Week 43 (V): lifting the veil, remembering the dead
The veil between worlds is thinnest during Samhain. I spent this Samhain remembering some of my loved ones who have died. I lost a friend to cancer when I was quite young, and a great-grandmother to just plain old age when I was in middle school. I’m fortunate enough to still have both parents living, and to have never lost a sibling or a partner. I want to recognize those who have and offer blessings. May your losses become easier to bear with every passing day.
It seemed appropriate to share some of my favorite poems about death. Before you get to anticipating bad goth poetry by moody teenagers, fear not! The three poems that follow were all written by poets over the age of 20.
The Ghost’s Leavetaking (by Sylvia Plath)
Enter the chilly no-man’s land of precisely
Five o’clock in the morning, the no-color void
Where the waking head rubbishes out the draggled lot
Of sulfurous dreamscapes and obscure lunar conundrums
Which seemed, when dreamed, to mean so profoundly much,
Gets ready to face the ready-made creation
Of chairs and bureaus and sleep-twisted sheets.
This is the kingdom of the fading apparition,
The oracular ghost who dwindles on pin-legs
To a knot of laundry, with a classic bunch of sheets
Upraised, as a hand, emblematic of farewell.
At this joint between two worlds and two entirely
Incompatible modes of time, the raw material
Of our meat-and-potato thoughts assumes the nimbus
Of ambrosial revelation. And so departs.
But as chair and bureau are the hieroglyphs
Of some godly utterance wakened heads ignore:
So these posed sheets, before they thin to nothing,
Speak in sign language of a lost otherworld,
A world we lose by merely waking up into sanity.
Trailing its telltale tatters only at the outermost
Fringe of mundane vision, but this ghost goes
Hand aloft, goodbye, goodbye, not down
Into the rocky gizzard of the earth,
But toward the region where our thick atmosphere
Diminishes, and God knows what is there.
A point of exclamation marks that sky
In ringing orange like a stellar carrot.
Its round period, displaced and green,
Suspends beside it the first point, the starting
Point of Eden, next the new moon’s curve.
Go, ghost of our mother and father, ghost of us,
And ghost of our dreams’ children, in those sheets
Which signify our origin and end,
To the cloud-cuckoo land of color wheels
And pristine alphabets and cows that moo
And moo as they jump over moons as new
As that crisp cusp towards which you voyage now.
Hail and farewell. Hello, goodbye. O keeper
Of the profane grail, the dreaming skull.
There’s a clip of her reading this poem on Youtube. I find her voice delightfully haunting, perfect to listen to on stormy autumn evenings.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death (by Emily Dickinson)
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep (by Mary Elizabeth Frye)
Do not stand at my grave and weep..
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awake in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry..
I am not there. I did not die.
Recently I read a mostly excellent article, in which the author asks white people to stop colonizing Day of the Dead celebrations. In exchange, she offers Halloween. I agree with every single word she writes about colonization and how concerning it is to have Day of the Dead celebrations that are populated exclusively by white people. However, I still had an icky feeling about this article.
The problem? Halloween is already part of Pagan culture.
Don’t advocate anti-colonialism while in the same breath inviting people to colonize a religious minority’s holiday. Witches have enough trouble being taken seriously without further appropriation of what is, for many of us, the witch’s new year. Capitalism has infiltrated Halloween already and made it about candy and costumes (many of them racist). Witches still manage to breathe spirituality into Halloween. They do so with grace: I’ve seen many a Samhain altar decorated with things found at Target and Michael’s that still feels like a sacred space.
So where does this leave white people who aren’t Pagan? They still crave communion with and remembrance of their dearly departed. If you’re in this situation, may I suggest that you remember the dead every day. Set up a space where you keep pictures and mementos of those who have died. Smile at that space every day. Keep it clean. Actively remember those who have died. Tell stories to your kids, to your friends. You don’t need a special day to do any of that. What you need is to step outside the culture that advocates silence about death and forgetting the dead. Ignore it. Fight against it. But please, don’t take our holidays. Any of ours. Be they holidays of a religious, racial, or ethnic minority, don’t take them. Make your own.
I’ll say it again: don’t advocate anti-colonialism while in the same breath inviting people to colonize a religious minority’s holiday. Halloween isn’t yours to give. Halloween isn’t an unclaimed holiday. We witches are still here. We are still celebrating Samhain.