Last week, I went to Louisiana to visit my brother and his son, Walker, who just turned five. The first day I was there, the three of us went to a Pumpkin Patch, orange faces of all sizes lined up on haystacks in the swampy October heat. Walker’s choice in pumpkin, like many of his current choices, was determined by which pumpkin he thought might be the scariest. My brother and I watched Walker mix this delicate potion for himself, which ending up with a pumpkin so large my brother had to heave it in and out of the truck.
Later that evening, when the pumpkin was carved, orange goop on the table, floor and our faces, it was not yet dark. ‘Let’s light it in the bathroom!’ Walker declared, ignoring suggestions that it would be scarier at night time. The three of us huddled in the bathroom in front of a jagged-orange, razor-blade grin, oohing along with Walker in his response to the monster he had made; one part fear, two parts delight.
Halloween has roots in the Celtic celebration of Samhain, a feast held on November 1st celebrating harvest, the end of the summer and the eve of the Celtic New Year. The Celts believed the veil between the living and the dead was thinner during this time, lighting bonfires to ward off winter darkness and trespassing spirits. In the 7th century A.D, Christianity adopted this tradition of Samhain into All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. Believing every prayer helped the safe passage of souls, poor people went door to door carrying carved, candle-lit turnips to represent souls in purgatory. In exchange for bits of food, or treats, they offered prayers for the recently departed souls of a household.
This year, the season of Goblins and Ghosts happens to have coincided with one of my own reoccurring states of extreme fear; one I have orbited around since a child, at times appreciating it as a sensitive strength, other times dismissing it as a good old-fashioned haunting. I believe I am drawn to the practice and teaching of Yoga, partly, because it is a practice that has given me tools to self-soothe. Still, when I become thoroughly spooked- the witches of my childhood replaced with the adult threats of the world- my response feels sometimes like it hasn’t budged: body frozen, eyes open, flashing images which I did not welcome and cannot stop.
These states are often prompted by larger events like the horror of Las Vegas, but they spiral into an obsession that is local, and this often feels inappropriate, shameful; child-like. So this is how I showed up in Louisiana, partly as a sister, an Aunt, and partly as a person in the middle of a spell that I have not been fully able to break.
One afternoon, Walker and I went out for a spin in the neighborhood, him zipping along on his scooter and shark helmet (a fin protruding ominously from the top) and I intermittently walking and running behind him, telling him to slow down. Several people had not held back in making mini- museums of doom on their lawns, so occasionally I waited tentatively on the edge of people’s properties and watched my nephew pick up big fake bones and touch partially-submerged rubber hands. He walked right up to a life-size skeleton, clad in grey tattered robes blowing in the wind and shouted ‘Hey!’, an incantation of authority, hesitation and thrill. ‘Hey!’ he yelled again, inching closer to the skeleton until he was right beside it, pieces of its cloth tickling his face. I smiled at him while I thought of guns and gun-wielding home-owners and alarm systems. When he had finally freaked himself out enough, he ran back to me.
On All Hallows Day, no one was safe from the dangers of a soul that was lost, slipping through the crack of thin Autumnal light. In a combination of carnival, haunting and exorcism, rich and poor were responsible for lifting a net of prayers, masks and treats, to usher those souls to safety. In 2017, Halloween remains a time when we allow boundaries to blur: between the living and the dead, ideal and worst-case scenarios, the collective and the private. It’s a time when a kid can tromp up to the front doorstep of a stranger’s house and shout ‘hey!’; a shared ritual that resembles private crisis and celebration, when unfamiliar doors swing open and new winds move through the trees. But sometimes, the Ghouls and Goblins are there to help us along to those new places, onwards to being stronger and braver than we were before. Children innately understand this, letting the skeleton’s robes tickle their face so they can run like hell, back to the street.
My third night in Louisiana, I decided that if I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t bother getting in bed. I lit a candle in the living room. I sat upright on the couch and said to my jangled self ‘Ok.’ And the demons came. I held on to my own sense of my spine, like a person holding on to a ship-mast. Breath moved in and breath moved out. Attention waxed and waned. There were waves of fear and waves of pain. I noticed as much as I could about their movement through my body. My only conscious focus was to not run. To continue to walk out into the forest of the self with my sword and shield, yelling ‘Hey!’
The poet Rainer Maira Rilke wrote: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” More often than not, such displays of courage depend on meditation: tying my attention to my breath, watching- -really watching– my breath move through my body, so that I am better able to listen- -really listen– when someone I love tells me a story, instead of staring at them from the other side of a trance.
Rituals, at best, support this emotional expression and help us face our demons, until we relate to these demons with more intelligence and agency. This is where a tradition like Halloween and the practice of Yoga cross paths in the night: as a body of spells, symbols; gestures that give art and commonality to the tough work of embodiment.
I was called to bring courage to my practice this past week, on the eve of a Pagan-Christian ritual honoring the flimsiness of doors and the need for a little magic, letting the truth of my thin boundary-of-skin flood in and placing the candle of my presence into that hollowed out place of fear, until I was filled with terrible light, the veil between multiple worlds began to lift, and some big, toothy, orange grin from inside me, said, back to all that I thought I could not stand: BOO.