After the Fire

It isn’t really over, of course.

Two dozen have lost their lives. Thousands are without homes, their possessions rendered to gray ashes. The most vulnerable among them–renters, the uninsured–will almost certainly flee our expensive region, despite admirable community efforts to raise funds to support them. The acrid smell of burned lives lingers in the air, and driving past the devastation is still like a bad dream. On and on it goes: the gray, burned wreckage, the burned-out cars.

That said, people are getting on with it, as they must. The ground floor of our local daily newspaper has been let out as a disaster center with representatives of dozens of government agencies available to help, and insurance companies have set up tents in the parking lot where people can file and follow up on their claims. It’s a remarkable effort and those who organized it should be proud.

As things go, I was impacted only marginally. Other than a frightening last-minute evacuation with our cat and what we could carry, and a week away from home, we suffered little. Our loss was some out-of-pocket expenses and a refrigerator full of food, and our insurance covered even those.

In our back yard, two palm-sized embers of burning roof shingles landed, and burned themselves out. If I hadn’t whacked the weeds, if they had landed a little closer to the house, things would be very different.

But they weren’t. So I have no excuse, really.

Yet since the fires, I have been in a sort of daze. My sleep is still heavily disturbed and I don’t leave the house much. Work on the Atheopaganism book I began to outline has stalled for the moment; I can’t seem to focus on it.

I think I am still in some kind of shock.

I turn to my spirituality at such times: to the perspective and wisdom I find in the natural world and the values, principles and practices of Atheopaganism. But even that has seemed removed, far away. I couldn’t bring myself to light candles on my Focus for a period of more than a week, just not wanting to deal with or traffic in fire. So it sat cold and dark in the evenings when usually it has a merry glow; I added extra water as the fires still burned, but without light it seemed lifeless (I prefer not to use electric lights on my Focus, personally).

Similarly, any inspiration for writing for this site was stymied by the dark fog blurring my mind. I racked my brain and simply couldn’t find anything worth saying. And one day passed into another, and national news began to creep in around the edges of the all-encompassing and never-ending updates about the fires and their aftermath. None of which helped, of course.

A disaster is a community event. Every victim is an individual, of course, with a unique story, but it is something we also all go through together. Thousands here are mourning loved ones and pets and baby pictures and prized possessions and home; collectively, we are swept up in something larger than ourselves and our individual experiences.

Hallows will be particularly poignant for me this year. I attended a Reclaiming Samhain ritual last weekend, and of course there was much talk about the fires, but somehow, not enough, for me. Something was missing, some cathartic piece about the grief that was never really reached. I hope my circle gathering will provide that.

In any case, I’ve made myself sit down and write in an effort to break this spell. To renormalize being at the keyboard and in author’s mode. If this piece has relatively little to do with Atheopaganism, I’m sorry, but this is how I get back to creating content for the site again. Our religion is nothing if not personal; this is where I am.

May those who have been injured by these fires heal and be made whole. May all remembered losses be honored. May this community reknit stronger and happier than before. May the sacred land re-green with winter rains, and bring the heartbreaking beauty back.

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Dark Hallows

Hallows is unique among Atheopagan Sabbaths.

For one thing, it’s a week long: it extends from Halloween through the actual midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, which falls around the 7th of November. A whole week of observances, of rituals, of spooky-eerie awareness of Death, of Ancestry, of the Dark.

As it happens, where I live, the transition from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time happens on the first weekend in November, so there is a sudden plunge into night as the clocks roll back an hour and sunset is suddenly an hour earlier. It doesn’t take imagination to realize that the Darkness has arrived.

And let’s just say up front: if you like a gothic aesthetic, Hallows is spooky cool. Hallows is jack o’lanterns flickering, cobwebs and skulls and bones and graveyards. And witches, let us not forget.

We’re both fascinated and appalled by the prospect of our deaths, and Hallows is the time when we live in that state: with the knowledge that It Is Coming, with coming to grips with that reality, with reflecting on those who are gone, and with contemplating the deep history of ancestry.

Death is the price of the ticket to this glorious ride on Planet Earth. As such, it must be honored. The names of the Beloved Dead must be spoken. The Ancestors—human and non- — must be remembered, and their contributions to the fact of our existence celebrated.

In the secular world, Halloween in particular is a time when we are allowed to play in ways we are not otherwise indulged throughout the remainder of the year. We can dress up silly, or scary, or sexy, and enjoy the thrill of fear and empowerment that comes with each of these qualities. As a costuming geek myself, I love a chance to roll something out from my closet—or make something new— and be Someone/Something Else in public, just for one day. We can play with identity, and gender, and actually get away with it in the homophobic United States. It is no surprise that Halloween is an important and beloved event in the LGBTQ community.

I see Hallows as a week of Pagan celebration that begins with Halloween itself, with its costumes and parties and spooky decorations, and extends through the following week into my circle’s annual Samhain ritual, which takes place on the first weekend in November each year.

During the intervening week, I update my Death Document: my funeral wishes, farewell letter, will, medical directives, important passwords and other information that my loved ones will need when it’s my time to go.

This will be Dark Sun circle’s 27th annual gathering for Samhain. Our ritual includes a hushed circle of remembrance around the unlit fire, a silent walk into the woods to visit the Land of the Dead, and, once there, we speak their names, tell them what we would have liked them to have known about our feelings, our memories, our wishes and our love.

Upon return from the Land of the Dead, we light the fire and the candles and jack o’lanterns on the Focus and celebrate, singing “We Are Alive!”, sharing goblets of blood-red wine and chocolate. And then, when it is time, we go indoors and break our fast with a sumptuous meal.

By the time our ritual and feast are complete, I feel we have turned the Wheel of the Year again. I feel prepared for the arrival of the Darkness as the year ages. And I feel connected with my circle kin, with my broader Pagan community, and with the great cycle of Life coming and going on this magnificent planet. I feel more accepting of the losses that Death has dealt me, and of the fact that one day, it will be my turn.

I feel like an Atheopagan, celebrating his life in the world.

Autumn

In the coastal Mediterranean climate where I live, September and October are times of hot days and clear, cold nights. The sun is no longer strong enough—nor are the days long enough—to drive the cycle that draws ocean air inland during the height of summer, blanketing us with cooling fog.

It is a somewhat eerie time, typically windless, with wan sunlight and hard blue skies as leaves turn, children return to school and adults to work after the playful season of summer. The scent of fermenting grapes often fills the air as “The Crush” of the grape harvest proceeds and the vineyards turn autumn colors. Summer gardens crank out vegetables well into October. In some years, we may get a solitary rainstorm, but this year, no such luck, thus far. Fire danger is high.

It’s a time when it feels to me as though the world is holding its breath, waiting for the winter which may—but won’t necessarily, given our recent four-year drought—come. The days shorten steadily down to the moment when, in the first weekend of November, we make the sudden jump off of Daylight Savings Time and the Darkness has truly arrived.

And, of course, it is the countdown to Halloween, the witchiest holiday of the year. As September ends, pumpkins and broomsticks and skulls and black cats begin to appear in decorations through the community.

I think there is a hardwired impulse in us, as the systems of life rachet down for winter, to craft and preserve food and lay in firewood and clean rain gutters and otherwise carry out householding activities that will help us to get through the long winter. Such industry is all around.

I find myself gathering brightly colored leaves for my Focus, and preparing for my circle to visit this Saturday. We’ve been together for a very long time and I always look forward to seeing my circle sisters and brothers.

As I said, it’s a strange time. It feels as though there is a lot of activity about to happen, but it’s not here yet. So I wait, and do my rituals, and enjoy the beautiful days.

What’s your favorite thing about autumn?