Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
An odd thing happened in our garden this year – early this spring, we got some squash volunteers that I didn’t recognize but let grow. On the thin strip of garden we keep planted out between the sidewalk and the street, they took root, and emerged several months later as an impromptu pumpkin patch.
Their fattening, yellowing progress was fun to discuss with our neighbors, until early last week big rains came, and the kids and I went out to pick our three “wild” sidewalk pumpkins. When we did, we discovered that pumpkins directly off the vine are different than pre-picked pumpkins in commercial patches. They’re a lot more entangled with the earth that made them. Big yellow orbs still cling to a prickly maze of vines that has mostly died. The pumpkins lie surrounded by muck and twisted spindles. They are the left-behind skulls of their once verdant vines.
All of this is to say that these pumpkins look stranger, more ghoulish, and less sanitized than any you might find, neatly cleaned, on a haybale, at a grocery store. One of our pumpkins had wound its drying vine-tendrils around itself, and they perched on its head like a strange witchy hat. Hauling it inside, I left the vine on.
As I did this, I found myself thinking then about how Halloween feels different this year; how this season of life and death and their borderlands feels charged, and changed again.
We too have been entangled with death. Even now, on the day I write this, as cases are falling, over a thousand people still will die of Covid-19 across the US; the worldwide tally of loss hovers as it expands. We have indeed been visited by a grim reaper.
And while I am fond of a good scare, Halloween this year feels different than the macabre, plasticked-up horror film version of the holiday that can run on repeat this time of year (cue spooky laugh here). It feels more like Samhain, the Celtic festival where the grave mounds open, where the light shifts and time thins, and where people might leave a bit of food out for their ghosts and honor their ancestors.
After all, these have been harrowing times, times of real graveyards, real death on a scale most of us haven’t really ever been asked to live through before. Plastic skulls and bones and witches are up on my house and around my neighborhood and probably yours, but we each also live in shadow – of friends and family gone, and the wider, ricocheting losses of the pandemic – collapsed institutions, frayed health care systems, broken supply chains, shrunken public life.
So many bright lives are no longer with us. Death has been proximate. A friend of mine, who lives near a hospital, keeps remembering the months he watched the refrigerator truck idling in front of it, waiting to forklift bodies into storage once the hospital morgue filled up. Many of us have such a story.
Last year, in the dark of the first pandemic fall, I couldn’t think about Halloween in these terms. I felt lucky to think at all. I tried to create a small feeling of normalcy for our kids, though it was, like a lot of things last year, just strange. We had a small family dance party in the backyard, and a “candy scavenger hunt” up the street with a few neighbors. This year, thanks to vaccines (and anticipating vaccines for kids), Halloween as fun and trick or treat are back, though at some reserve.
Don’t get me wrong, this brings us joy: My daughter is going as a dalmatian. My son is a half-transformed werewolf. I’ll be a crow. My husband, bless his heart, is going to wear a suit and a pig nose and go as a (wait for it) capitalist pig. (“Dad, why are all your costumes actually puns?” my son asked him). All this is to the good. I am happy to celebrate Halloween on these terms.
But I can’t help thinking, as this hallowing and hallowed eve approaches, about the way that this is also a time I want to be aware of the people we’ve lost, of the dark season that is still blowing over us, of our connection to a moment in time that has changed our lives on earth – that connects us with people plagues of the past, which marks the lives of our children and will probably mark the lives of their children, as well.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the thin space, to light a candle for a beloved aunt that passed, for my grandmother, who we couldn’t gather to bury for nearly two years. I find myself thinking not just of Halloween, but of the day that comes after, the day of All Souls, or the Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead.
When I pulled up that pumpkin from the garden, I thought about how it had grown all year, how it was the year’s work, the year’s gourd, that we carve it up as a face partly to scare ourselves, and partly to remember how brief our own lives are. Perhaps next Halloween or the Halloween after will feel more carefree, more silly. But there’s also a chance that this pandemic was partly a warning, a stern reminder of being a fragile species on a fragile earth. That the candle we place inside the carved skull burns and then goes out.