growing into new shapes, new forms.  I type these words at a desk in the office I share with my husband.  Before we lived here, it was the office of a small non-profit.  Before that?  The tie rack still hanging in the closet says that it was Eddie's room, the master bedroom he and his wife once shared.  What use they put our bedroom to I do not know... nor whether the Gail and Nancy whose names were written on the concrete under the rotted-away oak paneling in the 1960's basement rec room still live nearby, or even live at all.

What I do know is that the present rests always on a foundation of the lost past.  By joining a neighborhood, I join myself to years of past I never knew, and become part of them myself.

And it's not just me, of course.  The process of new life moving in where the old has ended is all around us, all the time.  Where Pat and Joyce lived last spring, another family lives today.  Like Pat and Joyce, they are an older couple; unlike our old neighbors, they have children who visit them often and already have rooms of their own, a swingset, and a full set of toys out in the yard where Joyce's last autumn flowers have just finished blooming.

It is strange to think that I have seen the full year's cycle of those blooms, and our new neighbors, whose home it is, have not.

It is stranger still to think that Joyce will never see those blooms again, nor hear the laughter of the children playing on that swing-set, or the barking of their dog. (Joyce would have liked the dog; I feel very sure of that.)

And it seems strange to have a knowledge--a kind of intimacy--with the family's home, but not yet with the family itself.  I almost feel I ought to look away, avert my eyes from what is familiar to me, and not yet to our neighbors.

But it does not seem strange to have watched these changes come at Samhain.  It is not in the spring that seeds are dropped to earth, after all, but in the fall.  The old plants die, but the new life is planted even before the winter's snows.

I miss Joyce; I'll probably always miss her when I watch her flowers blooming, and miss her more if ever those flowers are replaced by something else.  And still, I have the strangest illusion of time, as if I could reach out, lay my hand on just the right shelf, and there she would be... and Eddie, and Nancy, and Gail, and all my childhood friends and neighbors, too.  (My nursery school teacher, who always owned a great dane dog, and always named him Thor... Tina, whose wedding shower was the first I ever went to, and who died before either of us was twenty-five... My high school guidance counselor, a family friend who was gone before her death from Altzheimers.  Are they really gone?  Can it possibly be true?)

Red Fallen Leaves.  Pixie from He
It doesn't feel like the new life in my neighborhood supplants the old, however.  Instead, it feels like a reminder of one long, long continuation, like a river moving always past its banks, never returning, never still, but always there.  Leaves become the forest floor, become the loam, the root, the leaves again, and somehow,  if we only knew how and where, we could reach out and touch them still.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Black Month

The black month November says M de la Villemarque is the month of the dead. On All Saints Eve, (the Scotch Halloween) crowds flock to the grave yards to pray by the family graves, to fill with holy water the little hollows left for this pious purpose in the Breton grave stones, or in some places to offer libations of milk. All night masses for the dead are said and the bells toll; in some places after vespers, the parish priest goes round in procession by torch light to bless the tombs. In every house the cloth and the remains of the supper are left on the table that the souls of the dead may take their seats about the board; the fire too is left burning on the hearth, that the dead may warm their thin hands at the embers as they did in life. When the dead mass has been said, the death bell tolled, the supper eaten, and the household are abed, weird wailings are heard outside the door, blent with the sighing of the wind. They are the songs of the souls, who borrow the voice of the parish poor to ask the prayers of the living.  
 --Tom Taylor, Ballads and Songs of Brittany. McMillan and Co., 1865

Halloween is only the beginning.

From then until Yule, the days get shorter, the nights colder, longer, and wilder.  However, rarely is there snow to lighten the daylight that does remain.  And though the winter days will be even shorter in December, and colder by far by winter's end, never will they be blacker than in November.

Samhain, it seems to me, is not a single day.  Samhain is a tide, a season, an acknowledgment of the rising dark.  The custom of honoring the dead, the ancestors, not only on Halloween itself but throughout this season. Ever since I learned of the old Breton custom of naming the month of November "the Black Month," and reserving it for honoring the dead and for telling tales of ghosts and the supernatural, it has made sense to me.  November is a dark and fading time, and I feel it every year.

I live in the United States, where we practice Daylight Savings Time in most (though not all) of our time zones.  In the summer, to take advantage of the early morning sunrise, we set our clocks forward,  effectively schooling ourselves to rise earlier.  In the fall, in recognition of the later dawns, we set our clocks back, sleeping in later to match the sun.  And though the purpose is supposed to be energy savings, it has seemed both dire and appropriate that for the last few years, the change from Daylight Savings to Standard Time has come after Halloween, during the Black Month.

It has been harder and harder to rise in the morning of late.  Of course, I am a school teacher, and my day begins earlier than most people's; it is never precisely easy to be up and out of bed at 5:30 AM.  But these last few weeks, as the sun has begun to slip farther and farther south on the horizon, and to peek lazily over the horizon later and later in the day, it has become challenging indeed.  I'm out the door and on my way to work by 6:30 AM, and each morning now, I face the challenge of either trying to fit my house-key into the lock in complete darkness, or to leave the porch lights on throughout the day, like a sign advertising that no one is at home.

Photo: Google, 2012
Each day, on my morning's drive, I navigate winding roads beside rivers, streams, and farm fields, normally scenic and lovely, but in November, utterly dark but for my headlights and a few windows along the way, home to early risers like me.  I have driven this route for three years now, and it has become familiar enough to me that I know its moods and its seasons; in June, I know the stretch of cultivated red pines that will smell like heaven in the early summer heat; in October, I know the stretch of woods that will become incandescent with changing autumn leaves.  And at all seasons, I know that one of the loveliest spots on my commute is in the center of the village of Westhampton, dashing past a series of 18th Century frame houses, gardens, and a big white Congregational church.  No more quintessential New England view exists in my day and age, and it always takes my breath away...

When I can see it, that is.

Come Yule, I know, just at that spot I will see the horizon blushing faintly rose with dawn exactly when I break into the open in Westhampton.  Come Yule, I will begin to watch the creeping light returning to blaze out just a little more frankly, a little more fully, every morning on my ride.

It hardly seems right, but here it is November, and there is no light in Westhampton Center when I reach it--only the faintest, most timid smudge of pink in the ashes to the east.

It brings me down for the whole day, not seeing that light; it will be one thing, in December, when the waning light promises its near return, and when snow begins to pick up and echo back to the sky the first light of day.  But now, in the Black Month, still so far from Yule?  The darkness seems cruel and inexorable.

Partly this is the changing weather patterns of climate change.  When I was a girl, October was the clearest month, with clear skies every night and crisp fall days near guaranteed each day.  Now, however, with more and more severe tropical storms, and a hurricane season that seems infinitely extended, October has become wet... and dark.  Already, I have been without the sun for a very long time.

Changing the clocks this weekend will help--for a while.  But by the time Yule itself rolls around, I will have been living in the dark long enough that I will feel the effects in my body.  I will feel sluggish.  It will be hard to wake in the mornings, or to stay awake at night.  I may begin to feel sad, mournful.

I could call it by modern jargon, label it "Seasonal Affective Disorder," and choose to light-bomb it out of existence.  Full spectrum light panels are all the rage where I live.  But I choose not to do this.

Wild Jagd, FW Heine. 1882
Instead, I'll set up small lights, pretty twinkling lights on strings, and I'll put them in my house.  I'll burn more candles; I'll make my hearth light with strings of lights as well, since my fireplace has a flue that does not function.  And I'll welcome the gray, the black, the dark, leaving offerings for our ancestors both at our Samhain table and throughout the month.  I will remember my friends and my family who have died, burning candles and putting out water, meat, and wine to thank them and to thank the spirits of this land where I now live.

I'm going to go inward, and allow myself to belong to the dark of roots and waiting for a while.  I'll read sad stories, sing sad songs, and make myself ready to celebrate our American Thanksgiving--a tradition dearly loved by many of my personal ancestors--at the end of this dark month.  Only then will I bring in the evergreens, put up the stars and suns and leaping deer icons we decorate the house with for Yule. 

Samhain is not a day; Samhain is a tide.

I will swim in this tide for a month, until it releases me for the return of the sun.
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