Why Halloween

I think Halloween is an underappreciated Holiday. Not in every way. It’s many people’s favorite, because how fun to dress up, etc. But I mean what Halloween is actually about–the stuff of life behind the Holiday that the day puts us in touch with, even if accidentally and only a little bit.

“The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.”

Paula Curan

If you’ve seen Coco or The Book of Life, you can picture the colorful festivity of Día de Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. You may not be as familiar with Samhain (pronounced “Saa-win”), the Gaelic Holiday, or Zhongyuan Jie, the Chinese Ghost Festival.

When I was a kid, we didn’t celebrate ghosts and witches and goblins and ghouls on Halloween. We talked instead about how it was “All Hallows’ Eve,” the prelude to “All Saints’ Day.” Which turned out not to be much different. A day for remembering dead people . . . which means thinking about death . . . which means facing fear . . . and the unknown . . . and danger . . . and the stories of life and of death.

Much like Halloween.

What’s it all about?

“Always the same but different . . . every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming. . . . afraid . . . that the sun will never rise again . . . all the men in history staring round about as the sun rose and set. Apemen trembled. Egyptians cried laments. Greeks and Romans paraded their dead. Summer fell dead. Winter put it in the grave. A billion voices wept . . . Then, with cries of delight, ten thousand times a million men welcomed back bright summer suns which rose to burn each window with fire! . . . People vanished forever. They died, oh Lord, they died! But came back in dreams. Those dreams were called Ghosts, and frightened men in every age. . . . Night and day. Summer and winter . . . Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one. Noon and midnight. Being born. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs . . . And getting up again, barking, racing through thousands of years of death each day and each night Halloween . . . every night, every single night dark and fearful until at last you made it and hid in cities and towns and had some rest and could get your breath. And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths and put away fear, and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead. And it all adds up. Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or another, but the celebrations all the same: The Feast of Samhain, The Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls’, All Saints’, The Day of the Dead, El Dia De Muerte, All Hallows’, Halloween.”

Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

Once upon a time, winter was sort of a season of death, of fear. When Autumn came, you harvested the food and prepared to hibernate. Life and growth would soon be put on hold. Then the nights grew longer, the cold came, and you braced. Hibernated. Hoped. Waiting for life to come back in the spring.

And then, as Bradbury described, we as a species learned to thrive straight through the winter with cities and towns lit by electricity, warm houses, warm offices, warm cars. Freshly grown food shipped in a matter of days from the other side of the globe where the sun was still shining.

So we live longer. And we don’t have to fear death as frequently. We don’t have to fear the dark quite so much, or the seasons, or the cold. Life isn’t put on pause for several shivering months, and we aren’t reminded quite so strongly of our mortality.

But still, once a year, this season comes around . . . and we talk again about spooky things like death and fear and darkness. We keep some of the stories, some of the ghosts, some of the hauntings, some of the magic. And–most of all–we dress up as Iron Man or Pikachu and gorge ourselves on candy. So good, so fun, so absolutely worthwhile.

What of the ghost stories? People now tend not to believe in ghosts quite like people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. Or magic. Or monsters. Or omens. Or bad luck. (Actually, maybe yes–bad luck.) We understand the scary noises in the dark, we understand how dreams work, and hallucinations. We have light switches that can suddenly explain the secrets the shadows held, once upon a time.

So why do we still celebrate? What draws us in? Halloween and all its spookiness and darkness still intrigue us.

I think because we’re still mortal. And we can’t help but pay attention to the reminders of our mortality. And because we desperately need stories of darkness, because we desperately need stories of overcoming the darkness. Not for the same reasons we did a thousand years ago. For different reasons now.

We’re not likely to starve if the winter runs too long, or to get frostbite. But when January comes around, a huge number of us fall into seasonal depression. We just have different kinds of darkness that haunt us now. Less magical, more . . . . . modern.

And it’s not so much about winter, just as winter and death were never truly synonymous. Winter was just the reminder of the fear and danger and death and struggle in the cycle of life. We still have that life cycle. It looks, feels, and sounds more modern now. But we still have it. We still have the bad stuff happen. We still feel the darkness, the fear. We still worry–a lot–maybe more than people have ever worried, now that we’re all confronted every day with every story to worry about all around the globe.

There are still monsters. And we still need stories.

Stories that allow us to feel the darkness. And stories of making our way safely through the darkness to the other side. Stories to help us be brave. Stories that give us hope.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman

Imaginative stories of ghosts and goblins and exorcisms and aliens and witches and hauntings and spooky cabins in the woods . . . they do that. They let us feel all the dark feelings, and then let us get to the other side–usually with the story’s hero still intact.

We’ve all got the darkness, the fears, the struggles.

As we grow up and out of our imaginations, we try to turn off the feelings, deny the darkness, suppress the struggles. We can’t imagine opening up about what’s inside of us, facing our demons. We’re afraid that if we look inside, we won’t be able to handle the pains and the fears. So–in general–we decide to be grown up instead. No more feelings. No more hopes. No more dreams and magic in life. Just surviving, being responsible, and eventually dying.

And then, one day, we remember just how much meaning and magic and feeling there is in life. And we wonder why we stopped paying attention to the ghosts and fairy tales. Why we had to get so stuffy and dry.

And when that happens–we pick up a book. A fairy tale, a story about magic. Or we find a movie born out of deep imagination. Or we take a walk in the cool fall breeze and watch the red and yellow leaves swirling and remember the rather blustery day that Winnie-the-Pooh had, and remember that we were more in touch with the stuff of life when we were young.

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

C. S. Lewis

All of which Halloween ramblings, typed away with a Halloween wind blowing the Halloween trees outside my window, bring me to a simple thought: Life is full of magic. Really good magic, and really dark magic. And being deeply in touch with the light and the darkness, death and life, remembering courage, remembering celebrations, and feeling . . . young . . . those matter.

Alive is more alive against the backdrop of all those days of the dead.

And you’re still alive today.

Every Halloween . . . you get to remember all of this, celebrate all this, believe in all this, feel all this. You’re alive. And life has some darkness, but you are brave.

The Great Pumpkin Waltz by Vince Guaraldi – just for you . . . Happy Halloween!

Monsters until you flip the light switch on

Andrew Gide - Very few monsters warrant the fear we have of them

~

Happy Halloween!

What or who did you think was a monster until you flipped your light switch on?

 

When we think that a thing is dangerous, unknowable, or scary, and we try to not look at it, it stays scary. It’s why, as kids, we think the stuffed animal under our bed or the shirt in the closet is a monster. They will only stop being scary if you flip the light switch on. And only when they stop being scary do you find freedom.

Fear of vague unknown potentialities keeps us from chasing our dreams. Fear of who-knows-what a bully might do if you upset them keeps us from sticking up for ourselves and others. And the fear from seeing someone in your life as a monster to be afraid of, instead of a person to decide what you think about, keeps you stressed and nervous and sometimes even paralyzed.

 

Monsters are scary. When you see the world as one big monster, your dreams are scary. When you flip the light switch on and see that there’s really a lot of good happy safe stuff in life, and that everything is usually okay, the scariness fades away and you find freedom to do what you want to do.

Monsters are scary. On the other hand, flesh-and-blood people you decide that you don’t like or don’t want controlling your life are not scary. They stop being scary when you look at them in the light, look at them honestly, look at them plainly. Most people who have scared you are just people. You sure don’t have to like them, support them, or keep them around. But if they’re keeping you up at night or controlling your feelings, flip the light switch on and see them for who they really are. They are not monsters and so they don’t have any mysterious power over you.

 

I have found a lot of freedom in trading away the monsters I thought were waiting under my bed, for normal life stuff, and for finite, human, limited people who couldn’t really control me.

If you think you, too, might find some freedom in flipping your light switches on, go for it! All the stuff that scared you is normal to someone else. And all the people that you thought were monsters, who you thought you had to be scared of, whose power you thought would affect your whole life–they’re just people. You can choose to stop seeing them as scary monsters. You can be free from the fear.

You can find the courage to choose what you want.

A year later (compassion: we all have some crappy things we need people to understand)

Yesterday I felt really upset and sad that I got a concussion last year. A year–seems like this should be done now, right? When I had my first concussion, everything felt pretty normal again a few months later. This time, it’s been almost a year, and I don’t feel like myself.

I think the last of the physical and mental effects wore off months ago–at least the effects directly from the concussion–but I’m still trying to get past the after-effects of those first effects. Like when you go from running miles and miles every week to suddenly hardly being able to go for walks. Now my head isn’t keeping me from going for runs. Now I just can’t go for runs because I lost so much strength and didn’t realize how slowly I needed to work back into exercise, so I screwed up my back. And I’ve discovered along the way bad habits I’ve always had that have made my back so weak and vulnerable to begin with. Or now my head isn’t making the world seem foggy, confusing, or dangerous. But all the days and weeks and months of extreme anxiety added up and left me feeling scared and on edge and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than I used to feel.

Yesterday all I wanted to do was go to the gym or go out for a run, but I felt self-conscious and weak and frustrated, and running isn’t the healthiest exercise for my back these days. I thought about how fit and active I was a year ago. I had worked hard to be as healthy as I was. It was great. I was always up for anything! It was a part of my identity. Why the hell did that day have to happen? It still sucks.

One silver lining is that all the anxious days made me pay more attention to myself deep down, though that doesn’t always feel like a good change. Another silver lining is that I think I feel more compassion and acceptance than I used to–for myself and for other people. I guess I get that no matter how much you wish you were exactly your dream self, sometimes life has other plans. Or sometimes life just throws a curveball at you, and not everyone is going to find the strength to head in the right direction every day. Some days just giving in to the weakness or the pessimism feels like … well it doesn’t feel good, but it just happens anyway. Like eating your feelings. I think I understand even better now, that people don’t just live screwed up lives because they want to, or because they have bad attitudes. People are fragile. Fragile AF. But we’re also strong, so I decided to go to the gym anyway, and I set a few healthiness goals for August 16–the one year mark since I bonked my head.

Silver lining or no, though–sometimes life has its crappy moments. Crappy days. Crappy happenings, that can leave you feeling weak and frustrated, uninspired, lonely, misunderstood, just … sad.

I think we all need each other to understand each other in times like that.

I spent a lot of yesterday thinking of how much my concussion last year changed my life. I felt embarrassed, because … come on. Right? But I know a concussion can mess with your life pretty long-term. Especially repeat concussions. I think mostly they’re not the end of the world. But I think a lot of people don’t give each other or themselves the benefit of the doubt–space to feel and heal.

And it’s not just concussions–and it’s not just a few of us. PTSD, losing a loved one, sexual abuse, auto-immune diseases, bullying, losing a job, miscarrying your baby, depression, addiction, loneliness, feeling betrayed, verbal and emotional abuse, chronic migraines, cancer…

I think it’s always worth telling each other how these things affect us. Being open and honest about the darkness we sometimes feel. And then, like Lyssi helped me with yesterday, helping each other reflect on the good things we still have, too.

I wanted to re-post something I wrote in January about some of the unexpected effects of dealing with a concussion, along with something Lyssi wrote about it, too.

I also want to encourage everyone I know to learn about all the different hard-things that your people go through. And to share your own. We’re all in this together. Nobody has to be a hero. Mostly we just need some love and understanding. So ask and listen, and speak up, too.

12 Things That Happen When You Get a Concussion

A Glimpse Into My World of Slow Concussion Recovery

What’s your story you want people to understand?

Be epic 2

Sadness Doesn’t Always Need a Solution

I crossed paths with a coyote a couple nights back. It was awesome! Bear with me while I take you through a weird train of thought I had. It trotted across a dark road and down the hill into a neighborhood. As I kept walking, I heard nearby dogs start barking loudly. I could see one of the dogs chained in its yard in the glow of a porch light. How sad would it be if the coyote attacked one of the barking dogs! It’s not unheard of in our area. What if I had a puppy that were killed by a coyote? What would I do about it? I’m sure I’d be sad and angry. I’d blame myself for leaving my dog unattended. I’d blame the city for not fixing its coyote problem. We live right next to a couple big nature and wildlife preserves and there are no fences keeping the coyotes in the preserve. Maybe I’d start a petition to put up some kind of protective fence along the preserve’s border. But–and here’s where it gets tricky–I probably have a neighbor who loves living here because of the closeness to nature and loves to see deer scamper through their yard. Lots of people would hate to have the preserve fenced off. And lots of people would not like the idea of forcing the wildlife to stay inside the preserve, thinking that’s cruel, unnecessary, unfair…

That was all hypothetical (though if someone were taking a vote I’d say no fence). What’s not hypothetical is that we tend to react to tragedies and sad events by looking for someone or something to blame and by trying to change something so that the event couldn’t happen again.

And what I wondered the other night is: Why do we do that?

And does it even help?

Is every sad thing a bad thing that should not have happened and that we should retaliate against and prevent ever happening again at all costs?

If someone you love falls from a cliff, should you stop hiking up beautiful mountains?

 

I think some of the things we do to try to stop any sad things from happening have their own sad effects in ways we don’t realize. Life isn’t all meant to be totally safe and free of bumps and bruises. Fearfully cowering in our homes means we miss out on a lot of happiness. Trying to get everyone to join us isn’t fair. Trying to organize the planet into safe boxes isn’t happy or beautiful. We can’t make life “perfect” and I think our striving to do so robs us of peace and love.

So when something very sad happens, before you “do something about it,” stop and think: Would it actually help? Or am I just making life more complicated and the world more bland for others? Think of all the frustrating and paralyzing rules and regulations that get made because one time something sad happened to someone.

 

And I think when we have to find someone to blame sad things on, we end up lonely and scared of the very people that could be there to hold our hands through our sadness. Sometimes a tragedy turns us angry and bitter against people who are close to us, or people that we wish could have somehow stopped the tragedy happening. So we call people evil and ugly and we become lonely and scared–and so we spread our loneliness and fear.

 

Sometimes we tell ourselves stories to lay blame elsewhere so that we can feel like the sad things happening is wrong, like it’s not a fair part of life, so it’s right for us to be angry: Like that all sad things are punishment for the world’s “sinfulness” and if only all those people weren’t the way they were… or that there’s an evil force who’s specifically targeting us for being so good–trying to trip us up. That can give us a boost of self-righteousness and courage to “overcome.” But it can also turn us against the rest of the world and it can catch us in a vicious cycle of obsessing over whether we’re good enough–when what we really needed was just a good cry.

 

And maybe when someone tells us they’re sad, they don’t need us to fix it.

 

Maybe sometimes we just need to feel the sad without having to blame anyone or do anything about it. The more time we spend in the initial stages of grief, lashing out in anger, trying to explain it away, insisting it shouldn’t and couldn’t have happened–the more we are hurt and broken and the more we hurt and break the world around us.

Maybe the fact that you’re sad doesn’t mean someone’s wronged you, or you’re living the wrong life, or you have the wrong people by your side, or the world is out to get you.

Maybe sad is a part of life we shouldn’t fight against.

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung

Don’t bring about more sadness by your reaction to your own sadness. Just shed some tears and let life be beautiful.

 

sadness - carl jung