An answer to a question about Halloween

I was asked recently by a neighbour’s kid why I liked Halloween. It was an earnest and heartfelt question. He genuinely wanted to know what it was that I liked about Halloween (and probably also why I put a graveyard in my front yard and hung screaming ghouls from my trees and put cobwebs all over my house at this time of the year). Three or four years ago I’m sure I could have answered easily with an age-appropriate response. But on this particular night and at this particular time, I was operating on three hours sleep, we were in the middle of a party, getting some sausages for dinner and I was uncomfortably aware that this little chap had very recently lost his grandmother and her funeral had been only the day before. I hesitated and stumbled and tripped over words, couldn’t find the right ones so just said, “I’m not sure. Because I’m weird, I guess?”

As soon as I said it I knew they weren’t the right words. To give a bright kid such a flippant response when he was genuinely asking what seemed to be an important question to him was just not the right thing to do. I felt terrible that I couldn’t give him a proper answer and moreso that I couldn’t even explain WHY I couldn’t give him a quick, 1 minute, nearly-five-year-old-appropriate answer.

I shouldn’t have said I’m weird for liking Halloween, because that’s not true. There’s nothing weird about liking Halloween. What I wanted to say – and what I should have said – was that I like Halloween because when you become an adult, you eventually find out that the truly scary things in life don’t just come out once a year on the night of 31 October. They’re around all the time, every day, and some people (strong, brave people) have to face true fear every day. I should have explained how, as an adult, once you’ve experienced death and sadness and the loss of loved ones (and lived through the entire range of emotions that goes hand in hand with those things – anger, longing, the sense of loss, the loss of self, the depth of sadness that can envelop a whole being sometimes for years), it feels a little bit good to be able to make a mockery of death for one night. It feels good and right and powerful to be able to say “up yours!” to death – and to cancer and diseases that take loved ones away well before their time; and to people who commit random acts of violence that kill hundreds of people and to natural disasters that destroy entire towns and cities in a matter of hours. It’s a way to celebrate the living, and to celebrate that WE are still living. And it’s also a way to remember and honour our dead. In conquering fear and death on this one night by sharing light and love with our neighbours and strangers, we are saying, “Not tonight, Death.” We can prove to death that we’re not afraid of it, that it can’t hurt us. We can show that whatever scary things go bump in the night or might jump out in front of us and shout boo or cackle wickedly in our ears, WE ARE NOT AFRAID. And we are not afraid because we are TOGETHER.

And I think that probably should have been my short, kid-appropriate answer to that question: my answer is TOGETHER. I like Halloween, no, I LOVE Halloween because it BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER. It encourages people to walk around their streets together, neighbours leave their lights on for each other and for strangers, they get to meet their neighbours, share lollies and treats with kids, and maybe even give them a little scare as well (because when you’re a kid (if you’re a lucky kid), the only scares really are little ones). And for the kids, it’s one night where they get to dress up, roam around the streets with their friends and get free lollies and chocolate, right? To my inner kid at least, that’s what I remember being so cool about Halloween.

There’s so many things that we ask of kids – wear this now, because I said so, be here at this time, go to this practice, tidy your room, do your homework, practice your flute, don’t forget to go to after school care today, look after your brother and sister, sit at a desk in school for six hours a day, be a good person, don’t yell at people, don’t hit your brother even though you’re really frustrated, kiss Aunty Marge even though she stinks, remember your manners when you talk to everyone – that I actually think it’s good for them to be able to have a fun night – for nothing. They don’t have to do anything in return except stay together and respect people who don’t want to participate. I think we lose that part of ourselves that remembers what it’s like to be a kid. We get so caught up in being grownups and having to be responsible and paying the bills and feeding the family and making sure Tommy’s done his homework and Gina has to be at TWO parties on the weekend AND a rehearsal on Sunday, and having to go to funerals for friends who are your age and who have kids the same age as yours, that we need to break it down and remember that part of being a kid and having a childhood is actually about having fun, with nothing being asked of you in return. When you’re allowed to just be, and to just do. Being a child.

So I will don my costume tonight. I will dress my kids in their costumes and give them their lolly buckets and instructions not to go to houses where the lights aren’t on. We will be together and have fun together and be scared and laugh and talk together. And before we leave the house I will take a moment to pause and to share a thought for those people we have lost along the way of life.

For now it’s almost time. We’re nearly there. The wind is starting to pick up, and it’s almost time for night to fall and for the darkness to gather in the corners of my house. It’s nearly time to be scared – but don’t worry, I promise it will be a good scare, it will be a SAFE scare.

So come, take my hand and let’s set off into the night and push away the darkness together. There’s plenty of time to face the real monsters tomorrow once tonight has gone and the daylight returns.

31 October 2017

Chop! Chop! (An Ode to a Leopard Tree)

We chopped down a tree on the weekend. A really big tree. One of the biggest trees in our street as a matter of fact. It was in our front yard and had been in our front yard for at least as long as we’ve been in our house (17 years and counting). Perhaps it was even an ‘original in the area before all the houses were built’ tree, I’m not sure. All I know is that it was big. And it was BEAUTIFUL. It sheltered us from wind and storms and it shaded and protected us from the searingly hot summer sun.

We would lie in bed on a Sunday morning in our bedroom on the second storey of our house and look out into its lush, green canopy. I remember lying on the trampoline underneath it with all three of our kids when they were babies (they’re now 10, 8 and nearly 4) and watching as the native birds sat on the long branches, rested their tiny wings and sang their sweetly melodic birdy songs to each other. There was something magical about lying there in the blessedly cool, dappled shade, looking up and seeing all of the individual little leaves swaying and dancing in the breeze. It was almost like the leaves were having their own secret conversations metres above our heads, whispering wisely and nodding sagely to each other.

Our tree was home to birds, spiders, ants and no doubt all manner of other creatures and insects. The possums used it as a public thoroughfare to get from the powerlines at the front of our house onto our roof and I’m sure a snake or two had slithered its way up into it and along its branches at some time. Once upon a time it had been a whole tree with a majestic canopy, but over time as it grew (and grew and grew and grew), the canopy on the street side would be periodically lopped off by the electricity company so the branches wouldn’t interfere with the power lines and cut the power to our street.

At certain times of the year our tree would drop all of its leaves – and there were lots and lots of those tiny, whispering leaves. They would gradually turn brown and then all of a sudden, one day without warning, would fall absolutely everywhere. They would fall into our car engines, they would fall en masse into our gutters and into our neighbours’ gutters. They would even make their way inside our home, borne on warm spring and summer breezes through our open windows to settle on the floors inside. We didn’t really like the leaf dropping, or the brown, nut-hard seeds it would also drop from time to time, or the starkness of its empty branches until the leaves regrew, but the beauty and grandeur of it for the rest of the year always seemed to outweigh those relatively rare occurrences.

Fast forward to the end of last year when we finally decided (with some gentle encouragement) that our tree needed to go. Not only was our beauty starting to drop its leaves more often (which is apparently a sign of ill health), our gutters were shot because of all those tiny fallen leaves, and we were also having problems with its roots in the old clay pipes and drains of our house. So we made the decision. It took a long time to make the decision. It took an even longer time to decide who should be the one to chop it down. We got one quote and nearly choked. It costs a LOT of money to chop down a big tree. So we stalled for a while. We didn’t have that kind of money, and even if we did, we’d be damned if we were going to use it to chop down that tree.

The solution to our problem came in the form of our neighbours. Our neighbours, with whom we have spent many an evening with around fires on our street, celebrating countless food occasions, birthdays and sometimes just gathering for drinks for no particular reason, suggested they could help us out. We had a tree that needed to be removed, the street menfolk had chainsaws and loved to use them. It seemed an obvious answer to our dilemma. So I reluctantly agreed. But I only agreed because I know these men and I trust them. I’d trust them with my life, with my children’s lives, and so I trusted them to give our tree the farewell it deserved.

Tree Chopping Day dawned bright and beautiful. It was a picture perfect late winter’s morning – clear and cool with not even a hint of breeze. There was a sense of quiet anticipation in the air. Over creamy coffee and a hot breakfast, a plan of action was discussed, debated, agreed and settled. Chainsaws were sharpened, oiled, put aside in preparation. Ladders were raised, tested, dropped, put aside in preparation. There was no silliness, there was no bravado or braggadocio. These were men who were here to do a job. They weren’t cowboys trying to impress each other with whose chainsaw was the biggest or the loudest (though over the course of the day, we did learn about how chainsaws are rated – and no, the biggest chainsaw is not always the best). They didn’t need rules, they didn’t need policies and regulations and toolbox talks and hi-vis safety gear and bright orange witches hats and a foreman telling them what to do. They knew what needed to be done, so they got on and did it.

The time came to start. The ladder was climbed for the first time that day. Everyone stood, breathless, waiting for the first branch to come down. It finally did. And I cried. I shed a tear for our beautiful tree and all the things it had given us. I apologised to it and to nature for destroying such a magnificent thing. I hoped that somewhere on the great scorecard of life, the all-knowing and all-seeing scorekeeper was looking away or else otherwise occupied for the remainder of the day.

Throughout the course of the morning though, something began to emerge that replaced my sadness. I became witness to an altogether different phenomenon: I became a witness to man. To what it means to be a man, in its most basic form. I witnessed a group of men working together, testing their bodies physically and using their minds carefully to assess danger, keep safe and to achieve an ultimate purpose. I was a witness to a real life male bonding experience and it was really quite extraordinary. Difficult to define, yet so powerful and raw in its simplicity. Maybe it’s a carryover from the caveman days, but as a woman I instinctively recognised it for what it was and, subsequently, realised there was no place for me in it. (Which is odd, because I am a big believer in women’s rights, equality between the sexes and all that stuff.) It made me realise that there are some times in life when a man needs space to just be a man, with other men, in order to get something done. It’s not gay. It’s not weird. It doesn’t diminish me or my worth as a female. In fact, it has nothing to do with me at all. It’s a fundamentally human thing. Evolution, biology, whatever its actual name is I don’t know. All I know is that I saw it, I sensed it and it was a pretty profound thing.

The last branch to fall was of course the biggest. It was massive – a decent sized tree in itself. That too began with everyone holding their collective breath. The chainsawing seemed to go on forever – grind and grind and grind – it was almost as though our tree was taking one last, defiant stand against us – before the ground crew gave it one tug, two tugs, and before we knew it, the last branch hit the ground with a tremendous thud. Once it had fallen, there was a moment’s silence at the enormity of what had just happened, then a huge cheer erupted from all of us (most loudly probably from my neighbour, as it was his yard that the last lot of branches (and all the biggest ones) had fallen into. It was his house that those massive, tree-sized branches had brushed on their way down).

The day turned out to be largely incident-free, thank goodness. There was a handful of minor property casualties (a gutter or two, a couple of ladders, plants and sheets of iron), but everyone managed to keep all of their fingers and toes. Once the last branch had been cut up and placed on the pile, Tree Chopping Day was deemed complete, and a resounding success. Everyone made themselves comfortable in our driveway and we proceeded to turn the day into night with beers and pizza and music around a firepit. It was, for me, a perfect end to an unusually perfect day – and it seemed a strangely apt way for the street to farewell our beautiful tree.

Getting used to the empty space in our front yard will take some time. Getting used to driving up to our house and not being welcomed by that lush green canopy will take even more time. Though the physical body of our tree is gone, I am comforted by the knowledge that she and her memories will remain in our street, though in a different form, for a very, very long time.

We loved you, Tree. Thank you for the memories.

Kara xxoo