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This morning I stepped out to run after a sleepless night. A pingy frozen mist fell on streets two degrees too warm for it to freeze there. It hit my face as soon as I stepped out, and my feet slipped a bit on the wet pavement. Can’t run in this, I immediately decided. Then I took a breath and the cold air filled my lungs; I took a few steps and my muscles responded; something like a thrill ran through all of me, and I began to walk. By the time I got to the running path I was ready to burst out into long strides, it all felt so good. All of which is especially strange, because it was still dark.

I am still running in darkness. We wait and wait through the darkness of winter for the sun to return, to give us days that are light when we wake up and stay light as long as we care to be outside while the evening draws to a close, and then, sooner than expected, the days begin to shorten.

It has been a weird winter—that’s the word people tend to use most to describe it. Weirdly freezing during December, then jumping back and forth from very cold days to record-breaking warm days throughout January and February. But we accept the unreliability of heat or cold in the seasonal cycle. Some summers sear you with weeks of excessive heat and humidity; some winters keep you in the deep freeze for far too long. Then again, either season can be mild and pleasant.

But the cycle of darkness and light never changes. I suppose meteorologists have tables that can tell us the exact moment of sunrise a hundred years from now. I enjoy running when the sun is up, when drivers heedlessly speeding to their destinations can see me. Like most runners I have had many near collisions with inattentive motorists, though a truck has only hit me once.

The problem is that we do not change our schedules according to the seasons–and that means according to darkness or light. In the old days, maybe Farmer Jones got up at the crack of dawn to start his chores. Well, the crack of dawn is not a time on a clock, say 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., it gradually moves through the year. As the year progressed, someone who awoke at the crack of dawn gradually moved with it.

Once we started doing everything according to clocks, at set hours, that all changed. Now Farmer Jones awakes at 5 a.m., whether it’s dark or light then. When we realized what an artificial overlay timekeeping was to the natural order, we put in force our clumsiest time tracking device of all: Daylight Saving Time. At that point, Farmer Jones likely wanted to hang himself from the hayloft. I can think of nothing that happens in the yearly round of days and nights that more effectively disorients and confuses people.

My thoughts are different when I run in the dark. More about how hard I’m running, how hard it is to run, how my ragged breath claws at my chest, my legs ache ascending a hill. It’s not that bad, but it seems like it in the dark.

Daylight is the good time, darkness is the bad time. Darkness, when philosophers and sneak thieves prowl the night, when dastardly deeds are done, when the lonely stalk their rooms in desperation. We fight the oncoming dark. Jack O’ Lanterns, bonfires, candles, Christmas lights and more illumine our wintry evenings, at least for a while, until we give up, throw in the towel, and let January and February chill our souls. But by then the corner has been turned, the solstice passed, Sol Invictus, Apollo, the Son of God, or whatever ancient spirit appeals to you has returned. To me, prosaically enough, it’s just the sun.

I ran a good distance, though not as far as I was running before I got the flu in January. When I got home I was barely winded and felt very good, and sat down to write this. Finishing up, I look out, and a pale light, struggling through dense clouds, is brightening the window. It’s too cloudy to see much, but the bit of future I can read in the brightness tells me that soon, I’ll be running in the sunlight.




Four Last Songs


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(This was written a while ago, as should be clear by the wrong seasonal setting; but I am once again working on these musical ideas.)

It was humid and still this morning, until sunrise brought a stiff breeze that cooled the air with a promise of rain showers. I sat on the porch in that kind of paralysis one feels at the change of summer into autumn, thinking about the Last Four Songs of Richard Strauss. They were playing on the radio yesterday as I was driving home, and when the announcer announced them, he offered the names of each one. It’s funny, this set of songs has long been a favorite of mine, but I never stopped to think about the titles of the individual songs or to consider their lyrics.

The lyrics to three of the songs, Spring, September, and Going to Sleep, come from poems by Hermann Hesse, and the fourth, At Sunset, from a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. At first blush it would seem there is a progression to the set, something moving through the seasons; but it’s really only one song about spring followed by three songs dealing more or less with impending death. Kinda gloomy, I’d say.

On closer study, though, maybe there is more to it than that. Hesse’s poem Spring is about the transition from winter into spring, and by transference, about the human state of distance from nature into a full immersion in nature, which was a High Romantic ideal. It begins with the lines ‘In shadowy crypts/I dreamt long,’ which are pretty somber words for a paean to spring. But no fear, spring does come, to be passionately embraced by the poet.

If with this song we enter the seasons of greening and fruition, in September we move away from them. A lyric laced with melancholy, September is explicitly seen as the month when summer dies.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble

at his dying dream of a garden

Again, it is the transition we are dealing with, the movement from one season to the next. A point I come across often in researching the seasons is that most people, when they speak of the seasons–especially when they speak of favorite or beloved seasons–usually cite the transition from the previous season into their favorite. It is the time of change that carries something special, whether it is hope, or optimism, or simply fascination with nature’s endless cycles.

In the world of art there are many representations of the seasons. Musicians, painters and poets can’t get enough of guiding us through the four seasons. But the sad fact is, much of this work is mediocre, if not bad. The programmatic impulse in art, the need to make a piece of music tell a specific story or to delineate something as obvious as the four seasons in a painting, usually bespeaks a limited imagination: think Norman Rockwell or Currier & Ives. Of course there are exceptions, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Haydn’s The Seasons, but mostly, the world of art would suffer very little if all the works dedicated to the seasons were removed. This does not mean that programmatic art is not popular–people very much like art that is so easy to understand, and which appeals to something so intrinsic in their lives.

The fact is, Strauss did not write his Vier Letzte Lieder as a set: they just happen to be the last four songs he composed prior to his death, at 85, in 1949. His publisher put them together in the form that has become well known to generations of music lovers. This combination may have been a marketing ploy by the publisher, hoping the songs, seen as a whole, would appeal to the popular imagination. As a matter of fact, there was a fifth song, Strauss’s actual last song, called ‘Malven,’ which he dedicated to a woman other than his wife Pauline, dispatching the manuscript to her. She kept it secret for a long time, for what may be obvious reasons. The song, never orchestrated by the composer, is rarely included in performances or recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder. It has been described as ‘very ordinary,’ especially compared to the wonderful late flowering of the other last songs.

They had been a fortuitous grouping, making a great concert piece of these songs which, while thematically linked and carrying the feel of moving through the life of a human spirit, are not diminished by a too obvious program. Strauss died a year after completing these songs. He was in his eighties, weary and depressed, living in Switzerland while his German homeland was being purged of Nazi vestiges. Perhaps the secret to creating great art around seasonal motifs is in not walking the audience through a rote recitation of all four seasons, but in expounding on the beauties of the season in which your soul resides at the time.


St. Valentine’s Day


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St. Valentine’s Day, or the Feast Day of St. Valentine, is traditionally a spring celebration. According to folk wisdom, it is the day on which birds select their mates for the upcoming mating season, and it’s time for humans to pick mates as well. It rarely seems springlike on February 14th in North America, but these traditions were set in place in Western Europe, which is generally warmer than here, with climatic seasons that begin as much as a month earlier.

Many saints’ feast days are placed on days which were previously pagan celebrations. It made it easier to convince folks to accept the new order, besides the fact that there are so many saints from the old days. Not so many these days, because back then, when there was no news coverage and people were generally more superstitious, it was much easier to ‘prove’ miracles. There are two basic stories about martyred priests named Valentine, but most scholars agree that they are just differing accounts of the same personage, especially since elements of the stories—including the miraculous healing of a child—are similar.

I dislike Valentine’s Day. I am not a curmudgeon, nor am I often accused of lacking romance in my soul. Call it the old hippie in me, but I don’t respond well to a designated day for romance, especially when it’s so commercial. The same little bouquet of flowers that cost $6 a week ago is priced at $16.99 on the holiday. I have seen the price of a dozen roses quadruple in the week days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Going to dinner anywhere nice is a trial of waiting and fighting to get served. It’s also a day of deep depression for some people who feel the absence of significant others, with suicides spiking. One time someone left a note in the women’s bathroom of the library where I work, stating, ‘I will leave a bomb in the library on Valentine’s Day.’ We had the local police patrol us all day that day, and nothing really happened, but somehow I understand the sentiment.

It is springlike here this morning, the day after Valentine’s Day. Temperatures were in the 50s (F) when I got up to run, or actually to walk, with short bursts of running here and there. I am finally getting over a nearly month-long bout of influenza, and trying to get back to regular exercise. It was a quiet, windless morning, with the lingering scent of yesterday’s rain showers. Weather apps say it will rain more today, which would be welcome, but I find that weather predictions are increasingly inaccurate. Looking out the window is advised.

I am sitting here now in the still morning, with Ravel on the radio and the windows open. I want only to gather my true love unto me, go for a stroll in the park, and picnic in the grass. This afternoon’s temperatures are expected to climb into the 70s. But I have to leave for work soon, so there will be neither gathering, strolling, nor picnicking. I’d say it will all have to wait until Saturday, but I see that a drop in temperature is predicted by then, down to the 30s, with a good chance of snow. So much for the emergence of spring.

Most of our holidays are seasonal holidays imported from Europe, even the nominally religious ones, like Christmas in winter and Easter in spring. Valentine’s Day is a less successful import, because it too is meant to be a spring holiday, but occurs too early in North America. It may have some interesting precursors in European history, springtime, romance, all of that. Here in America, it’s just an over-hyped, overpriced day of artificial romance in the midst of the lingering winter. Many old European traditions made a successful crossing to North America. I think this is one that did not.




I’d Love to Change the World


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When we were kids, one of my best friends was a huge fan of the band Ten Years After. Led by the singer/songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire Alvin Lee, the band put out several albums during the late 1960s and 1970s, and had one of the best performances at Woodstock—their classic ‘I’m Going Home.’ But for all of his guitar virtuosity, Alvin Lee was not the greatest songwriter. ‘I’m Going Home’ was a cover, as were a number of the band’s best songs.

And, for all of his hard-rocking, Alvin Lee is probably best known for his 1971 song ‘I’d Love to Change the World,’ which was a slow ballad mostly on acoustic guitar. The song is lovely, but it also points out that Lee was not the world’s best lyricist, including verses like:

Life is funny, skies are sunny,

bees make honey, who needs money . . .


Still, it featured a chorus which was either deeply cynical and fatalistic, or just used an easy rhyme. I’d like to believe that he saw the fatalism, but there’s nothing in his lyrical oeuvre to indicate that sort of thought when he sang:


I’d love to change the world

But I don’t know what to do

So I’ll leave it up to you.


That pretty much sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?

I have not listened to a news report, either on TV or the radio, since November 2016. Can’t take it. I am online a lot, both for research and for my job, so of course I see headlines. People say, ‘Did you hear about the prostitute and the hush money?’ or ‘Did you hear about the memo?’—and I say, ‘Well, I saw the headline, do I really need to read the story?’ I read an insightful commentary the other day about why it is possible that people who get most of their news from late night comedians and other satirists may well be better informed than people who watch a lot of news.

If someone tells an obvious, bald-faced lie, say something like, ‘I was wiretapped by a former president,’ all the news shows talk about it. They know it’s a lie, there’s absolutely zero evidence of it having happened, and yet they will spend weeks holding panel discussions and calling in experts to talk about the implications and ramifications of this wiretapping, if it had happened. Of course, it’s a lie, everyone knows it’s a lie, and yet people who consume a lot of news hear a lot about it just the same.

This is all due to a problem that has grown up in journalism dominated by our two-party political system. This is the myth that there are two sides to every story. It is the job of journalism to tell both sides. But the simple fact is, there are not two sides to every story. In many stories, there is simply the truth. It was the contention of this piece I was reading that years ago, journalists understood that their job was simply to tell the truth.

In today’s ‘news’ environment, someone can tell a lie, and then send out surrogates to all the news shows to defend that lie. The news shows all interview that surrogate, because they are dutifully ‘telling both sides of the story,’ even though they know the person has been sent to defend a lie. Why do they do this? Because they have bought into the false mantra that their job is to tell both sides of the story. It’s not. Their job it to tell the truth.

Comedians and satirists have the luxury of calling bullshit bullshit. They do a two-minute segment on the latest lie emanating from on high, get a few laughs, and move on. No panel discussions about the lie, no interviews with other liars. And thus, their audiences may have a clearer picture of what’s going on than people who assiduously tune in to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or whatever.

I think this is important, and I think other people should understand it. But people never will, either people who listen to way too much ‘news,’ or people who are disposed, by reason of party loyalty, to either believe the lie, or—more likely—to believe that turning a blind eye to the latest lie is being supportive of the office from which the lie originated. To put it into simple words, I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.

I never listen to news. I am exposed to some of it. But I have little reason to believe I am less informed than people who awake with NPR, Morning Joe, or Fox and Friends, and spend the rest of the day with newspapers, radio, and TV news. I sometimes feel that I should be more involved, but I don’t know what that involvement would be. I will vote, of course. I sign several petitions each week, and send letters to my representatives all the time. Does this make a difference? Of course not. One of my senators believes everything I believe, while the other believes nothing I believe, so my letters are just so much smoke in the wind.

I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.




The Measure of the Year


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I am thinking of changing the name of my seasons book. As any reader of this blog knows, my book has long borne the same name as the blog—The Varied God. The name comes from a line of poetry by eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thomson, whose set of poems called ‘The Seasons’ was hugely popular, and had a great cultural influence. Many works of art portrayed scenes from Thomson’s poems, and pieces of music, such as Haydn’s ‘The Seasons’ oratorio, were set to it. To the larger work Thomson appended a short ode, in which he wrote:

‘ . . . these are but the varied god,

The rolling year is full of thee.’

I have used this working title for a long time, and been happy with it for a few reasons. But my thinking is changing for similar reasons.

Thomson was an early Enlightenment man, very interested in science. His admiration for the work of Sir Isaac Newton verged on idolatry, and some of the lines in his seasons poems rework theories about the causes of natural phenomena. But, like Newton, Thomson was also a man of great faith. He believed the purpose of science in these years was to discern the workings of God’s creation, that uncovering the deepest structure of the world was a pious enterprise. Over the course of time The Enlightenment began to challenge the religious stories about the creation of the world, its age, its structure, its mechanics. An invocation such as Thomson’s ‘these are but the varied god’ is historically transitional, and that’s one of the reasons I liked it.

But I am increasingly uncomfortable using anything that invokes superstition. Religion in our society goes from black to blacker, and is the basis for ever-increasing evil, violence, intolerance, and danger. Its adherents are way more interested in gaining political power and forcing their viewpoints on everyone else than on anything having to do with eternity, virtue, or human goodness, and I want nothing to do with it, even as a transitional reference.

This abiding distaste may be one of the reasons I refused, from the get-go, to use the famous lines from Ecclesiastes, ‘to everything there is a season.’ That and the fact that if you study the lines, you realize they have naught to do with the seasons as meteorological, environmental phenomena, merely using the word ‘season’ to mean a set period of time.

I am working now on the chapter in the book about art based on the seasons. There is a lot of it, in painting, sculpture, music, prose, and poetry. I have been reading many hundreds of pages of great nature writing from Hesiod to Annie Dillard. I kept thinking that surely someone, in such a profusion of great writing, would send forth a line that would appeal to me.

Then I revisited a sonnet from one of my favorite poets, John Keats. Keats was a genius, one of England’s greatest poets even though he only lived to be twenty-five. He was also a determined atheist, as testified by his sonnet ‘Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition.’ But he also wrote a lovely sonnet known as ‘The Human Seasons,’ in which he lays out the life of a human in terms of the four seasons—the youth of spring, ripeness of summer, maturity of autumn, and the inevitable death of winter. It’s an old trope, often exercised, but Keats does it beautifully. Who else would give us phrases like ‘Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought,’ or ‘Winter . . . of pale misfeature?’ The sonnet begins with the line,

‘Four seasons fill the measure of the year’

I am thinking now of calling my book The Measure of the Year, both as it says what I want it to say, and because the line comes from a poet who is a much more kindred soul. It is also more to the point of the book—the human experience of the seasons—rather than an abstract representation of them.

The Flattening, or Remoteness of the Seasons?


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I have not written anything here in a while. There is a certain irony in the reason. I began writing this blog in support of my work on a book, which I call The Varied God, and which I have been working on for more years than I care to count. Over the past several years, there have been periods of time when I have written more blog posts than pages of the book. Writing a blog is more fun and more gratifying. I can count the number of people who read my posts, and carry on conversations with people who respond to them. That doesn’t happen with chapters of an unpublished book.

In the past few months I have been working on the book more, and it has been going well. I am working on Chapter 5, and since there are seven proposed chapters, that feels like real progress, especially since much of the research, and some of the actual writing for Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 is done.

Chapter 5 is about the influence of the seasons on art—music, painting, literature. There is a lot of it, because the four-season motif has been very popular for most of history. There are some outright masterpieces, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Haydn’s Seasons oratorio, and some really schlocky pop stuff, like Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations.

A book I was reading about seasonal art used the phrase ‘flattening of the seasons,’ which I found interesting. It is the same phenomenon which I have observed but labeled the ‘remoteness of the seasons.’ What I mean, and what the other author meant, is that at one time most people lived an agrarian, largely rural existence. Their lives were necessarily ordered by the procession of the seasons. But as industrialization proceeded and more people migrated to cities and suburbs, we paid less attention to seasonal change. We didn’t have to. Throughout the 19th century, and even up until about the middle of the 20th century, we experienced a great nostalgia for nature and the seasons. Many people made careers of writing books, articles, even newspaper columns about the seasons—Edwin Way Teale, Hal Borland, Rachel Carson, Henry Beston, to name just a few.

But now, most people, and I fear it is predominantly younger people, don’t even have that nostalgia. The seasons are remote from their lives, so remote that they don’t even dress warmly in winter, they just dash from one heated indoor environment to the next. We eat pretty much the same foods all year, do the same things all year. That’s why I use the phrase ‘remoteness of the seasons,’ and while I don’t want to argue the appropriateness of the phrase ‘flattening of the seasons,’ I think it has come to mean something else.

Last week I put up a Christmas tree. It was very warm out, and did not feel ‘Christmas-y’ at all. Autumn was slow to come this year, the trees holding onto their leaves for so long. At the Botanical Garden the other day I noticed a ginkgo tree had dropped all its leaves, but they weren’t the usual golden brown. They were just a tired shade of green. Once the days got chilly enough to feel like autumn, we had another week of temperatures in the 70s. Many people have noted that we are losing our autumn and our spring. We just jump from winter to summer and back again. This is, I fear, an effect of the climate change that isn’t happening. This is, to me, what should be called the flattening of the seasons.

There need to be two terms with separate meanings. Remoteness of the seasons means the phenomenon of people experiencing the seasons less fully because modern amenities have made them irrelevant in day to day existence. Flattening of the seasons means the gradual loss of a full four-season climate règime.

Both scare me.

Buying back Your Life


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How do you buy back your life? What does it cost? Time? Effort? Treasure? After making so many mistakes, and after not standing up to the wrongs done against you, how do you make your life sound again, make yourself whole again, imagine a future of worth and accomplishment?

There is a mental game I have often played with myself. In times when I had a lot of work to do, too many chores ahead of me, more perhaps than I felt I could manage, I have imagined myself a prisoner, a convict who is being made to do this work in expiation for heinous crimes. It is work I must do to gain my freedom, to pay for my crimes. What crimes? I don’t know, it’s never thought out that deeply. I don’t imagine that I have stolen money or injured someone or done anything specific. Just the same it makes me feel better as I go about one unending task after another.

I also know this: we all have done things we regret. One of the few tenets of Christian dogma that I agree with is that we are all sinners, and I don’t care how you define the word, whether sin to you is the obvious, like betraying someone you love, or the oddly arcane, like dancing to rock n roll music. Nobody is perfect, and I think the nature of virtue is such that a virtuous person is not someone who never does anything wrong—that person does not exist—but the person who realizes they have done wrong and does something about it.

We do not get imprisoned for our moral indiscretions, our casual betrayals, our personal failings. They are things we must expiate ourselves, reconcile with those affected, and gain a sense of having done the right thing. How do we do this?

After lengthy legal proceedings, I am now a single person again. I owe much money. I have a somewhat uncertain future. Am I happier? I hope this does not sound too glibly philosophical, but I believe that ‘happiness’ is an artificial construct, and one of fairly recent vintage in our culture. (For more on the subject, read Happiness: A History, by Darrin McMahon.) There are things that please me on a day-to-day basis, fulfill certain needs, satisfy specific urges, but happy? It’s so hard to tell.

Am I working toward a goal of expiating for sins? Have I done wrong? Of course, every day, in large things and small, I have done wrong, and continue to do so. But I feel like my life is much more my own now, and I have the latitude and the time to get back part of who I was in a better time. Sometimes our mistakes are not about doing wrong to others, but allowing wrong to be done to ourselves.

Autumn is coming on. As I sit writing this in my little flophouse apartment, I am watching leaves cascade off the large tree outside my window. A friend told me yesterday that this is not the autumn, that it’s the effects of a drought-stricken summer. But the day is cool, and I feel autumn in the air: I am entering the seventh season since the life I had known for over twenty years fell apart and left me to think about what sort of a future is in store.

Autumn is the season of reminiscence, of watching earth surrender its beauty to a time of contemplation, stripping away its ephemeral and showy trappings to leave you standing alone thinking. We fight it: we fill autumn with more activities than any other season, and yet the time will come when we must take stock. The tree outside my window will soon be bare.

How do you buy back your life? What does it cost?


Appetite, or Hunger


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I recently read a book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories, by Laura Shapiro. It was capsule biographies of six women, three British, two American, and one German, and how their lives were defined to some degree by what they ate, cooked, or served to other people. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for any sort of food history, and this one was a particularly interesting take on culinary culture.

One of the women is Eleanor Roosevelt who, for all her other accomplishments, was famous for lacking any palate, not caring at all what she ate, and for serving—or causing to be served—the worst food on the history of the White House. At some point she became enamored of the newly forming discipline of Home Economics, and its practitioners at Cornell University. They were much more concerned about nutrition than about how food tasted; that they were feeding hunger, not appetite, seems to have been a motto with them.

Hunger, not appetite. We pretty much use the words synonymously. Are you hungry? Sure, I have an appetite. But there is a distinction, and I have known it many times first hand.

This morning was pretty cool for my run, cool enough that I pondered whether I should put on long pants rather than shorts. As I set out in the unusually crisp air of a mid-August morning, I thought about autumn and all that, and I felt some pangs of hunger. This happens frequently when I run. I thought about what I would make for breakfast. Last night I poached two peaches that had gotten a little old in simple syrup and baking spices. They are in the refrigerator now, cool and steeped in sweet syrup. Those, with a warm bowl of cream of wheat, would make a nice breakfast for a cool morning.

But when I got home and sat down to take off my running shoes, I had the most vivid flash of a plate full of bacon and eggs. I think my mouth watered at the thought. Probably because the run in the cool air left me hungry enough that it seemed like only a big hit of protein would suffice. But was I really hungrier? Or did I just have a different appetite?

Cool weather, warm weather. We have different appetites at different temperatures. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘It’s too hot to eat?’ Or how often have we come home on a cold day and wanted nothing more than to eat a whole bag of cookies? No, we’re not hungrier at that time, we simply have different appetites.

Our ancient ancestors, when they felt winter coming on, would stockpile food and eat all day, hoping to pack on as many extra pounds as they could to endure the lean months ahead. We no longer need to pack on the pounds—Shop n Save won’t run out of frozen dinners just because it’s snowing—but I think we still feel this primordial appetite, this urge to bulk up against the cold weather.

There is hunger in America: it’s a daily reality for too many of our fellow citizens. Given the current régime in Washington, and the simple fact that too many Americans claim to be Christian but misunderstand that being a Christian should include practicing Christian charity, hunger is likely to get worse in the years ahead. But most of us have never known real hunger. We know the appetite that develops between meals. We don’t wonder where our next meal will come from: we spend too much time deciding whether it will be Chinese, Italian, or that great new Indian place that just went in where that great old taco joint used to be.

As I finish writing this I am also finishing the cream of wheat and the poached peaches. I don’t even have bacon and eggs in the house. By tomorrow, I will.


When is It Best to Die?


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When I first started working on a book about the seasons, I talked to people about their impressions of the seasons. As a youngster I was heavily influenced by a bulletin board in my first grade classroom, which showed the seasons spinning by throughout the year in a big circle, divided by the 12 months. The image of the year as a circle, and the seasons as a kind of merry-go-round spinning through the months has always stayed with me, so much so that I was surprised to find that other people didn’t see them that way. Some people don’t carry with them any sort of graphic representation. The seasons just happen abstractly, and there is no abiding image that can represent their flow.

One friend I spoke with said that he sees the seasons as a series of doors that he passes through as the months go by. I think this is a striking image, especially, as I wrote at the time, the thought of approaching that final door. Would it refuse to yield? Would one knock in vain, asking to pass through? As I reread this passage in the introduction to The Varied God this morning, it occurred to me that I have never wondered what season I would die in.

Some people think about death a lot, but most never do. We are all going to die, but few of us spend time pondering it. And when we do we tend to think about the age when we’ll die, or what will kill us—disease, infirmity, our own hand? I have never had a conversation with anyone, and as far as I can recall never had a conscious thought about the season in which I’ll draw my last breath.

Does it matter?

Is this something that horoscopes, with all their prognostications, ever deal with? Scorpios tend to die in autumn, Sagittarians in winter? I don’t think I’ve heard any such thing, and I have known some people who take these things seriously.

In art since time immemorial, autumn and winter represent decline and death. Indeed, more old people die in winter than in other seasons, largely due to illnesses like cold and influenza that have their own seasons in the colder months. But nature also dies back, goes into hiding, awaiting the sun and the warmth of spring. But you can die in spring, and you can die in summer. People do it all the time, and for a huge variety of reasons.

I just don’t know. Would I prefer to die when flowers are blooming, when I can hear one last bird singing? Would it be better for those around me (I can only hope there will be ‘those around me’) if they can see me close my eyes and then look to a sunny window and think, Life goes on? Or would it be better in the dead of winter, when it’s easier to accept that everything dies?

The 12th century Japanese poet Saigyō once wrote:

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month. (Kisaragi is February)

But past that it’s hard to find notable citations from art and literature about what season is best to die in. I wonder if anyone else has given this any thought?



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I visited Montana in early June, mostly the town of Kalispell, and Glacier National Park, and places with great names like Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear. It is a beautiful state, dead in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. It also has the distinction of being hugely under-populated. A state of well over 147,000 square miles, it just this year passed one million in population. By comparison, my home state of Missouri, only the 18th most populous state, is a little less than half that size and has more than 6 million residents. Montanans are proud and protective of this fact. I saw a bumper sticker that read, ‘Montana is full, I hear South Dakota is nice!’

But they also have a fierce winter. Anyone you speak with can tell stories of shoveling deep snow off their roof to keep it from collapsing. And the winter, at least its effects, lasts a long time. This was June, and when I was visiting Glacier National Park, I found that it was not completely open yet. There is a road called the Going to the Sun Road, which leads from the Lake McDonald area up into the mountains and glaciers. One takes the famous Red Buses to make the trip up this notoriously circuitous road. But the snow was not quite melted enough, and people were hiking and biking up the portion of the road that was navigable.

Perhaps this long winter is why people in Montana (at least from what I observed in the town of Kalispell) love their flower gardens. Everywhere are brilliant early summer displays of iris, poppies, roses, and many other flowers. They favor flowering shrubs—lilac abounds—and even trees that take on gaudy displays, like flowering chestnut, mountain ash, crabapple, and linden.

But perhaps nothing else is more emblematic of their desire to prolong the summer than the fact that their kids don’t start school until after Labor Day. This used to be the tradition throughout much of the United States. It is said that it was because rural communities needed to plan their agricultural activities around the school year, and a beginning date after September 1 was important for that. But it likely originates in other considerations, particularly the problem of asking young students to sit and pay attention for several hours a day in stifling, un-air conditioned schoolrooms. In Missouri, the law says that any district wanting to start the school year before September 1 must hold a public hearing declaring that. Almost all districts now do so, and start as early as mid-August, mostly because they want students to have as much ‘catch-up’ time as possible in the classroom before they take standardized assessment tests (just another idiocy forced on our educational system by ill-advised standardized tests, but I’ll let that go for now).

In Montana, the summer comes on later, and is not as long, and families want the time to appreciate it. They are a hunting, fishing, camping, boating, climbing, hiking-crazy people. They like to be out in it, and they want as much summertime as possible to do that. I don’t suppose Montanans are any less concerned than folks from other states about their children doing well on tests (though there is a strong streak of libertarian-style distrust of federal mandates), I just think that the priority of living the whole summer trumps that concern.

This is just another example of my basic and abiding thesis, that nothing influences our lives more than the seasons. In Missouri, and many other states, we have a long summer that often grows tedious in its heat and humidity, so part of it is ‘negotiable.’ In Montana—nuh-uh. We’re living for the summer while we’ve got it.