Bonnie Nadzam relives the childhood ritual of playing dead.
In the backyard where I grew up, there was a giant ash my sisters and I called the “Skeleton Tree.” This was because in summer, we repeatedly found bones around its roots—rib bones, chicken bones. It was trash dragged out by raccoons, likely, but we had no explanation for why it was always around the base of this tree. Naturally, the Skeleton Tree was the site of a ceremony we enacted every fall, just before Halloween. Each year, we checked in with each other periodically from the time we sensed autumn was in the air until the night we chose to do it. What were we checking in with? Some feeling in our own bones that it was autumn enough? At some point we’d all agree: it was time.
As a girl, I went to Catholic school. There was a rule at St. Ann’s that when you finished your assigned work, you’d clear off your desk, fold your hands before you, sit perfectly still, and meditate on the cross. There was a crucifix in every room. Thus you’d wait, eyes fixed on a dead or dying Christ, for everyone else to finish their work, too. Being a quick worker, I spent hours—hours and hours—of my childhood in this position, praying, trying to embody what it was to die, nailed to a cross, swinging across a chasm of wonder and terror, faith and doubt.
But there was something especially charged about navigating this space under the Skeleton Tree, under a wide-open sky as the light changed. Outside, there was no container, no cross. No desk to feel beneath your hands. No memorized prayer to revert to if you lost your way. This was the Skeleton Tree ritual, and like most of our girlhood games, it was simple, on its face: my sisters and I were to lie flat on our backs beneath the tree and die.
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was once a pagan ritual. Among the ancient folk, these Samhain and Calan Gaeaf celebrations signaled the start of a new year. I wonder, how did those people come by the wisdom to mark the beginning of the year on the very day that left the harvest behind—the very day that was on the threshold of darkness, coldness, and death? The Zen practitioner in me imagines that these people knew something that was altogether different from current Western ideas of a single birth and a single death as the fixed points in time marking the beginning and end of a human life. The “bad Christian” in me wonders how Christ’s death and resurrection relate to this mystery.
The year I was in the third grade might have been the last year we played dead beneath the Skeleton Tree. It was just before dinner—nearing dark. The tree stretched its bare, iron-limbed branches above us. There were rippled gray skies and golden leaves spinning on their stems. When it was over, we sat up to check in with each other: Did you die?
“I really did this time,” I said. “The person you’re talking to isn’t even the person who was here before.”
My older sister was skeptical. “Who are you then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I was wonderstruck. “I don’t know! But I know I’ve never been here before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have this feeling,” I said, and punctuated my words with each footstep as we walked across the yard toward the lit windows, hanging like yellow rectangles in the dark. “Just got here, just got here, just got here.”