The equinox is the period when the day and night seem be the same length. For just a moment, the earth tilts neither away from nor towards the sun. This is a time of transition, of passage from one state to another. Many cultures celebrate major holidays during the spring and fall equinox.
Rituals are useful because they help to make us conscious of our place in time and space on the planet. They help us to mark and process change, which happens so quickly sometimes that we don’t notice it.
Today, for example, I took the dogs through Hartwood acres, as I did just three days ago, and even though we were walking the same paths, the world seemed to have changed.
Last Sunday the forest and fields were fully and radiantly in bloom. White snakeroot blossomed in patches of sunlight under the trees, and last year’s leaves were slowly disintegrating into a ruffled, brown carpet. The woods were still vibrant, green and pulsating with summer. That day we walked in dappled, open forest for an hour or so, when the dogs caught the scent of some deer and began to strain against the leash. Instead of reining them in, I raced up the hills with them, just as eagerly, with spontaneous, unrecognizable power, and then came to a sudden, blissful stop.
The deer, fleeing, had led us, panting, out into the most glorious goldenrod meadow that rolled and undulated before us. It was wildly yellow, interspersed with purple aster, thick and heavily fragrant. It buzzed loudly with bees gathering pollen on both sides of the path. Bits of straw and ochre petals stuck to my clothes and the dogs’ fur as we pushed through. Monarch butterflies scattered. Across the golden ocean a thousand squadrons of dragonflies were zooming, diving and whirling, just like the hawks and the buzzards circling above us. All of nature was intensely, enthusiastically, wildly alive.
Just three days later, the first red and yellow leaves were falling to the forest floor. The canopy was still verdant, still filled with yellow-green light, but it was as though the trees had sighed all together and shaken their hair out for the last time. They were now sending their energy to their roots, not to their branches and tendrils. There seemed to be fewer grasshoppers. Flotsam floated carelessly down to the path, which was muddier than it had been, messier, muckier, denser. A moth fluttered into my face and brushed soft cobweb wings against my cheek.
I came out into the clearing expectantly, looking for that golden, wild fertility of a few days before. The fields were still yellow, but not as brilliant, even though the sun shone as brightly as it had before. Bright plumes ostentatiously waved at the sky, but many of the flower heads had begun to brown and nod in the breeze. The bees were still gathering, buzzing and burrowing into the petals, and the dragonflies whizzed, as before. Yet the season of decaying, decomposing, withering, wilting, leaning, and breaking down had begun in earnest.
It had happened just like that, in a matter of days. Plants and trees loosened and flung their seeds into the air; squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs stuffed themselves with nuts and shoots; and everywhere everything was sliding into rot or sleep. Yet the very moment with which all of nature prepared itself for death was also the moment of new life in motion, copulation, fertilization, and regeneration.
My mother died during this season. She was 55. My father suffered a nearly fatal stroke just a few years later, and fell into a dark depression for 15 more years. I am thinking about my friend Philip, who is my age. He makes a living as a sculptor. Just a few days after Hurricane Irene filled his studio with mud, Philip suffered two strokes that left him paralyzed. The prognosis for him is hopeful, as it is for my friend and sister MJ, who has recovered from Stage 4 ovarian cancer. None of us knows how long we will enjoy what we have right now, this minute, in our lives.
Treasure your health, your ability to walk, to see, to sing. What you have now is greater and more valuable than you probably know.