I often think of Autumn and Winter as bringing change into our lives more quickly and more noticeably than do Spring or Summer. Somehow, after the cold and snow, it seems perfectly natural, refreshing, and enjoyable to see the slow transitions of plants and greenery resurfacing around us, snows melting, flowers blooming, weather warming. But after the warmth and relative ease of summer, it seems more surprising, inconvenient, and perhaps uncomfortable, to be reminded to add layers of clothing when greeted by the crisper morning airs, to watch greenery dying all around, to see life crawling underground or flying away.
However painful it is to see homeless individuals sleeping on dewy, freezing grasses near freeways on these brisk autumn or bitter winter mornings, or how distressing it is to experience more darkness around us than light, I am every year astonished at the introspection inspired by these changes. Why are the yearly changes from light to dark more noticeable than those from dark to light? Yes, there is rejoicing around the Winter Solstice every year, that moment when our hemisphere on Earth will begin returning to the Sun for warmth, when the light will daily increase . . . but after our New Year celebrations, do we really enjoy those changes every day, or pay attention to how beautiful everything around us is? Do we 'take advantage' of those Spring and Summer days, truly? Do we hike, bike, camp, walk, run, or just 'be' outside enough? Did we take the number of picnics we could have, did we eat out on rooftop patios as often as we would have liked?
It seems more jarring, more memorable, when things "turn south," and head in the opposite direction. We enjoy our 'sweater weather,' and we turn to coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and soup more often to keep warm. But really a sense of sadness seems to enter in with the cold . . . we're sad that we 'can't' be outside now, even if we spent most of our time that we 'could have been' outside, inside anyway. We love to cozy up with our pets and with each other any chance we get, and we seem to crave more human and social contact . . . because it's a difficult time! Because many of us come down with more illness, don't get enough Vitamin D, have seasonal affective disorder, or just generally don't like the cold, damp, dark. Some of course prefer the winter months for various reasons, but everything in the world around us, in nature, is dying during this time, and that calls us to respond in some way, to the challenge, to the changes. We consume less fresh, more frozen, foods. Perhaps we bake more, to warm our homes. We tend to exercise less frequently because many outdoor activities and sports can't as easily be enjoyed indoors. We turn to our televisions and indoor games more often, and also we gain weight we won't easily lose in the Spring, despite our aspirations.
The most challenging aspect of these seasons, to me, is death. The flaring up into flames of extravagant color bursts of all the plant life around us in the fall, as if to give one last shout-out for the year to the oblivious humans . . . "Look outside of yourself! Notice the earth! Pay attention! Open your eyes to the wonder of the smells, colors, and life this earth has been providing you all year! It won't always be here! Be grateful!" And we are, truly . . . Autumn is a time not just of change, but of awareness. We can't miss the changing colors that have been green most of the year so far. We can't help but catch our breath at the startling reds, oranges, and yellows surrounding us. We can't help but smile at the children who haven't yet lost the joy of running through piles of crunchy leaves. We can't stop rolling our eyes at every new pumpkin-flavored invention.
But the biggest question, for the oblivious humans, is . . . will we change ourselves? Will we perhaps stay outside more this Autumn and Winter, embracing what is uncomfortable, beginning to understand that death is a part of life? Will we bring blankets to the freezing homeless people in our cities? Will we spend a bit more time outside, beginning to understand that what hurts, what is painful, teaches us, prepares us for growth in the Spring? Will we see that we are a part of nature . . . that our bodies are natural . . . that we are animals, living on this Earth, interconnected with all other life? Will we think of the death we have experienced in our lives, the deaths of our loved ones, our pets, our earth, and how our earth is replenished and renewed by death every single year? Will we learn to appreciate and embrace the changes in our lives, will we perhaps begin to understand how to be in nature?
Or will we turn up our heaters and televisions, block out the cold, close the blinds, keep our belongings close and our loved ones closer, forget about the death in the world around us, and block it all out until the Spring comes again? Most years, we will. Every once in a while in our lives, we may be forced out of this by some extreme changes, but most years, if we're comfortable, we'll try to stay comfortable. And this is how we survive. All these millennia. The squirrels work hard to save the acorns in the trees, then they hole up with their food supplies. The birds fly south (and many of us do, too) and the bears hibernate.
But this year, do you want to survive? Or will you thrive? What will it take for us to thrive?