It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago;
Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home.
Going home, going home,
By the waterside I will rest my bones,
And listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul.
-Robert Hunter, “Brokedown Palace”
I wonder if the fact that the high school and college concept of “homecoming” takes place during this time of year is related to the fact that autumn is the season of decay and death. Is this tradition rooted in a head-nod to the final homecoming awaiting us all?
To be honest, though I’ve been surprised before, I sort of doubt it. I really don’t know anything about the origins of autumnal alumnus homecoming. But we can certainly pretend, anyway – or even appropriate it in this manner. By no means am I above such crude methods.
In any case, capturing the post-equinox harvest season’s meaning is still more complex than contemplations of our far-gone homes, whether before or after birth. In other words, while there are certainly some established and justified occasions during this time explicitly reserved for the celebration and commemoration of death, this is by no means a time to be dwelling on it. Solstices are fundamentally contemplative in character, just as much as they are celebratory, but equinoxes occur in the midst of times of action. If solstices are about recognizing a particular “present moment,” equinoxes are more about harnessing the times past in order to prepare for the times to come. The character of the harvest’s labor is twofold: it’s the work of reaping all that we’ve sown at the same time as it’s the storage and preparation of this bounty in order to make it last through a cold and barren winter.
This is where ancient Chinese philosophy is more closely aligned with that of the pagan (and even that expressed in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes) than it is with Buddhism, its fellow eastern cousin. At the risk of oversimplifying both traditions, Buddhism will recommend a present-oriented, in-the-moment mindfulness irrespective to seasonality or fluctuation. Ancient Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, recognizes the fundamental primacy of cycles, meaning in this case that truly “mindful” living means sometimes being in the moment, while other times working with the fuel of the past toward understanding and mastery of the future.
(That’s not to say that Buddhism denies cyclical nature; the difference lies in the fact that at Buddhism’s core is the notion of escaping both cycles and nature, while Taoism and related strains of thought embrace them.)
Without encouraging you to exhaust yourself, be sure to not take it too easy in the weeks ahead. Don’t look away from impending death, but don’t let it distract you, either. Don’t wait until Christmas to look back on the wildness of this year. Start now. If we take an even-keeled and honest view of what we’ve done and what the consequences are (and will be), the resulting understanding allows us to maximize the act of harvest itself. After all, how effective can we possibly be if we don’t fully realize what it is we are harvesting from the ground?
The flip side is exactly what you expect – once we’ve achieved a level of awareness sufficient to complete the job before us, the challenge becomes the future. What parts of our bounty do we bust out immediately, howling at October’s Hunter’s Moon and whooping it up because it’s fall, and what part do we tuck away and save for the dark and cold days to come?
Recognizing all of this, especially as the weeks go on, the steady march toward the year’s darkest day continuing without pause, thoughts of decline and conclusion are inevitable. Don’t fight them. They’re part of the whole thing. But when wrapped in such ghostly embraces of temperament, mentality, and mood, we must also avoid the mistake of assuming any finality. It’s not merely the darkest day we’re racing toward headlong, it’s the turning point. It’s the place at which, once more, we’re done with death, and it’s time to grow again.
Some days, I think it’s a terrible world, but what a thing it is to be alive! Amirite?
Fare thee well/Salaam.