Elemental Fall Equinox


The New Archaic. Elemental Innovations. What’s that got to do with the fall equinox?

It matters to me that today I change the table runner to the one with autumn colors and patterns, I get down the acorn and oak leaf candle holders. I change the bedding to the fall leaves pattern, and to slightly warmer covers. I put away the blues and greens of my summer season for next year, with the quiet questions about next year just out of mind’s reach.

I’ve got most of my Christmas shopping done. For many years, I noticed that I did my Christmas shopping in September, then put everything away on a top shelf in the closet for wrapping in late November and early December. Other people sometimes commented that it was kind of strange, especially the way it preoccupied and satisfied me. I had no idea why I was so compelled. Then one late September day, I sat on my back deck watching the acorn woodpeckers gathering acorns and stuffing them into the holes they had worked so hard to make in the telephone pole. (Sorry, Jesus, they do toil and gather into barns and they are birds of the air, but I still totally respect you.) The squirrels were equally industrious, gathering nesting material, bird feathers and dog hair, fluff from the clothes dryer, leaves; and they too were making acorn caches for the winter ahead. Suddenly and easily I understood myself. Oh! Christmas shopping is my inner animal meeting my cultured human in preparing for winter. It’s elemental and archaic, preparing in fall for the winter festival, for the moment when the days will start to grow longer again.

No wonder, then that I felt a particular satisfaction this week when I took stock of my emergency supplies, food and water and the capacity to make light and heat. Ahhh. Bring it on! Winter, I am ready, even though it is still 90 degrees in the middle of the day. Yes, but the nights are cool, and the days are shorter. In fact, see, tomorrow the day will be as short as the night is long. My inner animal knows this, along with many other things that my sophisticated cultured self does not know, things like when it is time to eat and to rest, when it is time to work, time to fight, time to hole up and recover from some insult or injury. My inner animal knows the seasons of the year and the seasons of the day. And because I have this abstracting and predicting human brain that interacts with my animal nature, there is a space inside where she knows how she will be unhinged if the seasons go away, that life itself will be changed, everything she knows will be called into question and us animals will all change, all of us. We will have to change. Some of us will be lost forever, some already are.

I have been spending time with the older generation, people in their eighties. I find myself studying them, listening to them, wanting to know how life is for them, and loving them intensely. They are figuring out how to let go while hanging on. The ones I know are of the “use it or lose it” school, so they are still fully engaged in living, but even with that attitude, and even though they err on the side of risking too much rather than too little use, they have to give things up. They have to know when it’s time to quit driving, when it’s time to get a medical alert button, when it’s time to give up a certain beloved food or drink, when to change over to slip on shoes and elastic-waist pants, when to let someone else help. When they decide to let something go, they know that it will be gone forever. They know that one day they will be gone forever. They are trying to wrap their minds around that, but their minds can’t go there, not really. So they tell me about living.

My old friends want to tell me what they did that matters to them. I am stunned at the courage with which they have lived, at the things they have accomplished, quietly for the most part, without notice, at the sacrifices they made for others, again quietly. I might be the first to know, and I take in the consolation that good deeds go unnoticed, but also define the person. My old friends might want to tell me something they regret. They don’t want to ask too much of me, though, and there’s no pressure to fix it. They feel the way they are tipping towards the time when the nights are longer than the days, towards the time when the night is forever. They are surprisingly compassionate about my forms of insanity.

I am talking about seven or eight real people. I see them in my mind’s eye, I hear them; I listen to them as I have not listened to them since I was a child. Because I know I am still a child, for all I have acquired by way of knowledge and competence, I still don’t get it; I don’t understand so much. These people are the last line between me and the final knowledge that I’ll never get it. Just as I was surprised by life once, I will be surprised by death. I’ll never know if I did it right. As I came in both wise and ignorant, I will go out similarly wise and ignorant. I will have to give up the notion that I’ll get a handle on it if I just keep trying. I find that I need to learn from my particular older generation once again, these World War II survivors. My love for them feels like that boundless awestruck love I felt as a child for good adults, the ones who were competent, and the ones who were kind, or funny or fun. I love them as I see them caring and funny and sad and real, and I hope I can be like them.

Usually at this time of year, I am taking stock of the past several months, taking stock of my personal harvest, assessing what I hope to bring in before the year is over. I am doing that, of course. I especially learned that I love the writing life; that Chapter One is a bear in the way it has to foreshadow the whole book while being entertaining, engaging, and credible. I learned that I work in a dogged fashion, doing whatever it takes to produce outlines and chapters. I learned the humility that goes with understanding I am going to have to work in this way for a long haul, over and over and over again, doing whatever it takes. My writing life was not what I dreamed when I thought I’d be monastic, every day a rhythm of prayer and meditation, exercise and manual labor, and a few hours of desk time. Instead I surrendered to the unexpected rhythm of three or four days of being intensely and obsessively in a writing mode, followed by two or three days of complete disengagement from all of it.

This fall equinox, I do the rituals of every autumn, changing over the house, gathering in supplies. But also, this fall I find myself in a larger autumn looking into a longer winter. One thing I know differently than I did last September is that I want to write while I live. I so appreciate the clarity. But I also love the cool nights, the way that light comes slanted instead of powering on overhead, the way the rattlesnakes seem to have tucked in, away from the hiking trails, the way I’m ready for the long nights when they come.