This time last year I was inspired by El dia de los muertos, and time’s spiral led me to consider Samhain, a Gaelic festival of the dead. Samhain, El dia de los muertos, All Saints’ Day, as well as many other festivals of the dead in other cultures throughout history occur in the same calendar span.
Surely the timing is not a coincidence: nature certainly encourages the association of this time of year with ancestor kinship. Just as spring rouses me towards growth, fall accordingly reminds me of diminishment. Leaves wither and fall, but this change does not signal the death of the tree—solely a change of season.
In this way, autumn reminds us that life is not a stretch of living with death as the final punctuation. That linear, finite timeline of “live live live live live and then die” has become too rigid and ultimately unnatural for me to espouse. Whereas spiralled time—multifaceted, multidimensional—encompasses death as one of many, many moments beyond finite measure (and reincarnation as well, for those who believe in it). In other words, life is both living and dying in equal measure.
As Buddhism emphasizes, all is impermanent. Everything is in transition. Seasons cycle every few months. Some life cycles require the juxtaposition of death in order to continue. For example, some female spiders are eaten by their young soon after birth. Other female spiders and praying mantises eat their male mates at some point around copulation (before, during, after)—a much more literal example of the French eupemism for orgasm, la petit mort (“the little death”).
Even more immediately, our very appearance, as we are alive, is in fact death: skin, hair, and nails are all dead. On a cellular level we are dying in every moment, as our cells reproduce. We always exist amidst both life and death; many contemplative traditions teach that we are reborn in every moment. A single breath illustrates this dichotomy: inhalation as birth/renewal, exhalation as death/extinction.
Samhain is considered when the veil between the worlds is thinnest—fitting for a festival that, among other things, commemorates the dead. Now that the midsummer heat has burned off, plants, too, lose their veils between the life/death realm, as life retreats after the time of harvest. Falling leaves mirror the layers of the veil dropping away. (In Atlanta, the abundance of deciduous trees assures many weeks of constant leaf-fall—so much so, in fact, that the languid, to-and-fro tumble of leaves reminds me of snowfall.)
Halloween, the eve of all these celebrations of the dead, is a combination of “hallowed” and “evening” (e’en)—highlighting the irony of how much our culture has demonized what was originally considered a sacred time.
A few days before she died, I sat by my grandmother’s hospice bed and read her The Prophet, for both our sakes:
“You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Gibran also noticed a thin veil. And just as leaves fall, I can shed the barrier between myself and realms beyond this one. During winter, a temporary death of sorts, trees delve into a deeper part of life, one not apparent until spring. Recognizing that even now, many years later, I can still feel my grandmother so vividly, I wonder if perhaps death will bring us more deeply into life than we can possibly fathom.
SK © 2012