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!

Goodbye 2019, Hello 2020!

Of all the years in my whole entire life, 2019 is the year that I’ve most often found myself telling someone, “It’s been a tough year.” But I’m going to miss 2019. The sad parts of a journal aren’t any less treasured memories than the happy parts. Each year is my story.

At the end of a weird year, I’m struck by how unique each life is. How unique each person is. How unique each day is. And I want to honor the uniqueness in you–your life, your person, your days. I don’t hope your 2019 journal was full of happy parts, I hope it was full of you parts. And I wish even more genuine you-days in your 2020.

I’m grateful to live in a world with such diverse, beautiful, real, colorful humans all around me.

I love excuses to celebrate. I don’t care what the day is, taking time to feel differently than you feel in the daily grind, taking time to look. Sometimes the roads feel different, people sound different, even the sky looks different just because it’s a special day. Well–they probably don’t, it’s just that special days remind us to look closer. To stop and realize and think and appreciate and celebrate all the color in this world.

Each new year, to me, is also a special opportunity, a ritualistic reminder, to reflect on who I am, who I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I do, what I want. The older I get, the more my mind goes in the new year to who I want to be every day, not just the things I want to have done eventually.

As I try to be who I want to be, I realize that sometimes that makes me seem Not-Peter to people who know me well. People get suspicious or just feel weird when you change. I noticed this year how I do this to other people, too. Little, inconsequential, why-would-I-even-notice changes that people make, I get a little weird about it, sometimes. That’s not fair. When you change more to who you want to be, you will seem a little fake, and you will feel a lot fake, and that is just the process. Just hang on tight.

I also learned this year that when it comes to who I am and what I want and all the New-Yearsy type reflections there are to reflect on, it is so important and so okay to be real about what you want. Really real.

So if I had one wish for my 2020 and for yours, it would be this: Be your REAL self this year. Even if it’s different and weird and feels not-quite-right for a while. And even if it’s not who others expect or want you to be. If you like cold weather, and someone says “ugh, this weather,” I wish that in your 2020 you won’t reply “ugh, yeah, I know!” I wish that you’ll actually be true to deep-down-you. That means letting yourself know about yourself, too.

I want to thank everyone who has read my blog in 2019. This has been a really fun and really surprising and really fulfilling journey for me. Thanks for coming along!

A year ago, I committed to publishing 5 blog posts each month in 2019, because I believe in the whole consistent baby steps thing. Here I am. I did it!

I hopefully imagined that I might double the number of readers from the year before. I didn’t expect to end up reaching ten times last year’s, but I’m there, and I feel excited and thankful and proud of it. A couple posts in particular caught on and made the rounds on social media and it was sweet to see lots of kind words and lots of people feeling encouraged. And I have a couple posts that aren’t even my favorites that seem to be helpful enough that every day they’re being shared all over places I don’t know. So I do feel good, like writing works. Consistency works.

But even more satisfying and exciting and heart-warming and every-good-feeling to me has been the people that I’ve heard have been touched in some way by something I’ve written this year. Encouraged. Inspired. Helped. Made to feel not alone. Honestly, getting to help just one person in some little way makes all the work–and it is work, sometimes–worth it.

My wish for my writing is that I can keep doing it, but do it more. This year, I’ve learned to really love writing as writing itself, not just as a method to do some good deed. I’m really happy when I write. I do hope, though, that I can keep writing and communicating with more and more people in ways that help people to feel hope, to feel not alone, and to remember that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.

So honestly, thank you for all the reads and the shares, and especially for the kind words!

My wish for all my people’s 2020s! Be thoroughly, beautifully, strangely, bravely, whole-heartedly you!

Happy new year, my friends! Here’s to a 2020 full of colorful life!

Thank you, 2019, for a beautiful time.

Neil Gaiman - as only you can brown

3 Unique Suggestions for Connecting Deeply

One-on-one. A group of friends. An audience watching you on stage. Whatever the context–truly, deeply connecting is the key to making a difference, to getting your message across, to building trust, to leaving a lasting impression, to inspiring good.

And I don’t think the ingredients in genuine connection differ too much from context to context.

So how DO you truly connect?

These aren’t the “top 3 ways.” There are lots of top 3 ways. But here are 3 ways that I found EXTREMELY useful in crafting a recent speech for my Toastmasters club:

1. Don’t describe your history. Use stories that give them the chance to feel your history.

Stories are said to increase your audience’s memory by twenty-two times what they’ll retain from the rest of your words. Stories are powerful.

I think where we can go wrong with stories, though, is telling people everything we think about our stories–how we felt about them, how we understood them, how everything fit in. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not what’s memorable. What’s memorable–what really connects–is taking your audience’s hand and walking them through the story for themselves. It’s okay if they fill the story in with a few different colors and shapes than you. Let their imagination do its thing. All you need to do is put the audience right there. To put them through the experience as bluntly as you can.

I will understand you far better by reliving a couple crazy moments from your childhood than by hearing all the philosophizing you want to do about it all.

2. Get weirdly specific.

I wish I could take credit for this idea. I have learned to use it a lot, but I learned its value from an interview with a comedian. I’m pretty sure it was John Mulaney. Might have been Mike Birbiglia. It may have been John Mulaney talking about what he learned from Mike Birbiglia–who knows. Either way, here’s the gist: It’s easy to assume that the more broadly shared your experiences, the more people will get you. Well actually, it turns out that people get realness, not generic-ness. Even if their real was a little different than yours–they can feel your realness. People’s own lives aren’t generic, they’re extremely specific. So get very, super, weirdly specific.

For example: “When I was 18 I used to covertly bypass our burglar alarm at night so that I could sneak out later to take walks . . . alone . . . in the dark . . . in my trench coat.”

I could have told you all about how sheltered I felt my childhood was, the lack of freedom I felt, my desperation to get away, my loneliness and what a lifesaver my loneliness actually was to me, my fear and my need to keep my deepest needs sacred, my imagination and its strangely confident sense of my cool self, and the future version of me I expected to be. But those are ideas–concepts–concepts you may have experienced in your own ways in your own life. And making you listen while I analyze all those ideas through my own lenses requires a lot of attention. It requires a lot of you accepting and translating my interpretations. I don’t need to do all that work with you. And you may not have the time or patience. Instead, I can just give you a few really weird details. Details that make you go, “Oh yeah, I also have a weird life,” and then leaves your imagination filling in the blanks in my story. “What kind of kid wears a trench coat?”

3. Make it a roller coaster.

Don’t stay funny. Don’t stay happy. Don’t stay sad. Don’t stay serious. Don’t stay positive. Don’t stay hopeful. Don’t stay negative. Don’t stay bitter.

Life is a roller coaster. A crazy, spicy, ridiculous roller coaster.

Emotional roller coasters get people right in the feels. And getting people right in the feels is what sticks with them.

So lift your audience up. Then dash their hopes. Then show them the beauty in the ashes.

I bet that is an experience they can relate to.

Good luck!

Let’s use our stories to inspire hope and love in each other every chance we get. We’re all in this together!

Jimmy Neil Smith - connection of storytelling

12 Little Ways to Find Magic in 2019

magic - roald dahl
A picture of magic I took this last year

“Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I’ve decided, is only a slow sewing shut.” – Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Every winter the day comes when we box up the Christmas decorations and close the door on the last little reminders of the wonder that the holiday brings. It won’t be long before I start looking forward again to the next first snow and the accompanying cheer. Whenever I’m asked my favorite Christmas movie, I have to say it’s The Polar Express, because it’s about a kid who learns not to outgrow magic.

As well as being a time for magic, jolliness, snowy walks, and hot chocolate, December is also a time where a lot of people who should feel love and belonging instead feel especially alone, confused, and hurt. Maybe your holidays are a mix of both. We’ve all just made it through the holidays and as we return to working full time through the cold, short days of winter, many people are left aching a little more than usual, a little more numb to the possibilities of joy and hope. Seasonal depression is ready to kick in. January can leave us feeling like, “Where did the magic go?”

As we get older and experience more stress and disappointments in a big and confusing world, I’m afraid we tend to lose sight of the little bits and pieces of the world that are beautiful and happy. The constant drip of stress rewires our brains and we might find ourselves daily a bit more “Bah humbug” about it all.

But guys… the magic is still there. I think no matter how much we grow up, if we look and listen closely enough, we can still find it. I promise.

If you’re struggling to find the magic you knew as a kid, you’re not alone. Here are a few  places I’ve learned I can find magic. And maybe these will help you also find magic this year–if you look closely…

1. Watch a nature scene for a while. There are beautiful sights all around you. Bumblebees buzzing around flowers, leaves rustling in the breeze, fish jumping, storm clouds rolling in, little spiders, soaring eagles, and silly squirrels, the smell of rain and the burning warmth of sunshine… Nature is free. And beautiful spots are closer than you might think. Open Google Maps and zoom in on the sections shaded green. And if you need any recommendations, let me know! The only catch is: You have to sit still long enough to still be watching when the magic moments happen.

2. Learn to give someone a massage. Even if you don’t go to massage school and become a pro, there are lots of easy books and YouTube videos to teach you some basics in giving someone the gift of a relaxing massage. And honestly, just giving it a shot without any help will still be worth it. The soothing and caring touch of massage can be a comforting and relieving experience. The simplest massage can be an amazing gift for someone you appreciate, and giving that gift can be just as gratifying as receiving it.

3. Read a story from history. Our planet’s history is colorful, intriguing, and downright entertaining. Take a break from the modern world and immerse yourself in tales of Montezuma’s bustling old city of Mexico, fierce raids by the Vandal tribes, or the beautiful arabesques of the old Arabic world. If you don’t know where else to start, try E. H. Gombrich’s book A Little History of the World, which reads like a fairy tale.

4. Cook a recipe from a different cuisine. If you can read and if you can be patient with the slow, imperfect process, you can do this no matter how little cooking you’ve done in your life. And you may find it a delightful (and tasty) adventure! I especially love the idea of experiencing the creation of a meal like another culture traditionally does it. With thousands of recipes online and a variety of ethnic cookbooks at your local Barnes & Noble, and with a little help from Google in deciphering the weird ingredients and tasks–this can be an awesome experience. For Christmas this year we made a few traditional Italian country meals, like linguine with lentils and pancetta. I’m no chef, so it took a few hours, but how much fun (and what a delicious celebration)!

5. Take a simple hiking trip. Guys, here’s the thing: Outdoor hiking adventures aren’t nearly as expensive or complicated as you’d think! Seriously. Big airport hubs like Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas often offer cheaper flights than you’d expect. Or you can rent a car with unlimited miles from Enterprise for a several day road trip. Airbnbs can be way more affordable (and way cozier) than hotels. Local grocery stores have the same food you buy every week at home. You can cover a lot of ground in just a couple days. And nature is not expensive! National Parks are a great place to start–guides and information on experiencing them are plentiful, their trails are well maintained, and park rangers are there to help. Some even have free entry, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An annual pass to all US National Parks costs less than a fancy dinner at a resort. And guys, once you get out into the nature and start moving… and seeing… the beauty you can find in nature is just indescribable. Hiking trips can become the most thrilling memories in your life. (Need any tips? Let me know!)

6. Make some new music. Don’t play an instrument? Can’t get one? Then sing! You don’t have to be a master musician to feel the magic of music. It can carry deep and powerful emotion and can move the toughest people to tears. Try picking up the guitar. Or the piano. It’s not too difficult, really. Or just turn up your favorite songs in the car and belt them out like there’s no tomorrow. Nobody’s watching, I promise. And if you can’t do any of those, find a beautiful piece of music and just sit down, close your eyes, and feel it. Music doesn’t have to become your “thing,” but maybe once in a while you can find magic there.

7. Find an epic make-believe movie. A lot of us adults decide we can’t like “kid stuff” as much when become older. Fantasy and imagination… aren’t those supposed to fade from our focus as we get older? But why not just embrace the fun and the artistry of it every once in a while? Epic visual story-telling can be a genuinely fun experience. Find some unique and enchanting animation. Shamelessly binge your favorite superhero movies and get excited about them. Why not? You can

8. Have a conversation with a child. Nothing will remind you of the magic all around you quicker than having a chat with a little kid. They see monsters and epic battles and plots and imaginary friends and amazing animals all around them. Christmas and Halloween are just out of this world exciting to them. Accidentally walking into a wall or leaves them in hysterics. Every little leaf is fascinating. And each day is a new adventure. Listen to them tell you about their magic.

9. Start learning a new language. How cool is it to hear someone fluently carry on a conversation in another language? Isn’t it fun to learn how to greet someone from a little country on the other side of the globe? And what a magical connection when you meet somebody whose first language you’ve learned, even just a little. Languages aren’t that hard to pick up. They’re hard to master, but a few basic greetings and common words aren’t too complicated. And it can be loads of fun! Download the Duolingo app!

10. Take a long, quiet walk. Detach. Leave your phone in your pocket, if not at home. Just walk out the door and keep walking. A quiet, peaceful walk can be a grounding experience. Have some you time–time to catch up with yourself like you’d catch up with a friend. Time to think and feel while you’re not racing around accomplishing things. Maybe even bring a friend or two. A long walk can reconnect you to yourself, reconnect you to a friend, or even just reconnect you to the earth that is your home.

11. Make an elderly friend. I love listening to people reminisce about their years and years of unique experiences and adventures, the people and places they’ve known, the happy, sad, or funny things they’ve seen. And I love hearing the perspectives and words of wisdom their lives have given to them. And I love seeing what is truly important to people towards the end of their lives. Try getting to know someone who has lived a long life they’re willing to share with you. Not only can hearing all their stories be fun, and listening to their advice be helpful, but it can be incredibly happy for them to have a friend to talk to when some of their own friends have started to pass on, and their accomplishments have started to fade into the past–it can be a magical friendship for both of you.

12. Try meditating. Just try it. There are as many different reasons and ways to meditate as there are people who do it. Two of the things I love to find in meditation are: A grounded connection to yourself and the real world around you; And an acceptance and “okayness” with the way things are. If you’d like help getting started, look up Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west. His books Wherever You Go, There You Are and Coming to Our Senses were very helpful for me. His abridged audiobook version of the latter is a breeze. Or check out the Headspace or Calm apps. Or, if you’re brave enough, just take 20 minutes, sit quietly, and stop trying things. Just let things go. Observe. Allow feelings. Be still. If you’re not sure it’s “working,” you’re probably doing it right. Meditation doesn’t have to be about achieving some euphoric state. It’s more about learning to accept–that it’s all okay.

I hope this list has inspired you a little. If you’re feeling adventurous, try one of these every month. They’re all easy and affordable adventures. And I promise by the end of the year you’ll have made lifelong memories and you’ll have tasted a little bit more of the magic this life has to offer.

Happy adventuring!

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl