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.