Traditions are a way of measuring the passage of time – the day, the week, the year, the passing years – because they force us to tune into change. Where were we during the last time we celebrated a season changing? The last time we ate apples and honey? Who were we with, how were we feeling? Family traditions can be especially evocative in this way, because we feel them assemble in a kind of continuum over the course of our lives. As adults, I feel like we live these traditions in a kind of double time: in the present, as a way to attend to the moment or the celebration in our current lives, and in our memories, as we remember our own experience as a child participating in them. Celebrating each holiday or keeping each tradition in a way is the feeling of reliving each one that you’ve kept previously — and if it’s a cultural or family tradition, reliving all of those kept by the people before you. It’s a burden and a joy to find a way to live traditions as an adult, when you have to keep them yourself, and make them for others.
“September Tomatoes” I think is about this feeling. Borowicz goes from a very specific, personal meditation on the feeling of pulling up a tomato plant in her backyard, to
“My great grandmother sang with the girls of her village as the pulled the flax. Songs so old and so tied to the season that the very sound seemed to turn the weather.”
The last stanza of the poem is about tradition, about how a community’s labor and its land are so in sync with the passage of time that cause and effect seem blurred. Here, tradition is about communality. Whereas the growing of the tomato plants is such a labor of individual care — “I’ve carefully cultivated” the tomato plants, she says — the “girls of the village” pull flax, and share songs together. “Songs so old.” I think the jarring relationship this stanza has with the previous three reflects how different abundance is when it’s individual rather than collective, when the requirements of the change in season come with culture and shared traditions. I feel like there’s a plaintive tone in these lines which is in tune with the kind of searching I feel for shared practice. Pulling up tomato plants feels cruel because it seems final, “destroying” the work of “all those months.” Traditions, however, are cyclical; there was flax and song every year. But not anymore.
There’s a richness in those first three stanzas, though, that’s not represented in the fourth. It’s a sensory awareness – “whiskey stink,” a “burst of fruit flies” and “claws of tiny yellow blossoms.” Awareness is something that I think is just as important as tradition when it comes to being a part of a place and its seasons, and I think it connects you to others who share the same sense for place and time.
I picked up a chestnut at the same time as a woman I was walking alongside the other day. “I love how smooth they are,” she told me, “I pick one up and keep it in my pocket, and just roll it around in my fingers all day. They remind me of growing up in England. Chestnuts say fall to me.” Sensory awareness is very much grounded in the present moment but can also connect you to your past, like the smooth feel of chestnut under her chilly fingers.
What makes you feel like fall has come? Chestnuts (and acorns! and mysterious seed pods hanging from unidentified trees!) say fall for me. Mums on front porches. When it starts to get dark during dinner. Birds flocking in our backyard eating grass seeds. A friend reminded me that there’s a shift in the air that says fall, too. And more tomatoes than we know what to do with.
So we shared our tomato abundance with our friends. And we reflected individually about abundance that we have failed to share with others, abundance that we regret not taking advantage of. This regret is part of the personal work of fall, a natural response to the experience of moving from abundance to austerity. During the High Holy Days, after you throw your regrets in the water like we threw our seedpods, you are expected to make amends, especially with the people who you’ve affected, for this “missing the mark” (what I was taught “sin” is literally translated to in Hebrew). This happens over the following ten days, and then you atone with a fast on Yom Kippur. You begin with a bounty, with sweetness, then you reflect, you repair or ask forgiveness, you cleanse, and then you’re ready to start a new year.
Another thing. A “harvest” time like in the great great grandmother stanza is a time of work. It took work to change from fat to lean, to take advantage of abundance so it does not go to waste. Traditions can be traditions of labor. I think too often I think of them only in terms of leisure.