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A Meditation on Samhain: How Lucky You Are.
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On Samhain we celebrate the turning of the seasons, the passing of our ancestors, and how mortality makes us who we are. This is a meditation on things dark and hard to face; but it is also how we celebrate our life on this special night. Meditate then upon what turns fate took to allow you to stand where you are today and the improbability of our existence.
Several things bring me to this musing: The first is the lingering effects of the world war upon my family. On September 1st I was browsing the BBC international web site and ran into an article reminding me that it was the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2. The article was in their “have your say” a moderated forum for readers to post comments. Many posted accounts of themselves or memories passed from family members now passed on the start of a great cataclysm that resulted in the world we live in today.
The ironic thing was that at Lammas when talking to member of my circle we shared a mutual astonishment at how improbable and lucky we both were to be standing here today. She’d emigrated from Russia and my father came from the Ukraine. Besides sharing many cultural similarities, we both discovered that neither of us by any logical measure should ever have existed. In both our cases it was this war. A war so terrible, and the survival of our parents/grandparents was such an unlikely a happening we have no business existing.
Her grandfather, in the Red Army in 1941 when the Nazis invaded, survived because a higher up realized he could play a musical instrument. So instead of going into combat, he played to the doomed soldiers going to the front, almost all never to return.
My own father, a young teen then, had so many near misses with death that I could fill the whole page. He wasn’t even a soldier, just born in the wrong piece of geography and living in a country where merely living was often too much to ask for. There are so many others. I still remember seeing the ledger books in the parish churches when I was in the UK of all those names of young men who didn’t return from the World Wars. From harrowing stories such as these to the more mundane that pass to us from the past. Some stories are of family members never met because they died in some forgotten traffic mishaps fifty years past, or of sickness.
Yet we are here on Samhain to honor them and their lives.
I was reminded of this again recently when I sat in my living room watching the history channel on a rainy Saturday morning eating my breakfast. I viewed an interview with a spry British gentleman who’d piloted Lancasters during the war.
His words summed it up: “So many of my pals must envy me. I got to have a life, children, and grandchildren”.
“ I came back after the war, and they did not.”
“I am here because I am lucky”.
We are here also because Fortuna, the Goddess of fate and fortune rolled her dice and in her often-fickle whim allowed our parents and grandparents to live out their lives, meet and ultimately make us. Our lives, our loves, and our legacies are all tied to the sheer whimsy that resulted in where we stand now.
I won’t even try to wrestle with the issues of divine plan, or fate. Let theologians argue forever over that. What matters is the now that we stand in. I wasn’t there for the horrors of the second world war that so many of my family faced. It still affects my family almost every day though, and will at least until the last people who knew my parents, and grandparents have passed beyond living memory.
The past that I never lived through still affects me. It also affects you.
So why are we here? Or perhaps more importantly, how do you hold that deep feeling inside that comes when you truly realize how indebted we are to family members who came before us. All of us need to celebrate them more. Their memories are passed down to us in our bodies, and stories shared with us.
But what of their lives, their familiar connections and world they lived in? Over time we lose touch with our own closest to us as more and more empty places greet us when we celebrate. To the older generation, as they pass across the veil we loss more than them personally, we also loose touch with those they knew whom we never did. For some, only their contemporaries were their legacy, and when they are gone none remain. We need to reach out to touch them at all Samhain when the door between the worlds is thinnest.
Samhain is a celebration of the changing of the seasons, but it is also recognition of the dark passage we all must make in time. As we dance around the sacred bonfire, we affirm that we live, even though we all shall die when we must. The world doesn’t need to run according to rational rules, all that matters is we live, breathe and celebrate in the same way that was done long before this old world became “civilized”. In all this we honor our ancestors and the web of life and circumstances they came from. They got to make us as their legacies, but others were not so lucky.
Some exist now only in name only with no memories left of their essence and world. They have no memory now for none remember them or carry on in their stead. Yet we owe them all, for without them we would not be here to continue the cycle of life and a beautiful, if sometimes-flawed world we live in. Even the over-hyped costumes of Halloween are a recognition children can easily make: mock the monsters and you make them something you can face.
No monsters in the closet? So you or your daughter puts on a costume of a princess. Someone in your family almost certainly once proudly wore hers as she was presented to court hundreds of years ago. In both good times and bad, we got here through the shared experiences of many who no longer have a memory passed on. Yet we do remember them.
In Latin America they celebrate the Day of the Dead. It isn’t a sad day. It is a happy celebration of those who came before. Is this a bad idea? Samhain is a celebration of the Janus face nature of the night. One side looking into shadow, darkness, evil times, pain and suffering endured, the other a triumphant shout that here we are! We live and pass our own memories, legacies and life’s achievements to the future.
So this Samhain, take a moment and hoist a cup to them all: those that made us, and those who have none to mark their legacy. In their lives they did many things: normal people who lived in traumatic times and extraordinary people who lived normal lives. To all of them we owe a debt. They trod in places we cannot go, but their lives mattered and to that they deserve a tribute.
In my family we practice a Slavic tradition. The tradition may go back to pagan times, and again it may not. What matters is it is a meaningful part of any sacred celebration. At dinner, a place setting is set, but the seat remains empty. It is a symbolic space set-aside for those who can no longer come, but the welcome is still there to join us as we celebrate.
Have your say forum cited: Sept. 1, 2009.
http://newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.jspa?forumID=6938 and edition=2 and ttl=20090912191145
Copyright: A.I. Mychalus, copyright 2009 original writing
Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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