Silk’s Post #144 — Today, which happens to be Halloween, also happens to be my birthday. In my heart, I really own Halloween. I’ve always considered my birth date profoundly lucky. And, somehow, significant.
All Hallows’ Eve (or holy evening) is the night before All Saint’s Day. It’s Pagan and Christian. To ancient Celts, Samhain celebrated the end of harvest season, a liminal time for welcoming the souls of the dead who were apt to cross the threshold between their world and ours at the cusp between summer and winter. To early Christians, Allhallowtide was a time to honour and pray for dead saints, martyrs and the faithful through nighttime vigils and daytime feasts.
Sound similar? Of course. Both observances invest meaning in the turn of the seasons from warm to cold, from light to dark. And both ritualize the greatest of all mysteries: the cycle of life and death. Scary, big ideas. As the Northerners would say in Game of Thrones, “Winter Is Coming”.
As a free bonus, my birthday came along with a treasure chest of rituals, traditions, myths, symbols and celebrations, some historical and some modern. Really good, spooky ones, especially for kids. Costumes! Witches! Black cats! Ghosts! Jack-o-lanterns! Bonfires! Trick-or-treating! Mmmmmm. Candy.
But this post is more than just a walk down memory lane and a shameless plea for birthday greetings. It’s a musing on the purpose of storytelling. And Halloween – the Pagan new year – is a perfect time for contemplating the mystery story of life.
So here’s my theory: life is essentially a game of survival for all the creatures on Earth. We’re born, we live, we die. Cats and hedgehogs and oysters and giraffes probably don’t think much about the meaning of life, beyond the next meal and the urge to multiply.
But humans … well, we’re burdened by this generous, three-pound lump of gray matter sloshing around in our skulls (thanks, Eve!), which compels us to ask questions and seek meaning in everything. Why is the sky blue? Where did everything come from? What am I doing here? What’s the point of life? And what comes after it?
And so we try to explain reality to ourselves, largely through our imaginations (and, relatively recently, through science). That’s where storytelling comes in. Not only do we make up stories to explain what we actually see and experience, we fill in the unknowable blanks by creating spiritual world views that explain the remaining mysteries. Because it just doesn’t seem right that life might not mean anything in the context of the universe. It must. Right?
This need to discover and create meaning has spawned most of what we know as human culture, from the arts to the sciences, from religion to politics, from philosophy to birthday parties.
Wait, what? Birthday parties? Yes, special occasions are important expressions of meaningfulness (if that’s even a word).
Look at it this way: trotting around on four feet grazing the savannah every single day is an existence for creatures who don’t contemplate the meaning and mystery of life. They simply live it. Totally in the moment, every moment. Internal needs and external conditions dictate behaviour. Special occasions are not self-created, but are delivered by nature. Think floods, fires, meteors crashing into the planet. That’s survival (or, in unfortunate cases, extinction).
We, on the other hand, live in the past, present and future. We make rituals, and build monuments, and celebrate occasions, and organize knowledge, and create art, and write stories … all, at the heart of it, to elevate (or invent) the meaning of life. That’s something beyond pure survival. It’s a form of creation. (Science fiction, and probably NASA, have even given some creative thought to overcoming the meteor-collision-extinction scenario).
Of course, we also do a lot of other things that are destructive, rather than creative, but that’s another discussion entirely. It’s creativity’s evil twin, which can only be brought to heel through enlightenment.
The heaven and hell story is one way to understand it all, but there are many themes and variations. And so the mystery story of life continues. I believe the need for storytelling grows, rather than diminishes, as the speed of progress increases.
I love the symbolism of Halloween, with its rich cultural depth and vivid life-versus-death lore, as an enduring example of how we tell ourselves our own story. How we explore the mystery of life’s meaning by creating a narrative for the things we perceive and experience and imagine, but don’t always understand.
As long as humans seek meaning, storytelling will remain one of our most powerful tools. The way we’re built, we can’t resist mysteries, and we can’t put them down until they’re solved.
So don’t worry about what the future holds for writers. The truth is out there, and we’ll need someone to tell it.
5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:
Sorry to report, I’ve been a very guilty truant for the past couple of weeks. Not only did I miss my blog post last week, I made little progress on my novel while on the road – best intentions notwithstanding. I’m hoping to piggyback on the jet stream created by all the (even crazier) writing colleagues out there who will embark on NaNoWriMo in just a few hours’ time. I’m thankful I have 90+ days left to complete my first draft, and not the 30-day deadline the NaNo’s are working to. Special thanks to 5writer friend Paula, who delivered a beautifully written and well-timed butt-kick in her post Write on!
New pages written: Let’s not go there
Word count: Still 9,320
Blog posts written: 1
Research done: Yes!
Best new thing: A wicked good Halloween birthday, with thanks to my wonderful tribe of well-wishing friends.
Apple progress: Piemaking tomorrow!