Halloween is coming, boys and girls. Be afraid, be very afraid! Here’s a little something about hobgoblins, spooky shadows and my love of trick-or-treating.
THING ONE: HOBGOBLINS
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mrs. Sullivan wrote this on the chalkboard of my ninth grade English class at Hudtloff Junior High. I was fifteen years old and ready to jump-start my life, fed up with the cliques and hive-mind mentality that the teenage years are steeped in. I had bigger fish to fry and Emerson’s words resonated deeply within my rebellious spirit.
Think for yourself.
“…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Trust your gut. Stand out from the crowd.
I’ve always felt like a misfit amongst misfits. I once took a writing workshop with a teacher well-known for her knack for empowering misfits and I left the weekend feeling even more on the outside looking in. I took away some good wisdom and met some terrific people, but I still felt different. A bit of a weirdo. If I don’t fit in with the misfits, then where do I?
Right here. With myself.
After the presidential election of 2016, my social media feeds were ablaze with blanket pronouncements of “If you voted for (fill in the blank), just unfriend me now because I have no interest in what you have to say.” The knee-jerk, impulsive part of me completely understood that heady emotion, but imagining a life filled with only different versions of me and my beliefs seemed, well, flat and uninteresting.
Preaching to the choir is lovely and while it’s good to have a tribe, in the end, divisiveness grows.
When I think about Emerson’s quote today, it seems more relevant than ever. (Little statesmen, anyone?) Pitting sides against each other, each group stereotyped into a convenient box, easily served up on social media and television news shows. Democrats are elitist, over-educated, snobs. Republicans are fascist, uneducated, religious zealots. And while I know a few folks who fit nicely into each stereotype, I know far more who are more alike than not.
I’ve never been one for hopping on bandwagons or hashtag campaigns or cutting-and-pasting to prove my anything to anyone.
Not long ago, I was asked to be a part of a new podcast. A hour-long podcast where we will sit together, each of us with different stories and a variety of viewpoints to share. It’s not just about politics but about everything and nothing at all. We won’t be stuck behind the anonymity of our computer screen where name-calling and pigeon-holing is a convenient cop-out, but rather sitting side-by-side and face-to-face, having a conversation and a few laughs. No, a lot of laughs. It’s not a groundbreaking idea and we probably won’t change the world or make headlines or start hashtags, but we will start a conversation.
Our systems are broken, but we humans, are not.
It’s a conversation we welcome you into. And I’d probably buy you a shot of bourbon, too.
What’s your hobgoblin?
THING TWO: SHADOWS
“Are you happy?” she asked me as we sat on my deck on an early autumn afternoon. It was such a simple question that would seem to evoke an equally simple response. I paused and thought.
“Yes?” I finally answered, unconvinced. The question struck me as odd and far more complicated than I expected.
Is that what we’re here for? Is simple happiness the measure of a life well-lived?
The more I thought about it, the less I cared about “being happy.”
Maybe it’s my darker, introverted nature. Maybe it’s the byproduct of having been raised by thoughtful, creative, contemplative and complicated parents. Maybe it’s knowing that the most stunning portrait is always comprised of shadow and light.
My shadows are a part of me. I like to take them out and look at them from time to time. Sometimes they are blue, the color of my deepest insecurities, of feeling not enough. Not a stunning bluebird-kind-of-blue, but a muted, listless shade of gray-blue. Envy and jealousy, close shadow cousins, and two of my most familiar. Envy, a bright mossy green, while jealousy dives into a darker forest shade, often with an oily sheen. My favorite shadow, though, is red like the freshest smear of blood, with just enough exposure to air to deepen its hue and intensity, but not enough to dry it out and lose its fire. The same shade of blood red that graces my website. A shade of red meticulously searched for and selected.
I knew my blood-red, fiery anger scared my mom. It came out in its most brilliant form while I was a teenager, living alone with her in our small condo in the suburbs of Tacoma. I’d see her wince and recoil in its wake. I imagine it reminded her of my brother’s rage, which was often unpredictable and violent. “Let me feel my anger!” I’d shout at her in defiance. Nothing frightened her more, though, than my sadness. Sadness, in a shade of pale violet, would creep in stealthily and often stay for days. “Do you need help?” she’d wring her hands and ask me. No, I’d tell her. Just let me be.
Let me feel this. Let me sink into my shadows.
Her sister’s suicide as a young woman on the cusp of her life was always right there, feeding my mother’s fears. I’m not your sister, I’d tell her.
We all lived with shadows in my family, but we were not encouraged to bring them into the light of day. My mother, who suffered unimaginable losses throughout her life, never felt safe enough to look at or share much of hers. Towards the end of her life, her spine collapsed, barely able to hold herself upright any longer and eventually becoming bed ridden. Her doctors would look at x-rays and say it was because of this disc or that one, perhaps that vertebrae or look, see this nerve or two, and well, she should really lose some weight in their effort to explain it through science. I like science and believe in its importance and validity, but I’ve also often wondered if the crushing weight of my mother’s shadows grew far too heavy for her to bear.
The body stores our shadows. The shadows grow in darkness. Our shadows can crumple us if not given the light of day.
If your dog/friend/sister dies, feeling sadness–even moments of despair–is a normal, healthy human response. It’s not something to be whisked away into a bright yellow stroke of happiness. That kind of sadness rarely requires medication. It is meant to be felt and walked through. If you’ve been abused and abandoned, your rage is justified and necessary. To push it down in an effort to be strong or say it’s no big deal will eventually be too much for your body to withstand. Find safe ways to bring your shadows into light. Name them. See them. Take away their power to destroy and begin to accept them as a stunning part of you.
I love art museums and I love seeing a beautiful painting from a distance. Maybe it’s a landscape or a portrait or a scene from day in the life. I take in the impact of its immediate beauty and then step in close. And closer still. So close that I begin to see fine detail in the darkness. Darkness that is not a neutral void, but instead filled with depth and interest. Messy brushstrokes, maybe even a mistake or two. I back away again and the painting is infinitely richer and more vibrant. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Shadows don’t scare me. Mine, or yours.
Am I happy? she asked me. Yes, I’m happy. I’m also sad and worried and joyful and regretful and envious and angry and thankful. Many times throughout one day. Happiness, itself, is not a goal of mine.
I’m far more interested in the complex, contrasting masterpiece at the end.
THING THREE: TRICK-OR-TREAT
I don’t remember much of the Halloween costumes of my youth, but I do remember always loving trick-or-treating. My childhood neighborhood was in rural suburbia, with long, spooky driveways and dark, shadowy dead ends that dared us to creep up and look for a lit porch that might lead to candy. It was fun and thrilling, with the hunt always more satisfying than the catch. My friends and I would skip back to our respective houses, giggling about this neighbor or that one, and spill the contents of our bounty on the living room floor. Swapping Reese’s for Sweet Tarts, Butterfingers for Milky Ways and those sad Bit O’ Honeys always left for Grandma or the dog or the garbage can. My mom would fill small paper goodie bags decorated with black cats and pumpkins with multiple candy bars and treats, almost like a reward for those brave enough to traipse down our dark driveway and find our hidden front door.
My enthusiasm for Halloween intensified once I had kids of my own. We lived in a suburban subdivision with safe sidewalks, street lights and friendly porches, beckoning with the promise of treats on Halloween night. The first few years were exceptional, with jumbo 100-piece Costco bags of candy being depleted before eight o’ clock. The Mister and I would trade off who would walk with the kids and who would answer the door and give out candy. I loved seeing all the costumes and even welcomed the older teenagers, as long as they put in some effort. As years went by, my porch decorations grew more elaborate and I began to dress up in costume to answer the door. It seemed as though the older I got and the more comfortable I became in my own skin, the more fun I had with pretending to be someone or something else.
Clown, vampire, raven, witch, bloody zipper face, cat. I only made one kid cry.
Our kids grew up, the neighborhood demographics changed and trick-or-treating seemed to be replaced by shopping centers handing out candy on Halloween afternoon. WTF? Did anyone tell them it’s not about the candy?
I’ve always seen trick-or-treating as a wonderful community event. One steeped in years of tradition, passed down from parents to children. It’s about getting out of your house in the dark of night, safety in numbers and the glow of porch lights and jack-o-lanterns and ringing your neighbor’s doorbell.
When was the last time you rang your neighbor’s doorbell?
I believe Halloween and trick-or-treating is about facing your fears about all those things that go bump in the night. Ghosts and ghouls and goblins galore! Zombies and monsters! Tiny statesmen! Skeletons and witches! We put on our masks and costumes and pretend. We laugh with and at each other and no one, in all my years of Halloweening, has actually ever become the devil.
These days, we’re lucky to get a dozen trick-or-treaters. Sometimes I’ve blamed it on the weather, or the day of the week, but gone are the days when I couldn’t even sit down long enough to watch a few minutes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in between doorbell rings. It makes me sad and worried about the things we try so desperately to control. In my book, Halloween and the kids are alright.
We have so many bigger fish to fry.
I’ll be teaching one class this Tuesday, October 31st at noon. I’ll be in costume. You should come. I’m even bringing treats–Maple Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars with White Chocolate Ganache. The recipe is here.