Monday, October 25, 2010

Stormy weather

The first storm of the season has arrived. It's not much of a storm so far. A few broken branches, falling leaves, a bit of wind, a heavy drizzle, are not enough to keep Victorians inside. We will have worse. We might even get the mountains. And it will get darker, gloomier, and the darkness and gloom will feel endless. But then most years we will get breaks of sunshine while we wait for spring, and by the end of January we will start to look for crocuses and daffodils to start blooming.

In the meantime, Halloween is approaching. The word means Hallowed Evening, but the meaning of what is hallowed is almost forgotten. It's the evening before All Souls Day, an occasion in the formerly Christian countries to pay homage to one's ancestors, or it may be children or spouses taken away prematurely. Families would make pilgrimages to the cemetery and gather around the graves, sometimes bringing offerings. It was a day when death was remembered, when people reminded themselves that it is the fate of all who are born. And yet, the homage paid to the dead is also an acknowledgement that something of the person survives death, and instinctively we feel closer to the deceased when we are near their bodily remains. The evening before was when we feared they would be walking the earth, and that's the origin of the games of dress-up we play now, and the handouts were meant to avert the ill-will of the formerly living. Such rituals were among us long before Christianity came along.

On Saturday I was surprised to see a procession along Douglas Street. It was quite a long procession, perhaps two or three blocks. The police were standing by to direct traffic. Rather than mourning death, the paraders seemed to be celebrating it, seemed to think it was an object of amusement. Most of them were young, some were parents with small children, all dressed up in ragged clothing, their faces disfigured with the semblance of death and violence. Blood, pallor, wounds, shambling gaits, and periodical screeches were all in good fun, I guess. But I am slightly superstitious about some things, and one of my superstitions is that by imagining something you help to bring it about. So why would a parent dress up his small child to imitate death? I wonder. What is amusing about that? It seems really wrong to me. It's called tempting fate.

Some of the most enthusiastic screamers were young teen age girls, expressing their inner banshees, who would be quite pretty if they weren't dressed up like the walking dead. And these same girls, if they should lose a friend in an auto accident would tell the news anchor how devastated they were. Are they defying death or inviting it when they mock it? Have they given a thought to the reality of death?

I do remember vividly my first Halloween. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew I would not, absolutely would not, dress up like a girl, the way the ladies of the household had planned. I don't know what compromise was reached. Probably I became a cowboy or a pirate, like most boys. But I know I won that argument. No girl I! Girls were most often angels or fairies. We didn't yell 'Trick or Treat' then, we chanted "Halloween Apples." Parents didn't escort us, either. They just shoved us out the door into the dark.

On Sunday the rain held off and so it must have been a good day for a sailing race. I happen to think that sailboats are one of man's most beautiful creations. The race viewed from above with a backdrop of sea, rock and sky was especially beautiful. A sailboat, you see, must be in balance with all the forces of nature. It's a test of man's ingenuity to use those forces for his own benefit. Is it simply fortuitous that the result is beautiful? For a sailor, the job of balancing all those forces becomes play. Whose boat, whose skills will best allow him to go around the Trial islands the quickest, regardless of the wind's direction or velocity. This is a defiance of death as well, as a boat with a ton of lead in its keel can sink quite handily, thank you. But it's one I much prefer to dressing up in grave clothes.

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