Autumn is here and the natural world shifts towards a slower rhythm, a shorter day in this season of preparation. Autumn is not like summer, with its long, light-filled days and warm, leave-the-house-without-a-jacket temperatures. Summer is hectic, but it’s a fun hectic: We go to the beach, we stay outdoors later, there are parties and festivals and fairs. Flip-flops are acceptable footwear in the summer and having a beer at lunch is almost required. Autumn ambles in and insists that you slow down and smell the pumpkin spice.
When the autumnal equinox arrives, everything swings towards storage and securing. Those often-used grills get covered up and gardens are cut back. Tarps become the new yard décor. The Cambridge Dictionary online defines someone’s autumn years as “the later years of one’s life, especially after they have stopped working.” When Bobby Goldsboro sang about the “Autumn of My Life” he told the story of the decay of his marriage and losing his little boy through divorce. And it is the season of decay, isn’t it? All those beautiful colors we oooh and ahhh over–the deep reds, the brilliant oranges, the luminous yellows are leaves dying. The “smell” of autumn is decomposition, as those once beautiful leaves fall to the ground, only to be raked up into piles or bagged and trashed at the local landfill. Autumn is literally a SAD season. This is when Seasonal Affective Disorder shows up for some people owing to the lack of daylight. Whose cruel idea was it to make the days darker in the fall and winter? Even the holidays remind us of the season of death–The Day of the Dead and All Saints Day to name just two.
But is it really all doom and gloom? Here in the northern hemisphere we are ramping up for school, holidays, annual giving drives. We have to be grown-ups again, even if the natural world is telling us to slow down. I don’t think I am the only one who feels that the turning of the calendar page from August to September means “back to school”, and gets a little excited about dreams of a trip to Staples. Our To-Do lists grow longer, not shorter–it’s just the days that do that. Ironic, isn’t it? Just when we have more to do, we have less time in which to do it. I’m not sure I see any slowing down.
It’s a bit of a paradox that our physiological inclination is to taper off, seal the windows in preparation for cold and snow and survive the winter in front of a blazing fireplace, but our cultural directive is to get busy. You thought summer was hectic? The holidays are lining up, competing for our time and attention. Back in the old days, when some of these holidays were originated, they were a quick nod to observe the end of the harvest and give thanks for its produce. Then, it was a time to pack up and store that food for the long winter ahead; no one was going to be out hoeing and tilling gardens in Massachusetts in January.
Now, our weekends are jam-packed; still preparing, but a lot differently than our hardy forebearers. The holidays come at us full force; we’re barely done grabbing our bags of Halloween treats before candy canes and red- and green-foil covered chocolates take their space on the shelves. I can’t even talk about those over-achievers who have bought and wrapped their Christmas gifts by Columbus Day. Those people are the ones who took Aesop’s lesson of the Ant and the Grasshopper a little too seriously. We grasshoppers can still toil all autumn as long as there is a Whole Foods or a Target within driving distance.
Even with all this ongoing activity, autumn continues to bring our focus inward. Sukkot and Thanksgiving usher in the season of harvest, survival and gratitude. Hundreds of years after the Pilgrims rode out the winter living together in one small room, sometimes with the family cow, we still tend to spend this season thinking about ways we can be with as much family as possible. Autumn is a seasonal reminder to take care of home and hearth. That brings an opportunity to consider the needs of others. Thirty percent of nonprofits run their annual charitable giving drives at year’s end, taking advantage of our collectively unconscious need to help others at this time of year.
The autumn of our lives may be defined as when one stops working, but it doesn’t hold true now. Maintaining a connection to our origins while acknowledging the reality of a busy world and different expectations takes balance, but it’s not impossible. Autumn can be both things; a time of reflection and preparation and a time of commotion and creativity.
We’re not Pilgrims.