On the Autumnal Equinox, I put out a cutting board laden with apples and honey. I sliced an apple at its equator and left it open on the table, revealing the star of seeds. Apples and honey are a symbol of Rosh Hashanah, the first holiday of the Jewish High Holy Days and the marker of the Jewish New Year, but that core of seeds made me think of Persephone. Seeds, the rhythms of the day and the year, the poetry and work of abundance and austerity — those are some of the things that this season means to me.
Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (Goddess of the land and earth), was just a girl, playing in the fields, when she was taken by her uncle Hades and brought to the underworld. While she shivered in the darkness, her mother roamed the earth, her grief shriveling crops and blackening seeds. Hades offered Persephone a pomegranate, a gesture of the summer that she had left behind aboveground. When Demeter found them, she negotiated for her daughter’s release. Hades demanded that Persephone return to him every year, one month for every pomegranate seed she had eaten. Seven seeds. When her daughter returned to the living, Demeter restored the fields and a time of warmth and growth followed. And then, when Hades came to take her back, Demeter’s grief once again turned the world to death, to follow her daughter. And so we have the seasons. Ripe fruits are the seeds of death, and a journey into darkness only brings us closer to the spring.
Persephone, for her part, never quite felt at home on the surface, in her mother’s world of abundance and nourishment. Part of her relished the damp austerity and the darkness beneath. It felt like relief, somehow.
Like all myths and traditions, this story contains the truth of what it feels like to slip from the fullness of summer into the stripped color of fall. And so on the equinox we shared apples and honey, and the overwhelming number of tomatoes that our garden has recently produced. We sang songs about purification and joy with hundreds of our neighbors at the Revels RiverSing, and then we walked along the Charles River, in the moonlight, and read a poem. I led a kind of hybrid tashlikh/equinox ritual: I had everyone bring a seed or seed pod to the gathering. When we got to the river I asked, “When have you failed to share your abundance with the people you love? When have you allowed plenty to become overindulgence, waste, and guilt?” And when we’d reflected on the question, each of us, on our own time, threw our seeds into the river.
So I offer here some of my seasonal reflections, and some objects and stories that might help you with yours. As always, check my Pinterest board for more.
. Louise Glück’s Averno is a book of poems about Persephone. It’s a favorite of mine. I’ve felt the Greek myths creeping behind my thoughts many times in my life, since my grandmother read them aloud to me when I was a girl. Poetic interpretations are the best ones.
Here’s a stanza from “October,” which feels just right for this 80 degree day.
Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away –
You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.
A day like a day in summer.
Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples
nearly mauve on the gravel paths.
And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer.
It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.
Once more, the sun rises as it rose in summer;
bounty, balm after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed, after the fields
have been harvested and turned.
Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.
. Another poem that’s really resonated with me this season was “September Tomatoes” by Karina Borowicz, a MA poet. I posted my writing about this poem separately. I encourage you to sit with a poem and read it out loud – it’s the only way to get the rhythm into your body and your breath.
.Take a listen to Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, which I first learned about on NPR. A meditation on rhythm that resonates with much of what I’ve been thinking about.
. I have been weaving while listening to Music for Heart and Breath, letting my hands sync to the music and my mind grow patient. I’ve been making branch weavings lately, inspired by the women at 3191 Miles Apart (a wonderful project filled with the poetry of everyday life). The branches are from a willow tree near my house. You can make your own cardboard loom, like I did.
. Adele Stafford is the weaver and thinker behind Voices of Industry, in San Francisco. She hand looms the most exquisite fabric from wool and cotton, and she is deeply engaged in the land that her materials come from. Take a look at the photo essays on her blog and the profiles of the farmers that she works with, who are committed to a slow, organic, mindful way of producing.
. Whether poetry’s new for you or something you already love, I emphatically recommend to you the conversation between On Being’s Krista Tippett and poet Marie Howe, called, after Howe’s most recent book, “The Poetry of Ordinary Time.” Not only does their conversation touch very much on these themes of the patient, meditative (even sacred) qualities of everyday tasks, but it’s the best discussion of poetry I’ve ever heard. “There’s a silence at the center of a poem,” she said.
. I started this post with the image of an apple. I might have had apples on the brain because of Rosh Hashanah, or I might have been thinking about them because I had recently heard Rowan Jacobsen talk about his new book Apples of Uncommon Character. It’s filled with great stories about heirloom apples and how they traveled around the country, stories about local pride and historical accidents. And there are recipes! This might be a great gift for the apple/fall enthusiast in your life, or something that you bring out into your own kitchen every fall to reflect on this fruit’s role in our nation’s history. NPR did a great story about heirloom apples recently – they’re having a resurgence, like the heirloom cotton Adele Stafford weaves.
. Apples are actually part of this amazing plant family the rosaceae, which includes roses, crabapples, hawthorns, quinces, and even the wonderful medlar. So don’t limit yourself! Get inspired by hedgerow fruits of all kind. Make rosehip liqueur like a Scandinavian (PS that allotment gardening column is amazing), pick up a pear butter from June Taylor (who also makes some fantastic medlars preserved in brandy, available later in fall/winter – another California maker who just totally makes me swoony), or get fancy and order the totally incredible Sloe Sherry Liqueur from Demijohn in Scotland (also excellent: Somerset Pomona, an apple liqueur, and the Wild Bullace Liqueur). Ciders are having a renaissance in the US today too – Carr’s Ciderhouse makes beautiful hard ciders and cider vinegars, and is a Martha Stewart American Made finalist, and Russell Orchards Dry Reserve is a natural on a holiday spread, and very low alcohol. I love it when ciders are funky and dry, in the English style. Sadly, many traditional New England cider houses have been converted to wineries in recent years.
. Last weekend my husband and I went to the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in America. It shares with its descendants a love for fried food and absurdly sized pumpkins, but it contains the kernel of what all of these large fall festivals we enjoy now originally meant. It’s about the abundance of the harvest, celebrating the work by farmers it takes to bring that abundance to market, and the work by housewives and domestic workers it takes to preserve it. And it was so much fun.
. If you’re marking this season with little ones (or even if you aren’t), may I suggest Miss Maple’s Seeds, and A Seed is Sleepy? I selected
both of these as part of my Neighborhood Explorers book collection. Both books show the seed as both mysterious and beautiful for the hidden life inside, and might get you and your children collecting nuts and pods on your walks, whether to admire or to plant. They have the kind of quiet wonder that I love in children’s books. And for the seed lover in your life, I also love the exuberant color of the More & Co. Magic Seed crewneck.
. At this time of year I can’t resist Simon and Garfunkel. They were young men obsessed with aging, and their own mortality. I can’t think of a better musical foil for the Persephone story. Try a live album – 1967 or 1969 are both on Spotify. It gives a sense of the men and how they grew.
. This is a time of year when I spend much of my time in the kitchen, for the slow but satisfying process of making the season’s abundance last and those nights when the warmth from a baking oven seems just the thing. A Rosh Hashanah tradition is honey cake, and I love this one, from Smitten Kitchen. Sometimes I mince in some apples, and I always add about 1/3 cup of sesame seeds. When I put on my Fog Linen Square Cross Apron, I somehow feel like myself.
. In autumn that divide between inside labor and outside labor begins to feel more important. Your boots are wet from chilly rain. You want to keep the back door closed against the cold. Marking the threshold between home and outside is a sign of autumn. Put a wreath on your front door. And put a Vermont Wooden Doormat outside.
. After the High Holidays begins Sukkot, a harvest celebration based on the practices of building a sukkah, a three sided booth with a natural material for a roof, through which you must be able to see the sky. This holiday invites people to share an intimate space outside, under the stars. I’ve been smitten with this holiday for years, though I’ve never had much occasion to celebrate it in the intimate way described in this incredible article from Saveur, about Sukkot food traditions in Brooklyn.
. So, last week was the Hunter’s Moon, the full moon that represented to the Native Americans the time when the animals were fattest and the lean months were coming. In the American calendar and the New England climate, it begins a kind of celebratory season, from harvest festivals to celebrations of death and tradition to “the holidays” – that long stretch between Thanksgiving and New Uears.
So here’s my question to leave you with – the question I’m
trying to answer for myself, and one that I discuss with many friends lately. How do we make space for both tradition/celebration AND the mindfulness of everyday tasks, as we enter this celebratory period? What does sharing your bounty mean to you?