Autumn, asters and time

Dark in the morning, these days, when I come downstairs early to make coffee for my husband, tea for me. I light two candles, a practice inherited from a housemate many years ago, as it eases me into my day. I peer at the inside/outside thermometer. If the inside temperature is below 60° AND the outside temperature below 40°, I make a fire in the woodstove. 

A soft, dancing light of warmth is thrown into the room. 

Autumn is far and away my favorite season. The colors this year are spectacular and we have had quite a few sunny days.  Our garden has not yet been hit by a hard frost: late tomatoes are still ripening on the vines, the kale and swiss chard are flourishing and my harvest of zinnia blooms grace tables throughout the house. 

And New England asters burst their purple and pink into the world with end of season abandon. 

But winter is coming, and, unlike other years when I have embraced this season of transition, looking forward to snow and skiing and to hunkering down into more inside activities, my predominate feeling this year is dread. The occasional outside meals with guests, served on top of an old table on saw horses set up on the lawn, will come to a chilly end. Visits-at-a-distance with the grandkids outside will depend much more on the weather. Unlike most winters, that occasional sprinkling of company into the house or a gathering for a community event to season our days will not happen.  

Zoom meetings will help. But only superficially. 

We are not ill with Covid and indeed, lack nothing of importance except the precious opportunities to be with loved ones. So many others are suffering so much more; it is beyond my imagination. 

I look back at my previous posts. Such an underpinning of optimism. The world pulling together.  Hope for a change in direction across the country that would begin to steer us toward not only a nationwide Covid response to reduce the deaths but a change of heart about other threats, such as climate change.   

I have not written for two months. Time during a pandemic takes on different characteristics. We are in our eighth month. It is less than two weeks before the election and a part of me is terrified, not to mention really sad that so many people apparently have accepted a “new normal”.

It is not normal, and immensely tragic, that our “baseline” expectations may have changed so much that what people believe and how they behave toward one another might have become an unrecognizable reality. I begin to recognize in myself – and in others – a shrugging of the shoulders kind of acceptance when Trump does things that are so far off the beaten track of normalcy that we tend to ignore it.  But I fear that is exactly what begins to erode our valuing of what is right, what is ethical, what is true.  We become so cynical that we begin to forget what is good. 

Optimism is being suffocated. 

I refuse to accept this as simply “the new normal”. I do not want that kind of world for my grandchildren. 

So, for the time being, each day after I extinguish the candles, I will seek to lean into the deeper, wiser, and comforting presence of some other non-human being, animate or inanimate, that represents a different kind of normal. 

What can I learn?

Here, for instance, are the fall asters. During the day, they open their hearts to the sun and to the bees, who in turn are thankful for a late season source of pollen and nectar.  But at night, the blooms close up. Botanists are unsure why this happens, but it might be simply to protect the pollen from moisture and to preserve energy for the daylight hours when the insects are more active. That sure makes sense. Whatever the case – they have adapted to a rhythm balancing outward offerings and inward preservation. 

 I need to learn to do that right now.  

Divine Messaging

I walk through our fields. We have not had enough rain, so the grasses are all a bit stumpy for this time of year.  But the mix of maturing seed heads and dots of color from small flowers still form a pleasing mid-summer palate. As I pass by, a clique of adolescent bobolinks appears magically from the density, rising up together to perch on the tops of trees alongside the field. We have delayed haying this field for the benefit of the bobolink’s reproduction, so it is a welcome sight.

The seasons progress. Because we have lived here for 15 years, we know more or less what to expect. If you live and grow things here, you know the importance of flexibility. Heat, frost, drought, downpours. You watch, and listen, and learn, and then adapt to daily and seasonal changes.

And now, Covid. We stay home.  With a garden and good neighbors, it is easy to shelter in place every day of our lives, watching the changes around us.  And yes, I give thanks. Every. Single. Morning.

I am at a loss for how to respond to realities beyond our fields. America is living through three simultaneous pandemics, caused by an insidious virus, systemic racism, and an inability to see and adequately respond to the overarching reality of the climate crisis. The uncertainty is driving people crazy. The subsumed emotions are breaking out in violence. I feel all I can do is respond to one issue at a time, while reminding myself the interconnectedness of all three pandemics is the primary lesson to be learned by us all.

I read about a recent poll that found that a majority of Americans who believe in God think the pandemic is a divine message and that humanity needs to change the way it lives.

My initial reaction upon reading this was:  Whoa! Here we go again with the concept of a punishing god who chooses a pandemic as a way to teach us a lesson.   “Zap!”   “You have not kept your side of the covenant with respect to the earth. Let’s see how you feel after more than 18 million people get sick and more than half a million (and counting) die! Maybe then you will listen and change the way you live on this earth.”

This “zapper god” is not a god with whom I am familiar.

I want to make it clear that when I say that I think there IS a divine message arising from the pandemic, I am referring to a different sort of God.

The God I know is a creative force of love, intimately involved in all processes that make the planet work the way it does. There are ecological and medical processes:  causes, effects, correlations, relationships, effectively “divine messages” about how things work, that scientists, doctors and climatologists learn to read. For instance: If habitat loss forces proximity between humans and some other animals, viruses do and will continue to jump from one to the other. If the lungs of people of color are compromised due to poverty and the siting of polluting industries, the death rate by Covid will be at least twice that of white people. If the planet continues to be warmed due to excess carbon, there is a strong possibility for hurricanes and tornadoes of an above normal frequency and severity this year.

The “messaging” is in the scientific information about these relationships.

Many experts are becoming more adept at interpretation, but most of us are not as conversant at understanding the messages, and are particularly ignorant of appropriate responses.  Bright blue chicory and ivory white Queen Anne’s Lace speak simple beauty to me, but for First Peoples, they spoke a message of gifts – culinary and medicinal opportunities. Their response was one of humility and reciprocity: the plants were thanked and the humans were careful to not harvest too many.

So yes, the pandemic is a natural “divine message”.  (When all else fails, read the directions!)  And yes, human beings: if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, I hope it has taught us that the messages still apply to us. So, I hope we consider humility, love, and reciprocity toward each other and toward the non-human world when we make our decisions in response.