On the Edge of Darkness: Hallows Reflections 2016

It’s a gray, dim day here in Sonoma County, under a foreboding blanket of low and heavy clouds. Forecasts are for showers throughout the day; it’s one of those Halloweens where parents crane their necks and scowl at the sky throughout the day, wondering whether they’ll get away with a dry window during trick or treating.

Which seems like a pretty good metaphor for this entire year.

I’ve been scowling at the sky and wondering just what kind of fresh hell may be coming along a lot, this year. Now with a week left until possibly the most important U.S. election since 1860, there are still no clear answers, but one thing we know for certain: the casualty count for this turn of the Wheel was terribly high.

If there were an afterlife, it would have a markedly improved soundtrack after this year. The loss of David Bowie and Prince and Lemmy Kilminster and other innovators in music felt like a series of sudden and shocking blows. Bowie, at least, had the characteristic genius to turn his own death into an art project; with Blackstar, he created a suitable work for Hallows listening every year going forward.

I think what strikes me this year at Hallows is that grief has been a near-constant presence, rather than a seasonable observance. If it wasn’t a famous death—or the dreadful drumbeat of black and brown people murdered by police—it was a major figure in my life and eminence grise of our local environmental movement, or a family member of my circle brother and sister. And if it wasn’t an actual death, it was something like one: the death of any pretense of civility and tolerance on the part of one of our country’s major political parties; the here-we-go-again disappointment of hope that the left will ever get its act together enough to see the big picture and act accordingly; the ponderous, heavy fear I feel in my bones for people of color and minorities of every stripe in the face of emboldening awfulness in our society.

In eight days, there will come a crisis point, and hopefully light—however murky, for there is no purity in this world—will triumph over darkness. Hopefully the system which has managed to persevere for 240 years will lurch onward rather than collapsing into fascism. Hopefully, the arc of history will continue to bend towards justice for the downtrodden, and policies informed by science rather than by bigotry and fear.

Closer to home, I can hope that our work here will continue to unfold fruitfully. We have some exciting things coming in Atheopaganism, with two presentations, a discussion and a ritual, coming up at the Pantheacon conference in February, and Moon Meet, an Atheopagan gathering, in August. Things to look forward to, and new friends to meet.

I hope that the losses you have sustained are leavened by the joy you were brought by what has now passed away. That you, too, can see pinprick stars of light in the darkness of these times, and that as we enter the season of celebrations you enjoy love, friendship, family, comfort and safety.

Together, let us make our way through the darkened landscape. May the Wheel turn.

We Die.

We’re going to die. All of us.

Grappling with this fact may be the single most powerful factor in what it means to be human. It is so profound and unarguable a fact that every religion has to confront it in one way or another, and Atheopaganism must, as well.

And while most religions—including most flavors of Paganism—promise that death is only temporary; that some future in an afterlife will be provided to the Faithful, I’m sorry, folks, but I’m not going to do that.

We die. We really die. We simply have no credible evidence to the contrary.

But is that, frightening as it may be, really all that terrible?

I was dead for 13.7 billion years before I was conceived. I don’t remember it being unpleasant in any way, because I wasn’t there. And when I die, I won’t be there, either.

I don’t want to die too soon—I have things I hope to do. And I don’t want to experience pain. But the dying itself? Well, it lends urgency to my living. I don’t have millions of years to do everything there is to be done on Planet Earth. I have to pick and choose. I have to set priorities in my life. My moments of joy are finite, and precious. And I have to do what I can to move on from my disappointments and hurts, because time’s a-wasting. The MAN WHO SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS* is waiting.

Yes, we die. Knowing this makes our efforts and aspirations meaningful, because we have little time and how we spend it is therefore of crucial significance to us. Here is a lovely little video with narration by Stephen Fry by the British Humanist Association, on that very subject.

I view death as the price of the ticket for this wonderful ride on Planet Earth. I arose from the living systems of this planet as a result of the mathematics of chaos, and I am only given a little time. When the moment comes to pay the fare, I won’t mind, really. I’m grateful for having had life in the first place, and for having lived such a long one by comparison with the vast majority of my ancestors.

Knowledge that death is real and permanent changes my approach to the traditional Pagan concept of the Wheel of the Year, which usually stipulates Samhain (Hallows) as both end and beginning of the year, reasoning that Death is also Rebirth. But we are not composted and then ‘reborn’. The new sprout that arises in the spring is the next generation, not eternal life; the new leaves and shoots are a return from dormancy, and not from death.

Entire species go through long cycles of birth and death and birth of individuals, but the individuals themselves do not. And eventually, the species themselves die out, too.

If the Wheel of the Year is a metaphor for the cycle of life, Hallows is Death, and it is final. So my Atheopagan Wheel of the Year begins at Yule, with the beginning of the Sun’s return, and the last Sabbath is Hallows: the End.

I have Death Traditions at Hallows; not only ritual traditions, but practical ones as well. I update my will and my farewell letter to loved ones; I make sure my durable power of attorney, living will and wishes for the disposal of my remains are all in order, and that they include all pertinent information about legal requirements so grieving friends aren’t at the mercy of funeral homes when it comes to making decisions.

It’s a good practice. It brings me to face, each year, that I’m going to go, and lets me know that I have done what I can for those who survive me to make that passage as easy as possible. To ensure it can be found easily, I keep the hard copy at the very front of my filing cabinet, and a soft copy on the desktop of my computer, labeled “My Death”. It has a cute little skull icon.

Speaking of which, I’m a big believer in natural, family-conducted, hands-on and affordable funeral practices. If you’d like to know more about this and to demystify death and the funeral industry generally, I suggest the delightful and funny videos of The Order of the Good Death, better known as “Ask a Mortician”, as well as Final Passages, a nonprofit that supports families in conducting their own funerals.

I highly recommend working with the fact of death in ritual and trance space. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is tremendously clarifying and empowering to finally be able to sit somewhat easily with the Old Man With The Scythe. To live in the factual reality of our temporary lives.

Atheopaganism is about living with as much happiness, social and environmental responsibility as possible. That’s only important because our time is limited; otherwise, we could be miserable for millennia until we finally got around to feeling better. Death whispers in our ears, saying (as I hear the late, lamented Robin Williams say à la Dead Poets Society), “carpe diem”.

We are, indeed, all worm food eventually. It is what happens in the meantime that counts.

Go forth and live!

 

*RIP, Sir Terry—If you haven’t read Terry Pratchett, go do it now!

An Atheopagan Life: Observances for November and December

Originally published at Humanistic Paganism.

November and December certainly don’t lack for observances and holiday celebrations. In the temperate zone of the planet, pretty much every culture has had some way of celebrating the winter solstice, and the accumulation of many of those traditions lives with us today in the form of Christmas, Chanukah, the Pagan Yule, newer traditions such as Kwanzaa and even Festivus.

For Atheopagans, navigating this season in a manner free of theistic and supernatural overtones can be a bit of a challenge. We’re besieged with well-intentioned messages from relatives and friends rooted in their credulous religious beliefs. Exasperating as it can sometimes be, the main thing is to remember that those expressions are meant kindly and with love, by and large, not to try to shove religious credulity down our throats.

Meanwhile, our own opportunities for observances are many and rich.

The true midpoint between Harvest and Yule typically falls around the 6th or 7th of November. That is the actual astronomical date of Hallows, so the first weekend of November is when I always celebrate it with my circle, Dark Sun. We’ve been together for 23 years now, and Samhain/Hallows has always been a high point in our year, when we follow a similar ritual each time and do an overnight gathering so we can enjoy each others’ company. Our membership is far-flung geographically, so this isn’t possible very often.

Our ritual is held every year at the home of circle members who live surrounded by wilderness. It begins by gathering around a Focus of seasonal symbols—a jack o’ lantern, bones, skulls, pictures of ancestors, ritual tools—in a fire circle with a fire laid but unlit. We ground ourselves to develop Presence, and invoke the Qualities we hope will be with us as we go through this year’s Sabbath ritual.

And then we turn our back on life, and walk off into the darkness, to the Land of the Dead.

When we arrive at the designated place, we speak to those who have died in the previous year. We speak of our feelings about their deaths, we wish them well (or, in some cases, not)—we play “let’s pretend” in a psychodrama that allows us to seek and find closure with those who have left us.

And when it is done, when cold is seeping into our bones and the Land of the Dead is starting to feel a little too comfortable, we make our way back, light the fire, sing and pass wine and chocolate, and celebrate being alive.

It’s a simple ritual, but a powerful one. And with each iteration, the depth of its power grows as we realize how many times we have done it, how many years we have passed together.

Later in the month comes Thanksgiving: a belated Harvest celebration which, in my part of the world, marks the ending of the grape harvest. We gather with friends on this day, enjoy food and drink as others do, give thanks that we are not alone in the world.

The day after Thanksgiving is the day to start opening the Atheopagan “advent” calendar. For details on how to make one, click here.

Yule, of course, is a big deal in the surrounding culture, and so it is for us, as the beginning of the new year’s cycle and the moment the Sun begins to reemerge from the deepest of winter’s depths. Our Yule tree is surmounted by a Sun, and our ornaments are mostly of natural creatures and symbols: a moon, a salmon, a bat, an owl, mushrooms, apples, trees, even an octopus. We also have a small collection of very old ornaments from the 1940s and 50s which remind us of our childhoods, which are always so present at this time of year.

On Yule night, one of our traditions has been to make ourselves hot cider, turn off all lights in the house and go to sit outside in silence, contemplating the cold and darkness, reminding ourselves of the blessings we enjoy that keep us warm and loved and fed and safe at this bitter time of year. After a half-hour or so, we return indoors, light candles to bring the light back and burn our Yule log, which is a section of the trunk of the previous year’s Yule tree decorated with pyrocantha and holly and mistletoe. We drink a toast and dig into a rich dinner, sing songs and enjoy one another’s company.

I leave you with a pair of Atheopagan carols. A joyous holiday season and happy new year to you all.

Axial Tilt (Tune: Silent Night)

Axial tilt

The way the world’s built:

Sun is north, then sun is south.

Axial precession makes seasons occur;

Sometimes bikinis and other times fur.

Insert metaphor here!

Insert metaphor here.

 

Evergreen tree

Holly berry

Things that stay alive, you see.

Meanwhile freezing and darkness reign

We’d much rather have fun than complain.

We are still alive!

We are still alive.

 

We’re so hoping

Soon will come Spring

Meanwhile let’s eat, drink, and sing!

Friends and family convene by the fire

Cold and darkness don’t seem quite so dire.

Pass the gravy please!

Pass the gravy please.

(repeat first verse)

 

Oh Darkest Night (tune: O Holy Night)

Oh darkest night, the stars are brightly shining

It is the night of the dawning new year.

Here in the dark, for sun and warmth we’re pining

But we are cheered by our friends and family here.

The cold bright stars: a trillion worlds above us

As here on Earth we gather loved ones near.

Raise up your eyes, and see the Cosmos’ wonder

Oh Night sublime

Oh night, oh darkest night

Oh Night sublime

Oh night, oh night sublime.