Holidays generally seem so contrived and commodified, at least in their present-day incarnations. And too often, they make for too many moments when too many of us feel left out. But Halloween still retains something of those values that push beyond the deadening world of capitalism. It puts the focus on sharing, reclaiming the streets, and freeing up our imaginations, whether through costumes or pumpkins, or both. It also breaks down barriers in public that are too often put up to separate us. It’s suddenly OK to be playful and joyful with strangers in the streets; it’s suddenly encouraged to ring doorbells and meet your neighbors. We revel in giving all sorts of treats in abundance to each other.
One could certainly put a cynical face on Halloween. Many people dress up in ways that are culturally or politically insensitive, it’s true, and many others simply buy a costume and forgo putting their own creativity into play. No doubt, too, candy packaged in tiny, individual servings is big business. Yet there’s something noteworthy about walking around on this day and seeing so many people with huge smiles simply because they are delighting in looking at the variety of carved pumpkins on stoops or at some small kids dressed up as pigeons and taxis. A collective sense of pleasure for pleasure’s sake isn’t to be taken lightly right now, given the generally abysmal socioeconomic and political situation for most people.
This particular Halloween felt extra noteworthy.
First, last year at this time in this place — New York City — Halloween was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy. A whole lot of people were experiencing a whole lot of loss, and were cold, hungry, and without homes or adequate shelter. And yet almost as an appropriate reinvention of Halloween, tons of folks decided to share, reclaim their streets, and put their imaginations to work for “solidarity not charity” in what became known as Occupy Sandy. It was as if those same values were transferred on to what really was a scary circumstance in order to make it a moment that could also be characterized by a sense of collective pleasure — a pleasure in how well people can treat each other, because that is, after all, how people should treat each other. It shouldn’t take a holiday or disaster.
Out of last year’s reclamation came another sort this year: the return of the Halloween parade along 6th Avenue in the Village. Last year, I walked those same streets in the spookiness of total darkness, due to the blackout from the hurricane, and Halloween really did put a chill up one’s spine, or rather, the Halloween that wasn’t. I wrote a little blog post about it, which might be worth reading (or rereading), if you want a feel for “the scariest Halloween ever” (https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/dispatches-from-hurricaned-nyc-scariest-halloween-ever/). This year, some of those same streets were now teeming with tens of thousands, most in all sorts of costumes and thus able to walk in the parade together. It was overwhelmingly good-spirited and ghoulishly spirited, and still held a down-to-earth, DIY quality that doesn’t frequently appear on Manhattan’s upscale streets. Even though Hurricane Sandy was barely visible in terms of costumes, its ghost clearly was present. There’s something about the collective coming-together in NYC that can really make one believe, if only for a couple hours, in the strength of the human spirit.
Finally, for me, this Halloween marked one short month, which seems like only a day or two, since my mother died. She loved this holiday as much as I do, and pumpkins too, mostly because she was basically an overgrown kid, and Halloween is just pure fun when you come right down to it. She made it super-duper wonderful, so I’ve had her on my mind a lot today.
Yet if truth be told, she’s been on my mind nonstop; it’s not so easy shaking off ghosts of loss and the loss of love. Ask the folks whose lives were torn asunder by Hurricane Sandy, and I imagine they would tell us that they are still struggling with demons. I imagine it will take them a long time and a lot of effort to work through all the sorrow, notwithstanding Halloween parades, as I’m recognizing it will take me a lot of time and effort, too, to work through death and loss. This is all-too-lonely work, and sadly, it has seemed to me for most of this past year that those moments when we need others the most — hurricanes and deaths — should be times when people treat each other extra well, because that’s just what we should do and think to do as humans. But we don’t. Extending care and compassion, not to mention tenderness, should be a self-evident commonplace. Alas, it’s mostly uncommon, which is why Occupy Sandy and its ghostly presence at this year’s parade seems so extraordinary, on the one hand, and so forgotten, on the other. I imagine those who suffered from the hurricane feel their pain should still be apparent and acknowledged, perhaps even tended to a whole lot more. Yet so much of our hurt remains hidden, a costume inside our heads that only we see.
On my Halloween wanderings this year on the streets of New York, I saw an art piece in a window that seemed to capture the “mask” that I feel I’ve been “wearing” for this past year of all-too-lonely parental caretaking — but attire only I can see and understand. I might be able to make it visible on film for a snapshot, yet when I look in a mirror, I just see me, albeit a tired version with more gray hairs and stress lines. A friend reminded me today that it will take a lot of compassion and tenderness toward myself to strip away the mask, and that perhaps, just maybe, I can start by modeling all the compassion and tenderness I directed toward my mom for over a year while I watched her sicken and die, and while I helped her live life well nonetheless. Seeing all the joy in the streets tonight also reminded me that my mom never let go of her joy of life, even up to the last moment — with a pumpkin by her bedside and a smile on her face — and notwithstanding all the loss and sorrow she shared in this year, too.
I guess this Halloween is the start of my own little Occupy Cindy, sans visible costume, but still with a great love for pumpkins — and my mom. And still with a great hope, even viewed through my lens of deadening and skull-hurting sorrow, that we can all strive to practice those values, large and small, time and again, on ourselves and others, holiday or no holiday, that offer bold, compassionate contestation to this unethical social order.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photos by Cindy Milstein, NYC, NY, and Madison, WI, October 2013)