I was in eighth grade at Annunciation Catholic Grade School when I delivered my science project “Communication With The Dead” to my somewhat horrified classmates and teachers, all of whom had been brought up on the spiritual notion of a man-god rising up from the dead but who weren’t too sure about my dad’s Fate Magazine-ripped paranormal graphics or my tape recording of a seance-summoned dead boy from the beyond — so I know a little bit of which I’m about to speak.
Depending on the time of day or night you land there, the Peace Garden leading to the Bird Sanctuary at Lake Harriet is anything but peaceful, given all the wedding parties, photo shoots, strollers and all those real live noisy human beings living their best peaceful lives. But the other day at sunset, a racket ensued that brought to mind the Suburbs’ should-be-Halloween-monster-hit “Rattle My Bones” and made this body feel like we were at the Other Side Bar.
“So … how do you like our new bench?” chirped Viva Beck of “Viva & Jerry’s Country Music Videos,” who died a year ago this month, just as I was about to sit down on the Viva and Jerry bench to strum my guitar and sing my songs to the birds. All that melding of silence and sound must’ve called up the spirits, though, because here they all were, all my old buddies and acquaintances who live on in the form of memorial benches installed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
“Dude!” said David Hussman, my old friend who died last year and whose family dedicated his bench across from Viva and Jerry’s in August in a poignant ceremony befitting the man we all called The Dude. “Say hey to everyone for me. Tell ’em we’re all always with ’em, always looking after them. And it’s good to ‘see’ you at this special time of the year, when, as you know, the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest…”
David knows his afterworld stuff: According to the website Forever Conscious, “It definitely seems that there is some significance to this time of year when it comes to honoring the cycles of death and deceased loved ones, and being able to access the spirit world with greater ease. Many of these ancient celebrations include the belief that on Oct. 31 the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. This belief is observed during the Gaelic festival of Samhain and also on the Day of the Dead, which roots go all the way back to the Aztecs.”
Samhain translates to “end of summer,” and its death and rebirth rituals have morphed into the celebration we now do up as Halloween. It’s also why autumn, in all its crisp, colorful, spooky glory, is known as “Season of the Witch.” It’s happening now, and from my experience the ghosts come around mostly at dusk, when the wind whips up, the leaves and trees bustle with whispers from beyond and the spirits in the night tap humans on the shoulder to say, “Seize the day.”
I’m sure it’s partially due to my age and profession, but at this juncture I seem to know a lot of people who I used to hang out with whose benches I now hang out on, all of which sit yards from one another and not too far from some of their actual graves next door in Lakewood Cemetery.
“Why does the veil shrink at Samhain? Because the days are getting shorter and the natural world is preparing to temporarily withdraw from the realm of life and growth,” writes spiritualist Tess Whitehurst, about Halloween’s pagan roots that tell us that the supernatural is real and our loved ones are forever gone-not-gone. “The harvest cycle is waning, but it’s not gone. This means Samhain is a transition: a doorway between the season of life and the season of death.”
“We’re a bunch of pagans!” cackled my old friend Karl Mueller, the former Soul Asylum bassist whose bench sits a guitar pick’s throw away from Viva and Jerry and David’s benches, and a Frisbee’s throw away from the Purple Prince crab apple tree that was planted in the spring next to my old friend Alan Uetz’s 19-year-old memorial crab apple tree.
“Very funky place you’ve got here, Jim,” said Prince. “Remember what I said about the afterworld? It’s true! I’m working on a new tune called ‘How You Like Them Crab Apples?’ Funkier than any memoir!”
“Sorry about your Twins this year,” said Alan, “but there’s always next year!”
You know what it sounds like when a bunch of ghosts laugh at an optimistic take on Minnesota sports and the future? LOUD. And bone chilling.
“If you think this is loud, you should hear those cats from Lakewood when they get up and get going,” said Ross Quaintance, who I feel like I knew and whose bench looks out over the Rose Garden. “Those poltergeists know how to party.”
More laughter. It was the damnedest thing. Close your eyes and you’d swear we were all alive, all at the bar together, all talking at each other. Try it some time: The veil was no longer thin; it was obliterated.
“Hey Jim, do me a favor and tell all those Washburn cross country runners to stop using my bench as a locker room. That stuff stinks,” said Karl, to more ghost laughs all around.
“Yeah, and tell those hippie bocce ballers and millennial ’mockers to keep it down with all their loudmouthery,” said Ross. “It’s enough to wake the dead!”
“Housequake! Seriously, tell everybody not to fear death,” said Prince. “It’s actually a pretty groovy gig. And the music is out of this world.”
After about an hour of this, I grabbed my stuff and got up to leave. Ghosting on the ghosts.
“Where are you going? Come baaack,” they all whined in unison.
“I’m outta here, you damn ghosts. This is creepy. Life is for living.”
“Life is for living!” they all mocked. “Get a load of this guy!”
“I’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do. I’m not dead yet!!”
“He’s not dead yet!” they all laughed, and I kept going, looking forward to our next poltergeist party, and feeling a whole lot better about death and the next stage of this thing we call life.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].