Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday evenings

On a trip to Devon with my friend Naomi, I recently met her brother-in-law, a singer songwriter named Chris Bond (pictured above surfing in Devon). He has a beautiful song called "Our Roots" that I really love. I have been having a bit of a rough time last week - too much stress and anxiety at work, dark winter afternoons, not enough exercise and fresh air, too much alcohol - so one day, when I was home recovering from a cold I couldn't shake, I listened to this song over and over again which soothed me. He has a refrain that says "its no good for our soul" (although it might say its no good for us all!) but I like the first interpretation better.

My good friend Willy got me out of the house this afternoon and took me rowing on the Amstel. The sky was a pewter gray and the leaves that still clung to the trees were a dark gold. It's a beautiful palette and peaceful to be so close to the water. We went by houseboats, called in on a friend of hers painting in his studio, practiced my rowing techniques, and then cycled back home into the city. As we cycled by, we had the uniquely Dutch experience of 20 men in velvet pantaloons and blackface rollerblading past us. Yes, its Sinterklaas time!

So after a healthy afternoon, on a Sunday evening (one of my favorite times of the week), I'm trying to do a few things this evening that are good for the soul.
  • Listening to Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Chet Baker, Blossom Dearie, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Morrison, Buena Vista Social Club and other music that reminds me of home
  • Cooking with organic vegetables - tonight wild mushrooms called "pied de mouton" and freshly made linguini
  • Drinking tea while wearing a cardigan and slippers.
  • Snuggling with Simon, the fuzzy Siamese, who purrs contentedly on my lap
  • Making little snacks of freshly baked Rosemary foccacia and pieces of Elstar apples.
  • Reading a good book while curled up on the couch under a blanket.
Tomorrow, I'll face the office again. But now, I'm recharging my batteries, replenishing my soul.


"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break." ~William Shakespeare

When my mother died in 1997, I was 29 years old and in graduate school. I was dating a man named Michael and living in Washington DC in a group house with three other women. I had a persian cat named Dante and I worked part time at Witness for Peace, a grassroots Latin American human rights organization.

Why my father died in 2009, I was 41 years old and had been working full time for twelve years. I am not seriously involved with anyone romantically and I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands alone in an apartment in the Oost. I have a siamese cat named Simon and I work for Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical humanitarian organization.

So a few things have changed - but not that much. Grief has caught me unprepared. I thought I could handle it- after all, he had been struggling healthwise and whenever he became ill, he would remind me that he had had a very good life and was tired and didn't want to live forever. I spent three weeks with him at Christmas, cooking him anything he liked to eat, and chatting with him, and taking him to doctor's appointments. We cooked spaghetti together and drank champagne on New Years Day. We had a wonderful time. I left in January, expecting to see him in April.

It's been eight and a half months since he died suddenly. I miss him dreadfully and as the Christmas season sneaks up and the year anniversary of the last time I saw him, the sadness becomes overwhelming sometimes. I feel unmoored by grief. Things I took for granted are gone. I don't have a 'home' anymore except for this rented apartment. Alyson and I are attempting to sell our childhood home and I haven't been back to South Carolina since March after the funeral. My landlady and I had a minor dispute about the use of the guestroom a few weeks ago and I felt a huge sense of violation of my privacy. I just wanted to go home and I don't have one that is mine anymore. I was enraged and overwhelmed by my anger.

When I travel to new countries now, I become overwhelmed by the fact that I can't call my father before I leave and when I get home to tell him about it. He always wanted to know what the beer was like. There's noone now, really, to worry if I arrive safely or if I return okay. My sister and friends care, I suppose, but its an empty feeling to know that the parents who always fretted over my safety and wouldn't let me drive to a Duran Duran show are no longer there to worry about me anymore. I cry now at departures because there is noone to wish me off and I cry at arrivals because there is noone there to welcome me home. Airports which before had been so incredibly exciting and dull at the same time are now emotional.

Sometimes the emotions are so raw that they feel unmanageable. I do not know if I can describe this feeling that sits on my chest like a heavy millstone. So for comfort, I turn to the words of others to assure myself I'm not crazy and that this is a human experience.

" The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost."  ~Arthur Schopenhauer

"I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not. I hate if they do, and if they don't."
— C.S. Lewis (A Grief Observed)
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

— Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking)

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in."

— C.S. Lewis

"As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop."

— Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Haunted By Halloween

Haunted by Halloween


TORONTO -- Halloween deserves a house cleaning. Our strongly superstitious age needs Halloween, but cannot do anything with it in its present degenerate form.
Halloween has been thrust too much into the hands of children. Dressing children as ghosts and witches, and sending them out on the night of Oct. 31 to demand tribute from the neighbors, or perhaps to proffer collection boxes for a variety of more or less worthy charities, is contrary to the deeper meaning of Halloween. The old festival is not childish, nor associated with good works and community spirit.
The deeper meaning? What lingers today is a foggy recollection of the great Celtic festival of the Death of the Year. The Celts divided their year into the growing months and the resting months. The former began on the first of May with the Feast of Beltane, where the returning sun was welcomed by huge bonfires on the hills. The latter started after the harvest had been gathered. The waning of the sun was marked by the Feast of Samhain, a two-day affair, celebrated after sundown on Halloween and on All Saints' Day, Nov. 1.
It was the Christian Church, of course, that instituted the feast of All Saints. The church was crafty about adapting pagan celebrations to its own purposes, and when it set about its methodical substitution of Christianity for the old Celtic religion, it carefully noted that at Samhain the Celts remembered their ancestors and their heroes, and did them honor in a number of ceremonies, including, so the missionaries said (but the evidence of missionaries must always be carefully weighed), human sacrifice. How logical, then, that the old feast should serve the new faith and be-come a time when the saints were recalled on Nov. 1 and all the other faithful dead on the day that followed, called All Souls'?
If we were to take a new look at Halloween, what might we do? Surely revive the custom of giving some respectful heed to our forbears.
We of North America are not so likely to do this as are the peoples of the rest of the globe. Is it because of our driving ambition to do better than our parents? Like it or not, to reach middle age with less money or less prestige than our father had is somewhat to lose face. Stupid of course, when put like that, but who is prepared to argue that we are not stupid in several important ways?
Nevertheless, our forbears are deserving of tribute for one indisputable reason, if for no other: without them we should not be here. Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us, and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account merely because we are dead.
Today and tomorrow are the proper days for such reflection. It need not detain us for more than a few minutes, but it should be sincere. A few gentle thoughts or even -- I hardly know how to put it without moving you to indignation or laughter -- a brief prayer would not come amiss, and might turn your thoughts in a fruitful direction.
There have always been people who give no regard to their forbears, and it was they who were thought in the days of the old Celtic religion to suffer on Halloween. That was the night when the spirits of the neglected or affronted dead took vengeance on their unworthy descendants. They were on the rampage as bats and owls, ghosts and bogles, and they were not always careful where their vengeance fell. To be out on Halloween was to run great risk of physical or psychological harm, for it was then that the underworld of chaos and death settled old scores.
Wise folk, long after Christianity ousted the Old Religion, kept indoors on the night of Samhain and followed tradition by trying to foresee the future. There are still people who remember bobbing for apples at Halloween parties. It is a method of divination now turned into a game. My father recalled that when he was a boy in rural Wales, girls used to drop molten lead into cold water on Halloween because the lead would surely take the form of the first letter of their true love's name and if it did so he would marry them.
Fortunes were told by "scrying," which was to see images in a basin of water (later a crystal). Soul cakes -- rather than shortbread -- were baked and given to the children who went "souling" from door to door -- the beginning of the modern trick-or-treat. By the 19th century, we can presume, it was safe to go outdoors.

Did I not speak earlier of this as a strongly superstitious age? Who can deny it, when fortune tellers of all sorts prosper as they have not done in 50 years, as sophisticated young business people resort to them, within a few yards of the great Market of Phantoms, Wall Street itself? Has there ever been such a brisk trade in crystals and tarot cards? Have wizards ever advertised so unequivocally in the very best publications?
There are laws almost everywhere against witchcraft but how often are they invoked? There are covens of liberated women who let it be known that they are witches but are anxious to have it understood that they are White Witches, who do no harm and simply get together to invoke the Great Mother, the supreme Nature Goddess, and eat a few vegetarian dishes. Their attitude shows the cast of mind that has gelded and trivialized Halloween.
The Great Mother, who is said to have anticipated the reign of the Great Father by several millennia, was, like Nature, not unremittingly benevolent. She had -- or should I say has -- an eerie, nasty side, and the rout of evil spirits on Halloween was only one of her ways of letting it be known. She had three natures -- Virgin, Consort and Hag; the Hag was rough and, in the form of children got up as witches, still makes a farcical appearance on Halloween.
What might we profitably do on Halloween? Look backward, and consider those who went before us. The road ahead is inevitably dark, but to see where we have been may offer unexpected hints about who we are, and where we should be heading. Triviality about the past leads certainly toward a trivial future.
Robertson Davies is author of, most recently, "The Lyre of Orpheus."