Samhain: Mindful of My Beloveds

Tonight, as the sun set and the dusk gathered, I lit special candles and spent some time remembering those I love who feel so near at this time of year, even though their physical presence is gone.  

Today is Samhain (pronouonced SOW-in), the day celebrated as the beginning of the New Year by my Celtic ancestors. A time to mark the end of summer’s long days, abundant growth, and plentiful harvests with a feast. To prepare for winter’s darkness with lights, stories and songs, and to remember especially those beloveds who were gone. Their spirits seemed near in the time of growing darkness, as if the separation between the living world and the world beyond diminished. 

Samhain is an ancient holiday and certainly the root of All Hallow’s Day, the Christian Day of celebrating ancestors, the mostly forgotten day that gives us today’s Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), with its modern costumes and candy bearing only a dim relationship to the roots in the rituals of the changing seasons.

It may also be the precursor of the Mexican celebration of Día del Muerto, also a day of remembering ancestors, decorating their graves with flowers, constructing altárs in their memory, and preparing special foods, including the skull-shaped pan del muerto pictured so beautifully in my comadre and fellow writer Dawn Wink’s blog

I am charmed by the exuberant fun and inventiveness of Halloween at its best and least commercial, and I have deep respect for the traditions behind Día del Muerto.

But it is Samhain that speaks to me most deeply. In part because of its connection with the seasons, the turning of the year, the time of riotous abundance–of daylight, of growth, of activity–easing into the time of quiet and darkness, what I call my “contemplative season.” Samhain comes from my roots, both as a mongrel of Norwegian, Scots, and North-Country English ancestry, and as a person deeply attuned to the Earth and to the spirit of life.

Janet Maclay Cannon (seated) and Milner Vennerstrom Cannon in Yosemite in 1934 (my mother was three then, too young, I suppose, to join their camping trip.)

So today I assembled a Samhain remembrance, using a Mission-stye, tile-topped table that came from my mother’s childhood home in Berkeley–the table that lived next to my grandfather Milner’s overstuffed chenile easy chair, where he sat every evening under his reading lamp and read aloud snippets from two newspapers, the San Francisco Examiner and the Chronicle, joking with my grandmother Janet, she in the adjacent easy chair with her newspapers. He often teased Grandmother gently with his dry wit, which usually went right over her head.

Grandmother Janet had been a great beauty in her younger years, but never a deep intellect–she enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley as was expected by her family, but once she became engaged to my grandfather, Janet dropped out. My mother, their only child, who did graduate from UCB and who was very proud of earning her Phi Beta Kappa key for academic excellence, wryly said that her mother went to college only to earn “her Mrs. Degree.” 

On that table, with all of its memories of our childhood time in Berkeley with Grandfather Milner and Grandmother Janet, I arranged photographs and artifacts to remind me of the spirits of my departed beloveds.

Starting, of course, with Richard, the love of my life, and my late husband. I lifted the porcelain jar filled with Richard’s ashes down from the flagstone shelf where it lives to set it on the table. Beside that heavy jar, I placed a bottle of his favorite Belgian-style ale along with his favorite beer glass from the Colorado Brewer’s Rendezvous, an annual summer gathering in Salida’s bucolic Riverside Park of the state’s many microbreweries, and one his favorite Salida events. 

Me and Richard being silly over lunch with dear friend Laura Arnow and her daughter Sarah, at Terraphilia, the big house, after his first brain surgery. (Thanks for the photo, Laura!)

I added two of my favorite photographs of my mother, who died in February of 2011–the same year that Richard died in November. I placed some chocolates in front of one of the photos, because of all the food she loved in life, chocolate was far and away her favorite. 

Mom, Joan Cannon Tweit, on her last backpacking trip, not quite two years before she died. 

I placed the program from the celebration of Richard’s life next to the beer, and added some of his favorite rocks, his sculpture-drawings notebook, a small model of a sheet-metal wall-sculpture he was working on before the glioblastoma erased his ability to see in three dimensions, and some of the same chocolates nearby .

At the last minute, I added a photo of Isis, our Great Dane, plus the chocolate wrapper with the saying that became Richard’s motto in the two-plus years he lived with terminal brain cancer: Love Every Moment

At different times during the day, I sat with those memories, and with those of other beloveds who have left this existence recently, especially Kent Haruf, friend, neighbor, celebrated author, and one of Richard’s hospice caregivers along with his wife, Cathy. 

Tonight, after the sun set, I finished my celebration of Samhain by making one of Richard’s favorite meals: chile and cheese tamales (from Ploughboy Local Market) with green sauce, mixed lettuce from the garden (from Ploughboy too, since my garden froze last week), some crunchy local carrots, and a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie from Little Red Hen Bakery, also in our neighborhood. 

Richard’s dinner (I could only finish half of it!). The candlesticks are by Sterling & Steel, the work of dear friends Harry and Nicole Hansen, whose art Richard admired. (He’s proud of you two, I know.)

As I savored the food he so enjoyed, I sent love to all those I love who are no longer with us: Richard, my mom, my grandparents on both sides, Kent H, other friends, and Isis, our huge and mischievous canine spirit. 

And I savored the memories, the remembering–the word comes from the Latin root meaning “be mindful again.” I honored those lives and their part in my life, then and now. Painful as it is to revisit the losses of those I still love deeply, to not have the memories would be harder still. 

As the season of sunlight, abundant growth and frenzied activity here in the Northern Hemisphere turns into the season of darkness, cold and rest, I look forward to finishing the last of my public appearances, and settling in at home to think and read–to having the quiet time to cultivate deeper mindfulness and the life of spirit.

To live, as I say last thing each night, “with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.” Samhain blessings to you all!