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Posts Tagged ‘Samhain’

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I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

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Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? 🙂

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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The last few days have been busy ones for me, as they always are this time of year. I’ve taken over a three-generation tradition of baking and delivering Easter bread, begun by my grandmother.

I make six chocolate cinnamon babkas and distribute them across the county to friends and family. When the last bread is delivered and everyone’s mouths—my own included—are sticky from eating slice after slice of this glorious stuff, I rest. This year I’m resting and reflecting.

It’s been a tumultuous year for me between this Easter and last. Lots of loss, I don’t mind saying. Got divorced. Got hit by a car. Had to move two weeks after being hit by a car, which was all kinds of fun. I lost friends whom I thought would be permanent fixtures in my life.

There were gains as well, like writing and editing for a food magazine I’ve always wanted to work with, and there were other gains which, oddly, I realized because of the losses. After divorcing I learned I was stronger than I thought. After the accident that resulted in a concussion and a broken clavicle, I learned I was even stronger. And some of the new friends I met this year came into my life, I think, to teach me exactly what kind of people I want around me, what really good friends are, and do. Lemonade out of lemons, I suppose.

In my chocolate-laced stupor, feet up, I started thinking about the shape in which I make the breads. I’m an amateur folklorist, with a special interest in holiday lore, and realized how often the circle or spiral features in symbolism throughout the year. It’s usually at the equinox, as the sunlight weakens or strengthens.

Think about Rosh Ha’Shana, the start of the new Jewish year in the fall, when challah is made in the shape of a circle or spiral. Halloween, or Samhain, marks the end of the pagan year. It was then that buns called soul cakes were shaped into spirals and distributed from door to door. The recipients were the earliest trick-or-treaters. Think about Christmastime, and how Christians adapted the wreath from pagan tradition. Have you ever wondered why wreaths are round? It’s because they, like the challah and soul cakes, are meant to show the turn of the year, the assurance—maybe reassurance is a better word—that things keep moving. That life keeps moving. It’s one of the intractable facts of life, the reality of constant beginnings and endings, and it’s one we reinforce for ourselves again and again by shaping stuff into circles. What goes up must come down, and vice versa. Expect it.

When I was growing up, the breads my dad, sister and I made for Easter were braided and made into a circle. Later, when I took over the baking and found the babka recipe I now use, it called for the dough to be baked in a loaf pan, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. The dough gets rolled out, scattered with chocolate, butter, cinnamon and sugar, rolled up, twisted…and then coiled into a spiral. And it’s not just because I grew up with it that way. It’s because life’s precarious. I need to see that spiral.

Maybe The Wizard of Oz offers the best example. Do you remember what the very start of the yellow brick road looked like? Exactly. It’s good to have reassurances from time to time, during the holidays or whenever. We’re all in Dorothy’s red shoes.

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