Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fall back into possibility

I'm hungry. I crave autumn colors, sharp breezes, the touch of flannel, the memory of leaves burning. Here in Florida, we have a break in the muddy air, the hint of an echo of fall. It isn't enough, like that first pistachio nut. But for this short period of time my brain fog lifts. I produce. I decide to mark the time, take the Jewish holidays off. It's New Year once again. Back in my columnist days at the Asbury Park Press, these are my thoughts:

I’m feeling rather mellow and philosophical lately, finding it very hard to concentrate and almost impossible to access my normal caustic style. I suspect the reason is the New Year that is upon us.

New year? Yup. New year. For me, September, and not January, ushers in a fresh new year. I still get the urge to buy notebooks, pens and new shoes as August winds to a close.

Summer is timeless. Its sights, sounds and smells are those of eternal childhood – the smell of damp wood at the boardwalk, the grit of sand in a wet bathing suit, the aroma of freshly mowed grass and the song of the ice cream trucks. Even the games of summer, such as baseball, are outside of time.

The summers of my childhood were spent in the deep green of the Catskill Mountains , NY, amid the numerous bungalow colonies that dotted the landscape in the 1950s and ‘60s. As soon as school was out each year, we packed up and left suburban Long Island for “the country.”

It was a world in which well-oiled women roasted in the sun on chaise lounges and children spent their time at day camp, braiding lariats, fighting color wars or treading water in a pool to graduate from minnow to shark.

It was a world without men from Monday through Friday. In those days before central air conditioning, men parked their families in the cool mountains and stayed behind in the city working, making the trip north each weekend. And from Friday to Sunday evening, the adults partied at the casinos (as they were called) or at poolside.

Summer is a time out from life. They don’t call them the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” for nothing. We live summer in the present, in seemingly never-ending daylight, talking about doing this or that “after the summer is over.”

With Labor Day all that ends. Life returns with a vengeance. It’s back to school, the stiffness of real shoes and the smell of new books. Games of football, basketball and the like are defined by time. Notebooks are empty. Everything is before us. Anything is possible.

I realize this is a rhythm established in childhood (and often continued into parenthood), as our lives are geared to each school term. But it runs much deeper than that – at least for me.

January 1 may be the official start of a new year, but aside from the calendar (and all those resolutions notwithstanding), nothing changes. Winter just closes in.

Ah, but the fall. With September comes a perceptible change in weather patterns. The air itself is clearer and sharper. Food tastes better. Vitality returns. With the impending winter, time takes on urgency, poignancy.

Many folks think of September as an ending —and end to warmth, an end to freedom. But for me it’s a beginning, the beginning of clarity, of production—both in the air and in my own thoughts.

Here at the Jersey Shore, September also means the beaches, cafes and highways return to us. Favorite restaurants are once again accessible.

Fall is also the time Jews celebrate the New Year. Rosh Hashanah can even coincide with Labor Day. This two-day holiday marks the start of what is called the High Holy
Days, ending 10 days later with Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement.

I am not a religious person and was not raised in an observant home. Yet, this is one time I think we Jews got it right. (Unlike that business of reading back to front and starting our days at sundown.) Even the most casually observant of us tends to honor this time, and not with noisemakers and hangovers.

Yes, there is a lushness and abundance about the harvest that makes it a great time to welcome a new year. But more than that, the shortening of the days and the sharpening of our senses moves us naturally into a period of reflection and examination necessary to lead a rich and meaningful life. More than crops are harvested each year, and seeds planted bring forth more than nourishment for the body.

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