This is a week to speak to our departed souls

In the chill and fading light of autumn, forget about the candy corn

I talk to the dead.

Whenever I'm startled by the shapes and colors in the sky, I talk to my brother Bill, an artist who loved to paint the clouds.

Some days I talk to my friend Steve, usually along the lines of, "Where the bleep are you, Daley, when I and a whole lot of other people need to talk to you about the idiocy of politics?"

Every now and then, while having tea in one of the dainty china cups I inherited from my Aunt Mary Louise, I feel moved to say aloud, "I'm sorry I didn't come visit you more."

I often talk to my mother, just to say her name.

To some people this will seem kooky, though the rest of you understand. You talk to the dead too. And if there's any week when we're licensed--practically commanded--to commune with the dearly departed, this is it.

There's Halloween (Oct. 31). All Saints' Day (Nov. 1). All Souls' Day (Nov. 2). And, spanning the first two days of November, there's the celebration known as el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Each day, in its own way, prompts us to connect with lives that, to steal a poet's line, have slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

In our culture, Halloween is the one that makes the biggest bang. With its candy corn, Batman outfits, naughty nurse costumes, ghosts, goblins and periodontally challenged pumpkins, it's a day when pop culture meets the pseudo-occult.

I prefer the other days, not on religious grounds, though they're rooted in religion, but because they encourage a more genuine reflection on death and the relationships that we retain with people who are gone.

In many places, the days of saints and souls matter as much as or more than Halloween. From New Orleans to Mexico to France, they're the days for rituals that connect the living to the dead.

Clean up the family graves. Build a little altar to the deceased. Picnic in the cemetery. Pray that souls in purgatory be released. Party with a transcendental purpose.

As a kid, growing up Catholic, I was particularly fond of All Souls Day. It seemed less celebrity-driven than the day dedicated to the saints, more about the little people.

But that wasn't why I liked it. I liked it for the word "soul."

What was a soul? At the age of 7, I knew exactly.

A soul was a little dog bone planted in the center of a person's chest. When you were born, the dog bone was as white as snow and as smooth as polished stone. When you committed small sins (hitting your brothers, saying bad words), little stains like ink marks appeared on the white dog bone. A big sin (murder) turned the whole bone black.

Confession could clean the dog bone, but wherever it had been stained by sin it would remain forevermore rough and porous, like pumice.

I have no idea where the vision of the soul as a dog bone came from. From something a nun said? From the primal recess of my child's mind?

At any rate, on All Souls Day, I imagined all the dog bones of the departed rising, winged, from the Earth and fluttering free for a while, an image that has endeared the day to me ever since.

For Catholics and members of some other faiths, these days have specific, profound meanings. But even for people without those faiths, this week is a good excuse to pause, here in the first chill and fading light of autumn, to feel your connection with your departed people.

I no longer know what a soul looks like, but in the past few years as more of the souls I've loved have vanished from view, I have a keener sense of what one is, and that they're still here.

A trick of the mind? Could be. I just know that I feel those souls around me, and I like it, and I like the occasion of this week to think about it.

It's not all about the candy corn.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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