This is the first essay in a year-long series about the four points of the year, the equinox and solstices. The next installment will be Winter Solstice on December 21, 2021.
The world is spinning away from summer. In Texas, the light changes. The clouds change. The heat morphs slowly into something lighter, gentler. No longer a heavy wool blanket, now a thin cotton one. Is that a chill in the air? Or is it only our imagination?
September 22nd. Light and dark in equal measure, like two cups, their contents measured perfectly, the irises of their meniscus curved like an inverted eye. For the next few days the sun sets one minute earlier, and rises one minute later. The light goes without us even noticing. One day soon, I will step out of the bookstore where I work and drive home in darkness. But for now, light and dark are held in perfect balance. The day is precisely as long as it’s meant to be, though it might not feel that way.
Everything blurs. Time is fluid, more so than it was two years ago. Where do the days go? Is summer really over? (In Houston, that’s almost never the case). We have contrived elaborate systems for marking our days: calendars and planners, daylight savings time, moon cycles, menstrual cycles, the work week, the weekend. Why then is it still so hard to keep track? My coworkers and I have whole conversations about how Tuesday feels like a Friday, or Thursday like Monday. This week is going so fast. This week is interminable. It’s almost the end of September. It’s almost the end of the year.
The day after the autumn equinox marks 100 days until the end of the year. I’m a fan of new year’s resolutions, always eager for a clean slate, but I also see the downsides. Productivity circles would have you believe that the year is just a container for you to fill with one task after another, tethered to your ambition like a kite. What do you want to accomplish before the end of the year, they ask. The final slip into winter, into the chaotic joy of the holidays, feels almost accidental, too fast for me to make any meaningful progress towards whatever distant goals I had for myself in January. And yet almost compulsively I set a goal anyway. A small, cautious goal. You know how it goes.
Sometimes when I’m walking the dog at night, we see a long, elegant shape move in the darkness. It startled me the first time I saw it. But then I took a closer look and realized it was a heron. A Night Heron or a Green Heron, impossible to tell in the limited light. My dog acts the way he does when he sees a squirrel or a cat, pulling at the leash, running the circumference of his allotted space. It’s always funny, seeing my little dog on his short stubby legs contend with this ancient creature who’s twice as tall as he is. What advantage are his sharp little teeth when this bird has the gift of flight? As we draw closer, the heron lifts gracefully into the air, beats its wings once or twice, and glides into the nearest oak tree. Within minutes Wally’s attention is back to sniffing the grass, his exuberant alertness trained on the millions of other smells vying for his attention. A whole language I can’t speak. I like the think the heron watches us until we turn the corner at the end of the street, but I’m sure it has more important things to do.
Who’s to say our human lives are more or less busy than the heron’s? Who’s to say our daily tasks – cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and laundry and commuting and feeding our pets and watering our plants are any more important than a birds’ whose daily tasks are done through instinct more than choice. There’s a quote from Mary Oliver that I return to again and again that says, “The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial… It is now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality.” Vitalities. That’s what Mary Oliver calls nature’s habits. Those things that keep creatures big and small alive. Somehow heating up leftovers in the microwave doesn’t feel the same.
And still the world turns, constantly and invisibly. When I was a kid I didn’t understand how seasons worked scientifically, no matter how many times we learned about it in school. Something about the the tilt of the earth’s axis, the distribution of heat and light. Can you tell I still don’t quite get it? I’ve seen the diagrams. But instead I choose, again and again, to feel rather than understand. I try to mark the shifting light, to account for minutes of daylight. Even in a part of the world that only has the approximation of seasons, where summer reigns supreme and all the others pale in comparison, I still like to bring my attention to the shift.
The heat feels lighter. In the mornings, when I let Wally outside into the dew stained grass the air feels cool against my skin. It will feel like summer later in the day, but for this moment, I breathe in the crispness of fall. The wheel of the year turns. The world spins and the light grows thin but also golden.