I haven’t been in New York for a change of season as my ten previous trips have been peak summer. Needless to say, with COVID-19 restrictions in full swing, everything has changed about the city anyway. Right now, in this literal concrete jungle, the signs of new spring life are few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, I love the energy of this place and the concentration of people and ideas. However, right now apart from the few beautiful parks being enjoyed by a few people, it's hard to sense the warming weather. There are a few more birds, a milder breeze, and my street’s infrequent trees coming into bud. But soft nature is pretty much overwhelmed by the hard city.
How do we pick up the cues that time is moving on?
Even with our current extraordinary circumstances, we still need to pick up the yearly rhythms. You’ve heard the reports and read the papers about how spring offers some kind of celebration for people in the northern hemisphere, even as Australia laments the journey into autumn and winter.
This has got me thinking about this natural/human divide - and yes, I’m at risk of contradicting myself from my last reflection on New York’s sense of place being driven by the human factor, not the natural factor. Human beings are organic and I wonder if something is lost when we don’t encounter the organic in our everyday lives. Have you ever been stopped in your city by the beauty of a flower stall? Been startled by a vegetable market with its display of green abundance? Or seduced by the smell of freshly cut grass or sounds of birdsong? Perhaps these are signals to awaken mindfulness to go and seek out some respite from the hard city – even if it means sitting in Central Park for an hour or so. I for one, am finding this is a very useful ritual right now.
Growing up in suburban Perth in Western Australia, I had an abundance of greenery and natural surroundings throughout the year. The ratio of natural landscape to hard surface was very high. Front gardens, side yards, boulevards, street trees, shrubbery, playing fields, school grounds, and the beach were all dominant over the detached houses, small shopping centres, civic buildings, and even the roads and tarmac. I wouldn’t say the quality of the natural landscape was lush by European standards (Perth is more Mediterranean than the Mediterranean with very long hot dry summers and short mild wettish winters) – but natural landscape it was. Greenery may be stretching the term too, as the Swan coastal plain is characterised by yellow sandy soils, the grey foliage of banksia and eucalyptus, and pale weeds and grasses. I remember seeing agapanthus along a family friends’ driveway growing up, and thinking it was so exotic to be deep green and flowering in summer! The other thing about the place of my youth is that the seasons were indistinct. It never got that cold in winter, certainly never snowed, was always sunny and the evergreen trees don’t display autumn colours or spring growth. In a northern hemisphere dominated culture, having Christmas at the beach and no holidays in the mid-year winter will always strike an odd note.
I have been impressed with the writings of David Tacey, Australian spiritualist, about how the seasons in Australia work differently, and especially the idea that we need to make our own yearly rhythm of lament and celebration.(1) For example, in the Christian calendar, Easter comes in spring for the majority world in the northern hemisphere – a time of new life after the cold and death of winter (just think bunny rabbits!). In Australia, Easter comes in autumn, which may seem anathema to new life, as things cool down and the days get shorter. However, what if we see autumn in Perth as the refreshing life-giving rains that come after a long hot dry summer? What if in Sydney the clear skies and drier air of April are the perfect antidote to the muggy and repressive heat of February? Likewise, as late spring and summer come around in Australia, we all start slowing down as it gets hotter and hotter. We start doing things differently – we prepare for bushfire, we spend more time with family and friends, and we stock up on food to feed them all! There is a peace and quiet about the Australian summer that beautifully parallels the European snow blanketed mid-winter celebration of Christmas. Remember the Australian Christmas carol, The North Wind where "the sparrows are under the eaves"? Wildlife are smart enough to be still and take shelter from the hot sun and wind in an Australian Christmas!
Tacey suggests these kinds of symbols are just as valid ways to mark the passing of time and the changing of seasons as anything that culture might dictate in the northern hemisphere. I like this – a lot. I recall a church I visited in Perth that would hang up eucalyptus branches inside the chapel at the start of the Christmas season and allow the stunning aroma to permeate right up to Christmas Day. As they dried and withered and became still and crinkly, the sense of death and dying and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth and new life was unavoidable and a joy to be a part of.
As Australia moves into winter, and COVID-19 hopefully becomes manageable, could we see the soaking rains and cold air as a form of cleansing? Could the lack of leaves on Melbourne’s street trees be a symbol? How might we see more clearly through this time - even in the weak light of winter?
Of course, I’m making an assumption that you, the reader, care about this marking of time and the changing of seasons. My hope is that your awareness of the seasons takes on a more potent nature during this time of crisis as COVID-19 is itself a season. We don’t have to have a faith or spirituality to get excited about spring, dance in the summer rain, or marvel at the first snow on mountain tops. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to appreciate the difference between climates across the hemispheres or worry that the autumn leaves weren’t as colourful this year. In our scientific age, it’s easy to think that humans have tamed the seasons entirely and the natural world rarely impacts us – negatively or positively. However, anyone who has ever suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) will know that if you don’t get enough Vitamin D, your mood is unquestionably depressed. I have had friends from Perth move to London who have had visits to the solarium prescribed by their doctor! What I am suggesting is that we pay more attention to the weather and the seasons in whatever way is useful for us. I am more of a summer celebration person – I know that well - but what if I could find ways to be more thoughtful, and even lament about winter? Are there some aspects of summer that grieve me and my community? What parts of a cold winter can I find to excite me and spur my indoor productive energies?
You see, I think lament and celebration is a part of nature, and therefore a part of our nature. Ignoring the seasons and how they resonate with the deepest parts of our psyche risks losing some of our humanity. The trick is to hold the lament and celebration in balance and at the same time. We can’t always celebrate, just like we can’t always lament. I am excited about celebrating spring in New York City (when it finally comes!) but I also need to find ways of lamenting the end of winter and what has been lost. I suspect this may be around the peace and quiet I and my friends have experienced during the COVID-19 restrictions.
Each season, even COVID-19, has its gifts to us if we pay attention.
In a place like New York City, I might need to pay closer attention as my controlled environment and limited exposure to nature make this more difficult. In your place, what indicators are there of the coming hot or cold season? If you’re in a very consistent climate, like Singapore, have you found ways of engaging in a natural rhythm of lament and celebration each year?
Finally, at the Centre for Building Better Community, we have wrestled with this fifth aspect of our Flourishing Framework. It was originally just about celebration, but research and wise advice suggested we include lament as well. This is not a culturally popular message, at least in the majority world, but as I’ve said above, we can’t celebrate all the time. As we include both lament and celebration, we trust you will help us unpack the riches of this framework as you apply it to your own lives and communities. After all, it’s in our nature.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love-
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
~ Lynn Ungar ~ 11 March, 2020