New Years, Death, and Fall

Fall has always been my favorite season. As a child, turning leaves meant that the brutal heat and thunderstorms of summer were going away. Cooler weather and shorter days meant interesting views through naked trees and muted tones of reds, yellows, and browns. Since moving to San Francisco, I discovered that fall time is the Witches New Years (Samhain, pronounced sow-wan) and is also Yom Kippur for the tribes of Israel. Both of these holidays deal with aspects of death and rebirth.

For Samhain, the goddess is now a crone. She has just slept with the god and birthed a new goddess for the coming year. The crone will soon die, allowing the cycle of life to continue another year. The power of this turning is wound up in a spiral dance that celebrates the wheel of life. This ancient pagan ritual turned into Halloween.

For Yom Kippur, Jews celebrate their chance to begin a new year purified via fasting, wearing white, and praying for all kinds of forgiveness of past imperfections. Being put in the book of life allows them another year to try to make things right in the world. At the same time, those who have died are prayed for and mourned.

The third fall observance of death and grief is the ancient tradition of Day of the Dead. Coming from Native American traditions that morphed into a quasi-Catholic event, Dia de los Muertos takes place on November 2 (All Souls Day) when the veil between life and death is lifted. Those who are alive create altars for their dead loved ones, placing items that the departed person liked, sweet bread and marigolds to attract the spirit of the person, photos, letters, etc. In Mexico, traditions range from a special day for children who have died, all-night celebrations in village cemeteries, and other ways to commune with the dead.

Living in San Francisco has allowed me to celebrate all three of these days. This year was the first year since 1998 that I did all three. Being in the process of grieving the dissolution of my marriage, each ritual helped me work through the complex, sometimes full-body, emotions of this trying time.

I observed Yom Kippur with Beyt Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner, feeling at times that he was speaking directly to me about finding my center/true self, and finding the power of renewal to transform the world/myself into a better place. The prayers, some of the most beautiful melodies I’ve sung, made me focus on my wrongs, the wrongs of others, and the need to give that up and begin anew. I fasted in Golden Gate Park the next day, wandering into the Conservatory of Flowers and the new De Young. I broke fast with a massage and Middle Eastern dinner.

The Reclaiming Spiral Dance brought together a congregation of hundreds of pagans at Kezar Pavilion. The altars were moving, and I liked the fact that they were all interactive. Starhawk and a few other witches guided us all in to a meditation where we went to the Island of Apples and met all of our dead relatives and friends (and strangers). While there, we all dance the spiral dance together, taking the magic of all our wisdom and winding it into the coming year.

This Wednesday, I donned my Indian wedding suit and wedding band, painted my face as a skull, and walked for Dia de los Muertos. Two of my roommates walked with their dead fathers, and many protested the deaths in Iraq in various ways. I grieved the passing of my marriage while many others had photos of their lost loved ones. I also asked my recently departed great aunt Lily to walk with me for support. Being in skull face for the first time, I was told by at least three strangers that I was dead, reminding me that we all are headed to that same fate.

This year’s march was large, forcing the SFPD to block off the march down Balmy Alley (we wound around Harrison instead). An irate woman tried to pull the barricade open to march through, while other marchers asked a sergeant why it was closed off. I hovered, upset because this is the most important part of the walk for me (going through the narrow, muraled alley symbolized the rebirth into another year represented by the park where the altars have been set up), and overheard the sergeant tell someone that they were afraid of torches setting fires and causing a stampede.

In the park, I ran into friends, looked at the altars (not as good as the ones on Samhain), spoke with strangers, and sipped from a bottle of Scotch. Many people set up their own small altars this year, and my roommate made one for his father. I ended up at Tamara Li’s last Day of the Dead party in her nearby apartment, and mixed and mingled with new and old friends.

I feel triply cleansed from these fall new years experiences, and think that I may have taken my wedding ring off for the last time. Like the leaves that I have gathered and put on my room door, I am turning and rolling into a new season of my life. Along with the grief flows celebration at knowing that I am still breathing and alive to move into this upcoming stage of life.

Winding down from all of this focus on death and renewal, I just spent a few days in Marin County with my friend Jef Stott. We cooked food, hottubbed, made a fire, hiked 3 miles on the coast, ate lunch looking over the Pacific, had a pint at the Pelican Inn, and touched the ocean at Muir Beach.

Revived and relaxed, I look forward to the coming solstice where the darkest day brings in the light of the spring to come. And another turning of the eternal wheel.

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