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The Ever-Impending End of Everything

Death may raise its voice today
O but life will have its say
Speaking in lovers and in children
In poets’ pens and philosophers’ visions
Life is a planet’s daring dream
Earth’s devotion, spoken in green

(from “Green,” by awesome Minnesota singer-songwriter Peter Mayer)

I’ve been thinking a lot about catastrophe and tragedy lately.

I think it’s a combination of factors that’s brought on my contemplative mood. Part of it’s the looming election next week (everybody remember to educate yourself and go vote!). Part of it’s the fact that I spent the lion’s share of my Monday evening reloading my Twitter feed and watching Hurricane Sandy wreak its havoc on the East Coast (yes, even out here in California, we were thinking about y’all). I think the biggest piece is that today, my fellow Pagans and I are celebrating Samhain (SAO-in), the festival honoring our beloved dead, who are, as one of my fellow bloggers puts it:

[the] loved ones who have died in the past year, those who have died recently or in the distant past who inspire our spirits, and our personal ancestors of blood, bone and breath.

The ways people celebrate Samhain vary; along with rituals honoring the ancestors, some celebrate with a reciting of ancestors’ names and telling family stories, others make special meals and set aside a portion for the ancestors’ spirits to come by and taste if they so choose. As for me, I’ve got an altar set up with photos and trinkets, and this weekend, I’ll probably make a beef stew and eat some cherry vanilla ice cream in honor of my particular beloveds. But I think my favorite tradition is one that (as far as I know) is unique to the Reclaiming community that I’m a part of, of honoring beloved babies at this time of year as well. In preparation for the annual Samhain celebration, the organizers invite people to submit the names of their beloved dead who’ve passed in the last year, and of any babies born during the same time frame; both sets of names are read aloud as part of the preparations for the ritual. I think the reason I like this strategy so much is because it reminds us that even when it seems like things have come to an end, in a very real, tangible way, life continues.

This is a theme of post-apocalyptic fiction, for sure; think about how many post-apocalyptic stories use infants and children as key symbols of hope for the future (just a few to get you started: Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Octavia Butler’s Parable books, Stephen King’s The Stand). The same thing is what makes the world of P.D. James’ Children of Men so desolate: even at the end of the world, if there are children, there’s hope.

And throughout human history so far, there always have been. Babies were born in New York City on Monday night during the hurricane (so far, I haven’t read of any of them being named Sandy); babies were born during the Blitz in London (John Lennon was born during an air raid and immediately stashed under his mother’s Liverpool hospital bed); quite a lot of babies were born during the decades when Americans were most terrified that the Russians were going to bomb the whole world into oblivion.

I think one of the reasons post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular in our era is because a lot of people do feel like they’re standing at the end of the world: whether your particular fear is climate change, the decline of the family, violence in movies or the wrong person winning the Presidential election on Tuesday, I suspect there are many people who’ve sat down and wondered where we’ll all be in a year, or ten years, or fifty or five hundred.

Maybe the next time that glum mood comes on, all of us should take a moment for a little perspective. The fact that we’re standing here in 2012 means that one way or another, our ancestors of blood and bone have somehow carried on through 200,000 years of human tragedies (give or take). With that in mind, maybe it’ll be a little easier to believe that somehow, whatever happens to us, most of us will be able to carry on, too.

Blessed Samhain, everyone. Take a moment to think about your beloved dead today – whether of blood and bone or heart and soul – and then go out and enjoy the night. Maybe bring a little candy back to leave out for the ancestors while you’re at it.

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4 Comments

  1. Very nice blog! 🙂

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  2. Brian the Tall

     /  November 1, 2012

    This is a pretty heavy post; thanks for writing/sharing your thoughts. As an athiest I don’t believe in an afterlife or immortal essence, which a lot of people obviously find terrifying, and gets very closely associated (or conflated) with nihilism, cynicism, etc… but really, my thoughts and feelings about life and death are very similar to the things you just said.

    For me, every time I actually stop and really *think* about the universe I’m completely overwhelmed this sense of awe at the immensity of eternity, and that I’m a part of that. That every particle has been flowing through time for 13 billion years, that every molecule in my body is a part of the story of Earth, and that when I die my body with rot and feed back into the story of life on Earth, and in four billion years the sun will explode and everything I’ve been will be scattered to seed new stars across infinity (And in the words of Feynman, it’s all really *there*, really, really, there!)… S’actually what the only poem I’ve ever written is about.

    And in the same vein, I’m a tiny piece of the story of humanity, and an unbroken line of minds and memories and lives stretching back through time, leaving their imprints on each other, and shaping who I am today. My heritage and identity are super important to me, and my loved ones are a very real part of that, whether they exist outside of me or not.

    Thanks again for sharing ❤

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  3. Nice blog Hannah! Thanks for sharing. ❤

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