We eternal foreigners remain uncomfortable with the normal opposite in this country: driving and even walking on the left side.
Except that during this afternoon’s wander, I realized suddenly that I was walking on the left side of the path.
And in a mere couple of days it will be the traditional Celtic New Year, ushered in by the end of harvest and the festival of Samhain on the 31st of October/1st of November.
This is also a traditional time to honor the dead and the departed ancestors, something we plan to do this year while living in Ireland.
All this to say that, as I marveled at my crossover on the path, I began to think how the left side is connected with ill-luck.
In fact, our word “sinister” comes directly from the Latin word for the left side, originally denoting the “adverse” and the “unfavorable” and coming to mean something darker, more like “evil”, by the 15th century.
All this to say that I began to mark in the grey afternoon that all the meadows had been shorn, down to the very earth itself and I thought:
Who is on the side that is left behind when death comes? The living or the dead?
And do the dead, when they manifest, ever do so because they feel left behind? Or perhaps the dead don’t want us to get stuck in feeling left behind, when we still have time to live, but at the same time do not wish to be forgotten? What is the message?
This summer I was visiting family in their pre-French-Revolution house, deep in the region of Limousin. My father-in-law came downstairs in the late afternoon while I was sitting at the window beneath the stairs reading with my Frenchman.
As he descended, the air was full of the concentrated fragrance of the essential oil of Roses.
I started to laugh at my father-in-law; I found it so amusing that he had doused himself in Rose perfume to cool down after an afternoon of working outside, even though it was cold that summer day. I had already, in those few seconds, planned to tell my fellow herbalists of this French way of refreshing oneself with Rose oil.
My Frenchman translated my mirth, and my father-in-law looked at me with immense gravitas and said he was not wearing any such thing.
I looked up at the stairs in confusion.
The door was open, but the roses in the Garden were far away and, to begin with, simply would never have smelled that strong.
My brother-in-law, L., lived for a while in that house and in that region before he took his own life.
I never met him, but I feel we would have had a great deal in common. Many of his books, which are still to be found in an attic, were those with which I grew up and English literature was a speciality of his.
He also loved roses.
That afternoon I had been gently weeding the patch of herbs that he had planted, wondering how his hands might have looked as he had arranged them.
A couple of weeks ago my in-laws telephoned us from that house, where they had gone to shut it up for the winter season. They told us that they had been watching television that evening and there was suddenly such a strong scent of coffee that my mother-in-law rose and went into the kitchen.
There was no such thing as coffee around, and it was the just the two of them in the old house, alone in the dark countryside with the light of the television.
My brother-in-law liked coffee.
I took home with us that summer a coffee cup of his, one decorated with red poppies.
In this time when things become thin between this world and another, I wonder what we lose by not slowing down to honor the dead, instead honoring each year with unnecessary violence and gore.
This is not to disparage all the fun little rituals of Halloween. Yet I note, particularly in the West, how forgetful we are of those who have departed, who have left us, and of the ancestors in general.
This Samhain I will put a rose on our table, although we are far from France. This Samhain I will make a wee cup of coffee, although I rarely can drink it, and set an extra place with the poppy cup, not knowing if I am on the right side or not.
What if, for a day, we crossed over to the other side and sat awhile in remembrance, honoring what is left?