By Michael T. Dolan
I sit on the stoop and wait for darkness, a nightly ritual both simple and sacred.
As daylight fades and dusk arrives, my eyes alight in the night. Autumn is made for the nocturnal, and I happily join their troupe.
I watch, wait, and breathe in the autumn air. Leaves and lawns decay, pumpkins spice the night, and chimneys pump forth oaky incense, blessing the night in holy benediction. Even outside, I find warmth in its scent.
Inside homes, windows flicker as TV screens cut from show to show and channels change in an eternal scroll. Here on the stoop, they are but muted fireflies trapped in a coffee tin, light barely making it through the stabbed translucent lid.
My eyes scan the still night, but find it isn’t still at all.
Hardened leaves cluster together and scramble down the street like teenage boys fleeing their pranks, scraping along with the wind at their backs.
A family of deer forage quietly on their suburban garden salad, thieves in the night. I see their shadowy silhouettes across the lawn. Their heads bend downward, beheading mums and trimming arborvitae. I leave them be.
From a nearby tree, the cry of a great horned owl echoes through the air like a lonely ghost. Like me, he is scanning the darkness. Mice scamper and search for entry into flickering homes, hoping to set up winter camp within insulated walls and box-filled attics. As the seeker in this nightly game of hide ‘n seek, owl has other plans.
Looking up, stars dot the heavens. I wonder if they are all still there. Has one already joined those heavens, its extinguished light still traveling through space and time to my front stoop? The blip of a passing meteor disrupts my reverie. Like those leaves dancing down the street, autumn’s meteors race across the sky, forever more.
Headlights suddenly interrupt the night as a car turns onto the street. The deer dash into darkness as the engine approaches. The car slows and quietly turns into the driveway across the way. I hear a garage door mechanically open. Soon, the car disappears within and the engine is shut. The garage door slowly descends, imprisoning both car and driver. Before long, another flickering firefly comes to life.
Quiet returns to the night, but now a loneliness comes along with it. The fallen leaves, the sacred scent of smoking chimneys, the deer, the owl, even the distant stars – great companions all. And yet not enough to cure the lonely night.
Perhaps it’s my Irish temperament, I wonder, a melancholy carried across generations that just cannot be rooted out. Sitting on my stoop, a deep sense of longing takes hold. A longing for connection – with those both living and dead. A longing for reunion – with those both living and dead. And a longing for celebration – with those both living and dead.
My Celtic ancestors had a cure for that longing. They called it Samhain, a harvest festival marking the natural world’s liminal transition – summer’s light yielding to winter’s darkness. Hearths within homes were extinguished as the community gathered to celebrate the harvest with one another. When work and play and prayer were finished, as people returned home from Samhain revelry, they carried with them the flames of a communal bonfire. And it was with those communal flames that their hearths were set alight once again.
The roots of Samhain remain with us today, if but for one night.
As dusk descends on All Hallows’ Eve, flickering TVs will go dark. Doors will open. Footsteps and scampering and voices will fill the night. Spirits will roam.
Sitting on my front stoop, I’ll wait for the visitors to arrive. Cloaked in disguise, their humanity hidden, they will warily approach.
“Look, Mom,” a little ghost will say. “A Jack-o’-lantern!”
I’ll smile back, grinning ear to ear, warmth filling my soul. For the moment, at least, the loneliness is gone.
The witching hour will soon follow, I fear, as doors are shut and masks are shed. And when it comes, so too will the wind, extinguishing my flame.