Get Ready to Get Scared

Autumn is a strange time of year, isn’t it—the season when the evidence of the end of all living things surrounds us in greater than ever abundance is also when we’re imbued with the sense of newness as the school year and performance seasons begin. One month turns into the next over a period of ritual remembrance for the dead, a time that has managed to segue in modern times into a monstrously (pun intended) popular holiday rife with commercialism and partying that have in most cases long since obliterated any sober or spiritual content that once attached to the occasion. Confusing, perhaps, this odd mix of the haunting and the hilarious, the grotesque and the goofy.

I rather like this time of year for that very reason. The bizarre and the beautiful make such interesting partners, don’t they. It’s so perfect, the way this sort of thing reflects the natural intersections of the true and the terrible, the gruesome and the glorious—of life and death.

Me, I’m scared of practically everything. I’m not all that enamored with the more popular forms of terror-tainment, the horrific haunted houses and splatter movies, never mind the creepy cults of murder groupies and the like. But I’m human; I’m not immune, either, to a good, cathartic thrill and chill. So I get my kicks in the particular ways that allow me to feel a modicum of control, usually because I made up the scary stuff myself. As puppet-master I can enjoy the frissons until I’m, well, not enjoying them, and then put the story on hold until I’m ready to face my own death again. Mortality is such an adventure. I know you think about it, too, whether it’s Halloween month or not. Meanwhile, sleep well.Digital illo from photos: Let's Get Scared

Slightly Haunted Houses

Digital illustration: Transmitter

Perpetual Haunts

Children always know where danger lies—the goblin in the corner who’ll surprise

And bite you on the ankles as you pass—grownups forget to fear it, though, alas!

For in the passage of the years they’ve grown to fear only the earthly, and bemoan

Mere politics and taxes, while a child retains the wisdom that the brute and wild

Still hides among the passages of day, waiting to snag unwary young at play.

On Halloween, adults recall but faint and humorous details of ancient taint

And treachery, the light dust, if you will, of ghostly tracks upon the windowsill

Or campfire tales meant less to warn than joke at quaking children by the fires’ smoke,

Forgetting that what was, remains still here: the monster that can swallow all is Fear.

Digital illustration: Receiver

Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

Contagion vs. Compassion

“One bad apple spoils the lot.” That creaky aphorism is based on equally venerable experience. Rot is contagious.

Bad company makes bad behavior seem the norm, and we adjust our own standards ever lower accordingly. One or two disheveled houses bring down the values of the others in the neighborhood, and those, in turn, fall into neglect and decay as their owners lose the courage and determination to resist the incredible pull of entropy. What isn’t growth is death.

What leads otherwise good and sane people to fall apart like that? Doubt; fear; despair. These are the hallmarks of contagion: the plague succeeds in felling us not only through its own virulence but because rather than seek its cure with full courage and determination we flee with it hot pursuit, and when it eventually catches up with us, we topple, curl up in the fetal position, and succumb.

The fall of one member of the world community—like Mr. Duncan, who was felled by Ebola in Texas—is a very real and terrible loss for all. The loss of thousands—those dying in West Africa—is indeed a plague and a thousand-fold grief we all must recognize and bear. The response, though, cannot be equally contagious doubt, fear, and despair. That can only make us choose unconstructive, even destructive, responses like blame, xenophobia, retreat, and the neglect of our fellow citizens of the earth. Then, no matter how many or few have been overtaken by disease and disaster, the contagion will have won.Photo: Snakebit

Foodie Tuesday: To Quell Your Fears

I suppose it’s only natural that if one is expecting a visitation from anyone scary or spooky, one might require a good drink to calm the nerves. After all, one of the most predictable symptoms of fear and trepidation is a dry mouth and that tends to heighten the other signs of nervousness in turn. One can quickly devolve into a quivering heap of ghostly dust at the mere thought of being stalked by ghouls and goons. And of course, the arrival of  the Halloween crowd is a virtual guarantee that such terrors will appear on the doorstep.Photo: Keep Your Glassware Handy

So I recommend that you keep your shelves of glassware well lighted for the occasion, and have a dram or two of life-saving elixirs handy as well. The thirty-first is nearer than you think, and close on its heels, a horrible horde of wandering souls planning to maraud your home and demand a ransom from your candy-related treasury in exchange for safety from their pranks.

For the dedicated defender of the home barricades, it might be apropos to do up one’s home like that belonging to the landlady of Hänsel and Gretel‘s nightmares, the formidable cannibal who lured them in with the decorative delights of her gingerbread cottage. One could sit on the porch of such a candy-dandy place and leer meaningfully at passers-by over the lip of a neat little glass of Hexenblut. While that might be a counterintuitive choice for threatening them, it could also be seen as a warning that you’re so tough you slurp up your own wicked witchy sisters’ veins just as readily as any flimsy little trick-or-treaters’.Photo: Hexenblut

Me, I tend to be content to assuage my fears far more moderately and without putting up such a frightful front. I’m more inclined to turn off the front porch light and hole up in the back room to watch a nice double feature of, say, The Innocents and Gaslight or perhaps Bunny Lake is Missing and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, all while drinking a nice soothing glass of dry white wine or Scotch. The family label of “dry Riesling” from the Hungarian Count and Countess Károlyi’s estate that we visited this summer is not a bad choice for a light counterpoint to some delightfully creepy movies, or if I want something to warm my chilled heart better, I can opt for a short medicinal snifter of Bushmills 1608 or the Macallan 12 year old single malt.Photo: Karolyi Trocken

Naturally, there are times and places and people not requiring the nerve tonic of alcohol. In that case, there’s nothing more quenching and comforting than the old standby of spiced cider. Nothing warms the cockles of the heart better while simultaneously moistening the dry and gibbering lips of a scaredy cat like me than a nice steaming mug of that stuff. I like mine very well when I get some beautifully unfiltered apple cider (happily, I’ve some on hand right now) and mull it well with stick cinnamon, whole cloves, and pieces of ginger root, but this too can be made more festive if one wants to get a little more playful with it or, when necessary, make it a more potent potion for warding off baleful beasts and cryptozoological creeps. One could, for example, add some black peppercorns to the spice blend for a little more bite. (Take that, ye murky monsters!)

Still, there are so many delicious directions to go with a mulled cider it can be hard to choose: add sliced whole [seedless] oranges, especially of course beautiful blood oranges if you can get them in late October; melt in a dollop of dark molasses before adding the spices to create a little liquid gingerbread effect; serve simple hot cider with hard caramel lollipops as stirrers, if you’d like to drink a caramel apple; and of course, you could go for all-out reassurance and flavor the apple brew, instead of with spicy flavors, with dashes of rose-water and almond essence and a steeping quantity of green tea leaves for something much gentler to soothe your quaking spirits. For spirits will, one way or another, abound on this night.

How Will I Know?

Photo: The Long Road AheadIt makes me more than a little crazy when I’m faced with the unknown. That says a lot about me, admittedly, since life is a perpetual ocean of uncertainties and the impossible to predict. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature, the vacuum of uncertainty, with a special antipathy. My inclination is always to fill that void with speculation and guesswork, and when I’ve gone a few too many rounds with the same assumptions and fears doing their little hamster-wheel tumble through my brain, to pick them apart into a heap of worst-case scenarios.

I never know what’s truly in the moment ahead, let alone six months, years, or decades from now, but uncertainty still feels like something that comes in great cycles or waves in life. For a time, quotidian cares appearing to roll on in their expected way keep me distracted from unknowns; their seeming to pass at an almost stately pace in relative agreement with the calendar and my notion of order in the universe lulls me with its lapping, the ebb and flow of familiarity.

Then the next cycle begins.

When the time is most palpably uncertain and my path through it the most obscure, how will I—how can I—know the best response? Which way shall I go? What is the right way for me now; what will put me in the place where I can do and be my best self? I long for obvious Signs.

At my most lucid, I remember that every time I’ve landed in such privileged places of clarity, I was there before I’d ever quite wrestled out a reasoned decision. At its best, my life chooses me and puts me where I belong, ready or not, conscious of it or no. If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is. I’m just not clever enough to recognize the rightness of it except in retrospect.

But goodness is good, whether it comes and announces itself in a blaze of light when I open the front door or it sneaks up onto the back porch and makes itself at home in my life. Patience is a virtue that is mighty scarce in my itchy little soul, but I’ll give it a go as best I can. Meanwhile, I’m hanging out the Welcome sign on both entrances to my existence, just to be on the safe side.

Photo: Beware of Bad Dog

Yeah, I’ll need to paint this baby up right away! And the WELCOME, HAPPINESS, COME ON IN sign will neatly cover up the old scaredy-pants sign.

Sing Comfort to Me

Digital illustration: Wild Daisies 1Sweet is the Song

However cold and sharp the wind may be,

As wild and deep as darkness ever falls,

From utmost edges of the storm still calls

A song that stills, that draws and comforts me—

Though battles rage, the world in sorrow drowns,

And trials threaten life and hope and light,

That gracious call still guides me through the night

As long as I will listen to its sounds—

No danger is so great, no ill so dire,

Nor pestilence and terror so extreme,

That it cannot be mended by the stream

Of melody from that angelic choir—

Now when amid the depths of dark and pain,

I’ll listen for that heavenly refrain.Digital illustration: Wild Daisies 2