I think it was the pumpkins that did it. The ragged teeth, the uneven triangles that popped out squishily when I pressed my thumbs into the eyes. ďHey, you love this, you do it. Iím exhausted,Ē says Ari, handing me his half-finished jack-o-lantern and collapsing on the sofa amongst a welter of candy boxes and electric wands. Armed with the knife, dripping pumpkin juice, I suddenly understand why Hallowe'en had always been my favorite holiday. Thereís something distinctly god-like about making a round dumpy squash into a thing of fire magic and salamanders. Itís primal creation. Let there be light.
For Ari, Jenís boyfriend, roped in to do pumpkin duty while Jen gets dinner together, itís just a kidís holiday, an excuse for horror movies and costume parties. For Jen, itís family time -- a time to cook, play with the kids, catch up with girlfriends, and eat sitting down for a change. Salmon, shrimp, chicken, pumpkin pie, chocolates, ice cream cake. ďYou donít think you might be overdoing it?Ē I ask anxiously as she whirls with the guided precision of a working mom from grilling to bug catching to fur ball therapy for the cat. But the chicken is for the kids, the salmon for the adults, and the shrimp for the hard-to-please. ďYou wait, there wonít be enough,Ē she says. And sure enough when the last straggling mum comes in, thereís no more pie.
When the mums sit down over pumpkin seeds and wine to talk about their children, the realization comes again. Iím the odd one out. Hallowe'en isnít really a family holiday to me in the same way as it is for everyone, even though I enjoy the company. Perhaps itís because Iím older than the bright young thirty-somethings with their rambunctious seven-year-olds. Perhaps itís because Iím childless. And man-less. And an immigrant too, someone might add, but oddly, thatís the difference I feel the least.
No, itís more complex than that and more elusive. It has something to do with the fact that I donít really like the name Hallowe'en. I prefer Samhain (sow-en), the old Celtic term, summerís end. All Hallows is about praying for departed souls, for dead human beings, but Samhain isnít about the human. Itís about the end of summer and harvest. Itís about the mysterious world of plants and trees and stars, of rivers and moonlight. Itís not about the holy dead but about the unholy undead, the spirits that walk, the wee folk, nature spirits. Itís a celebration of the goddess of the soil.
The old goddess is not a mother but a crone. With forty just behind me, I find comfort in that. The beginning of middle age becomes less desolate and dons a mischievous air. Crones have had it with children and men and the whole business of breeding and rearing. Crones can grow their gray hair as long as they want, mutter a curse at the daylight world, and mingle with stones and ponds and wild birds as an equal.
In this culture where youth and appearance are valued to an extraordinary degree, the first erosion of both is especially daunting for a woman without a family. Children at least give each passing year a special meaning -- this is the year Tommy graduated or thatís the year Vineeta got married. A husband or boyfriend anchors you. But without either man or child, a woman enters middle age with a question mark hanging over her. What, people seem to wonder, are you all about?
Itís only a different version of the question that faces women in the more traditional society in which I grew up, India: When are you going to settle down? Settling, of course, is the euphemism for marriage and families and children. A woman without them is unsettling. She disturbs the status quo, the way things ought to be.
But in India, the unsettled world has its own special day. Shiva Rathri we call it. The night of Shiva, god of dissolution and disorder, of death. The many-armed dancing god of night and the dark powers of earth, of snake worship and moon light. A Halloween god.
On Shiva Rathri all the accepted rules can be broken without punishment. Itís time out from the mores and morals of the daylight world. You can steal without being a thief, bed your neighborís wife without being an adulterer, drink and revel without disturbing the peace.
ďSounds like something a man made up,Ē says Jen plunking down next to Ari. Her ex-husband had a string of girlfriends through their marriage. I explain that Shiva Rathri relaxes the rules for women too. The point is not piggish behavior. Itís letting people know that rules are only rules. They donít give you the last word on living. Like Samhain, Shiva Rathri lets you know that finally itís you who have the power to do what you want. Create your own life, your own light.
The children are carrying the jack-o-lanterns out to the gate with shrieks of delicious horror and the bright orange rounds bob up and down like a row of harvest moons. The cat shoots through the door and races after them.
What a wonderful thing to celebrate the last days of light and the birth of the long winter, to welcome the power and beauty of darkness, old age, and death. All the things society forbids, denies, and decries ordinarily.
In the patchy light, a swaying branch becomes a clawed arm. Shadows swim out, curl around and dance like black flames on the lawn. At Samhain, the line between the living and the dead is suddenly porous. We get to peer into the future, see apparitions, cast spells. We get to live alone triumphantly, creatures of nature as much as of society, with every right to whatever way of life we have. And we get to thumb our noses at the expectations that society foists on us to be a certain way at a certain time of our lives.
This Samhain, I came out as a single, childless middle-aged woman. And I look forward to the witching time ahead of me if not with joy, at least with ironic glee.
Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
Other Articles by Lila
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Other Articles by Lila Rajiva
Recognize a Liberal Feminist