All Hallows’ Eve/All Saints’ Day: Remembering, Honoring, Giving Voice

October 26, 2014

Many of you will be familiar with the story that our much-adored, mischievous festival of Halloween grew out of the major Celtic harvest holiday of Samhain (Sah-ween), a day when the ghosts of the dead are said to mingle more freely with the living than they do on any other day of the year. As happened with many other holidays and traditions, when the Christian missionaries came to Celtic territory, they attempted to co-opt Samhain into a celebration for their new religion, and from that particular conflagration came All Saints Day, traditionally celebrated on November 1, and the Mexican Day of the Dead, usually celebrated between October 31 and November 2.

In my typical fusion style, I’ve come to celebrate both All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day, finding meaning in each separately, and in how they seem (to me) to work together. This year, I invite you into that celebration with the theme of our November 1 Singing Circle.

The Saints Who Haunt Us

Institutions and dictionaries alike have attempted to define for us what a *saint* might be, but—never one to shy away at single-handedly re-working the English language—here’s how I’m defining it for our November 1 theme. The saints are beings or energies worthy of our remembrance. They might be living or dead; they might be working, everyday heroes and heroines; or the memory of great ones who have left us; or complete rascals whose mischief incites our admiration. A *saint* in your life could be a particular individual, or a long line of ancestors, archetypes and culture reaching back as far as imagination can take you. It might be your Aunt Velma, Mother Teresa, or Harry Potter; your own inner Witch or Healer; or the guy who fixes your car.

We all have people in our lives who “haunt” us, in a good way: the living, whose walking breathing qualities habitually inspire us, and the dead who persist through our stories and memories and dreams.

In that spirit, I have been contemplating the ancestors who walk with me at this time of year, when the veil is thinned. And, for reasons both personal and of the general zeitgeist, my attention has turned to those of my tribe whose lives were ended in their own time, at their own hands.

Dad’s Stories

A number of years ago, my Dad was asked to give a talk at his church to celebrate All Saints’ Day. What he shared surprised the congregation a little, because—far from the typical talk for that occasion—he courageously and compassionately spoke about members of his community who had died through suicide, *sainting* them with the blessing of his words and the ritual of the service. Today, I have permission to share some of his words, and have added a few reflections of my own.

Mattie

My first reading of the transcript from Dad’s talk revealed a piece of family history previously unknown to me. It was the story of my great aunt Mattie, who I never met. I never even knew she existed, because she died before my dad was born, and her tale was not one most parents would tell to little girls. I understand why: it shattered me with horror and compassion.

As far as anyone can piece it together, Mattie suffered from serious post-partum depression. As Dad tells it:

“The depression was severe but at the time, the attitude of many (not all) in the church [her community] was that having faith in God’s promises would lift you out of such a state. It may not have been labeled depression. So there was no genuine counseling or help available from the church or elsewhere for Aunt Mattie and, after a few desperate months she took her own life. It was an awful tragedy made more tragic by her decision, which I can only imagine was based on terribly misguided love, to take her daughter, Lydia, with her.”

Aunt Mattie’s death was of course terribly traumatic for her surviving children, who would not have been encouraged to process their experience in the ways we now understand to be essential. In fact, it was not until 60 years later that one of the family members erected a proper marker for her grave, inscribed with his feelings about those events.

At the time of her death, and even in 2014, Aunt Mattie’s last acts would be considered by that community to be anti-heroic, the polar opposite of sainthood: quite literally, unspeakable. Something that one should try to forget (but how could you ever, ever forget?)

For me, the power in Dad’s simple act of storytelling was this: it reminded us that Mattie was a human being, a mother doing her very best while living in lonely pain in a community that could not meet her need. For that fact alone she deserves to be honored: because she existed. Because she lived, and loved, and did her best, no matter how heart-wrenchingly misguided that may look to any of us, no matter what questions we are left with.

It would make for a long telling here to recount every person Dad *sainted* in his talk that day, as he lovingly and painstakingly laid out their humanity for his friends to hear. But there is one more person to remember. She has haunted me off and on for almost two decades, prompting some of life’s most unanswerable questions.

Marni

For me, this story cuts closest to the bone. Because Marni* was not a distant relative I never met, or someone whose funeral I heard whispered about as a child.

Marni was my first cousin, about two years older than me. I played with her on my Grandma’s farm in our growing up years; I saw her once in a while as we both attended the same university. And when she disappeared one day after leaving a note for her parents, I was one of the people who went down to the river valley in search parties, calling her name in the desperate hope that she might answer back.

(Remembering the shock and raw longing in her family’s faces that day still breaks my heart open, but I am here to honor her, so let the tears flow, breathe, and keep writing.)

Marni did do something in her young life that many of us would consider saintly. When the Grandma whose farm we played on suffered a few small strokes, and the uncle who lived with Grandma couldn’t keep up with her care, many family members made commitments to help as they could, but one, as my dad says, was “overwhelming”:

“ . . .with no sense of self-sacrifice, Marni said that she would come out to spend every weekend with her Grandma. Not out of a sense of duty, I believe, but out of a deep love for her Grandma. I was amazed by Marni’s response because, projecting myself back to when I was in my early 20’s, I knew that I would not have been prepared to make the same commitment.

Ditto, Dad. I was in my 20’s at the time, and I did not volunteer. And as I get older and acquire more responsibilities, it seems just that much more extraordinary to me, that ordinary act of love.

Sadly, I believe one of the consequences of this act of caring was that Marni felt my grandmother’s death acutely. It seems likely it was one of the triggers for the episode of depression that lead to her own passing.

Music & Mystery

The heart-wrenching and futile elephant in the room that I come to when I tell Marni’s story, and Mattie’s story, is the question that every social media outlet asked in relation to the recent passing of Robin Williams, the question that puzzles many human beings who hold to this life at all costs: “How could this be?” How is it that anyone with so much laughter or love to give can end her own life, his own life, in an act that can seem so counterintuitive to those they leave behind?

I have no words that can speak to that question. I have walked down paths of darkness and despair, but the final threshold—this remains a mystery.

What I can share is the small grain of wonder and almost-comfort that came to me one afternoon in the months after Marni died, when questions about her life and mine were the topic of regular journaling. That day, I wrote, “Perhaps she heard a different music.”

My relationship to music was different then. It wasn’t yet my career. But this is what I think I meant, what I felt in my heart as I wrote those words: maybe Marni, and the others who leave us as she did, cease to hear the music of this world, and instead are called to another music. Maybe they use up their love and their light to be here with us for just a short time, and then all that is left to them is to walk into the embrace of the darkness that calls with a unique rhythm, a different tempo than the one by which the rest of us measure our lives, a melody whose notes have an alien logic that is only comprehensible when we are already reaching out to touch the veil.

As time goes by, I stop trying to make sense of the mystery in favor of simply acknowledging it. I am not required to understand. But what I do need to do, always, is give voice. Give voice to my own confusion and humility and awe, and speak honorably about the mysterious grace of lives lived and ended, and souls beloved. To remember that which is too often silenced.

There are no right words for it, there never could be, and any comfort is cold and small.  But somehow, in holding the despair and loneliness and grief in these stories, I feel the presence of the Great Song.

Please join me on November 1 to sing and celebrate those energies, people, beings and qualities that you desire to honor or remember. Event details are here.

A huge thank you to my Dad, for giving voices to the voiceless in his talk, “The Great Multitude”, and for giving permission for me to share parts of it in this piece.

A special thank you to Sarah Kerr. Our recent conversation over tea revealed something I’ve been dancing with for a while, and our conversation about illness, death, ritual and sound resonated deeply. www.soulpassages.ca

A more cheerful-looking-than-you-might-expect website that explains Day of the Dead as it is celebrated in Mexican culture and around the world.  

http://www.celebrate-day-of-the-dead.com/day-of-the-dead-facts.html

On All Hallows’ Eve, Samhain & All Saints’ Day History & Customs: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html

*Name changed to maintain her family’s privacy.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy October 28, 2014 at 9:45 am

Courageous sharing Pamela. One of the practices we are working with in Mark Terrell’s classes is taking other perspectives and the compassion that grows from being able to to do that and also the integration that occurs of projected beliefs, emotions and qualities when we can do that. You’re writing reminded me of that.

As I was reading, I also found myself thinking of a greater perspective, around suicide (I have a family member who committed suicide as well) and it was more about what is the gift in the garbage. Suicide sets into motion a particular kind of grieving and loss process and what is the flavour of that kind of gift that hopefully integrates in the end? I don’t necessarily know the answer, but I find the question arising within me now and I would guess that it will lead to an integration of some kind around this.

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admin December 2, 2014 at 10:21 am

Thank you for your comment Tracy. What you share resonates with me as well. One of the gifts of writing I find is that as I do it, it becomes a process of awareness and integration for me. In order to communicate clearly enough to resonate with others, I have to find my way into it.

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