The ancient Celts kept time differently than we do. Today we are accustomed to thinking of the sun as the guardian of new beginnings and we mark a day's start by its rising; we place our New Year among the gently lengthening days of winter. But Celtic time was marked in the way Jewish time is marked - with a day beginning at one sundown and ending at the next. While we have the clear and purposeful sun, the Celts began always with the changeable moon, that softer, more feminine keeper. They placed their new year, called Samhain, deep in the heart of autumn, within the fold of days still tipping toward darkness. (We celebrate the same day now, though we've transformed it into Hallowe'en or All Saint's Day.) A new year arrived for them with the sun's departure, in the rising hollow of night. That was when, the Celts believed, doors appeared, and the boundaries between the worlds grew thin.
As Samhain began, fires were lit, lights set in lanterns (or in pumpkins or turnips) and left beside doors. Where the world had thinned, the dead slipped through. There's nothing written down to tell us how they looked as they crossed from death into the living world. Perhaps for that one night they were returned to their bodies and walked among the people whole and firm, bringing with them joy, or terror. Perhaps they followed the lantern light and passed unseen - through walls and victims and former lovers - like whispers, or like smoke.
In the dark of last Wednesday morning, I grabbed my phone off the bedside table and turned it on. It was early, well before our alarms were supposed to ring, but I needed to know what had happened after I'd gone to bed in disbelief. The answer popped up on my screen and I turned it off again quickly, dropped the phone on the floor. We are a family that has suffered a sexual predator - with the complicity and negligence of the church; the election results felt like the same nightmare played out on a national level. When I finally got up and moving that day the fitness monitor on my wrist showed my heart racing even when I was standing still; my jaw ached from where I had ground my teeth anxiously in my sleep. A couple of days later a friend explained to me that trauma can be revisited, that the body can return to its old haunts, that the years of healing work can feel suddenly swallowed up again in well-practiced grief. Perhaps this is what some of the old Celts felt like, when the new year descended and the door opened for the waiting dead.
But it is not only the dead that cross through the worlds on Samhain. According to some traditions, the door yields also to the poets on that first day, and they are allowed to pass the opposite way through the veil into the Otherworld. This is where they muster their insight, where they collect the images, capture the snatches of melody that they will turn into words to guide us. Death wanders on one side of the door, but light is being gathered on the other.
Ursula Le Guin said:
"...up close, a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired....You need distance. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death."
This helps me understand why the Celts made space for the dead to wander in and out of their lives, why they sent their poets spelunking into the Otherworld. Day by day the mundanity, the dirt and rock and closeness of our lives skews our ability to see. Without the presence of death we forget that we exist within a hollow of light.
In the winter I go out just before the sun rises to feed the ducks and chickens, when the sky is soft and only faintly lit. I put on my work coat over my pajamas, shove my feet into the boots by the door, slip out into the cold air. If I'm quiet, sometimes I can surprise the deer family on the pasture. In the half light they will look like part of the landscape - small trees, or a clump of bushes grown up overnight - until one of them bends an ear, or lifts a slender leg. Hello, I will whisper, before they turn and leap away.
If I follow them into the woods on one of these autumn mornings, my view will be shrouded by the fog sheltering in the trees. This time of year, the forest is showing its bones. Branches lean across the path mossed and cracked, slim trunks reach intently for the sky; the sun filters down watery and limp. All the softness of summer has gone, and I can no longer tell where the deer have passed. Their hoofprints leave no mark against the brown and yellow blanket of leaves. Only the squirrels are active now; I catch a glimpse of a sinuous tail or a wedge of head as they spiral ever higher into the trees. If there is a thin place in my world, this is it.
In these post-election days many people feel that their neighbors have betrayed them, that their safety and well-being was not reason enough for others to make a stand. Many people feel the dead prowling the streets, resurrecting fears and memories, griefs and doubts. We are still in the nighttime of our new year. But over the course of this week I have discovered what the ancient Celts already knew: When you accept the resurrection of what was dead, you are giving yourself the opportunity to reorient, to see the world in its bleakest form so that you might recognize again what is most beautiful and true.
The door that opens to let death in is also the door that welcomes the poet to another world. In this, our new year, our new reality, it is more important than ever that we press on, that we go through to understand what has been hidden from us. That we return to our homes and our neighbors with our arms full of light.
I hadn't been outside much since the election, but yesterday I wound through the tangle of wild sweet pea and dried grass up to the forest. I don't know where the deer have gone, I haven't seen them for many days. Deer have always been a sign for me of God. When I push through the brush and enter the woods it is not only them I am following. When I stand in the fog and silence, sure of their breathless stillness just out of view, it is not only them I am searching for. Here amongst the firs and bracken, here with the forest slowly revealing itself like the planes of an aging face, there is a door, I am sure of it. When I close my eyes and wait, the knock, knock of falling rain sounds like the promise of someone ready to come through.