Friday, August 22, 2014

NEW ESSAY: Time to Begin the Beginning

Albert Bierstadt - "Indian Summer on the Hudson River"
Leaning to Amber
By Judith Cullen
© 2014

It started two nights ago. The vibrant, pulsing world of summer is beginning to tilt slightly.  Its dominant hue is shifting from bright green of the triumphal sun shining through the leaves that spring worked so diligently to bring to life. Now, everything is beginning to take a slight amber tinge, and in about four to six weeks the world will be glowing in the bronzes and coppers of autumn.

The first signs come with the sunset. After celebrant weeks of being so pleased with itself in high summer that it joyously cannot help but heat the night as well as the day, the sun decides to finally give it a rest. The waning light brings breezes and cool air. I change my cotton blanket for my favorite fleece again.  Daytime temperatures will still be climbing to sweat-worthy highs, but the nights sink into the 50s and, for many, sleep deepens with the promise of satisfying hibernations to come.  Soon enough, it will be outright cold all the time.

It’s never long, this respite - the sigh between seasons. In other parts of the continent the seasons shift with far more efficiency and clarity. I remember living in Indiana and being shocked at how fast the seasons changed. There was little warning: one day it was humid and 85 degrees, 48 hours later there were yellow leaves on the sidewalk; one day there was thirty inches of ice on my front porch, two days later every last bit of it was gone entirely. It was like someone brought a crew in one night and et voila!  - new season! The crew goes off for beers with the satisfaction of another scenic change-over accomplished. In three months they’ll do it all over again. Drink up while you can, lads and lasses!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, home of my childhood, seasons do not change in this dramatic fashion: they segue.  One season leans into the next.  It makes one yearly cycle seem more like eight phases which tilt one into the other, much as the planet tilts on its axis to bring them about.  This particular transition, between summer and autumn, is my favorite. While it is the beginning of the decay of the year, somehow it also is subtly woven with signs of beginning.

In addition to the amber tinted air, you can smell the new clothes and fresh school supplies.  I know that kids today kit themselves out much differently than they did in my day, but this time of year the air still smells of leather shoe polish, new pencils, and fresh crayons waiting impatiently to be initiated to the wonders of a virginally clean sheet of paper. Apples! In my mind I sniff the cider, sweet rolls, and other foods with liberal lacings of cinnamon and judicious pinches of clove.  They don’t really have to be present, because their essence is a part of me, called up from the dark recesses of a half-century of accumulated sensory joys.

There’s more: football games, marching band, the excitement of the first day, the annual barn dance, and foods eaten out of greasy paper wrappers while sitting on impossibly hard bleachers.  The archives also yield up the opening nights of theater seasons, experiments in canning and liqueur making, baking bread for the very first time, and huge pots of hearty homemade soups. I’ll wear a jacket in the morning and lose it by 10 am, only to reach for it just before sunset.

The natural world is preparing for another well-deserved nap, storing up energy to burst forth again in six months.  We are about to celebrate the coming of that rest.  We begin the rich ritual of autumn and winter saying, “Don’t mind us! We’ll keep ourselves busy.  You rest and we’ll see you when the crocuses break through to shatter the crust of your cold sleep.” That’s where we are going, and the cooler nights are just the beginning. 

Someone recently asked me, “How come everything can’t stay the same?” and I remember thinking that very same thing as a child when summer began its waning and the reality of abandoning days of freedom in the sun reared up like a frowning menace. But that’s not how the universe works.  Look around you and see nature in constant flux, always a little different, dynamic not static. That is the joy and the great message of creation to our little, rigid, linear minds – nothing stays the same, everything is part of a continual circle of reinvention.  As summer begins to lean into autumn, it’s time to celebrate: soon we will be blessed to begin all over again.

Take time to savor every step of this rich journey, and don’t forget your party hat. 

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