All Saints/All Souls

This is one of my most favorite times of the year, a time of remembering in a way that Memorial Day isn’t, of wondering about the veil between this world and the other, a time to be grateful for the people who made me who I am. A time of memories.

Candles are like memories: they beckon us deeper.

I always remember my friend Kate at this time of year. She’s still alive, by the way. She and I drove out into a dark night one November first in Mexico with little knowledge of where we were going other than we had a map. We always had a map. And bananas. Usually we had bananas and water because we could have ended up anywhere and sometimes we did.

On November first, we ended up in a little pueblo outside Mexico City where the community celebrates the Days of the Dead in the old ways which meant we walked through a block-long aisle of booths set up along each side of the road which sold food and sugar skulls with names across the forehead and tacos to eat and tamales and sugar something elses and flowers and lacy paper cut-out scenes of skeletons and tables and families and food. Food always takes a prominent place in Mexico. As do families.

And when we walked into the cemetery, it was suddenly quiet. Families gathered around flower-petal-decorated graves, tall candles burned, children played some game or another, a small boy sprawled across the top of one grave, asleep, his head in a grandmother’s lap. On the drive back to Mexico City, we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up driving miles and unmarked miles along a road running through what we took to be constructed sewage drying pools although whether they were or not on a starlighted night with no road signs is anyone’s guess. It became one of our trips into anywhere. I remember Kate adventures at other times of the year, but I especially remember her at this time of year.

I remember my mother and my two fathers, my grandmothers and grandfathers. Both my mother and my mother’s mother were writers. I’m grateful I grew up around books, even out in the wilds of farmland Kansas, and I always remember a treasured book of my grandmother’s poetry. I remember my grandmother on the Sunderland side, too. My hands look like her hands except she’d lost the tips of two middle fingers to an axe one winter when she was a girl. So I have her hands and I’m an expert at accidents even if I haven’t lost any of my fingers yet. She’s the one that made bread and sugar cookies and biscuits. I’m a good cook because of her.

Books and foods. Now there’s a family history for you. Because of my fathers and grandfathers, I know how to fix things, how to plant and tend the land.

I’m not one for dressing up at Halloween, maybe because I’ve spent too many years in the theatre to get much of a charge out of pretending to be someone or something else. I always think of my theatre days at this time of year and mostly the times I played in melodrama for some reason. Maybe it’s the presence of villans. But I like giving out treats to the children who come to the door. Even the tall kids who don’t bother dressing up. They just want candy. Food. Something to remember the night. Funny, isn’t it, how we want to remember the night as if a candle light pulled us deeper into the darkness.

These are my saints, my souls, my history, my life. And I will light a candle for all of them this weekend.



Rites of Passage

The willow in the backyard has lost all but a few leaves right at the top of its branches and looks as if it has a flat-top haircut. It’s young, only about five years old, hasn’t yet learned how age will droop the upright stance and bend branches to the ground. I like the old, established willows around town, their branch tips sweeping the ground and offering hiding places for children and animals, but I like this young one, too, this one just establishing itself in the world.

The Rites of Passage come to all of us. 

The days are getting shorter here in this Northern Hemisphere. I’ve pulled my red fleece shawl out of summer storage. October’s hard blue sky foretells a deeper season. The last of the harvest is being gathered in, whether it’s the last of the hard, green tomatoes by hand, or the blood-red milo by the combine, fall has deepened its hold on us all and it’s time to gather in.

October has traditionally been a season of celebrations: in Greece, the people celebrate the Festival of Demeter, Goddess of Harvest, before she withdraws her favors from the earth as she mourns Persephone’s return to the underworld. October is also the Jewish festival of Sukkot, originally a wine festival to honor the Queen of Heaven. In the church, there’s All Saints/All Souls; and for children – or the child in all of us – there’s Halloween. In the ancient Celtic world, its name Samhain.

When I lived in Mexico, the days of this week were important. Houses were cleaned, flowers gathered. The markets would have tables and shelves filled with sugar skulls and dancing skeletons. Other stalls were heaped with marigolds and mums. On the sugar skulls, paper names pasted their foreheads: Miguel, Pablo, Lupe. The Days of the Dead were coming and almost everyone participated in some way. Some villages have a three-day festival with music and carnival stands, food, and flowers. I’d walk through small country cemeteries and families would be having supper on the graves after spending the day decorating them with flower petals. Some of the designs were quite intricate and beautiful. Candles flickered and the light shone on the face of an old woman holding a sleeping boy’s head in her lap, his legs splayed out across the grave as his bed.

Families build ofrendas, a table of offering, in their homes with pictures of loved ones, flowers, food, tequila, special treats. I always appreciated the sense of acceptance Mexicans had with death. It was as much a part of life as the celebrations, the weddings, the dances, the birth of babies. Death was accepted as a part of the cycle of living and all rites of passage honored and celebrated.

We also lived in New Mexico where the Days of the Dead were celebrated, so we’ve always had an offrenda at our church service of All Saints/All Souls. We invite the community to bring mementos of loved ones, flowers, a favorite food if they wish, bread. We set up the table in front of the altar and we honor those who have passed before us. Remembering and Celebrating the rites of passage that are with us all all the time but especially honored at this time of year. If you wish, it’s easy to have one of these ofrendas in your own home for your own contemplation and meditation.

How do you celebrate your rites of passage? Do you take time to welcome and celebrate the changing season and the change in weather or do you needlessly mourn the passing of the year? Yes, it will get cold. But summer will come again.

Birth and death repeating in an ever-changing cycle of renewal.