The Fading Sun
And just like that -- wow! Summer’s over! Put away the gin, start thinking about red wine, begin poring over recipe books for good hot food, and try to remember what to do with a pumpkin or some apples and a piecrust.
The equinox ushered in cool air, as it always seems to do, but even before September 22, even around Labor Day, the change was upon us. Suddenly, nights were darker and even the shade under trees had taken on an inkier look. Leaves are still green, but there are early signs that reds and yellows are just around the corner.
The talk has turned to what the winter will bring: "It’s gonna be a snowy winter, worse than two years ago. We’re moving out of the La Niña and back into the El Niño." (We’ll see how accurate a forecast that turns out to be. At least it sounds a little more scientific than, "The squirrels are gathering extra nuts this autumn! It’s gonna be a long and cold one!")
Some folks take heart as temperatures drop and the bright light of summer goes on the wane. The nights are now longer than the days, and the days are not what they once were. Half the people I know breathe a sigh of relief, preferring winter to warmer temperatures: You can always put on a coat or a sweater, they argue, whereas on a scorching summer day all you can do is ensconce yourself inside, clinging to the air conditioning for dear life.
Others are not so sure. "This is the time of year I dread," as one friend put it. The issue isn’t the cold, but the lack of daylight hours: "I can already feel my seasonal affective disorder coming on," another friend laments, uncheered at the bleak humor of the acronym SAD, "Seasonal Affective Disorder," the wintery depression that a lack of sunshine triggers.
Still another friend takes the extreme measure of scheduling a getaway to sunny climes every November or December to help him haul himself through the winter: Australia one year, Hawaii another, Peru or Central America as a fallback. (What on Earth does he do in February, when winter is at its bleakest?)
Some ancient peoples used to regard this time of year as a reminder of mortality: The world’s, as much as our own. Feasts to mark the winter solstice were common across cultures.
And why not? The modern world shields most of us, most of the time, from the plain facts of mortality. Frailty and age await those of us fortunate enough to make it to our elder years, and that’s most of us in this post-industrial age of sophisticated medical care (expensive as it may be, and unwieldy as its delivery system has grown). I’ve long since given up looking for gray hairs, because most of my hair is gray now (what hasn’t fallen out, that is).
Other signs and symptoms of age abound: This summer my high school graduating class celebrated its 30th anniversary. I didn’t go, but I looked at photos on Facebook. I’m not the only one who now more resembles his parents than the kid of three decades ago who lay awake the night before graduation wondering what the future could possibly hold in store.
Then again, I always was a worrier, and to no especial purpose. The future turned out fine, at least so far; only a few years after that sleepless night I met the man I’m with even today, after 27 years, and we have even gained the long-yearned for right to marry (at least in our state of residence, Massachusetts).
Speaking of my spouse, I won’t say this is a sign of time’s passage necessarily, but he recently did undergo a surgical procedure to stabilize a shoulder joint. It’s been an education, tending to him as he’s learned what he can and can’t do with one arm immobile in a sling. Is this a preview of life in... I don’t know... 24 years? Three decades? Not that I mind; chalk it all up to that "In sickness and in health" clause I signed on to eight years ago, when the state condescended, long at last, to let us make it legal. It’s just that 30 years isn’t what it used to be, and time and gravity are both tugging harder than they ever did before. As someone put it to me recently about turning 50, "I can see the end from here."
So let’s optimistically assume I (or you, or whoever) live to see 80 or, even better, 84. So what? That’s three whole decades away, right? The world itself is just as likely to perish in that time, so why worry about it?
But I do. Well, not worry, but... let’s say I meditate over it. Once upon a time I would never have thought too deeply about days so far removed; indeed, once there was an era in which time felt heavy and slow moving, and I kicked against my youth like a bug caught in amber. Now the days feel brief and insubstantial; the amber has changed to something thinner than water, thinner than air, and years flash by as though I were in free fall. Have I reached "terminal velocity" yet, or will the clock just keep accelerating?
Strangely, simultaneously, I often feel that I am dragging my sorry carcass around, only dreaming of achieving the kind of velocity that would make flight possible. It’s just as they say, as counter-intuitive as it may sound: The days go slower than the weeks, the months go slower than the years, and let’s not even talk about how the decades fly past.
There’s a kind of solace, and a kind of beauty also, in pondering age. There’s a concept in Japanese, wabi-sabi, that addresses this: A kind of deep respect, or tender awe, in beholding something venerable, a person or an object that has lost the gloss of youth but taken on a patina of age and experience.
I find myself gazing at that fading sun of autumn and feeling something akin to wabi-sabi. The light of long days will be back next spring, as bright and optimistic as ever it was; it’s me who will be a little creakier, and the world around me that will be a little more depleted and crotchety.
I suspect the Baby Boomers are feeling this way, too. I fall right between them and the Gen Xers, so I sympathize with both. The Boomers are staring their elderhood square in the face, or have already arrived there; the Gen Xers are starting to feel the autumnal frost creeping up their spines. No wonder society at large has been in an apocalyptic mood of late; it’s another symptom of ego and age. This isn’t the first time a widespread malaise of this sort has cropped up, and with it a kind of jittery, manic fatalism, an attitude of, "Après nous le déluge!" Or, in rough translation: Once we go, the hell with all of it! Who cares?
We more or less live that slogan today, in our blind rush to decimate and devour everything in our path. I wish we were leaving a world as new as the one we inherited, or even newer; I wish we could honestly say we were becoming wise elders. I fear we’re just getting old and cranky, as the shadows deepen around us and the light of reason, so hard fought for, so rapturously hailed a few centuries ago, takes on a dreamy amber hue.
Well, maybe there’s a little wabi-sabi in that, too.