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.

[UPDATE: The Druid Network has a wonderful workbook that can help you to pull all these pieces together, which can be downloaded here.]

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!