We are haunted, all of us.
In a few weeks time, we who honor the old ways will celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. As the sun sets on October 31st, the dead will walk among us. We will light fires and make sacrifice in their honor. We will ask for their protection, their guidance, and the benefit of their wisdom. We will invite them into our homes, set a place for them at dinner, and share with them the tales of years gone by as well as our hopes for the future.
Our myths and memories and ambitions, they are ghost stories, every one.
The ancient traditions tell us that the way is opened on November 1st, for the ancestors to enter into the land of the living. The celebration of the final harvest marked the beginning of the darkest season of the year. The air was cold, the trees barren, and the fields empty. The world of the living and that of the dead overlapped and intermingled, not for a single night, but until the warmth of Spring returned.
In our modern culture we have whittled these powerful old beliefs down into a single night of costumed ghouls and gremlins. For one night a year we pass out candy, bob for apples, and decorate our yards with carved pumpkins and fake tombstones. And then all the orange and black gets shoved into boxes hidden somewhere in the garage or attic. We stash it all away for another year. We forget.
We forget the dead.
We forget them, though they walk among us, sharing our world, our lives, our memories.
The stories that we tell are ghost stories.
How could they be otherwise, when we are the ghosts?
We are haunted, all of us.
I was the boy in the tiger-striped pajamas.
He is gone now, of course, but he lives on as a ghost inside of me. I hear stories of him at family gatherings but he no longer exists in any tangible form. You can’t really see him, or touch him, and he will not hear your voice, but still, he is there nonetheless.
He is a collection of stories. He is the ghost of a boy, faded and fleeting, who haunts the body and mind a man who is now more than twice the age his father was, when this photo was taken.
And speaking of my father…, how strange to see him so young.
And my mother…, what WAS she wearing?!
Looking at this photo I see a young family in the early chapters of their own story.
Those people are long gone. Mother, father, son, they have been replaced by other people living very different lives from those three in the holiday photo.
They are ghosts now, knocking around in the bodies of their older selves. Look close enough and you may catch a glimpse of them. Perhaps you’ll hear them rattling their chains, or moaning warnings into the wind.
And what else are ghosts good for?
Now here’s the sudden twist that every well told ghost story requires.
If we are haunted by the spirits of our younger selves, are they not haunted by us?
The little boy in the tiger stripes, his father and mother, facing both the camera and a future which they cannot know, but which is etched already upon their youthful faces. I look at these phantoms and I can already see so much there, written in their eyes. I cry out to them. I want to warn them, but they just sit there, staring at me, haunted.
So, maybe it’s useless.
It may be that the chains that link us to our destines run both ways, and just as we are bound, we bind others to our fate. The dead walk among us. We light fires and make sacrifice in their honor. We ask for their protection, their guidance, and the benefit of their wisdom. We invite them into our homes, set a place for them at dinner, and share with them the tales of years gone by as well as our hopes for the future.
And perhaps, they do the same for us in turn, neither hearing the other. Each haunted, us by the past and them, by the future, and the wheel just grinding on forever.
Maybe the people in the picture have some small wisdom for us still. Maybe we can learn from them, from their victories and heartaches, and change our own fates for the better. If we could just take the time to listen for the voices in the wind. If we could still ourselves enough to feel the tugging of the chains. We must learn from the past, we must listen to the future.
We must remember that all the stories we tell, our myths and memories and ambitions…,
…they are ghost stories, every one.