Round and round the year turns and here is Hallowtide again, Samhain, Hallowmas, Hallowe’en, Days of the Dead, Dias de Los Muertos, the final harvest festival of the agricultural year. This year, my hearth is in disarray with my kitchen still being remodeled, so instead there are little altars everywhere. In the living room, I gathered the decorations and family pictures on the temporarily-relocated sideboard, for an ofrenda to share. I’ve been gathering marigolds all month, those “headlights for the dead.”
One of my earliest teachers, Caitlín Matthews, from whose books I have learned so much, wrote yesterday on Facebook that the veil is always thin. It is felt most acutely by those who suffer, but it is just “a numinous step away” for any of us at any time. “This is why we have a spiritual practice: so the margins and threshold places are well guarded by those spirits we know and who help us. Go carefully out there, and practice your threshold work a little more often!” This rings true. Liminal time is all around us: at the magic hours of dawn and dusk, when I try to be outside for my walks. When I seem to see something out of the corner of my eye and immediately think of a lost loved one. Upon waking or “falling” asleep, coming to with a startle, seeing or sensing… something. Hearing my name spoken softly in a dozy moment. In dreams – who among us has not been happy to have a dream of the loved one who is gone from our waking world? For those of us who practice divination – seeking an open portal to the other world. The veil is always thin, and can be pierced in an instant. It is not always a comfortable experience and not for the unwary. Sometimes our relationships with the dead, ancestors or otherwise, is uneasy. A poem I wrote last year, Hallows, still speaks to this for me.
In the bedroom, I felt a need, this year, to gather my motherlines: my mother Rosemary, her mother Mary, and her mother by marriage, Florence. I’ve had this photo of my mother for years but until this year didn’t really look too closely at it. It was important enough to her to have it laminated: her engagement announcement in the local newspaper. It was a thing done in the 1950s, and I’m sure she moved heaven and earth to make it happen, to have respectability. Marriage, so very important to her as a mid twentieth-century woman. And connected, as all of life is, with death.
I have many cards and images to use on my altars at this time of year, but had a strong intuition to place this one with the mothers. I’ve always liked it, an image of the Death card from the Incidental Tarot by Holly DeFount, because of the hand-drawn lettering. This year I was moved to look up the translation of the Latin inscription, “de terra procedunt et ad terram revertuntur.” In seconds I had my answer: a formula written by the alchemist Hermes Trismegistos: “Terra enim est mater elementorum; de terra procedunt et ad terram revertuntur” – “The earth is the mother of the elements; they rise from the earth and to the earth they return.” Of course I would choose this one for my altar to the mothers. And of course it would be the altar with the most bits of the natural world, and a representation of each element.
Linda Hogan, in her book Dwellings, writes beautifully and profoundly about the natural world: its bloom, its decay, the natural order of things from which we often avert our eyes, “nature, red in tooth and claw.” In this season of harvest and decay, with the promise of spring far away, I returned to her words, as to a devotional. Her final essay, called “Walking” ends with her oft-quoted words:
“Tonight I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above them . . . It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood. Whichever road I follow, I walk in the land of many gods, and they love and eat one another. Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”