Saturday, September 11, 2010

A New Year

Although my super-religious days are long behind me, and I'm pretty much settled into the skeptical life for what's left of mine, I do understand the need for marking important moments in the year--and the Jewish High Holy Days stay with me because of this. I always find myself in a reflective mood, and remember the rituals (although I don't really practice them anymore) with fondness.

As I was cleaning house this morning, I mused on the fact that most of the recognition we pay to time is grounded in religious practice. During the last few weeks I've been lecturing about the building of cathedrals, illuminated books of hours, the liturgical year, and various religious observances, all of which acknowledge time in some way. Most festivals enjoyed by the faithful were originally tied to the agricultural year (planting in the spring, growing in the summer, harvesting first fruits in the fall), when one thanked one's god for his/her bounty.

In grad school I wrote a paper on ancient Greek agricultural festivals, many of which were suffused with mysterious rites of fertility, and dramatic performances that ended in catastrophe and catharsis. Emotionally purged, spectators went home chastened and renewed. I always thought that this sort of thing would be good for us moderns, but we seem to be too busy. A quick weep in a sad movie is about all we can muster.

Nowadays, most of our holidays are spend-fests, milked to the last nickel by our communal need to express ourselves by buying stuff. Even the most deeply moving feasts of the year seem to be less about the season or the event being commemorated than about buying Easter candy and outfits or Christmas largess. The common complaint about the earlier and earlier arrival of "the Christmas shopping season" reflects the fact that even our most sacred holidays have been co-opted. Although people complain incessantly, however, they still participate.

Because it's been quite a long time since I escaped that particular aspect of American modernity, I've had the luxury of seasonal reflections on life, the universe, and the garden, and these have taken the place of official celebrations as my children have grown and moved away into their own lives. Lately I've been hankering after real family gatherings--at least one or two a year that involve actual meetings and food and being together, and it looks like this year I might get my wish, at least once, at Thanksgiving.

This is actually a terrific holiday in theory. It's essentially secular, having no real religious connection except with a rather mythical image of Pilgrims. But it's seasonally appropriate, celebrating as it does the end of the harvest, and the enjoyment of plenty before dearth. If one can look past the cheesy holiday decorations and pre-Christmas "sales events," the couple of extra days off and the promise of a good meal and good company can really lift the spirits before the winter cold sets in and the heating bills start to go up.

My son and his wife, as it turns out, have decided to join my daughter and her new beau and me and the Beloved Spouse this year for the long weekend. I'm not quite sure when it happened, but the actual meal has become my daughter's province, and will be held in her loft in a funky-hip area south of downtown Dallas. I bring Grandma's dinner rolls and good wine, and she does the rest. She's turned out to be a damned good cook, and I'm happy to turn the real work over to her. I imagine that we'll do something in our digs as well, especially if the weather's fine, as it often is at that time of year. The end of summer is now thick with promise.

Even though I don't really celebrate Rosh Hashana these days, I mark it, if only by reflecting on ways to make the next year better. One of my promises to myself is to write more, especially on the Farm, and to improve the garden. The possibility of the former has been enhanced by the likelihood of an accommodating teaching schedule, and a quarter off from administrative duties. I'll be teaching one course I haven't taught for three years, and another for a year, so the variety alone should perk me up. I'll have a fair amount of mental reconnoitering to do at the weekend, since Yom Kippur begins Friday night and it does tend to sober me up--in more ways than one. By then my college's accreditation visit will be over, and the quarter nearly done, so endings and beginnings will commingle rather poetically.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go make a start on the garden. After last week's visit from Hermine, it needs my help in tidying up.

Image credit: I was looking around on Wikimedia Commons for an appropriate seasonal picture, but wanted to avoid the usual pumpkins-and-autumn-leaves fare, lovely as some of the offerings were. Thinking about Yom Kippur led me to the Wailing Wall, and this lovely painting by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904). It also seemed appropriate given the day on which this post was written.


jabblog said...

The image of the Wailing Wall is striking. I wish we buttoned-up westerners could let go so openly.
It's strange that you should mention Thanksgiving as a secular holiday. It's a very important holiday and I've always thought it was free of the need to 'go out and buy gifts for everyone'. I wish we had something like it. I have successfully resisted Mother's Day, Father's Day and all the rest of the rubbish, won't get involved in turning Easter into a commercial spend-fest but Christmas always catches me out - a childhood hangover, no doubt.
Enjoy your new academic year - I always liked the freshness of the new school year.

Anonymous said...

Only a week and two WE CAN MAKE IT!!!

Unknown said...

Dare I say "Amen" to your disgust with the commercialization of our holidays? We still go along with it for the most part, but have intermittently attempted to inject a different spirit into the Christmas season by donating to Heifer International. Instead of one more useless stocking stuffer, we might donate enough to buy a goat to go to a third-world country in the name of one of our children. Heifer is a great program, and promotes self-sufficiency through livestock, rather than just giving handouts.