Today is Mabon. My calendar informs me it’s my weekend to post on Harvesting Stones. Some weeks I’m all ready to go and need do nothing more than push the publish button. This week these are the first words I’ve written, sitting here on my little porch on Saturday morning watching the clouds tatter before the morning sun.
Mabon, or fall equinox, is the balance point during which the hours of daylight and darkness are equal. It mirrors spring equinox and falls between winter and summer solstice. Fall is my favorite time of year, and this fall I’m in the midst of profound transformation. It’s a harvest season like no other in my life.
Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash
Sometimes we are so swept up in the tides of life and death we can do nothing but keep breathing. Days fall away from me, hours drift by and disappear without my awareness. I am focused on the next task, and the next. At the end of each day, I cross to-dos, questions, concerns off my lists, make notes for the next days and weeks, and fall into bed before rising at 4:30 or 5:00 to begin again.
In the midst of the chaos, I remember I choose my life. I’m getting better at just stopping.
I have before me a weekend. Mabon, 2023. It will never come again. A hundred tasks to do. A hundred things to worry about. A hundred choices to make.
Mabon is about balance. Action balanced with rest. Complexity balanced with simplicity. Fear balanced with confidence. Work balanced with play. Grief balanced with joy.
The light; the growing season; the summer of hospice, anguished love, extra caregivers, demented phone calls, medication lists, and, finally, my mother’s death, wane. Trees retain their leaves, but summer’s fierce green fades, bronzing, drying. Sedum and chrysanthemums bloom in the garden. A few sunflowers still flower among the ripening seed heads of their fellows.
Mabon. Balance. And I, a creature, a life among so many other lives, what can I say about it? How can I talk about balance when it feels so far from reach? How will I find balance again on the other side of transformation?
What I hold are impressions, vivid moments of mindfulness and sensuality, unexpected emotions, and the determination to cling fast to myself as autumn rip tides carry me where they will. For I am here, alive, curious, creative, awed, grateful, terrified.
Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash
I’m rereading Susan Fletcher, a favorite author. I just finished Oystercatchers. On the last page, this: “You’re this: an onion bulb. The glint of a rabbit’s eye. The clicking of a beetle’s legs on a leaf; the leaf’s brown edge; dandelions; a pebble; windfall fruit.”
I read no more; I was crying too hard.
My mother is always with me. She has always been with me. My blood, my bone, my sculptor. Now, her death is with me, too, and her dying. Grief has not come to the front door, which I’ve left ajar in anticipation of its coming. It’s crawled through cracked windows, slipped through old screens long-dead cats tore with their claws. It’s drifted down the chimney, come up through gaps in my old wood floor from the cellar, crept along the copper radiator pipes, cool now, but soon to be warming.
I carry bewildered pain within me, like a ripe nut in its shell. How does it happen that a human being, intelligent, talented, competent, with so much to give, can have no feel for life? How can anyone refuse to engage with the mystery, the glory, the terror, the sweetness, and yes, even the pain of what it means to be alive, to love, to be broken and heal over and over?
Isn’t it strange that I find her in the small delights she herself would never have recognized as sustenance, as miracles? Something in Mom was too blind or too broken or perhaps too frightened to allow life to clasp her in its arms. Something. We could never talk about it. I knew it was there, but she would not reveal even the edges of her true experience.
In the end, as the fogs of dementia surrounded her, she was at last able to say she loved me. I have that, at least. And yet, she was demented … But I choose to believe.
Mabon, then, is the autumn garden. Planting blue and white grape hyacinths in drifts with daffodils under the magnolia so in spring they will bloom and naturalize as the seasons come and go. Shoveling and spreading compost mixed with aged cow manure, rich with earthworms and beetles. Pruning, trimming, prying weeds and grass out of cracks in the sidewalk and driveway. Disturbing our small brown toads as I weed and clean up debris in readiness for the blanketing fallen leaves. Dividing and transplanting. Spider webs jeweled with dew. Chilly mornings and gorgeous afternoons. The smell of my catnip, ecstatically trampled and chewed, no doubt discovered by the neighborhood black cat, Winston by name. Planting a few end-of-season sale perennials from our local greenhouse: lavender, black-eyed Susan, sedum. My garden manicure of dirt ground under my fingernails and into my cuticles, always dry and ragged from so much time in the pool. It won’t scrub away, but it will soak off in the pool during my next lesson. Peeling skin and blisters. Bruised knees.
Photo by Dakota Roos on Unsplash
Mabon is the early morning mist rising from the Kennebec River three or four blocks away. It moves up from the surface of the water, along the dark, early-dawn streets and walkways, enveloping the trees, rising to hide the church spire and then gently dissolving as the sun rises while the crows call and the neighborhood rooster announces the dawn.
Mabon is the taste of Apple Pie Chai (Republic of Tea) with a dollop of half n’ half in it, as delicious as it sounds. It’s scented candles burning in the first hours of my day as I journal, make lists, think about the day ahead. Orange, red, and golden candles – orange and spice, apple and cinnamon, sandalwood. One of my closest friends says sandalwood is a “dirty hippy smell.” The thought makes me smile every time I light it. The apples and cinnamon candle sputters companionably because it has a wooden wick (Book&Reverie candles on Etsy).
Mabon is linen sheets dyed a glorious old gold on my bed, textured, heavy, luxurious. It’s socks and sneakers instead of my Keen sandals. It’s my heavy grey shirt jacket with a Buff bandana or a scarf.
Mabon. The Wheel of the Year turns. Seasons and cycles. These things remain. These things are predictable, comforting. They sustain me.
This year, Mabon is also a blizzard of what feels like endless documents, digital, paper, filed away, stacked on my desk, put into binders, stored on USB sticks. Soon, Mom’s house in Colorado will sell, the requisite paperwork will be filed for tax preparers and other legalities. Printing and scanning, FedEx drop offs, notarizing, will eventually be complete. The business of opening accounts with a new bank, obtaining new cards and checks, changing automatic payments and direct deposits, connecting to other accounts, will be finished. Insurance, retirement accounts, paying off debt – all will be managed. I will create new systems, effective and simple.
This week my nearly 20-year-old Subaru failed to pass inspection. I can’t understand it. The driver’s side door handle still works; I don’t really need the others. It drives. I don’t need AC or an audio system. I can manage without being able to open the back hatch. The heat and defrost work if I put in the fuse, and the battery is good as long as I don’t leave the fuse in when I park it. I know exactly where to bring my fist down on the hood when an ice storm seals it shut and I need to open it and put the fuse back in.
It needs $3000 of work. It’s worth $1100.
I need a new car. More tasks. More paperwork. Insurance. Registration.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
These things, the documents, the tasks, the paperwork, phone calls, texts, emails, are nothing but the chrysalis of transformation. I know it. I feel stressed and overwhelmed much of the time, frustrated by delays, miscommunications, jumping through legal and bureaucratic hoops. It’s all temporary, though. It will fall away, along with the autumn leaves. The chrysalis will shred in the dark winds of late autumn and winter, this rip tide will release me, and then … something new.
Through it all is my mother. My memories of her. The pain of my love for her. I’ve inherited so much more from her than assets. There is some comfort, some strange, painful comfort, in remembering to pause. To choose. To stop. To be touched, broken open by the small daily beauties and comforts of life. The taste of creamy tea. The scent of sandalwood. The texture of rich soil. The late copper and garnet blooms of mums. The mist rising into the sun’s golden warmth. Most of all, the painful risk of loving friends, family, the world, life.
Look, Mom. See the little toad? Let’s put him here, under the rhododendron. Remind me to buy toad houses.
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I recently reread Broken For You by Jan Karon. The last time I picked it up was years ago, when I was living a different life in a different place. I loved it then, but this time it spoke to me more profoundly. I was captivated by the suggestion that things, including people, might be more valuable broken than whole.
Then, in an idle moment, I picked up one of my Mary Oliver books and read this:
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that they have no tongues, could lecture all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear the black oaks along the path are standing as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now the crows break off from the rest of the darkness and burst up into the sky – as though
all night they had thought of what they would like their lives to be, and imagined their strong, thick wings.
Again, the theme of breaking, this time breaking darkness into black wings.
I’ve been thinking about breaking as I harvest from the garden this weekend. The tomato plants are heavy with fruit, bent and sprawling above the basil and parsley, straggling over the garden borders into the grass. The tomatoes on the ground are gratefully received by slugs and beetles, as well as some kind of gnawer – no doubt a rodent. Our resident chipmunk is my prime suspect.
I don’t mind, though. I have an abundance, and it gives me pleasure to share. I picked everything that was ripe, harvested oregano and basil, and made a crock pot of spaghetti sauce yesterday, discarding the spoiled tomatoes in the compost, which will, in time, feed other gardens in other years.
As I chopped the herbs into thin, fragrant ribbons and the tomatoes into juicy chunks, I thought about broken things. Well, not things. Not objects. Things are just things. They’re not life. They’re not real identity, although we try hard to make them so.
I thought about broken hearts, shattered dreams, disillusionment, loss of innocence, disappointed hopes, violated trust. I thought about broken promises made to ourselves and others and fractured relationships with ourselves and others.
Objects break, but the more painful breaks are intangible. Objects can be replaced. How do we manage intangible breaks?
Sometimes a broken object can be pieced back together, but it’s never quite the same again.
But what if we made something new with the broken pieces? What if we let go of the old shape of whatever broke and spent the night thinking about what we want to make or be now with the broken pieces of what we were yesterday?
Some things endure: a seed, a bone, love, life, and death. Death most of all, because without it there can be no seed or bone, and no life. In time, everything breaks, and then breaks down, and then becomes something new.
Breaking then, need not be a catastrophe or a message that we are victims of malign fate, but an invitation to reshape ourselves and our lives into something greater, something wiser, something winged.
Fractures, chips, and cracks are inevitable in life. Nothing stays young and unblemished. Time and entropy sweep us along. As I approach my sixties, I find myself more and more grateful for all my broken places. From those places I write, and from those places I love. Each of those broken pieces has made me into a juicier, more complex whole.
Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.
More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.
The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.
A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.
Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.
Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.
Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.
We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.
Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.
Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.
As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.
For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.
Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.
Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.
I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.
I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.
Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.
While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field, I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle. The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well, and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.
I follow the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. I’ve never felt satisfied by the calendar holidays we currently observe, but when I began to research older, more traditional cultures and found the Wheel of the Year I recognized a spiritual home. Unsurprisingly, the Wheel is built around seasonal cycles and the solstices and equinoxes; all important markers and milestones for people living close to the land and animals.
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
August first is Lughnasadh (LOO-neh-seh), the first harvest festival. It marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and fall equinox. The light is decreasing at the same time the harvest is increasing. Traditionally a Gaelic festival, Lughnasadh ushered in weeks of backbreaking work to gather in the harvest, plant as well as animal, and prepare for winter. A good harvest was often the difference between life and death over the winter, and people took advantage of the still lengthy daylight and warm nights to work long hours in the fields.
Each of the eight turns of the Wheel of the Year (about six weeks apart) is an opportunity to pause and reflect on some particular aspect of our lives in the context of the natural world. Lughnasadh is one of my favorites because it is at this time I ask myself how my harvest is.
For me, this is a much deeper and more honest self-inquiry than New Year’s resolutions. I don’t want to try to re-make my life or myself. I want to examine how I’m living the life I have and expressing the person I am. The Wheel of the Year is about spirit, not consumerism.
This time of year, as we prepare for the longer nights and cooler weather, the school year ahead and the fading of this cycle’s growth and abundance, we rural people notice how our gardens and orchards are. We notice the fading flowers and the leaves starting to look dull and tired. We observe the effects of this year’s weather on our fruit, vegetables and herbs. Hunters look forward to hunting season. We count canning jars and pull out our dehydrators to deal with a tidal wave of produce. We consider how the haying season was, if we need to buy more hay to see our animals through the winter, and which animals to cull. In Maine, it’s berry season.
Photo by Bartłomiej Jacak on Unsplash
Rural or urban, this natural and ancient cycle and rhythm can be reflected in our private lives. How is our harvest this year? What did we reap from graduations, weddings, reunions and vacations over the spring and summer? Did our investment of energy, time and love provide abundance? How did our choices work out? Are we happy? Are our needs met? Do we feel connected to ourselves and others?
Did we try to plant too much in an inadequate plot? Have we exhausted our resources in any particular garden or field? Is there land in our soul that needs to lie fallow? Is our spiritual well dry, or sparkling and full? Are we allowing discarded material to compost and break down and returning it to the soil of our life? Does the tree of our life need a good pruning? Have we been lightning-struck, or blighted, or had branches torn off by storms? Do we have enough sun? Enough water? Enough nutrients? Do we need more shelter from wind and storm?
Are we still growing?
Can we bloom where we’re planted, or do we need to grow in another place to nurture the roots of our being?
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash
This is the time to reflect on seeds, literal and metaphorical, we’ve previously planted. Lughnasadh is a teacher, slightly past middle age, benign, ample of body and experience. She helps us look back at the previous cycle when we prepared and planted for this growing season, evaluate our current harvest, and ready new seeds for the next growing season. It’s now that I begin to form intentions, review my hopes and dreams, and have long conversations with my fear. Where I’ve been is behind me. The next cycle is before me. Here, hip-deep in a field of golden grain and poppies, is this year’s harvest. What do I want to do with it? How do I want it to be different? Do I need more, or less? Will my choices sustain me through the winter?
Lughnasadh is not about mistakes or failures. It’s an honest assessment of needs and feelings, observation about what grew well for us and produced value in our lives and what did not. A bountiful harvest does not occur strictly through the efforts of human beings, but as a happy outcome between favorable external conditions (out of our control) and the choices we make (in our control). Perhaps we have no harvest at all. Perhaps our internal terrain is blasted and scorched and we feel we’ve lost everything. I’ve had years like that.
Maybe the harvest during those times is the most valuable of all — a clean slate. A newly cleared field.
An entirely new cycle.
So what is my harvest, and how do I feel about it? How are my boundaries? Do I experience reciprocity in my close relationships? Do I feel safe in my relationships? Do I express myself authentically, or do I keep secrets? Do I feel my feelings? Am I effectively managing my rightful power?
Am I my own best advocate, parent, lover and friend?
Evaluating my harvest and planning for the next cycle of sowing seed and growth are not social media activities. This kind of self-inquiry is private, shared at most with a trusted partner or friend, or perhaps a big-hearted dog. It can’t be done superficially or quickly. Traditionally, there are three harvests, and this is only the first. The last is on Samhain, which we call Halloween. By January first, I’m resting. The work of harvest is well behind me and spring approaches. I’m watching the light return and feeling the gathering power of the new cycle.
It takes time and courage to look honestly at our lives and evaluate where we are. It takes self-love to celebrate our triumphs and mistakes. The search for teachers, friends and support to improve our harvest next year is a journey in itself. If we recognize we make ourselves small and limited and thus have a small and limited harvest, we’re not going to magically change that on January first. Now is the time to begin to challenge the fears and beliefs keeping us small and silent. Now is the time to begin to run, walk or even crawl away from toxic relationships and situations blighting our harvest.
The Wheel of the Year turns. Fall approaches. Change continues to flow through our lives. Notice it. Feel it. Dance with it.
I wish you the joy of the season, friends. What is your harvest?