For years now, definitely since I left California in 2004, and probably since my grandmother died in 2000, I have referred to the period from Halloween through Valentine’s Day as the “Season of Hell.” I have cursed Ben Franklin for his early bird worm-catching ways in a prior post, and now I have to curse him for failing to realize that daylight savings time should either be a year-round thing or avoided altogether since a return to the standard that coincides with a slide toward the winter solstice and fading memories of sunnier times, never fails to catalyze tangible depression. I can’t blame the Season of Hell on Franklin altogether, however. That move would be far too simple.
To account for the SoH, I must credit a web of sources. It is spun not only from literal darkness but also from a metaphorical darkness so weighty that sometimes I feel compelled to outrun it in order to get out from under it. When a fraught relationship to, and absence of, family collides with a series of anniversaries and with ethics and values not wholly compatible with, and sometimes wholly incompatible with, US Holidays, I have found that the best antidote is to absent myself from “home” altogether. Indonesia, Mexico, Vermont, and now Warsaw. Recent years spent in Georgia, my homeland roughly since Louis the XIV revoked the edict of Nantes, were the worst. Add to the regular web a proximity to living family ghosts plus a PhD program, and circles of Hell emerged that even Dante couldn’t fathom. I think my circles go to at least eleven.
By contrast, in Warsaw, days may now be sprinting toward dark by mid-afternoon—which makes me want to curse, like nobody’s business, Franklin for his brilliant idea and FDR and oil-based economies that concluded the best way to conserve resources was to decrease a need for lights (rather than to develop alternative energy sources)—but literal darkness alone, I can handle. Particularly when the SoH kicks off, not with sexy/inappropriate Halloween—a rather pathetic adult holiday and an unhealthy children’s holiday that I have nonetheless participated in whole-heartedly for most of my fast-accruing years—but with a light-filled opportunity to gather as a community to honor ancestors, as it does in Mexico and Poland. Make no mistake, dead ghosts are far more congenial than live ones. Moreover, this year, thanks to Polish and Mexican friends living in Warsaw, my November began with both Polish and Mexican All Saints and All Souls celebrations.
November 1st is a national holiday in Poland—even during communist times—and everyone goes to the cemetery to light candles. Romani families in Warsaw tend to spice things up with graveside parties, not unlike my Mexican friends who never fail to include cigars and tequila in Dia de los Muertos festivities. Warsaw additionally offers a special treat for cemetery visitors. Pańska Skórka is a pink and white taffy-like candy that appears once a year for sale alongside long-burning candles and flower wreaths. So, I chewed on my “Lord’s Crust,” as Pańska Skórka is translated, while I lit a candle for a friend’s mother at her grave and extended the light to my own grandmother, who has bizarre ways of checking in from time to time. As we strolled between the graves, along with a significant percentage of Warsaw, my friend and I swapped stories of family and then warmed ourselves with kielbasa and potatoes procured just outside the cemetery gates. A couple days later, I shared Sunday dinner with another friend’s family and listened to stories about their own All Saints Day, spent in the cemetery where the Warsaw Uprising dead—their own among them—are buried, then headed to a favorite neighborhood café for a Dia de los Muertos celebration with far more Mexicans than I had any idea were living in Warsaw. Tacos, a typical altar illuminating the way for the ancestors’ yearly earthly visit, and familiar music from trips past greeted me. Outside, it was grey and a little rainy and not inconsequentially chilly, but the weekend was a cozy time. Moreover, I did not have to wear an outfit I’d likely regret or pretend to be someone I’ll never be. Nor did I have to witness like behavior.
I wish sometimes that I were religious so I could pray my way through the Season of Hell. Or so that I could rely on a faith that explained it and would perhaps alleviate it. I wish other times that I trusted doctors, had adequate health insurance, and believed in drugs so that I could medicate my way from Equinox to Equinox. I am, however, neither faithful nor someone who goes to doctors. Not much of my Puritan heritage has stuck, but sticking it out may be counted among the vestiges. So, when sticking it out reaches mission-critical proportions of unmanageableness, I am grateful for a great big world, the perspective that comes from distance and travel, and communities of friends and strangers with different ways.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review on November 7, 2013