Autumn in the berkshires...

One of my spiritual disciplines for this year is to read poetry on my Sabbath: not only are poets some of God's great messengers to an overly busy world, but poetry nourishes my soul in ways unique in art. So far this summer I have spent time with Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Marie Howe, John O'Donohue, Joy Harjo, Billy Collins, Rumi, Rilke and Donald Hall. This week I am entering the gifts of Louise Gluck and Edward Hirsch. By nature I veer towards music - and I listened to and played some wonderful tunes yesterday - from Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" to Yusuf Islam's "The Wind." (God, do I LOVE this song...)

I am often captivated by film and dance, too. To be sure, gazing meditatively at visual art is more soul food for me, but none are like poetry with its unique balance of thought and sensation. So, we spent part of the afternoon in the yard and garden and part in the library. Louise Gluck spoke to me in The Wild Iris with this poem, "Vespers."

In your extended absence, you permit me use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow tomatoes.
Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come so often here, while other regions get twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living,
who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

As I let her words wash over me - and drip deeper within - I sensed the quiet dread of uncertainty. It is autumn in the Berkshires - beautiful, clear, crisp autumn - filled with color and the smells of celebration. But before I even realize it, autumn will become winter - cold, beautiful and often brutal to my sensibilities. What's more, autumn always evokes a sense that my time is much shorter that I would like to think. (Perhaps the fact that I am going to a pre-retirement seminar on Wednesday is adding to this, too!)

Perhaps, too, it has been my reading of Donald Hall - especially his essays on the seasons in New England - that has heightened my awareness of this gentle terror. He cherishes winter here when the light creates a cave of hushed darkness. He longs for the cold and anticipates the snow.
I do not... so I am making plans to discover ways to meet it, enter it beyond my fears and also escape from it at least twice when the frigid darkness becomes overwhelming. (Thank God my brother lives in San Francisco and Dianne's aunt is in North Carolina.)

And part of my preparation for winter is looking at the beauty of EACH season in this fascinating place... Dianne adores the seasons in ways that often escape me - and her photographs capture just a bit of that grace. Again, Gluck writes:

I know what you planned,
what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out
completely ever again -
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring,
scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away, each flower,
each connection with earth -
why would you wound me,
why would you want me
desolate in the end,
unless you wanted me so starved for hope
I would refuse to see that finally
nothing was left to me,
and would believe instead
in the end you were left to me.

I get that - I feel that - and perhaps that is one of the gifts this part of the journey is going to teach me. How does the Psalmist pray?

As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so my soul longs for you, O God?
My soul thirsts for God,
athirst for the living God;
when shall I come to appear before the
presence of the Lord?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while all day long they said to me,
"Where is your God now?"
My soul is heavy within me;
therefore I will remember you in the land of blessing...
Deep calls to deep in the noise of your cataracts;
all your rapids and floods have gone over me.
The Lord grants mercy and compassion in the daytime;
in the night season, God's song is within me,
a prayer to the source of my life.
(Psalm 40)

We're buying snow shoes this autumn - and thermal sock liners and EXCELLENT long underwear, too - and when the estate is finally settled, Dianne is going to install a small sauna in the basement. So, as the poet, Edward Hirsch, writes in "I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic,"

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.
The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage - silent and pondering.
Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.
I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.
I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.
I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.
I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.
(photos: Dianne De Mott of our back yard in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)


Black Pete said…
I have learned to watch the people who live with long winters, and learn from them. Joyce (my wife) is of Finnish descent, and we deliberately had a sauna built into our basement (free advice available on e-mail, brother), with all the lore and wisdom that goes with it. It sits idle from May to October.

Then there is the acceptance of the rhythms of winter. That is harder (because saunas are so nice), but winter forces us to turn inward, to rest, to contemplate. We need that. Summer is a madhouse--winter is a quiet pool of reflection. And it's important to satisfy our need of light in the red and yellow end of the spectrum, too. We all have SAD in one degree or another.

There is winter food (who wants a delicious, slow-cooked one-pot meal simmering all day in summer?). Winter terrain--you can see farther in winter, see starker contrasts in winter, see cleaner in winter. How about being nicely stranded inside one's warm shelter with the smells of delicious cooking when a blizzard rages outside? Don't get That in summer!

Where we are, the warm seasons are insect-infested. Winter is freedom--from the bugs.

Another thing I love about winter is its transience. What? Transience? It stays forever! Nope. Its days change the same way summer days do. You see the slowly shortening nights, the lengthening days, from about the end of December on, if you pay attention. It can be like watching paint dry, but you're reminded that even as the tides come in, they are going out, so to speak. Winter begins and starts to end almost right away. Just takes a while. And in paying that kind of attention, you're more connected to the universe.

Where we are, the shoulder seasons are long easings into the summer madness and winter balm. We get plenty of notice of the coming season. And if we're smart (we aren't, always) we can start preparing for it.

Winter. Another cycle in the cycles of living.
RJ said…
These are beautiful and healing words for me, my man, and I am committed this year to trying to enter their wisdom. The sauna will help but so will the inward journey of resting and waiting and simmering. It is like an extended Advent season of sorts and I am just beginning to catch a glimpse of what that might mean for me.

Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to write so carefully and with love. I am really grateful.
Black Pete said…
Of course, living the reality of winter still takes some conscious doing! :)

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