November 1, 2022

. . . sweet dust gathered
on the windowsill and lizards
hid in the bends of walls. . .
— Adam Sagajewski, 1945-2021
Polish poet, from “Transformation”

It is All Saints’ Day in the western Christian tradition, a solemnity or festival in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. It is also the first day of Samhain, the ancient Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year.

I returned yesterday from a weekend gathering to honor and explore this earthy, mystical tradition. It was held in a picturesque northeastern Pennsylvania retreat center that imports the Gaelic symbols onto land originally belonging to the Lenni Lenape people who first inhabited this region.

I signed up originally because I wanted to participate in an observance that did not involve cultural appropriation on my part. I am 50% Irish, descended on my mother’s side from many generations of people who came from County Tipperary in south central Ireland. Both sets of my great-grandparents immigrated to the coal regions of Pennsylvania in the 1850s.

I came to appreciate this weekend that my heritage is so rooted in the Roman Catholic church’s adaptations of what they deemed “pagan” rituals and belief systems that I am, in a sense, an appropriator or imitator of the original peoples’ responses to the divine and the spiritual present in the earthy atmosphere they built their lives in. Nevertheless, my lifelong comfort among trees and clouds, in forests and freshwater environments, tells me that some shard of people who lived more than a thousand years ago still exists in me.

Samhain begins the dark time. The days get shorter, natural light becomes weaker. I have long been deeply affected by SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, a tendency toward depression that can become clinically severe), even before anyone named it or knew what it was. Often, the darkness comes to me as a galumphing black Labrador dog I call Melanie. I’ve followed advice to “welcome her as a friend; ask her what she wants.”

This year it’s bees, large and loud, finding their way into the house, having been disturbed by all the extermination efforts the residents of this neighborhood have undertaken this summer to battle lantern flies, murder wasps, termites, wood-boring beetles, and other pests, the “lizards hid in the bends of walls” that Adam Sagajewski refers to. And the “sweet dust gathered on the windowsill,” the detritus of the two-year pandemic that altered our lives in so many ways.

I haven’t named the bees. They don’t want to be here any more than I want them to be here. When they appear, they are often limping on mutilated legs across the bare floor or buzzing against the sliding door, banging their bodies against it as if asking me to let them out. I don’t have to ask them what they want. They want light and liberation.

It’s time for pondering a poem a day. This has been the first.

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