Sunday, August 19, 2007

August Minimalism

The last two weeks of August in Washington have always been a quiet time: Congress is gone, the president is away, the streets are relatively empty, all of which makes commuting to work and daily life a pleasure. It also induces a minimalism that may not last.

On such quiet days, one thinks one's life is placid, the major problems are far away. It is a good time to think of pruning one's life to the minimum necessary.

At least, I have always recognized that the ascetics and monastics had something right: all our hubbub and ado, all our baubles and trinkets and technological toys, all our fretting and aspiring ... all of it amounts to very little.
A Season for Everything

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" wrote Qoheleth, author of the biblical book of Eclesiastes. Unwittingly, Qoheleth also provided the Sixties band The Byrds the lyrics for a song that became emblematic at one time:
All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to destroy, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather.
A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to get, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
A time of love, and a time of hatred. A time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
August in the northern hemisphere seems the time to begin pluck up.

In medieval England, August 1 was Lammas (loaf-mass) Day, the festival of the first wheat harvest, when people brought loaves of bread to church made from the new crop. The proper, full feast of harvest (from the Anglo-Saxon "haerfest," meaning 'Autumn,' the season of reaping and gathering) came on the Sunday of the full moon in September.

In the southern hemisphere people are still bracing themselves through the last full month of winter. Planting season is not far away.

I feel it as a time to pluck, to heal, to laugh, to dance, to be silent and to refrain from embracing. Soon, as I always recall at this time of year, the travails of life will be upon me.

Tina's Prophecy

Many years ago, on a school summer's vacation afternoon, this bit of elementary human wisdom came to me when my friend Tina and I were lying on the grass of her family's sloping lawn, staring up at the sky.

It was still hot and there were bees about, but not the nasty bees and hornets of the fall yet. I must have expressed exasperation, for Tina then declared, as if with an oracle's inspiration, that the summer's bees and the heat would soon be gone. I still remember, I don't quite know why, my awe at her wisdom just a few weeks later, as a gentle breeze began to blow through our shady street and, before we knew it, we were back in school.

August is full of such golden memories. Six years ago I went to the movies with my wife, our Sunday afternoon ritual at the time, to see the film "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." The film and the walk back home was one of the last placid moments of the century so far. The following month a small band of Muslims performed several spectacular suicide bombings and the following year she left me.

Then came the autumn of my life. A time to harvest.

For now, it is still August, still full of summer, easing into the last breezy days of quiet. A time to enjoy solitude and good books and good films, sometimes with a friend.
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