Suzette Martinez Standring: The season of spirits

Suzette Martinez Standring

The season of spirits has arrived. Orange marigolds will decorate graves during the Mexican Day of the Dead. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the Double Ninth Month is when ancestors are honored. Halloween derives from Samhain, the time when ancient Celts believed the veil between the supernatural and the physical worlds was at its thinnest, allowing for ghostly visitation.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:2, “[There is] a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,” and the fall brings reflection. Sights and smells of the harvest season trigger an inward accounting of sowing and reaping, and our place in the generational link of family.

All around us nature exhales a fragrance of “letting go.” The moist earth exudes a rich woodsy musk as a last appeal before it is blanketed over for snowy slumber. Olfaction, our sense of smell, triggers emotional memories, many of which recall people now long gone.

At a nearby park, a whiff of woodland tang made me think of my mother. She, too, had a pleasantly elusive smell, mixed in with Ivory soap and the faint cling of cooking oil. Birdsong pierces the air, conjuring up the lilt of her voice. I could almost hear her calling out in Spanish from another room, “Hija!” (“daughter”) Has it really been 21 years since her passing?

Remembrance feels right in the meditative mood of fall, when gatherings focus on family and the spiritual aspect of life, such as All Souls Day, a Catholic holy day, or the Day of the Dead, which involves the tidying up and decoration of family graves.

Walking along, the scent of pine needles sharpens the air, unleashing memories of holiday celebrations, and with them, thoughts of empty chairs. And thus, fall rituals are healing. As shadows lengthen, memories surface amid twinkling candles, incense smoke or bouquets laid before headstones or portraits. Spooky ghosts, gravestones and shelves of candy may herald late fall fun, but they are simply cartoon versions of the centuries-old, universal custom of spiritual remembrance.   

Other fall observances focus on the cyclical progress of our souls. The high holy day of Yom Kippur requires humility as it calls for a reckoning of wrongs and atonement before God. The same temptations will surely return, and the next time, a better decision puts one on an upward spiral.

Part of self-transformation is letting down one’s mask. Halloween costumes derive from the Celtic belief that ghostly visitation was likely in the fall and spirits might carry away loved ones, so disguises were worn to fool them. 

Halloween aside, we wear masks daily to work and at home because of our fear of “being seen.” An 8-year-old donning a pirate or princess costume? Delightful. Being a walled fortress at age 45? Sad.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, once said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Once again, the year jets by and a rain of scarlet leaves brings the thought, “What, already?” As generational links, we are stepping up in line. Savor the moment. Sow better seeds. Accept who’s really in charge.

God is painting a picture for slow learners of the quick passage of time. Wooden bins are filled with fat orange pumpkins even as wind-blown skeletons dance above them.

E-mail Suzette Martinez Standring at She is the author of “The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists.” Visit