In the season when the leaves explode with color and then litter every path, I settle in, layering clothes, listening longer, battening down my own hatches for the long nights ahead. I have turned into an autumn kind of woman; I love this time of year.
Just as Advent has become more meaning-full than what the world has turned Christmas into, I am finding more each year to treasure in what Halloween trivializes: a time to mark the continuing presence of those we love but cannot touch.
Today is All Saints’ Day by the church’s calendar, a day to mark Christian saints and martyrs; tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, when we honor the rest of our Christian dead. Feels rather exclusive, somehow, which most specifically Christian things do these days. Somehow the Mexican celebration of these days — Día de los Muertos — feels both more dramatic and democratic; but these days are not mine. Neither are the Catholic saints.
But if we are fortunate to live another year, and if we are paying attention at all, as we begin to lose those we love, we may find that death begins to change shape, to mean more and different things. So, I will take tradition’s gift and bend it to my own purposes: today I will remember those who are saints to me, and tomorrow I will remember those I’ve lost in body but not in soul.
John O’Donohue has been on my mind of late; I have been thinking of his Celtic assertion that “fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form.” Our earthen, earthly bodies are embedded in our souls, which reach out around us, mingling with other souls. When we meet someone who immediately feels like a soul friend, he argues poetically that it is because we arose from clay that once lay together, but then divided and separated and became distinct persons.
“Your body is your clay home,” O’Donohue says. “Your body is the only home that you have in this universe. It is in and through your body that your soul becomes visible and real for you. Your body is the home of your soul on earth.” Like clay, a body-life that dries out — from lack of love, thirst for the waters of life — hardens and cracks, shrinks and fades. We need what is wet to soften us, to cause us to darken and swell with life.
It occurs to me that the only difference between the clay of our bodies and the dust from which we are made is this water of life; some day the water goes from us, and we return to dust.
The womb of the earth … is receiving back the individual who once left as a clay shape to live in separation above in the world. It is an image of homecoming, of being taken back completely again.
For now, though, O’Donohue speaks of what a miracle it is to be alive at all, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, another of my saints, who said “Being here is so much.” And Rilke returns the favor, it seems: in one of his poems (fittingly, used in the reading for October 31 in A Year of Rilke), he begins
Oh, the pleasure of it, always emerging new
from the loosened clay.
That’s what really lived life looks like, doesn’t it: “always emerging new, from loosened clay.” Reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe, who says “Words and I are not good friends at all except with some people,” and that she has gone “color mad,” working in and laughing at aloneness, treasuring what is big: sky, open spaces, night-time, her friends’ souls and talents. My favorite of her words, though, are these:
It belongs to me.
God told me
if I painted it enough,
I could have it.
This belonging is not possession: it is the irrepressible togetherness that comes of shared clay and the life growing in it and from it.
O’Keefe changed shape over and over again, spreading and shifting and aligning herself with light and earth and place.
And O’Keefe reminds me of Emily Carr, who some call the Georgia O’Keefe of Canada, although that can’t be fair or right. Over her long career, she moved from conventional representation, to an appreciation of indigenous carvings in the Pacific Northwest that held perhaps a little too much re-presentation, to a body of work that was truly her own. Carr gets trees like no one else does: their mystery, their movement, the way God is in them.
Of one work session, she mentioned:
I have done a charcoal sketch today of young pines at the foot of a forest. I may take a canvas out of it. It should lead from joy back to mystery — young pines full of light and joyousness against a background of moving, mysterious forest.
I found Carr’s work and words while living in the city, the experience of walking in living woods and moving into ancient mystery a rare treat. Now that I am surrounded every day by whispering pines and transforming hardwoods, the experience of tree-life is more frequent, but just as apt — like a sudden wind in the pinetops — to bring me to a halt.
Go out there into the glory of the woods. See God in every particle of them expressing glory and strength and power, tenderness and protection. Know that they are God expressing God made manifest. Feel their protecting spread, their uplifting rise, their solid immovable strength. Regard the warm red earth beneath them nurtured by their myriads of fallen needles, softly fallen, slowly disintegrating through long processes, always living, changing, expanding round and round. It is a continuous process of life, eternally changing yet eternally the same. See God in it all, enter into the life of the trees. Know your relationship and understand their language, unspoken, unwritten talk. Answer back to them with their own [silent] magnificence, soul words, earth words, the God in you responding to the God in them.
Soul words, earth words — the words that take breath but make no sound. I have wondered often what the trees would be saying if I could live slowly enough to match the pace of their long breath.
My St. John, St. Rainer, St. Georgia, St. Emily. What gift do you give me this day? A remembrance that I too am made of this good earth; that separation — whether caused by the world’s ills or physical transience — is never as durable as it seems; that I should remain soft and slippery in life, transformable; that what I love is mine, in the only way that “mine” means anything: that what I love can not be lost; that the earth is singing a song today, inviting me to a slow dance that never ends.