Kites

Tags

, , ,

This morning out on the running path several people passed me carrying signs. There was one young couple and one family group with two small kids. Their signs read Stop Trump and Protect Women’s Health and such. They were headed to the MetroLink train station a half mile away, no doubt to take it downtown to a rally. This will be a busy protest season for many people. I may participate in some, but I realize it won’t do anything. If losing the election by 3 million votes can’t convince a man that he has no mandate from the American people, I doubt that marches will. But I understand the urge to do it, and that it will likely intensify as the weather moderates.

I had been thinking about spring. It’s pretty warm out for a January day, and the first sunny day in over a week, so even though we still have a few months of winter left, it felt like spring was in the air. I thought of what my spring activities might be, aside from political protest. For many years, both as a suburban homeowner and as an owner of rural property, spring meant revving things up, getting ready to plant things, plow things, prepare soil and beds, check the lawn equipment, all with a sense of mixed anticipation and dread. Now, I have no lawn at all to worry about and no garden to enjoy.

Last year I put four pots of herbs in the window of my small apartment. I harvested and used those herbs, and plan to do so again this year. But that’s about the extent of my ‘gardening.’ So what do I have to look forward to in spring, that’s different from what I do all the time?

Fishing—I like that. Trout season begins in March. But I can only go fishing so many times. The best streams for trout are far away enough to make it a full day’s endeavor just to fish for several hours. What else do people who don’t care for lawns and gardens and orchards and beehives do when the weather gets nice?

I have thought about kites. I wonder how much this is a reversion to the joys of my youth. I used to love the thrill of feeling something so far above me tug at the string in my hand. I imagine it’s something like the thrill of flying without actually leaving the ground. But today is fairly windless, despite it being otherwise an optimal weather day, so I think the kites will have to wait.

I also wonder how expensive this seemingly simple pastime has become. When I was a kid, we used to walk to a little market down the street from our neighborhood. If you had a quarter, you could buy a paper kite for ten cents and a ball of string for ten cents. If you could get your mother to give you a worn out shirt or an old sheet to tear in strips you made a tail and were ready to take to the skies. For less than 25 cents. I’m guessing I won’t get off so cheaply these days.

But you’ll notice that as I think about what to do with my upcoming warm spring days, I am thinking about leisure activities—fishing, kite flying. In years past everything was about important seasonal tasks that needed doing. Planting the garden, weeding the flower beds, cutting the grass. Somehow I miss those things, even though they are a lot of work. But not enough to want to return to them. In my life I have never been wealthy, never actually been that comfortable: I have made a living, but I have gone from being house poor to being land poor. Never have I had the time or the resources to enjoy myself with any regularity. Now the thought of doing exactly that looms before me, and I approach it with apprehension.

I am leaving the apartment soon to get groceries and do a few other errands. I wonder where they sell kites? I may stop by and see what’s to be had, ask a few questions. It has been over forty years. Nowadays they probably have remote controlled kites. I can imagine the conversation:

‘Do you have kites?’

‘Sure,’ says the guy behind the counter, ‘what kinda phone do you have?’

‘Phone?’

‘Yeah, what kinda phone? So you can download the app.’

Or maybe not. Maybe they’re still made simply, with paper and balsa wood. I doubt it, but there’s always hope.

 

 

Jupiter Shmupiter

Tags

, , ,

I just finished a morning run, and as I entered the door to my apartment building a haggard-looking woman with a coat thrown over her pajamas stopped me in the hallway. She was eyeing the outdoors with fear in her eyes. ‘Is it icy out there?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s not.’ ‘Not at all?’ she continued, suspiciously. ‘I just ran two miles,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see any ice anywhere.’ I should have added that while there is a little drizzly rain, the temperature is above freezing. As I was walking towards the apartment building I heard birdsong, and I thought of spring. So no, there is no ice. ‘Well,’ the woman said, turning back towards her apartment, ‘I’m not crazy.’

I’m not sure what she meant by that. Maybe she’s one of those people who is often suspected of being crazy, and she wanted to let me know otherwise. She might have meant that she is not crazy enough to venture out on what’s supposed to be an icy morning, regardless of my assertions. But most likely she meant that she hadn’t made up the idea of ice: that there was truly, really, actually supposed to be ice out there. So where was it?

They called it Jupiter, an ice storm of such massive proportions that everyone was cautioned to stay off the roads and prepare to spend three or four days indoors. Stock up on food and buy extra  batteries for flashlights, since there would be widespread power outages. Schools, churches, libraries, businesses all closed—long before a single raindrop fell.

At the height of the hysteria, Missouri’s new governor came on TV and told everyone that he would be mobilizing the National Guard in response to this emergency. That’s really the point when I yielded to the hysteria and closed the library where I work. My staff had been walking around in blackening dread, and I’m sure there was a whispering campaign conducted around the theme of how insane I was to even consider opening on the day of the climatic holocaust. I should have been smarter. I know that new governor is a GOP’er whose main credential to be our state executive is his experience as a Navy Seal, whose campaign ads featured him shooting firearms into various exploding objects (for readers not from Missouri, I swear I’m not making this up), and who clearly had a puerile, macho need to be seen hanging tough with the soldiery.

So Friday came. I was home, and called my mother, spoke with my brother, all of us checking on each other to be sure we were safe and making sound decisions in this time of impending doom. And then I sat all morning and afternoon watching while light occasional showers put down the tiniest film of ice on tree branches and car windows, but completely failed to glaze the streets or sidewalks. It was a complete bust, as far as I (or anyone who would take the time to step outside) could tell.

But the funny thing is that it didn’t change the frantic nature of the reporting on The Event. TV news reporters swarmed the region, letting us know where the worst icing was, where the roads were the most hazardous, where the emergency centers were. It was kind of sad watching a reporter who stood before a building in downtown St. Louis as he asked the cameraman to follow him to a little patch of ice he had discovered near a curb—he prodded it with his shoe and intoned ominously about its dangers. Late in the day came the news of the first death linked to the storm, someone out in one of our rural counties, though nobody mentioned the nature of the death or how it was ‘linked to the storm’—you could just tell the news teams were so overjoyed at being able to report a death that such details became immaterial. By evening I had given up on expecting the storm to make its mark today. Maybe on Saturday we would incur The Wrath of Jupiter.

But as Saturday dawned I came back to reality. The temperature was just above freezing, precipitation was minimal. I quipped that if they wanted to name this storm for a planet, it should be Pluto, the planet that turned out to be too small to deserve the name. I recollected once again that weather forecasts are, first and foremost, advertisements for television news. And for grocery stores. Wow, did our local stores sell out of stuff over the past few days! Even the National Weather Service did not seem to have a grip on things. One guy I work with mentioned on Thursday that after so many warm days in January the streets and sidewalks were likely too warm to ice over quickly. I had the same thought, especially since the temperatures were not exceptionally cold, hovering just around the freezing mark. If a couple of librarians could see that obvious point, couldn’t entire staffs of trained meteorologists figure that out?

The point I want to make is, get out there and see what’s happening. There is still, even in this time of computer modeling and Doppler radar and whatever other technological weather tracking, simply no substitute for going outside and seeing what it feels like it might do. If you hover indoors, staring at your local TV news coverage, you’ll never know anything that’s happening, only what they want to tell you. I know, it’s a sad irony but true, that watching the news will teach you almost nothing of importance. As Nobel Laureate Robert Zimmerman put it many years ago, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’

Thinking back on it, I wish I had taken that woman in the hallway by the hand and led her outdoors. ‘Please,’ I would say, ‘just step out here and see. Birds are singing, there is a light breeze and a bit of mist in the air—and no ice.’ But I didn’t. I only watched her turn back to her apartment, likely to spend another day in her pajamas before the TV, shivering and worrying about whether her supply of Beef-a-Roni and canned tuna would hold out, muttering to herself or whoever she thinks might be listening that she is not crazy. No she is not. She is perfectly sane, in the exact same way all of us our perfectly sane.

From the Flophouse

Tags

, , ,

In another month or so I will have spent a year in the small apartment I moved into when I left the ranch behind. Somewhere along the line I took to calling the place where I live ‘the flophouse.’ The word has all those connotations of a place inhabited by the desolate, the drunken and drugged, the indigent and unfortunate, and I do cast my eye critically upon my neighbors from time to time. As the months roll by though I am returning to a more humane understanding of people. I don’t know anyone else’s situation and experience and I ought not to judge.

We judge people in terms of ownership. The American Dream is a dream of ownership, at least at the individual level. From above, it’s the utopian dream that everyone who ‘works hard, pays taxes, and plays by the rules’© should be able to own a home; from the individual level it’s about me owning a home. To my way of thinking this whole system is now in question on two major fronts.

One is the simple fact that paying taxes and playing by the rules is problematic under a government that increasingly disenfranchises whole blocks of voters, that gerrymanders its way into office using the archaic electoral college, and makes common cause with despotic foreign governments who seek to intervene in our elections. As our next president has asserted, repeatedly and emphatically, ‘It’s a rigged system, folks.’ We should not ignore that fact.

The other change is that many people these days are shifting their emphasis away from using the money they earn to own things to using that money to buy experiences. Whether it’s tickets to symphonies, plays, concerts, and sports events, or dinner out at new and interesting places, or vacations to the kinds of exotic locales people put on their bucket lists and usually never get to, the thinking is that there has to be something more meaningful to do with the cash we earn than buying a bigger home and filling it with more furniture. Some call it minimalist living, and it is much talked about. I don’t know how much it’s catching on, but it certainly appeals to me.

In the early years of this century I lived with my family in a standard middle-class subdivision. We all had two-story brick-fronted, vinyl sided, four bedroom 3-bath homes on quiet cul-de-sacs. Most of the time that we weren’t working to afford these places we spent frantically preening the yards, painting the rooms, cleaning the carpets, and shopping for more bric-a-brac to fill them with. In the decade we lived there our vacations, our trips, our nights out to interesting places were few and far between. It was too expensive and all the money was going to feed the home. Neighbors, of course, rarely spoke. We were simply too busy to get to know one another. I did have one good friend, Jeff, and he was the first person I ever heard succinctly describe our condition. ‘We’re house poor,’ he said.

So now I am faced with a decision as I sit in my warm, cozy little apartment here in what is too easily derided as a flophouse. I have good fair-trade coffee with my breakfast of fresh hummus on homemade whole wheat pita, a baroque concerto playing on my Bose radio. I am surrounded by a few furnishings carefully chosen from Ikea. I have a good laptop computer to type this on. I don’t have Internet service in my apartment, but I do at work, and so it will be easy to upload this writing there when it’s done. What else do I need to be happy?

Yes, it causes one to ask seriously what is happiness? I know there are people at the income level that can afford both the big, richly furnished house and the experiences that make life worth living. More power to them, I guess: but I know they are a tiny minority in our world. For the rest of us it seems the question is in order. Do I maintain my material well-being at a level pretty much prescribed by societal norms (and the needs of The Economy to keep growing), or do I martial my resources in support of something other?

It may have been consideration of this question that all along drove my passion to study the seasons. I started studying the subject in that vinyl mansion in that standard subdivision. I knew that I needed something more than those material trappings to find happiness. For whatever reason, I focused on a finer attention to the world around us, as represented by the flow of the seasons. I read a book a few years ago called Holidays and Holy Nights by a man named  Christopher Hibbert. It was specifically about the old Catholic liturgical year and how it defined the flow of the seasons over hundreds of years for a vast part of western society. It was a beautifully written book and very nostalgic for that old cyclical routine, which has been largely lost, even among observant Catholics. Mr. Hibbert noted that regardless of whether one is Catholic or not—and I certainly am not—we in the 20th and 21st centuries are the only people in history who are trying to live our lives without some observance of a seasonal calendar. I think he’s right, and I think it’s a loss.

So I find myself back here, in my small apartment in the flophouse. Soon, when certain niggling legal considerations are resolved, I hope to move on to something ‘better.’ What that better will be is a major decision at my time of life. Will I choose to continue on the path of ownership of more and more nice things, or on spending the last few decades of life experiencing much of what I have missed?

I hope I make the right choice.

 

 

Christmas

Tags

, , ,

I awake alone this morning before Christmas Eve, alone not exactly by choice, but then most of what happens to us in life is a consequence of some choice we have made. Sure, I know people—friends, family, those I work with—and my life is not solitary; but there is something different about having or not having someone to wake up with after so many years, someone to look at and say ‘only one more day to Christmas!’

Relationships, like so many facets of our lives, live in the seasons, but are not themselves seasonal. A new love wants to stretch its wings in spring, an old love wants to walk among the falling leaves of autumn, and all love wants to nestle beside the tree at Christmas and share the joy of the season. But of course this is sentiment and it stands next to reality in the light of day.

Anton Chekhov, one of our most astute students of relationships, said ‘If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.’ You can feel more lonely in a bad relationship, even in a relationship gone stale, than in none at all. It’s just that time and habit make us long for the other person in that bad relationship when the right season comes around. Someone to sip eggnog with, someone to watch the parade with, someone to put up the tree with. Doing any of these things alone has come to seem unnatural.

Some relationships are, as they say, made in heaven. They will endure for all time, and through all seasons. In all the rest, one partner puts forth the prodigious effort to make them work. The funny thing is that in bad relationships, both partners tend to think they are the one who is making it work, and this breeds the abiding resentment that will eventually cause it to fall apart. We may, in a sentimental mood, wish we had someone beside us as the holiday approaches, but if we reflect on the tension of the holiday with someone who was never really right for us, of gifts unappreciated, of arguments over when or where or how to celebrate, we can learn to deal with the fact that just maybe we’re better off alone. This is not to say we plan to stay alone—only that we are learning to be comfortable with the change.

All seasons are transitions from one thing to another, and will return. But relationships are not seasonal in that good ones endure through all seasons and bad ones can end. Just end. I heard a comedian once say that his girlfriend had decided to continue their relationship without him. This is a farcical expression of one’s inability to face what has ended; not changed, not evolving, but over. It’s something many of us will face, and we need to be able to do it.

But Christmas makes it hard. Perhaps all holidays are hard, but Christmas, being something like the King of Holidays, is the worst. I am having my family come to my small ‘bachelor pad’ for Christmas Eve dinner. It will be fun, I’m sure. And then I will go to my mother’s for Christmas dinner. Hardly a lonely or isolated life, but very different. I have had a few correspondents in the past weeks console me about how it feels to be alone at this time of year. Something to ‘power through’ as one put it. So I am powering through, and keeping my eye on the New Year, on the spring, and on all the seasons of happiness to come.

A Name for the New Year

Tags

, ,

What does one name a history of the New Year? Provided, of course, that one does not want to call it Auld Lang Syne, the title that springs most readily to mind and is just as readily discarded as too trite? Just as when I began working on a book about the seasons and determined not to call it A Time for Every Purpose, or To Everything There Is a Season, or any other snippet of the text from Ecclesiastes, I don’t want to title a work on the New Year the most obvious thing on the face of the earth.

In 2015 I was co-author of a small book on the history of the town where I work. There were three authors on that project, and I am now working with one of them to write a book on the history of the New Year, which is a richer and more layered subject than many may realize.

My part of the book is the ancient history and the controversial transition from celebrating the New Year in spring, as it was done from the Stone Age forward, to January 1, which was an innovation of Julius Caesar, later to receive the approval of the Catholic Church. Deborah, my co-author, is researching the huge variety of traditional observances and practices which inform modern celebrations throughout the world.

But we have been stymied up to this point in coming up with a name that we like, that evokes the totality of what we mean to accomplish with the book. This week we were reading quotes about the New Year, and there are some really good ones. Perhaps my favorite comes from American journalist Bill Vaughn, who said, ‘An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.’ I am also fond of Oprah’s famous quote, that the New Year is ‘another chance to get it right.’ But how do you make that into a title? And not get sued by Harpo Productions?

I thought for a while that the title might be something having to do with Janus, the god with two faces who gives his name to the month January. But I can’t think of what the title would be, not to mention that a main thesis of the book is that celebrating the New Year in January is a mistake for a number of reasons, and that worship of Janus was one of the likeliest reasons that Caesar set his year to begin on January 1.

So here I am, throwing it open to suggestions. What would you name a book on the history of the New Year?

Ovid

Tags

, ,

I have not read, listened to, or watched one single news story since election day. Seriously, I don’t even watch the comedy shows, for fear that the topical humor will keep me as well informed as the actual news. To say that I am disappointed in the outcome of our elections is a great understatement. I am trying not to be too cynical, but I feel in my deepest core that for most of my life I have been wrong about my fellow Americans. I have always felt that despite political differences, Americans are at heart decent, kind people. I no longer feel that way; at least not presently. I think Americans are selfish, spoiled, and self-entitled; and I suspect that they are more deeply racist, misogynist, and xenophobic than I ever knew.

So I am divorcing myself from caring about this nation. Even if the current administration were to accomplish everything it claims it is going to do (an absurd proposition from the start), there is absolutely nothing there for me, or for most people like me.

There is something liberating in not caring. I do not spend time online reading repetitive news stories, or checking the ridiculous comments. Instead of Meet the Press or Fox News Sunday I spend the day with the radio tuned to classical music. This has been a morning of Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn. Splendid. I am writing a chapter in my book on the history of the New Year, the chapter wherein Julius Caesar reforms the calendar and makes January 1 the beginning of the year.

This research involves reading a lot of Ovid, my favorite poet. He lived during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and much of his verse extols the wonders of his beloved Caesars. In his long poem called Fasti he explains the origins and significance of all the Roman festivals and holidays; so the poem’s first section is a conversation between the narrator and Janus, the god of beginnings, whose name is echoed in the month January.

There is a great literary mystery surrounding Ovid. Although he was so devoted to the Caesars, and wrote so much verse praising their accomplishments, he was at a certain point in his life sent into exile. Nobody knows why. He ascribed it to ‘carmen et error’—a poem and a mistake. But which poem, which mistake, nobody knows, and Ovid would say no more.

His exile was served on the shores of the Black Sea, in a barbarian community called Tomis. The great Australian novelist David Malouf wrote a novella about Ovid’s time there, called An Imaginary Life. I once interviewed Malouf, and he told me this was his favorite among all his works. As a preface to my edition of Fasti, there is a translation of ‘A Letter from Pontus,’ a Roman who visited Ovid during his exile. He writes that Ovid lived in a mud-floored hut, in ragged clothes, living on salt fish and dry biscuit, with sparse furnishings—’And implements for writing, nothing else.’

It was here that Ovid produced his Fasti. To sit in that rough hut and imagine all the splendors of the world’s greatest city, where once he was a noted and celebrated person, must have been a combination of grief and splendor. And in the end he wrote there one of the greatest works in all of literature.

I don’t compare myself to Ovid, but the experience is instructive. I am living a kind of self-imposed exile, distancing myself from any concern for the country where I have always lived. If they think they can run it so well, go ahead. You know, enough rope . . . I spend all of that spare time reading and writing more than ever; and remembering the America that used to be.

Predictions

Tags

,

Yesterday I bought gasoline for $1.89 a gallon. Again I shook my head over the unexpectedly low price, and at my own lack of foresight. Several years ago, in a discussion with my family about gas prices, I boldly pronounced ‘You will never see gas under $2 a gallon again. Those days are gone!’

But then we had the collapse of America’s financial markets, the worldwide recession, the sudden increase in domestic energy production, and other factors that completely changed the picture, and we have seen gas prices under $2 a gallon many times in recent years. I have borne considerable ribbing on this score.

I, of all people, should know better. I try not to be a pontificator, for one thing, and I am particularly averse to predictions. ‘There’s nothing more unreliable than a prediction,’ is a favorite saying of mine. Most predictions in my life I have lived to see disproved. It goes without saying that the current presidential election cycle has offered up a few examples of predictions gone awry.

So Americans are once again driving wherever they want, as much as they want, in whatever vehicle they want, all fueled by cheap gas. And as usual, while we’re happy about our freedom, we don’t consider the true cost of our excess, which is, of course, adding to the problem of climate change. And here again I think about the problem of predictions.

When we set up benchmarks, we only give naysayers ammunition to defeat us. If someone predicts that the world’s average temperature will rise to X degrees by year Y, or that the Marshall Islands will be underwater by this year, or Florida will lose 15% of its land mass by that year, or that the polar ice cap will melt this much by the end of the decade, and those things don’t in large measure come about, it hurts the cause of warning people about the problem. ‘The experts said this would happen,’ the Climate Change Deniers sneer, ‘and of course it didn’t!’ But missing certain predictions doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t  exist: it only means that it is a hugely complicated syndrome whose effects we can only hope to track and report.

It is enough to report that the coastline of the Marshall Islands is creeping steadily inward, as is the coastline of Florida; that 9 of the 10 warmest years on record have already happened in this century; even that I am sitting outside in shirtsleeves on November 1, a day that will run 10 to 15 degrees warmer than average, writing this down. I just drove from St. Louis to Columbia, a drive that takes me through many miles of wooded Missouri hills, and where there should have been a brilliant display of autumnal color, I saw only green trees fading, unable to enter their usual seasonal cycle in the persistent heat of summer. I am not an expert and I will not try to predict anything; I can only report what I see, and that frightens me enough.

When Seasons Begin

Tags

, , ,

Yesterday I spoke with my brother, and he told me that this past August was the hottest August on record, making for something like eleven months in a row now of the hottest months on record. This despite the fact that here in the Great American Midwest, it wasn’t a bad summer. I don’t know if the temperature ever hit 100°. People who don’t have the courage to face up to the reality of climate change will shrug and say ‘What global warming? It feels fine to me!’ It’s like saying ‘What increase in gun violence? I haven’t been shot yet!’

As with all scientifically verifiable conditions it’s not about what you see right in front of you, it’s what is statistically valid. That warmest August on record is a worldwide measure, not the measure for your hometown; and the fact that you can still sit comfortably on your patio in August drinking lemonade doesn’t mean that the Maldives aren’t rapidly being swamped by rising seas.

For me, one of the notable effects of climate change is in what feels like a shift of seasons. According to the date on the calendar, we should be in autumn. It started two days ago. But the temperatures have been in the 90s, the heat and humidity very summerlike. I see women out on the streets in wool skirts with big scarves around their necks. They are anxious to don their fall fashion finery, even if it means sweating beneath layers of warm clothing. Autumn is just not here yet, and it’s the last week of September.

Of course, we don’t expect the seasons to change automatically, as if someone throws a switch when the appropriate date arrives. We don’t even agree about which date to use. For a long time, in traditional terms, the seasons have been dictated by the dates of the solstices and equinoxes. But this can be an odd measure, since we can see a lot if wintery weather before the late December winter solstice, or be deep into spring well before the vernal equinox.

Back in 1780, in search of some kind of certainty, Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria convened a group of meteorologists he called the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, charged with formalizing how weather and climate were studied. This group decided that the meteorological seasons would be defined by temperature, and designated as three-month periods beginning on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern prevailed. Spring would run from March 1 to May 31, summer from June 1 to August 31. Even though the group only lasted until 1795, meteorologists still recognize these seasons.

But you see the problem: according to the meteorological definition, autumn should have begun September 1, and here it is September 25 and it still hasn’t come. But even as I’m typing this I look out the window to see a breeze riffling the leaves, which are all tinged with golden brown. There is rain predicted for this afternoon, the leading edge of a cold front. By tomorrow, we’ll all be digging into closets for our woolies and scarves.

Did you hear that NASA recently announced some interesting news regarding the signs of the Zodiac? For one thing, the ancient Babylonians, who basically created the Zodiac, named 13 signs, not 12. One was dropped when annual dating was being formalized into a 12-month calendar. Not only that, but due to shifts in the earth’s axis, it no longer points to the same constellations it did those several thousand years ago. Meaning, of course, that the sign you may believe rules your life is possibly not your sign at all.

Things change. People who can’t face up to the reality of climate change often say that the changes we are currently seeing (if they acknowledge them at all) are the same kind of climate shift that has happened before on our planet. It has naught to do with human activity. Okay, let’s say that’s true. So maybe we need to reevaluate and decide anew when our various seasons start. Say October 1 is the beginning of Autumn, and January 1 the start of winter. But these things, like the seasons on our planet and our reading of the stars in the sky, should be long term: that old Babylonian Zodiac was created long ago, even before most of the books of the Old Testament were written. If we change the dates when seasons begin today, how long will that last? How long will it even matter?

 

Autumn

Tags

, , ,

This morning the radio announcer notes that it is September 1, autumn is around the corner, and invites us to stay tuned in all seasons. Yesterday I stood on a friend’s balcony during a cool rain shower, looked at trees just beginning to take on fall color, and thought about the coming season. It is late summer. In the evening the cicadas make a persistent trill from the trees, and darkness closes in a bit earlier every night.

Much of the earliest religious practice humans indulged in was aimed at ensuring seasonal change. Demeter and her daughter Kore—transformed into Persephone, the ‘bringer of death,’ after her underworld episode—are as ancient as any deity we know. Even before there was a Zeus, there was a Demeter, and it seems obvious that to early humans, tracking the orderly flow of the seasons was more important than any Olympian hierarchy.

Dumuzi, Adonis, Attis and many other ancient gods and demigods died and were resurrected in spring or summer rituals, making sure that one season of abundance would follow on another, that the gods would never leave us to starve in a world without sun, without life-giving water, without warmth—what the Norse would come to think of as Fimbulwinter, three years of unbroken severe winter that would precede Ragnarök, the end of the world. In time, humans have learned one important lesson: the seasons are going to change, one following on another, and you can’t stop them.

Most people who have lived where there are four defined seasons do not want to live where there are not. They may long to get away to Florida for a while in the depth of winter, but not to live there all year round. We don’t necessarily like the extremes, even if we do like the four seasons. And what we love most of all are the transitions.

Some climatologists and meteorologists don’t recognize spring and autumn, speaking only of winter and summer, with the other seasons being just transitions between them. And as I’ve noted before in this blog, when you ask people to name a favorite season, spring and autumn are the most popular, with autumn edging out spring in the contest, and summer and winter running far behind. When pressed for further definition most people will tell you something about the wonderful feeling of the first cool days after a long summer, or the first warm days after the cold of winter. It is the change we like, the transition from one thing to another.

We are restless beings. How else did small bands of early hunter-gatherers come to populate the entire globe? We are hungry for change. Summer may be nice, with its pools and barbecues, outdoor concerts and Shakespeare in the Park, pretty girls in sandals and sundresses, but after a while the heat is too much, we’re weary of living in air conditioning, we’ve harvested all the tomatoes and peppers we can eat, stew, can or foist on neighbors, and it’s time for a change.

Human societies worldwide have cherished the autumn for a long, long time. Of course there is its aspect as representing an end of life. In the old symbolic systems in Chinese painting, autumn scenes, especially birds flying away over bare trees, evoke death.

Maybe it’s our desire to fight this that there are more celebrations, traditions, and events in autumn than any other season. While the two major winter events, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, may eclipse any autumn festival for size or glamour, they pale against the sheer number of autumn’s special days. The beginning of school, of sports seasons, hunting seasons, theater seasons, symphony seasons, homecoming games, harvest festivals, Halloween, Thanksgiving, the list goes on and on, to the point that it’s surprising how much we get up to in the autumn—all against a backdrop of glorious, multicolored trees.

So bring on the autumn. Let’s dust off the football, carve the pumpkin, dig out Mom’s old recipe for cranberry relish, get our sweaters and coats dry-cleaned, plan our annual autumn color tour, check our seasons tickets for this, that, and the other. There may not be any ancient rituals aimed at bringing on the autumn, but in modern times, few seasons surpass it for traditional observances.

Music

Tags

, ,

Last Sunday was rainy around here. So rainy in fact that before the downpour was done there was significant flooding in the area. I had some places to go in the morning and spent a while in the car, headlights on, wipers wiping, and music on the radio.

I was unhappy with the selections on the classic rock station that morning, so I switched to classical. They were playing Baroque music, which is pleasing sometimes, but not that morning. I switched to the jazz station and found a tune by a combo featuring sax and trumpet, my favorite kind of jazz, and settled into it. The music filled the confined air of the car, the rain continued unabated, and I ate up the miles towards my destination.

Often in human life, especially human life in the seasonal climes, we find ourselves locked inside because of the weather. Snowy days, rainy days, even too hot days. In these times, for many of us, music is our companion. We always listen to music. I sometimes wonder if its very ubiquity on radio, computer, and various digital devices doesn’t devalue its ancient wonder.

For most of time, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make music, or know someone who would make it for you. Sometimes it was just singing, or singing to the accompaniment of drums, pipes, or the simplest of string instruments. Everyone has heard about the origin of folk music and blues music in the work songs of field hands and slaves. For a long time, any family that could afford it had a piano in the house, and someone who could play it at least competently. The sale of sheet music used to be big business.

Much changed with the coming of recorded music. The number of people who could make music declined while the number who could listen to music increased. The quality of the music listened to also declined rapidly. (We’ll argue about this some other time.) But the important point is, now almost anybody can take music inside with them when the weather dictates a retreat from the elements.

Music is solace on a rainy day. It is comfort amid a snowy afternoon. The weather changes what we listen to. There is time and space to listen. In the raucous comings and goings of a summer afternoon I enjoy pop songs and rock ballads. When I know I am confined for a while I am more interested in putting on a long Mahler symphony, Beethoven concerto, or Bach chorale. I have the mental space to listen.

When I reached my first destination last Sunday morning, the Ethical Society’s Sunday morning platform, there were two musicians to entertain us, a folk guitarist and a brilliant young fiddle player. They led off with a rousing traditional reel. It was an unexpected delight in the otherwise somber air of the rainy morning chamber, and it seems everyone sat up a little straighter after the bright chords died away. I know I did.

I have read a few times the theory that in the ancient years of human prehistory, the time of hunter-gatherers, we would gather in caves or other enclosures during the coldest winter months, huddling together, doing little, conserving energy in a kind of semi-hibernation. I wonder how we stood it. We’re human beings, after all, not given, like bears or skunks, to sleeping long stretches or staring at cave walls for weeks on end. I like to imagine someone in the family band would at one point or another burst into song, or what would turn out to be the prototype of song, our earliest music, filling the dank echoing darkness with sound, expressing frustration, or expectation, or even joy at the thought of the eventual advent of spring and sunny weather. I know I would.