It’s Thanksgiving Day in Canada… a day for turkey and pumpkin pie. Or pi, as the case may be. I don’t know how that relates, but I selected the image before writing the post, or really even knowing what the post would be about. I guess I’m a sucker for puns. Hang around, you’ll get that. Pi. Around. Never mind, sorry.
Last year I composed an essay called Purged in the Plough: Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Thanksgiving & Harvest in which I began to explore the theme of thanksgiving and the way in which every society that depends upon the things that grow from the earth for food has some type of harvest festival to commemorate and give thanks. At least, I believe this is true to the extent that (a) the society is aware of this dependence and (b) it views this dependence on unseen forces of nature as being in some way connected to God or the gods. I would tell you to go and read the essay, but I would also tell you I was never happy with it. There’s something of a theme in there that I just don’t feel I’ve captured. Someday perhaps I’ll gain a new insight, rewrite it and get it right, but for now I’m enjoying the muse.
Last night we took the kids out to Oak Hammock Marsh just north of the city. We spent about three hours there exploring some of the educatainmentional exhibits. To prepare for its journey, a goose will eat enough to gain 10% of its body weight in a single day, so they have a huge stack of pizza boxes and a scale that doesn’t report pounds, but instead tells you how many pizzas you’d have to eat to equal what the goose does. Let’s just say it’s scary. It was dark when we left, and we picked up a pizza on the way home… just one for the whole family though.
As dusk approaches, you can go up to the roof and they’ll hand you a decent pair of binoculars to watch the geese come in. They’ve been out eating all day and come in to the marsh for the night… they’re in the midst of a stop-off on their southward migration. They arrive by the hundreds, or thousands… nothing like the near-solitary look of this stock photo, but more like you’d imagine a swarm of locusts on the horizon, black dots against an overcast sky. A knowledgeable fellow who clearly knew and loved his birds was up there pointing out the sights to us, identifying birds in flight, huge flocks far enough away that they were specks in the sky… and he wasn’t using binoculars. “There’s a flock of ducks coming in,” he’s say. “Look at the wing-beats, they beat faster than the geese.” He estimated 150,000 birds in the marsh at the time. They will count again on Friday and he expects to hit 250,000… at the peak of migration, it’s 600,000. And they. Count. Them.
We marveled our way through some of the exhibits, discovering that the canvasback duck flys 112 km/h; some ducks fly at an altitude of 6,500 meters, and some cover 8,000-km distances. Amazing. We saw Canada geese of course, and huge flocks of snow geese flying in, “sideswiping” in the air currents so they drop several meters in an instant as they come in to land. We watched them fly overhead, heeding the guide’s advice not to open our mouths too wide… though he claimed that being hit by bird droppings is considered good luck. Not sure who came up with that one. When we got too cold, we headed inside and downstairs to the cafe, which has huge windows overlooking the marsh with more binoculars available. Between sips of hot chocolate and freshly-baked white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, that is. Like, fresh-from-the-oven… good timing.
It’s definitely autumn now. I rolled up my hammock the other day, thankful for a brief “Indian summer,” but knowing that the hammock would be sitting on the shelf now until the first warm sun-rays of spring. We raked and bagged huge piles of leaves that had fallen from the maple tree… my favorite leaf when it turns colour, done for the year, leaving our patio almost open to the sky above, with little remnants but four garbage bags stuffed with compressed leaves… and the few that find their way into the telephone book each year for later crafts, of course. My rake swished through a large pile of leaves, shifting it toward another pile, the huge swishing mass making a rolling “whoosh” like the waves on the ocean, subsiding briefly to await the next swoosh of the rake, or pull of the moon. There are still a lot of yellow leaves about, even a few green ones on other later-turning trees. There will be more raking to come. Later in the week, we all went out for a walk, unattended leaves crunching beneath our feet as we transited the little city park on the corner of our street.
Autumn has its very own kind of “fresh resolve” about it. The knowledge that still winter dies are ahead helps to calm the soul. One thinks for several moments looking forward to the winter days ahead, curled under a blanket in the most comfortable chair in the house with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate in front of the crackling fireplace… the train of thought broken by the realization that one doesn’t actually have a fireplace, and the chairs that one does have arrayed in the living room aren’t the most comfortable, seeing as they should have been replaced about five years ago. Still, there’s the book, and the mug. Will they win out over the television that stands where the fireplace belongs?
Autumn is a time for renewing resolve, for settling into the needed rhythms of life. In a few weeks (later this year than in the past) we’ll change our clocks from “daylight savings” back to standard time, solidifying this change in the rhythms of life as it’s suddenly dark so early, elongating the evenings which still want for the fireplace. I think the Jewish faith captures some of this in the high holy days, “The Days of Awe” — Yamim Nora’im, Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
During this period of self–examination and introspection, we look back over the previous year–over our accomplishments and over our regrets–and work toward teshuvah, repentance or turning, in order to live more fully in the year ahead of us. We make apologies to our family and friends, and we attempt to bring our lives into alignment with God’s commands.
Despite the awesome judgment proclaimed by Yom Kippur–who shall live and who shall die–the message of the Days of Awe emphasizes the possibility that through teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (good works) we can change and make the year ahead one of sweetness and hope.
This is the essence of the fall season, one which we fall into without really thinking about the calendar, or about the special days marked for the observances. It’s part of the natural rhythm of our lives. This weekend is Thanksgiving, which is actually quite a different sort of holiday in Canada than in the USA. In Canada it isn’t known for an attached shopping day, nor for an overdose of football. It’s a mark of the passing of the seasons, and a time for giving thanks. Like the American Thanksgiving, it’s a time to gather with family, but it isn’t connected with a run-up to Christmas, and it’s not as ‘large” a holiday as Christmas. I’m quite glad it’s separated from Christmas by a couple of months, so the two don’t run together. In my mind, this is one of the three high days or seasons for Christians. As with Christmas and Easter, our whole culture observes with us, but many attach differing meanings, most of which not so deep, so soul-touching as what they are to have for us.
I realize that many of my American readers aren’t thinking of Thanksgiving just yet, and other countries don’t necessarily observe the holiday… but we can all relate to this passing of the seasons, to the times where we evaluate our lives and set goals, motivated by some inner change in the wind and not by the recognition of a certain day on the calendar. What thoughts does this turning of seasons spark in you? What hope do you have for the days ahead, changes in your life that you want to see? Are there changes within your control, ones which can move you toward days “of sweetness and hope”?