From Iceland to Anatevka

Mid-October, late afternoon, a day positively brimming over with autumn light. Rain has taken down too many leaves too soon. All the more reason to relish the translucent mix of yellow and orange and green holding fast to branches on a tree in the distance. Autumn, even a less-than-vibrant one, asks me to reconcile beauty with dying.

A new book by the always wise Pico Iyer affirms my own sense of this riddled season. Sparked by a recent visit to the Japan he knows well, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is filled with Iyer-esque eloquence and insights: 

“Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze or ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”

***

I’m in a line of cars behind a stopped school bus. I marvel at the unspoken language we think of as rules of the road.  To speed up, instead of slowing down, when the stop sign swivels from the window of a school bus, is to step out of time and place.

To watch children step down from a bus and cross the road is to marvel at the trust that makes it possible, even in times when technological distractions and impatience can wreak havoc on being present to the moment.  

* * *

A month earlier would find me in Iceland, a family vacation to mark my upcoming birthday, a big one. In December I turn 70.  Over the years I’ve been inclined to celebrate off-years—49, 59, 64—and treat the decade markers as an afterthought. But something about 70 asks to be acknowledged for what it is. This is not about birthday cakes/candles/presents, which seem to matter less and less with each passing year. It’s about doing something  out of the ordinary,  go someplace we’ve never been. Mother, father, daughter, and son-in-law. Together.

It’s about autumn, in all its metaphoric glory.  Not to mention the melancholy the season encompasses.

School buses, in all their Crayola yellow, speak to nostalgia. My daughter came home a few days before the trip, a deliberate Marie Kondo strategy to make the bedroom she left behind a little less of a shrine to her childhood and teen years. 

As if the classic nostalgia of the season weren’t enough, old photos sorted and weeded out would take me right back to another time, one that seemed simpler and more innocent. I was asked to be an observer, not a participant in the divesting process.  Her initiative had me feeling I did a decent job as a mother. If I can’t help myself in wishing she would let me help her, I do my best at standing back.

* * *

Iceland has come and gone, on its heels the Jewish New Year, another seasonal reckoning. One Sunday afternoon during those Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would find in the fictional town of Anatevka. 

The critically acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey, is as timeless as it is timely. That this one is in Yiddish only enhances its poignancy and power. To be swept up in the cadence of the music and the choreography is to be reminded of how stories can be told without needing to understand every single word (even if monitors make that possible). To hear songs from the show that echoed through my Jewish childhood is to be reminded of the star power (Zero Mostel) that overshadowed a story that is more than a sentimental tale of an unraveling tradition.

Is it a wonder that schmaltzy songs hold sway over a story that shapeshifts from culture to culture, down through the centuries—Pogroms. Displacement. Family members bidding each other farewell, not knowing if they’ll ever see each again?  Or are my autumn years having me see things in a different light? 

***

Once again Pico Iyer: 

“We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last. . . .Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within the truth.”

Is it possible, I ask myself, to find that light without reflection, taking stock of joys and disappointments, hopes that have not panned out?  Coming to grips with all that’s out of our control? Then I ask myself: What are you doing for the rest of your life?

The best of times, the worst of times

Today was a perfect autumn day. Crisp, cool air. Golden light.  The crunch of leaves underfoot.

Tonight, barely 7 p.m. and the sky is ink blue.  A crescent moon casts its spell.

To be in sync with the seasons is to be reminded that autumn is tinged with the stickiness of nostalgia. To feel melancholy goes with the territory. That rich palette of colors the leaves offer up is the gift we get before they fall to the ground. Bare winter trees are a different kind of beauty.

The ‘80s are on my mind a lot these days.  When I wrote about what feels like an ‘80s redux in current times, the New York Times hadn’t yet published its special magazine section, Losing Earth, focused on the decade 1979-1989 when the body of research re: global warming seemed to be taken seriously enough to bring (almost) international consensus for a strategy to reduce carbon emissions.  On top of that we have the urgent UN report.

I need to believe all is not lost.

On the personal side: I got married in 1984 and gave birth to my daughter in 1986. In the year between the most life-affirming moments imaginable came the death of my husband’s good friend and business partner, an early casualty of AIDS.  Maybe ‘imaginable’ is the operative word here. The heart of the novel I published earlier this year is a girl’s coming of age during the ‘80s. As the story began to percolate, I had a backdrop of extreme personal joy coupled with extreme sadness.

Funny how a writer’s mind works.

Sometimes you know something even before you know you know it. If I didn’t yet have confirmation of that decade as a profound time of innocence lost, the proof would come.  We were on the edge of the technology that would take over our lives.  That was then, this is now. The power to manipulate information is frighteningly easy. Take a quote out of context, give only half the statement.

I know there is no turning back but I need to believe that life-affirming instincts hold sway over the cynicism and lies thrown at us left and right.

I want to believe that a time will come when I’ll get past my resistance to using a verb that bears the name of the man in the Oval Office.

Maybe—just maybe—if enough thinking people take the time to look past the smokescreen of misinformation, there’s still hope that we can keep our planet from burning up and our democracy from self-destructing.  My daughter is much less hopeful.  She reminds me that I can’t even get Republican cousins to listen to reason and see the bigger picture beyond immediate, personal self-interest.  When families can’t talk to each other, what does that say about the country at large?

Entertainment is as much an escape as it is a reflection of our culture. Is it any wonder that Wonder Woman and Black Panther broke box office records? Now we have the spectacle of King Kong on Broadway.

I can’t say I have any intention to see the show, but I can say that King Kong himself is a fixture in my imagination. In the days before Netflix and streaming and DVDs, there was “Million Dollar Movie,” a weeklong chance to watch a film you loved over and over and over again. King Kong and Mighty Joe Young stand out as the two movies I watched more than any other. How could I, as a young girl, help but be fascinated by a larger-than life gorilla who may have struck fear in the hearts of natives on Skull Island but clearly had a soft spot for Fay Wray? How could I, as a young girl, help but be touched by a young (and then grown) Terry Moore calming her pet ape with a beautiful piece of music?

The animation in the 1933 King Kong may seem quaint by today’s standards but it was groundbreaking at the time. The 1976 remake with Jessica Lange would give King Kong’s eyes a very human dimension but both versions leave indelible images of a woman held captive in the palm of what would seem to be a frightening beast. This is the moment where metaphor plays its hand. The 2005 remake with Naomi Watts shows a woman still captive but doing her best to communicate with her captor. Less screaming, more compassion.

The racism and sexism inherent in King Kong may have been lost on me as a young girl probably because it seemed more a story about trying to tame the untameable.  Of the eleven movies to date that call up that mighty gorilla, I’ve seen only the original and the two that follow its story line.  Whatever Broadway promises with its 20-foot tall, 2,000-pound puppet would seem to speak more to special effects than story. Call me a purist, but there is no way that the movie’s cinematic pinnacle—a primate seeing some means of survival in scaling the tallest building in New York City—can be adequately conveyed in a stage set. At the same time, isn’t it uncanny that King Kong’s latest incarnation comes at a time when survival and sexism are at a cultural zenith?

 

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.