Leftovers

It looks like I forgot to click “publish” yesterday, so my blog post never appeared.  With apologies for doubling up, I need to complete the trilogy today.  So here goes…

Unlike All Saints Day, which, we were told, was a day of obligation, All Souls Day, today, was not.  It was kind of a leftovers day.  Ironically, it developed into Día de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—along with Halloween and All Saints.  Yes, there are many who declare, and rightly so, that Día de Muertos is something different.  It is and it isn’t.  Cultures around the world have always felt that at this point in the year something odd was going on.  The carnal summer was becoming the spiritual autumn.  Thoughts of those who’d died come back.  So it is a three-day celebration—not officially recognized in the United States (it would interfere with business, which is, as we all know, a thing not to be imagined)—has become a commercial boon.

Still, not being among the saints, I have to wonder if the leftovers—All Souls—are somehow second-class citizens in the afterlife.  Does the social stratification we experience daily here carryover to there?  The view of Heaven among the poor is generally one of comfort and equality.  Fairness, which is in very short supply down here, will finally see the end of the moral arc of the universe, to borrow from a departed sage, bend toward justice.  And sharply.  The idea is ancient and powerful.  Primates of other species don’t object to having leaders.  They do, however, reject leaders who abuse power.  And so it is that we’ve evolved beyond that.  Civilization teaches us our place.

The Day of the Dead has become commercial, along with Halloween.  Why not stretch out the profits, which, after all, come from the leftovers?  There is a capitalist vision of Heaven, you see, and it is one we see working out on earth these days.  Those with money take power and use their money to buy more power that in turn leads to more money for them.  We call it “making a living.”  Those who are wise, however, recognize something deeper in Día de Muertos.  It is the time when we welcome family home, indeed, when family becomes more important than job, or status, or power.  It is a very human, if supernatural, holiday.  All Souls, it seems, has received less than its fair share of attention.  The Day of the Dead, in its own way, warms up those leftovers.

November Novina

One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.  “If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”  There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.  As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.  The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.

There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.  I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.  When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.  There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.  But sainthood?  Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?  And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.  Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.  We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.  The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.  All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.  That’s kind of like November.  I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.  Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.  At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.  I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.

Halloween Mood

As America becomes scarier and scarier, I appreciate the fact that I grew up loving Halloween.  I don’t know why the dark mood appeals to me—I don’t like being scared, and I certainly don’t want others to suffer.  It’s more the mood that appeals; think of it as Halloween in the abstract.  I begin to feel it in August when I walk into stores already beginning to stock their black and orange wares.  It grows stronger through September as the dark comes on noticeably earlier each day, culminating after an October of anticipation.  Unlike some consumers of horror, what I’m after is the mood.  I started reading Poe as a young person, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” remains my favorite short story.  It’s the mood.  The narrator riding his horse through the woods toward dereliction.  There’s a sublimity in it that’s hard to match.

Yes, I watch contemporary horror.  I even write books about it.  Still, it’s difficult finding others who share my sensibility concerning horror.  I don’t like the jump scares or the gore.  I’m after the mood.  Poe knew about mood—he wrote stories that maintained it throughout.  A kind of beautiful hopelessness.  It’s a feeling in the air around Halloween when it’s clear nothing is going to stop the leaves from falling and the onset of a long and lonely winter.  Writers will shiver in their garrets, allowing their thoughts to flow despite the pale sky and feeble sun that is the only hope of continued life on this isolated planet.  Halloween tells us there is a spirit world no matter what the scientific authorities say.  It’s a world you can feel, but you can’t find it rationally.

Masquerading is a theme in some of Poe’s work as well.  We, as social beings, tend to excel at it.  We hide our real feelings so that others won’t hurt us, or so as not to hurt them.  We all know the childhood feeling of putting on that Halloween mask that permits us to act as we really feel, within limits.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I knew the catharsis of masquerading.  I read Poe and I understood him in my own way.  As an Episcopalian, I saw how fear of death was hidden behind All Saints and All Souls.  Masquerading.  Halloween was the Eve of All Hallows, but it usurped the master in its own form of beautiful dereliction.  The holidays following this are more comforting and heimlich, until the solstice comes to remind us that light will return, no matter how feeble at first.  We need Halloween.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.

Hallow’s Eve

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Halloween is finally here, and I’m on my way to work. Over the weekend I noticed youngsters about in costume, heading to a local business that was holding, apparently, some kind of ghostly do. For me it’s just another day—Halloween isn’t an official holiday in any government’s book. Business as usual. Still, I can’t think of Halloween without recalling Nashotah House. I began, and effectively ended, my academic career at Nashotah. Idyllically located in the woods, it was a seminary that knew how to celebrate Halloween well. We were expected—required, actually—to be in church for a good part of the next two days for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. But Halloween night we were allowed to be afraid.

Gothic writers often used to focus on places like monasteries and churches for moody frights. Nashotah began its life as a monastery, but soon turned into a seminary. The stone buildings were old—for this country—and gothic in design. We had an on-campus cemetery with a bona fide black monk. Students reported seeing ghosts, and with such a small population of religiously devoted people the imagination grew like toadstools. One morning at around 5 a.m. the door handle to my apartment rattled loudly. I’m sure it was just someone trying to get into a forbidden chapel whose only access was through my rooms. Thunderstorms echoing through the kettle moraines that surrounded the Wisconsin campus could be impressive indeed. On Halloween the maintenance man drove a hayride through harvested corn fields and the cemetery where opportunistic ghouls would pop out to frighten the slow-moving, exposed riders.

Since those days Halloween has instead become just a day of work. No more the grandeur of All Saints’ Day being an actual holiday, holy day, followed closely by All Souls’. This is just another day except for the kids who can come around and get some candy if I’m not too tired to hand it out later. I suspect this is why I spend so much of October reading about monsters and ghosts and scary movies. I no longer have a Halloween to focus my energies. So here it is Halloween. It’s dark outside and I’ll be standing in that dark, waiting for a bus. When I climb off at the end of the day, I’ll be sharing the nighttime streets with children who are perhaps the only ones who celebrate holidays as they should be commemorated. Already a month ago I began noticing the Christmas displays in local stores. It was my first real scare this season.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.