Several nights ago, I had a dream that won’t leave me. I sat at the bar in a restaurant lit solely by candles. It had maybe eight tables and my friend served as host and waiter. Aside from the bartender, we were the only two there. Then four soldiers arrived. I knew they were veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though their camouflage was better suited for the jungle. Each had at least three gas masks hanging off the sides and backs of her or his head. The masks were all clearly gas masks, though they were in different shapes and sizes, some quite colorful. These strangers and what they carried with them were both frightening and intriguing. My friend went to seat them and I asked about the masks. “They are for those we’ve lost.”
Even in my sleep, the direct-action lover in me thought about how powerful a gesture that would be – for veterans to show up carrying their dead. We might understand a little better the risks they face, the losses they incur when we send them to fight so far away. Another part of me, though, knew that wasn’t what this dream was about. Not exactly, anyway. That’s just not how dreams work.
As I sit preparing for the longest, darkest night of the year, I realize that what it’s about is the ghosts I carry with me and burying my own dead. The soldiers in my dream have brought a new solstice ritual my way – the gift of the funeral and the wake.
Yule started last night and in that tradition, it is recognized that this is the time the dead are most active; when our ancestors are closest to us and when draugar (think zombies*) rise and walk the land. It’s not surprising that at this time of year old patterns surface to remind of us of what lies untended.
We all walk around with our dead and not-yet-born (those ideas, fantasies, revenge plots that lie just beyond the horizon). Each time our attention is seized and we are wrenched out of the present moment to re-live something, our dead are calling to us, asking us to learn our lessons and bury them. Ghosts want the same thing we do: freedom. Yet, this time of year, we’re rushing headlong into the new – new gifts under the tree, new resolutions so that we can be a better version of ourselves, new drunken mistakes at the holiday party. We can feel the dead pulling on our sleeves, tugging at our pant legs, begging for a moment or two with us. Yet, we tend to keep walking, straight into the light of the shiny new year and all of its promise.
Many cultures have or have had a tradition of sitting up at night to watch over their dead until they can be laid to rest. I wonder whether and what revelations are shared between the living and their charges. Even when a deceased loved one is shipped straight off to a funeral home, we still spend time mentally communing with them, collecting the years we’ve had with them, releasing the anger and reveling in the joys. That is what our ghosts ask of us now. They ask that we sit with them by candlelight with the same tender care for ourselves and them as we would a lost loved one, to honor the time we’ve had together and the wisdom gained, and then to put them to rest. Once we have done that, we have fertile ground for exploring the new. But if we don’t, we will be haunted throughout the next year and the one after that.
This has been a year of Everest highs and Grand Canyon lows for me. In fact, the last third of the year has seen such dramatic changes that I never could have anticipated. To set goals for the new year now does me a huge disservice. I need some time with what I’ve been able to accomplish, with where I’ve failed, with who I have become. And even though there is a novel to finish by December 31, gifts to wrap, and sweets to make, I will take tonight out to have a tissue-wringing funeral and a whiskey-indulging wake.
When I think of those gas masks my dream soldiers carried, I think of lessons not incorporated. I think of the oxygen and energy those ghosts take from me. I think of all I would be able to do if I was present and not focused on the hot pink contraption hanging off the back of my head.
I pulled a tarot card today asking what would be good to keep in mind as I bury my dead and I got the Seven of Earth. (I used Joanna Powell Colbert’s Gaian Tarot.) The image shows a woman planting a baby cedar by a river and it seemed the perfect representation to me. Once we clear out the old, we have made way for successful new growth. The conditions have to be right for a tree to rise up and it is worth it to clear the way. Cedars provide excellent wood for building houses, boats, and other fundamental structures that support our lives. To create truly lasting change, change that builds us up, we need to take care of the earth in which we plant our seedlings. Burying our dead allows us to clear the path. Incorporating the lessons fertilizes the soil.
May you lay to rest your ghosts tonight and may the year to come be fruitful and beautiful.
*Please note that I have oversimplified here for the purposes of brevity. Draugar are fascinating and worthy of your own research.