October is the month in which we bear witness to the precise opposite of spring. Some years, like this one, we see this made manifest in brilliant and awe-inspiring fashion, but whether the deciduous leaves delight us for weeks with tons of fire or skip stubbornly right from green to brown, then straight to the ground, the implication is clear: we’ve come round once again to the season of death. We saw the life come and now we’re seeing it go. We do ourselves a disservice by looking away from this. After all, with the right combination of good fortune and determination, we’ll manage to live to see the life come back again.
But since we’re here and since we’re at least thinking about looking the thing straight in the face, let’s really take this season-of-death thing as far as we can. As the anonymous guru of unknown origins is oft quoted as saying, “Tibet was never freed and whales were never saved through half-measures and moderation.” Wise words indeed.
A special Halloween mea culpa
Halloween can be a bit of a sore spot for me because I really just inherently dislike the fact that adults now insist on dressing up and celebrating dressing up for its own sake. It seems nice for kids, and I do hope they have lots of fun and get candy. When it comes to adults, I can’t help but see it all as frivolous, silly, meaningless, and trivial. Many will inevitably react to my disapproval by levying the accusation that I am no fun, or some variation on that theme. I’m not so much concerned with this criticism because I’m sufficiently confident that it’s not true – I’m odd-tempered and fairly serious at least some of the time, but, objectively, I have fun and I am fun.
The less obvious criticism, however, is the one that gets me – the accusation of inconsistency bordering on hypocrisy. I’d have to be wholly devoid of self-awareness to fail to see this. I’ve been saying for years that people don’t celebrate enough, don’t relax enough, don’t lighten up and let loose enough – and what is dressing in costume for Halloween but those things exactly?
Indeed, by my own logic, I am quite wrong. Somewhat reluctantly – though in good humor – I retract my opposition. I rescind my disapproval. You hear that? For the record, officially and publicly, I am not just sanctioning but encouraging you all to dress up and have a good time for Halloween. I didn’t admit it (either to myself or to him) at the time, but I think it was an argument on this subject with none other than Gregory Jacobs-Roseman a whole year ago that destroyed me on this issue. I was making some snarky and superior denouncement, as usual, and all he could counter with was that Halloween parties and dressing up are fun, theatrical, and make for a joyous occasion. His argument sucked, in my view, except for the pesky fact that I didn’t – and still don’t – have a way to refute that. I lost that argument, because what kind of a terrible wizard would I be if I won it? What reason, pulled from my ass, could I find to oppose…fun, performance, and joyous gathering? And why?
Hats off to you, Greg, and whoever else – I lose that one.
Mexicans still do it better than you
Now that I’ve confessed my sins, let’s talk about Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead! We’ve talked about this before (I’m fairly positive, anyway, but too lazy to look at the posts from the last two years and confirm) and I hope to at least mostly avoid repeating myself. This Mexican tradition, of course, has its roots in the same place as boring American Halloween – the Catholic calendar. Where we branch off wildly from the old All Saint’s Day/Eve celebration and instead vaguely celebrate fall and dress in costumes signifying nothing specific in particular, the Day of the Dead’s celebration of all the dead people is only a slight variation on the church’s feast for dead believers.
This year, for one reason or another, I’m not overly inclined to recommend any particular practice or ritual. All the fans of Halloween will just ignore me and dress in silly costumes no matter what I say, and I’ve already said I’m no longer trying to talk anyone out of it. That works for a lot of people, and I’m not going to mess with it. Instead, I’m just going to offer up a certain directed mode of thought, and if it speaks to you in some way, you can easily adopt it into whatever it is you’d like to do.
Accordingly, I’ll leave it to you to look up the specifics of the Mexican celebration afterwards, depending on whether or not you feel like it. The main thrust of it is that altars are built and prayers are said for the dead, not merely to do them honor, but to invite them to hang out. I heard this interesting clip on NPR of a guy who insisted on getting married on Dia de los Muertos so that his brother could be there, and I liked that a lot. For one day a year, the dead are recognized as still being among us.
Sorry skeptics, the dead really are among us
I like to think I sometimes piss off the more orthodox literal materialists out there with my willingness to play fast and loose with whatever line may exist between full-on superstition and the purely symbolic aspects associated with it. I don’t, for example, believe that people continue to chill around here (or anywhere, really) as disembodied soul-spirits after their physical deaths and that we can somehow interact with them. At the same time, I highly encourage talking to dead people, and I don’t think the usefulness or purpose of such an act is affected one bit by whether or not one believes literally that dead people are still hanging out waiting for us to shoot the shit with them.
After all, I’ve only named one way in which I do not believe the dead remain among us; there are many other ways in which I believe they demonstrably do. When it comes to the recently deceased, or those to whom we were especially close and/or bound, their direct influence on our lives, our thought patterns, even our personalities, does not cease at the moment of expiration. Such interpersonal closeness exists whether or not the other person is physically, currently with us.
When it comes to the long-dead, and even those dead kinsfolk we never even got to meet, their presence is nevertheless all around us. Their past actions, mostly by chance but occasionally perhaps on purpose, are what set into motion the world and existence we occupy today. Without them, we scarcely even exist. Nothing we think of as real and present exists. They brought it to us, and brought us to it. Specifically with regard to blood ancestry, it is their DNA that quite literally comprises the biological makeup that comprises what we consider to be ourselves. The dead are not just with us metaphorically or through influence, but biologically as well.
The lesson of fall itself comes into play here, a reminder once again that we are never far from death, that we experience it today, life again soon, always back to death, always back to life. There’s not a moment in our lives that death is not with us, and not a moment of our dead eternities lacks the ever-present echo and mirror image of life. Decouple our perception from time and you really start to see that there’s no dichotomy in a closed circuit. Nothing goes anywhere, and that’s true of ourselves and everyone else. Existence is singular and infinite when we shift perspective to see that everything is just Now.
So whether you think you’re talking to a ghost spirit who used to own a body but doesn’t mind lounging about without it or you think you’re just expressing a natural intercourse between yourself and the vagaries of time, space, cause, and effect, the result is exactly the same.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times – I’m in it for the results. I never much care how you get there.
Talk to the dead people you know. Talk to the dead people you don’t know. If this is an idea that really appeals to you, take it further and make a little shrine or altar, pour out some liquor, do whatever you feel moved to do in honor or communion with your dead.
We’re creeping up on late fall now. All the land is embracing the slumber of winter-death as the days grow darker and the final leaves float on to the ground. Ponder this death yourself in turn, acknowledge it, and address it directly – whether you do it in a silly costume or in a cemetery with prayer, it’s what you gotta do to get ready for the winter ahead.