Halloween: A Time for Reflection

I was surprised one night at Toastmasters to hear a gentleman in our group come to the front of the room during Table Topics and declare that he hated Halloween because, in his words, “It encourages people to be violent”.

As I was Table Topics master that night and I’d presented an exercise to the group involving pulling Halloween-themed words from two cups with which to create a story, I initially took this a bit personally. All Hallow’s Eve is my favorite holiday, and I have a storied history with costuming (both wearing and creating garb, even before I got involved in theater), cooking, decorating and contemplating what, to me, is a most spiritually significant day.

My brother and I attended a strict religious school until 6th grade. Each day began with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible and ended in prayer. Secular forms of entertainment were verboten, and at our school, October 31st was known as History Day. Scary masks and costumes were not allowed (and were cause for suspension) but one could come to school dressed as, say, Winston Churchill or Mary Magdalene (because, of course, the Bible was our main history textbook).

As a result, I never dressed for Halloween as a witch or ghost (until I was in my 30s, anyway), but I did win my school’s costume contest the year I came as Eve, in a beautiful, leaf-covered dress my mom had sewn.

So on the one hand I grew up with the message that ghosts weren’t real and believing in them was sinful, Halloween was a holiday created by Satan to lead good Christians astray, and kids eat too much candy anyway.

On the other hand, there was my grandmother. A devout Catholic all her life, by the time I was 5 or 6 years old, even before I’d ever heard of a medium, I knew that my grandma saw dead people. Not only that, but when she was very ill once as a child herself, she’d seen and talked to Jesus, who appeared as an apparition at the foot if her bed and assured her that her time in earth was far from over (she turns 91 next month, so he was right).

I loved and revered my grandma and her awe-inspiring abilities and it wasn’t long before I had a couple of life-changing experiences myself.

I was about 6 or 7 years old and we were visiting my grandparents, who lived on a farm in Alamogordo, NM. I was in one of the bedrooms one day, looking at a framed sheet of paper in the wall. This piece of paper – I remember it as some sort of certificate – had script on it and a dark blue oval near the center. As I stared at the oval, I noticed the face of a woman superimposed onto it. The face then became the face of a child. Then an old man. And so on, and so on and so on.

I told my mom and grandma about the faces and they replied that only the pure of heart could see the face of the Virgin Mary in the blue oval. Didn’t explain the many faces I saw, but at least no one insisted I was imagining things.

Not very long later, my family moved into a 3-year-old house that had been built on an old apple orchard. Over the 8 years we lived there, all of us saw, heard or felt odd things, but nothing quite compared to the night I looked into the hallway from my open bedroom door and saw a black figure silently wandering around. I never forgot it, and felt silently relieved when we moved.

In my experience, not all hauntings are terrifying experiences, however. The night after my brother’s best friend committed suicide, he appeared to me in a dream to apologize, and to say goodbye.

Four years ago, during Labor Day weekend, another dream visitor, my husband’s mom (whom I’d never met) appeared to me as I’m told she looked toward the end of her life to reassure me that my then 5-year-old son would be just fine and that she was always watching over him. At the time I didn’t understand the message. The following Tuesday, though, began the chain of events which ultimately led to C being evaluated for, and placed in, special ed. After several shifts and much trial and error, he is now a happy, well-adjusted fourth grader who earned a scholastic award last week.

The person who had the most touching experience with the other side, of course, is my grandmother. She awoke in the middle of the night to find her favorite great-uncle unexpectedly standing in the doorway. She asked what he was doing at her house and he replied “I came to say goodbye.” Her great-aunt called just then to inform the family that he’d passed.

This brings me to my point. In October, when the day and night trade lengths and the veil thins between the living and the hereafter, Halloween (and its sister holiday, Dia de los Muertos) serve as a timely reminder of our fragility, our mortality, and, ultimately, our connection to others.

To me, Halloween gives license for fun and revelry but also a celebration of our humanity.


Dysfunctional Family Values (During the Holidays)

photo by ChrisGoldNY via PhotoRee

I grew up as part of a family that could be described as dysfunctional. And so, for that reason (and because the holidays always seem to bring bad familial memories to the fore), a couple of weeks ago I began searching for information. I wanted to learn more about how a person could go about surviving and thriving during this time of year even though he or she might as well be related to Joan Crawford, Archie Bunker and the Bundys.

I didn’t find much, aside from an article on Oprah’s website. Therefore, I figured I’d draft my own. In the spirit of giving, here are my tips on  making it through the end of December in one piece, emotionally and spiritually.

Take Time to Reflect

You may not have had the ideal upbringing. You may have grown up in a haunted house, or  even had no home for a period of time. You might have suffered from abuse at the hands of a family member. Or you were abandoned. Or neglected. Or you simply have relatives who, for lack of a better term, are complete buttheads.

In my own family, I’ve seen a little of everything. Yet when I consider what my life actually looks like now – I’m a mom, a businesswoman and a member of the community – I am amazed at how far I’ve made it from my inauspicious beginnings.

I would recommend you do the same. Focus on what you have achieved on your own. Did you finish your degree? Do you love your job? Are your kids awesome, wonderful people? Look at your life through the lens of gratitude and realize how much you’ve grown. Once you realize how significant your accomplishments are, your unhappy past will seem that much more insignificant by comparison.

Broaden Your Definition of “Family”

Trite as it may sound, friends are the family you’ve chosen for yourself. Realizing this, I think, is key to appreciating not only how meaningful your relationship is with your friends but also how important you are to them.

My personal belief about soulmates goes something like this: each and every one of us has multiple soulmates in this life. These people are the other members of our “tribe” and when you meet one, you quickly recognize him or her as your soul brother or sister.

I have a list I keep on Facebook of my “Close Friends”. This is a relatively small group (currently only eighteen people out of more than 420 total “friends”) of those individuals with whom I feel the closest – and yes, these are folks I actually know in person. My criterion for including people on the list was whether or not I thought the person had ever met the “real” me, but in retrospect, these folks are my soulmates and, by that token, my extended family.

Get Busy

Create your own traditions and means of celebrating the season. No one ever said you had to have turkey and stuffing for Christmas dinner, especially if that dinner brings back bad juju from your childhood. In fact, the farther you get from your family of origin’s traditions, most likely the better.

You have a lot of room for creativity here. If your mom always put up a 7 foot blue spruce the day after Thanksgiving, you can keep a small tree on your tabletop – or eschew a tree altogether. I decided a few years ago to begin celebrating St. Nicholas Day because I loved the idea of celebrating the life of the man after whom Santa Claus was styled. We managed to skip this year (work, *sigh*) but I may try to get my 8-year-old some activities to do before Christmas. He loves the chocolate coins in the shoes.

Reach Out

My final tip is, I think, the most powerful. Helping others allows you to experience something beyond yourself and the pain you’ve lived through. No matter how poorly you were treated or how much sorrow you’ve experienced, there is always someone else out there who has suffered more, or more deeply, whether that someone happens to be an adult, a child, a cat or an organization in need. Volunteer work has long been named a panacea for depression, and was recently named one of the top activities Americans enjoy during the holidays.

When you’re looking outward, there is less time to reflect inward on past hurts and disappointments. You’re also celebrating your position as a member of the largest family of all.

Spirits in the Material World

Life and death has been on my mind lately and I’m not sure exactly why.

It could be because a friend told me on Monday night that she believes her house is, or was, haunted.

It could be because the following night I stumbled on another sort of a ghost story that I must have read before but didn’t recall.

Or it could have to do with another friend taking a poll on Facebook about the subject of spirits and ghosts yesterday.

For whatever reason, my interest in the afterlife has been rekindled this week and, because I’m me, whenever something really interests me, I have to absorb as much as I possibly can about it. So this week I read blogs and articles, watched the show Medium on Hulu (I am ready for the new season to begin), and contemplated my own feelings about the subject while I got ready for work in the morning or during my drive into town.

To say that I believe there is something about this life that we can never fully comprehend is anathema to many in my circle. My husband, who is a science teacher, is adamant that belief in anything supernatural is naive. I say that, when I dreamt his mom (who died in 1991 and whom I never met) told me she was always watching over our son, I felt comforted and more secure. That I believe in anything that cannot be directly experienced by any of my five senses defies my occasionally left-brained and logical nature – I work in Information Technology – but is completely in harmony with the rest of me, which is unabashedly right-brained, imaginative and instinctual.

Earlier this week, Google and the band Arcade Fire debuted The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive online short film showcasing the capabilities of HTML 5 and CSS3 when viewed in the Chrome browser. The experience begins by asking you, the viewer, to enter the street address of the house you grew up in.

We moved around a bit when I was a kid, so I chose the address of a house I lived in from ages 6 to 14; a house in which I frequently heard strange noises (and one time saw something I’ll never forget) and in which I never felt comfortable being alone. As the Google Maps street view of my old house appeared on the screen, I shuddered. The house has the same paint job it did when we moved out 22 years ago. The front yard is still wretchedly landscaped (it looks overgrown, even when manicured), and I could hardly bear to look at the second story window.

I’ve driven by that old house a couple of times, to show my son, and I wonder about the people living there now. There are rarely ever any signs of life on the street – it’s a virtual ghost town in the midst of the suburbs.

Earlier tonight, when I got to my parents’ house to pick up my son, my mom greeted me at the door, talking to herself. “Yeah, she’s home now, and she’s doing OK,” she said as she smiled at nothing in particular. It took a second for me to realize her hair was covering her bluetooth, and not much longer to realize she was on the phone with my uncle. My grandma, who is 88, found new spots of melanoma on her leg a few weeks ago (this is round 4) and had a lung biopsy today, after medical staff found what is probably scar tissue from her bout with breast cancer although one can never be certain. She’s understandably stressed out, as is the rest of the family.

I really hope the two things aren’t in any way connected and that I am correct in feeling that she will be OK, again, this time. Then again, it could be that it’s not her I need to worry about. I can’t bear the thought of losing anyone in my life. Perhaps that’s part of why I’ve latched onto the idea that a person is never really “gone”.

Tonight I’ll say a prayer for her and tomorrow make a mental note to give her a call. I know she’ll be happy to hear from me even if I can only understand about a fifth of what she says due to her accent. She’s very spiritual, and if I knew we could have a good, long conversation about my thoughts on the topic, I would.

I talked to my mom about things tonight instead. She gave me a “look” when I told her I was coincidentally running into all these things… a look like “Oh God, don’t say that”. I wonder whether she and I had the same thought?

So, what are your beliefs? Do you have any “evidence” – or have you had any experiences – to back them up, one way or another?