OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.

EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, AND MY 50TH CLASS REUNION

By Paul

I was born on the Day of the Dead, which has always struck me as more than a little odd.  November the 2nd, All Souls Day in the old Catholic tradition which I grew up with, is set aside to celebrate everyone who has died, or at least “all the faithful departed,” as it was said when I was young, since the unfaithful were damned to hell anyway, and there was little reason or need to remember them.

Somehow the notion of being given the gift of life (and it is a great gift!) on the very day dedicated to a special remembrance of death still strikes me as both curious and instructive.  Although as a child I thought of it as strange and a bit disturbing, as an adult, I have come to understand it in more of a mythic or symbolic kind of way.  It’s well known today, for example, that in traditional Mexican culture there has long been a close connection between life and death, and not necessarily a negative one either.  Indeed, almost all cultures which relied on agriculture, as opposed to primarily hunting and gathering, had a special place for death in the stories they told themselves about how to make sense of the world.  Everyone knew that it was only when the seed was buried in the earth that life could begin to stir.  Additionally, it did not take early farmers long to realize that the dead and decaying plants of the year before made excellent fertilizer, the very stuff in fact from which new life grew most abundantly.  So, the equation was a very natural one to make: from death came new life in a most dramatic and tangible way.  

In Aztec mythology too, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of Mictlan, the land of the dead and the lowest region of the netherworld, fought with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and bringer of rain, who had descended into Mictlan in order to gather the bones of the ancestors from the previous fourth world in order to make a new creation.  He was just about to escape when Mictlantecuhtli caught up with him, which caused Quetzalcoatl to drop some of the bones.  These bones fell and got smashed, which is why some people are shaped differently from others, and some are smaller, some larger.  The point to be made is that it was necessary to go underground to the abode of the dead in order to create new life.  So once again we see the emergence of these old agricultural myths playing out in the everyday lives of the people.  There is even speculation, as well, that elements of the Christian faith originate from these ancient mythic themes, with Jesus, the Son of God, who died and was subsequently buried in the earth.  New life sprang from him when he rose again from the dead, just as buried seeds do to this day. 

In Celtic mythology, too, we see the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) at this same time of the year.  Samhain was thought of as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  It was a time when cattle, those life-giving beasts for the old peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, were slaughtered both as offerings to the gods, and to sustain the people through the long, cold winter months to come. Bonfires were lit, and in some places still are, and the bones of the slaughtered cattle would be burnt therein.  It was also a time when the veil between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, was considered to be particularly thin, and the dead could come back and walk among the living.  As with Mexicans today, this was not necessarily seen as all that morbid or lugubrious, but instead as a time to reconnect with loved ones who had passed on.  Even so, certain rituals had to be followed very closely, or great harm could come to the living.  The sídhe (pronounced “shee”), those remnants of old Celtic gods now called fairies, were also known to frequent the world of the living on Samhain.  Some of these fairies were not necessarily thought of as all that benevolent, to say the least, and people would sometimes dress up in disguises in order to fool the sídhe into thinking that they were other than who they actually were.  Herein, of course, we see the beginnings of the modern costumes worn on Halloween, which is celebrated the day before All Saints Day (Nov. 1st), and otherwise known as the “Eve of All Hallows,” or “Hallows’ Eve.”  

Much of this mythologizing has become commingled in my mind of late with another event in my life which took place recently.  I returned just this past week to New York in order to attend the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class.  However, to refer to it in this way is actually something of a misnomer, because the group that gathered was much more than classmates who happened to graduate from high school at the same time.  Instead, at age fourteen we had entered into what was then known in the Catholic parlance of the day as a Junior Novitiate, a kind of very strict religious boarding school meant as preparation for entrance into a religious order upon graduation.  This was followed by the Novitiate year, when one takes the robe, as well as a religious name, and becomes a novice.  This is a year of the strictest possible religious discipline.  We kept silence almost all of the time, and spent the majority of our days either in private or communal prayer, or in manual labor.  People still do not believe me when I tell them that I remember digging sumac roots out of the solid, frozen earth in the middle of a snow storm, simply because the Brother Director had told me to do so.  This was known as “holy obedience.” 

Very few of my classmates remained in the religious order I had joined.  Some thirty of us showed up for the reunion, several with their wives, who must have thought us all very odd indeed, and I will admit that, before going, I had some degree of hesitation about attending.  I was wrong to feel any hesitancy, however.  In the end, I rediscovered a very fine group of men, many still Catholic, but some of whom (as I think of it anyway) have now outgrown any need for organized religion.  But all of them have gone on to distinguished careers either in academia, or the sciences, psychology and counseling, the military (perhaps not so surprisingly), journalism, the arts, and in even politics.  The timing of the reunion, so near to the old Celtic New Year of Samhain, or the Mexican Día de los Muertos was, I am sure, accidental.  If you actually believe in accidents, that is.  But it nonetheless made me think of the connection between these kinds of events. 

First of all, there is a way in which all or most of us have, if you will, resurrected into a new life.  We have gone on to create these new forms of ourselves out of defunct monastic ones and made lives which now fit our contemporary individual needs and our own requirement to grow and prosper in ways that corresponded to our talents.  In the process, we learned what we needed to discover both about ourselves and the world around us, a world which, prior to our departure from “religious life” was a thing of mystery, full of anxiety and fear for most of us. 

Having entered upon this life at age fourteen, it is obvious that six or seven or ten years later, when most of us had finally left the confines of monastic life, we knew almost nothing about “the world.”  It was of course a place of wonder and delight for us, as much as it may have caused a degree of trepidation and consternation.  All of the things that boys are supposed to learn during adolescence, how to date, how to work for a salary and make a bit of money, how to travel, to explore, to investigate the world, and especially how to rebel against outside authority and to create one’s own inner authority, all this was new to us.  In that sense, I suppose it could be said that we were, of necessity, late bloomers.  But bloom most of us did, each in his own unique way. 

So, it may have turned out to be quite appropriate that our 50th reunion took place so close to these other events in mythic time that I have mentioned above, when one year is ending and a new one beginning, and when what has died is now celebrated as the beginnings of a new life to come.  Mythology, in this sense, is still very much alive and applicable to our everyday lives.  And maybe it wasn’t so bad after all to have been born on the Day of the Dead, if we think of that day as the ending of one phase, and the subsequent beginning (the resurrecting) of a new one. 

In the end, I am glad that I went back to New York for the reunion.  I did almost, but not quite, get caught in Hurricane Sandy on the way out, but even that can be viewed, if you have a mind to, in a symbolic way.  I had visited my past, and I saw that it was still alive and vibrantly contributing to my present.  And I had seen, too, that I had been able to escape the worst of the roiling, crashing, battering parts of that past, which can cause such damage and destruction in a person’s life.  That, to my mind, is the real meaning of the Day of the Dead, a time when the past rises and contributes in a positive way to the lives we are actually living.  It is a kind of Samhain of the saints, a new year filled with hope, and with a renewed eagerness to go on living, laughing, and creating – always, let us hope, creating.