Back to school

Seasonal lore tells us that March conjures the lion and the lamb, September those back-to-school rituals some of us loved, others not so much. The other night a mountain lion surfaced in a dream. I could give any number of reasons why this strong, sleek, beautiful creature paid a visit to my unconscious at this particular moment in time. More important, she (or he) got me thinking that the king of beasts has moved on to a different season, with a vengeance. With or without climate change to explain the ferocity of Harvey and Irma, hurricanes are a given in September.

Leaves have already begun to lose their vibrancy, which always brings on a touch of melancholy.  The Jewish New Year, with its message of repentance and renewal and all the memories evoked, is around the corner. Known as the Days of Awe but informally referred to as ‘the holidays’ in the solid, middle-class Jewish world I was raised in, they would either be early or late. That’s what you get when dates marked by a lunar calendar are measured in relation to the Gregorian (solar-based) calendar that rules our day-to-day secular lives. So be it. We live our lives according to the rituals that ground us. The calendar is a construct of convenience.

Even with the ache for all that’s gone from my life, I’m energized this time of year, revved up by the crispness of autumn. Ingrained patterns die hard. Those lazy, hazy days may have always been a welcome break from school days, but come September I’m headed (in my memory) to that windowless shop around the corner from my home, filled with the particular scent of fresh school supplies. Shopping for notebooks and briefcases (no backpacks back then), pencils and pencil cases meant a clean slate of things to learn.

As summers go, this one in the Northeast has had very few days, relative to summers past, of hot, sticky weather. We may still get a hurricane, hopefully not, but we’re bound to get a spell of summery days in late September, so often around ‘the holidays.’ If I can’t find a satisfactory answer to why we call it ‘Indian summer,’ I accept it as a Mother Nature’s reminder that shifting seasons are fluid.  This year brings a ‘late’ Jewish New Year, a day shy of the autumn equinox but always in sync with a full moon.

Memories are fluid, too, If you’re lucky, you get to soften with age and the hard memories that make the body contract with bitterness or anger loosen their grip. There’s no real wishing them away, there’s just the acceptance that the past may inform the present and future, but it doesn’t have to rule it. Maybe it’s true, you can’t go home again but you can pick and choose the memories that nourish the soul and soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years back, I answered the back-to-school call by taking a graduate-level refresher course at Sarah Lawrence College on how to read a poem. We analyzed poems, delved into prosody, which brought new levels of insight into familiar and unfamiliar poems.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

The very first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” forever have the ring of a tongue-twister, and I think that’s the point. Cold air mixed with warm brings on the mist and with it the smell and taste and crispness of those first apples of the season. Senses are heightened with great poems, whether or not things make sense. The more I read this ode, the more I can’t help see the mix of emotion this time of year as part of the fabric of autumn.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay,  where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too—

Leaves are dying, yes, but before they drop, the trees become bouquets that can only be classified as glorious.

 

 

 

 

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The sound of one leaf falling

chipmunkThe transition from one season to the next is always a reminder of something fluid, even elusive. Sure you wake one day and the calendar tells you it’s autumn, this year’s arrival last week still in the afterglow of the Harvest Moon.  But it’s not as if you haven’t already sensed it, the shifting light, the shortening of days.  It’s a lot like the space between breaths that sometimes becomes the focal point during meditation. If you pay attention, breathing in can only become breathing out. And vice versa.

So it goes with the slipping of summer into autumn.  By late August there’s a diminished vibrancy to the lush green of the leaves; mid-September the ache kicks in, that fading to yellow, a reminder that leaves may be dying but we still have that riot of red and orange, yellow and brown against that seasonal golden light to look forward to.    A quote I came across the other day by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang sums up so eloquently the way I feel:

“I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death.”

It’s a busy time for chipmunks and squirrels, I’ve noticed, a kind of rush hour as they scamper and scurry back and forth, in and out, so much to hoard. It’s a noisy season, too, lawnmowers still cutting the last bits of summer grass before the leaf blowers take over.  Who needs an alarm clock in the morning when you have crows?

A few weeks ago, Labor Day to be exact, I was sitting on my deck, early morning. Sipping coffee and reading.  Something made me stop.  Look up.

More often than not what distracts me is something I see or hear: a  squirrel doing acrobatics across tree branches. A majestic hawk circling the sky.  A woodpecker rat-tat-tatting.  Deer passing through my yard.  A tree being trimmed.

On that particular day, the memory still vivid, it was the complete absence of usual morning sounds that enveloped me.

Not a crow caw-caw-cawing.

Not a car thrumming down the road.

Not a dog barking.

Nada, when it came to sound.

That I could be so caught up in its absence was a curious reminder, ironic as it seems, that I’m not alone. “The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth, and that was way before technology wreaked havoc on our neurology: Being present to the moment is a far cry from the beeping urgency of text messages.  The immediacy of sending e-mails brings an expectation of response in a timely fashion, the question being: whose time frame is it anyway?

Years ago I read A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle,  drawn to the title.  At the very beginning she writes:

“I like hanging sheets on lines under the apple trees—the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash. But the house is still visible, and I can hear the sounds from within; often I need to get away completely, if only for a few minutes. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.”

The quiet a writer needs to do her work was at the heart of a conversation between novelist/filmmaker/Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki and editor/novelist Carole DeSanti, hosted by WNBA-NYC.  “Real creative work comes from a quiet place,” said DeSanti.  We may need the noise, that “conversation with the world,” as Ozeki put it, at the start of a project.  “But at the end I need quiet to dig in.”

“Silence is an endangered species,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in an interview with Krista Tippett that begs to be listened to.  “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” he explains, taking listeners on a virtual hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to what he calls One Square Inch of Silence.  It’s through silence that we regain the power to listen.

“Now we will all count to twelve/and we will all keep still. . . .” begins a Pablo Neruda poem that Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein is said to carry with her everywhere she goes. Listen to her recite it. Or read it here.

The poem, a favorite of mine, is called “Keeping Quiet.”

 

 

 

Autumn-deprived

9:15 p.m., an early October night. I go outside, lured by the tree frogs and crickets, the same as I do in the height of summer – just to listen. The air is cool, more summer than autumn/less autumn than winter. There’s a ring of light around the moon, a lunar halo. The sound, bells strung together on a vine of dying light, is thinner than it is on those mid-August nights bursting with syncopation – katydids in tandem with peepers, a cricket singing solo.

Every autumn in the Northeast is different, some more vibrant than others, this one off to a dull start, too much rain saturating the ground, making trees drop their leaves before the magic really begins – bouquet after bouquet of red and yellow, gold, orange, brown crisp against the sky. In spring I’m all ears, the birds signaling to take note. In autumn I’m all eyes, each day on the lookout for that pop of red in the distance, the glow of yellow against the sky. Today’s walk around the lake has me feeling a little autumn-deprived.  It’s the season of nostalgia, with its undercurrent of melancholy, my yoga teacher reminds me.  And every bone in my body tells me she’s right.  No sooner does September roll around, with its reminder of beginnings  (the Jewish New Year, the new school year) than thoughts of a year coming to an end creep in (Thanksgiving just around the corner, Christmas and Chanukah not far behind).  I need those autumn colors, with their announcement that something is so very alive before it dies.

Today, on my walk, something on the other side of the lake catches my eye, a heron perched on a rock, a swan next to it, neither paying any attention to the other. The swan is preening, the heron ever zen-like in its search for food.  Closer to me, but far enough not to feel threatened, are turtles lined up on a log. The swan and heron are a rare sighting, the turtles sunning themselves something I can so often count on. I usually stop, just for a quiet look, three or four small ones in a row, a snapper standing sentry. The splash as they dip back into the lake, one by one, is worth the break in my stride. Anytime I think of a turtle lumbering along with a shell on its back, I remind myself that they also swim.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,”  begins John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a line that’s a tongue twister if ever there was one. Autumn, for all its beauty, is not a season of playful ease. It’s something of a rush hour for squirrels and chipmunks.  A season when,

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.