Samhain

Samhain
The veil is thin,
The old year dies.
Darkness envelopes
The souls of the living.
Surrender yourself
To night.

Even as a child, I was never afraid of being outside at night. The forest, the mountains, the meadows are the most beautiful when starlight drapes them in mystery. Sounds, smell and touch open up when vision diminishes. The space of self expands to touch and sense what cannot be seen.

The darkness of winter though filled me with dread. It started in High School, when Death came my way. First an uncle, then my classmate. The fathers of two friends, one of them falling to his death on a trail in the Alps I had hiked many times. My grandfather, then my mother, both were born and passed on in our home. The sister of my friend died in childbirth. A fellow grad student committed suicide, and another one was murdered the night before our final exam. Death, the final darkness, touched my heart.

At 22, I found myself the person people, some much older than I was, came to when they needed to talk about dying from breast cancer, mourning their sister, understanding loss. How do you deal with being so aware of the limited time you have when most of your peers still think of themselves as invincible? I wish I had had somebody to talk to, a mentor to guide me. Yet I felt left utterly alone to cope. Or maybe I was not ready yet to face the darkness within?

Fear took a hold, and winter became a challenge. Winter, in Germany and Virginia, is the time when much of nature dies. Seeds lie buried in the frozen soil, the skeletons of trees stand as grey ghosts in the freezing drizzle of November. My turtles hibernated in the wine cellar, and I was ready to crawl into the straw right next to them until March came around. How apt that my birthday in early March coincides with the time of year when I feel reborn and alive again!

Then, in the one winter a few years ago when I thought I had reached the end of my endurance to deal with yet another cold darkness, a door started to open. It came in the form of a winter solstice ceremony at my church. Here, finally, I began to accept death as integral part of life. I started to grasp an understanding of winter as a time of calm, a retreat into a welcoming dark, a pause between breaths. As a gardener, I had always known fruit trees need a minimum number of cold hours to bear fruit. I knew my turtles would fail to thrive if they did not have time to hibernate. I knew the icy cold was necessary to kill the pests to give the tender seedlings in spring a chance to thrive. And yet I had failed to understand, deep in my heart, that I am part of this natural cycle as well.

Winter still is not easy. But it has changed forever. Starting from that first solstice celebration, my appreciation of this season has grown. Samhain, when the veil between the world of the dead and the living becomes thin, still plants the pain of loss in my heart. The art of living, of living fully, now includes for me to embrace this grief, to cry those tears. Deep in my heart though, I know that every end will lead to a new beginning. The space between two breath, winter, is the gestation period for new life. Blessed be.

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