“Look, the trees are turning,” she said, glancing out the picture window toward the New Hampshire woods, and everything in me wanted to cry out: Not yet! Too soon!
September marks the beginning of the new year. The children are back at school, anxious or excited, happy with their new classes, or disappointed. You see them on early mornings at the side of the road waiting for their yellow buses. The little ones are so brave, their enormous book bags towering over their heads, almost taller than their tiny legs. The big kids jostle and push, overflowing with energy too strong to allow just standing still. My garden, too, is in transition. The grass grows slower now, needing less mowing. The straggly, leggy plants have given an explosion of defiant berries and bloom, as glorious as springtime but more beautiful somehow, yet moving inexorably toward decline– as leggy as my teenage granddaughter, who is also in transition, but in her case toward young womanhood. The squirrels dash heedlessly across the roads and spiral up the trees, as if there’s no time left to relax in late summer heat. Burrs fly onto our clothes if we take a walk, clinging to be carried to new environments, and all of life—bees, moths, chipmunks, squirrels, children, grass, trees, and, yes, we adults too—feel the planet tilt in its orbit, sharpening and shortening the light: Time speeding up.
We are all in transition. To be closer to her children, my sister has sold her house and is moving to a city where she knows no one. (“It may be the worst decision of my life,” she says, “but at least it’s short.”) A family member suffering from a brain tumor, cares for her demented husband. A friend has just buried her husband, and another worries about the health of hers. I think of how brave they are—like all those kindergarten children stepping onto the yellow bus for the first time and into the next growth spurt. I think how valiant we all are, all of us humans, and how little acknowledgement we get for the courage of just living out our daily lives. I live in Washington, D.C., but like my sister I, too, am in transition, made nervous by decisions that blow their dragon breath at my back. Do I move closer to my daughters in Massachusetts or do I stay in the city where I’ve lived almost my whole life? I have bought a cottage there, and gradually I am spending more time up north, but I’m cautious. I keep options open. I have friends in Washington, and for three seasons of a year (forget summer; never go to D.C. in the summertime!) the weather is as close to perfect as you can get: Springtime carries on for months, and autumn offers a rage of color before shifting to our blue-sky winter days.
Oh surely that’s all life is: transition—until we transit into the next life. Against our will, we are rushed from child to adult to old age, and what takes me by surprise is how despite our efforts we are forced to leave worn-out beliefs and open ourselves always to wilder and increasingly more compassionate views. We lose jobs, dreams, houses; we move, marry, divorce, have children, or sorrow that we don’t. Inside, the transition is always about becoming larger, more open to life and our own emotions; inside we are constantly shifting our thinking expanding our sense of justice and right.
In just my lifetime! The Civil Rights Movement for Blacks and minorities, equal pay for women, marriage rights for LBGTQ, women running for President! I could never have imagined it! I remember when you lost your job in the government if they discovered you were gay. Now you can marry your beloved, run for President. I think that all of life is shifting us forcibly, inexorably toward a wider, wilder consciousness.
How? Some of us are offered a mystical or spiritual revelation, and others are given the gift of imperceptible slow shifts, fragile as gauze, and still others suffer a Near Death Experience. Afterwards nothing we had thought important earlier is. Afterwards, we are subsumed by Love, and Love is seen in . . . everything. It is seen in the squirrel dashing across in the road, in the mice that creep inside to find a winter nest in the warm basement, in the tomato plants that spread across the garden like some alien life-form, reaching out their little paws in an effort to redden, fructify, increase. Life is so rich. So good! Or do I say that only because I am now an older woman looking back and unafraid of the many problems to be solved: climate change, migrations, imperishable plastics, violence, mental issues, meanness and hatred, fear and impossible ideas about education. As an older woman, all I see is the rightness of it all, including our fear of change.
I remember as a child being taken to museums to look at paintings— perhaps a Rembrandt of an old woman nodding outside her hut, arthritic hands in her lap, and perhaps one shaft of sunlight cutting the dark shadows to hit the shining, white lace of her cap. I remember shuddering: “So that’s old age,” I thought. “I never want to be old!” (not recognizing the alternative.) What I didn’t know—what they don’t tell you— the secret I tell you now—is that sitting there beside the canal she is ringing with an inner joy. Her soul is a bell tolling with delight and love.
Ram Dass, the spiritual leader recently profiled in the New York Times, says that the ego is afraid of dying, but the soul is not. The ego is afraid of aging, too, and of any change, for change is always viewed as fearful and decline. The soul, however, knows that transition is merely a movement: like shifting from summer to fall. It knows that there’s more. There’s always more. “September” is merely the beginning of a new phase of life.
©️ Sophy Burnham, 2019.