Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with Halloween. Maybe you’d think it was the treats. When I was a kid we didn’t have candy very often at our house, so it was deeply appealing to end up with a full bag of Hershey’s chocolate and pixie stix at the end of an evening of trick-or-treating. Maybe you’d think it was the costumes – I loved dressing up and we had trunks full of old gowns, hats, and props in the cellar. My siblings and cousins, like Alcott’s little women, would garb up and put on plays every time we got together. Maybe you’d think it was the celebration – the last school day before the 31st was always fabulous: story time with the lights turned down, special songs in minor keys, and on each desk, after last recess, a collection of orange and black cupcakes, cookies, and popcorn balls that had been secreted in by stealthy moms.
But I think mostly I adored the mysterious part of the holiday. My earliest Halloween memory, the October I was three, I remember stepping out our front door after dark, dressed as a princess in a flower girl gown and fake crown, flanked by my sisters who were 9 and 11. It was wonderful. I was entering a world of shadows and secrets. Children darted by on the sidewalks dressed as skeletons and monsters. Underneath I knew they were probably just children like us, but maybe not all of them. People’s yards were thick with cardboard tombstones and pipe cleaner spiders, but when we knocked and the doors opened, faces beamed at us as sweet as those of our own aunts and uncles. There was something delightfully contradictory about that.
That weird, confusing quality appealed to me, like the darkness between streetlights where even the kids in the lightest, easiest to see costumes–white rabbits, brides, and fairies in pale dresses–would fade like ghosts as they moved down the block. I especially loved the gray moment when they were almost gone, but not quite.
For much the same reason I’ve always been smitten with Christmas, as well. Yes, presents and chocolates were involved, but it was going out shopping after dark in the rain, with garlands of lights that spanned the streets transforming it into the Emerald City, that fabulous drug of sweet pine every time you open the front door—how strange is that, to have a tree in your living room? The mystery of a blazing star in the winter sky and a magic baby that even wild animals love. And something else hid behind the manger scene–winter solstice tales older than the sea.
As a kid I always wanted to expand Halloween. My best friend and I imagined a night and day that comes before Halloween, like an All Hallow’s Eve Eve. And I have always loved Christmas Eve even more than Christmas day—it’s the night that holds the wonder. A span of darkness vast enough for a world of chimneys to be explored. Really the whole time from October first to January first seems like one big mystic festival, my favorite part of the year.
I’m just figuring out this peculiar attraction I have to the holidays, but as a writer I use these shadowy areas as inspiration for details and texture in my descriptions of settings, characters, and moments. The gold of jack-o-lanterns grinning in the blackness, the stink of their burning skulls and of rotting leaves in the gutters mixed with the scent of apple cider. The dizzying tracks of flashlights like pixies, leading children over the broken sidewalks as they trick-or-treat. And also creeping up on the Christmas tree, seeing the Escher-like reflection of my warped face, the presents below and tree branches above, all curved in the convex silver of a hanging ornament.
And as a writer I use the mystery that floats around Halloween and Christmas as inspiration, too. How much is true and how much pretend? That strange mix of light and dark, fear and hope, superstition and ritual. And there are other shadowy areas that inspire me, other unanswered questions.
When my nephew was perhaps six, he bonded with a baby bird that I’d rescued from a busy street. He and my sister and niece made the tiny thing a bed and fed it with an eye dropper of water and a tooth pick of bread soaked in egg yoke. The little bird grew and learned to fly. At first it would flit from Nicky’s shoulder around the room and later he’d stand in the back yard and it would swoop from his hand all around the yard and then back to its boy. Then it would watch at a distance, from the far end of the yard, perched on the hedge. We saw the bird every day for perhaps a week. And then one day he never came back. That last time that little creature sat on the hedge and looked at our yard is frozen in my mind. He remembered us then. Maybe he even recalled the box he slept in or the warm salty sweetness of a little boy’s palm. Did he wait for a moment to see if Nick would come out and raise his hand? By then the bird had already spent many an hour being wild and nameless. In his last moment of being tame, what did he think?
It’s like the way babies still seem able to see angels. They live in a blessed grayness that we never get to hear about since they are too young to describe their visitors. When we are first falling asleep at night and when we are first waking up in the morning, those are shadowy areas, too. We whisper wisdoms in our sleep that sound like nonsense once our ears become alert and play that losing game of telephone with the other side. But deep waters run through these foggy areas. I try my best to pan for writing gold in these kinds of streams. I’ve often used parts of my dreams in the pages of my novels. And I know that something about that rescued bird’s last glimpse of our yard will end up in one of my stories someday.
And how I love that grayness when you are sensing a new idea for a story forming in your head, like Moby Dick deep enough to be hidden, just close enough to the surface of the water to appear as a ghostly glow.
Pardon my ramblings. And Happy Thanksgiving! Revel in the shadows between streetlights, write down the nonsense you hear when you are just waking from a dream, and tonight as you fall asleep, try and remember the angels you saw when you were two in that last moment before you were tame.
(reprinted, with slight changes, from a 2012 column in the Willamette Writers newsletter which drew on material from a 2011 post on this blog)