Autumnal Equinox

This is a day of symmetry. Mid-afternoon, 2:21 p.m. Central Time, the sun will float directly above the equator and from that moment until deep December, it will be fall. That moment of solar hovering will signify the autumnal equinox, with the day and night of equal duration.  Tomorrow, the days shorten, the nights lengthen, and  we spin toward winter, but so gradually we hardly notice. 

Then, one October morning we open the door and the lawn is rimed with frost.  We leave the house for errands, in shirtsleeves as usual, and halfway to the car we realize it is chilly and return for a sweater, a jacket.  Flowers fade and hang their heads, hydrangeas turn a camel  brown, and look sturdy as a camel, only to turn to paper in our hands.

Leaves rustle high in the trees, some ready to release, happy in the natural order of things.  The sidewalk is blanketed in gold as ginkgo trees say goodnight.  Oak leaves hang on, like sleepy tots, overtired and cranky but desperate not to miss anything.  They will drop and you will rake, again and again, never quite finishing the job.  Sometime after Thanksgiving the first snow covers the stragglers, and you ignore what’s left until spring. 

Maples, the true stars of autumn, will blaze and glimmer, and we will comment on the palette, nodding sagely as we discuss the impact of drought or rain or summer heat on the vibrancy of color.  We will mispronounce “foliage” but no one notices.  Down here everyone says it the same way.  To do otherwise is to put on airs.

The sun slants at a most pleasing angle. Has been settling into its autumnal slouch for a few weeks now. The golden hour glints more golden, the blue hour seems more the shade of the Crayola crayon, Midnight Blue, darker, somehow, softer and sadder.

Mornings arrive later.  Sleep is restored. 

Below us, past the equator, our friends will be preparing for spring.  In their hemisphere Christmas arrives in summer, and to contemplate such things confuses and confounds us.  The idea of Santas in beards and red shorts confounds most of us, too. Autumn must be crisp and bright.  Winter cold.  

Even when autumn is warm until November, when winter plays hide and seek,  refusing to deliver on childhood dreams of snow and sledding, when shrubs bud too early, we will have some frosty mornings, at least some little bit of snow, enough to remind us to wind the stem of our internal watch, the one that marks, not hours, but years gone by, warm kitchens, grandmothers baking, perhaps.  Or boisterous kids with red cheeks and running noses getting in one more football play before the light fails completely. Frozen hands on handlebars, too stiff to safely steer toward home. 

We bring the fall and winter in, nestled in our sweaters, our coats, our woolen hats and mittens.  Maybe they, too, seek a little warmth in spite of the cold that defines them. Summer stays outside, playing past bedtimes, making a racket.  Summer wears us out.  Autumn knows we need our rest. Winter insists we conserve our strength.  

Autumn whispers to us, subtle but sure.  We might not hear it today at exactly 2:21 p.m., but if we stay attentive, we will hear it. There is wisdom to be had, a centering and calm, if we stay still long enough to listen.

Hospital Visits, 1960s Style

I was telling a friend about the Southern tradition of Sunday hospital visits, back when hospitalizations were week-long affairs for the arrival of babies, or surgeries or tests and observations. And I say it was a Southern tradition, but maybe it was more universal than that and I have attached too much regional significance to be strictly accurate. 

My parents held great debates on whether to make such visits, weighing their sense of obligation against their longing for Sunday naps.  But we were in the habit of going to church each Sunday and then to one of the grandmothers for lunch, and they thought, well, since they were still dressed up probably they should go. 

But if they were going, they shouldn’t piddle around,  because my mother’s feet hurt and she wanted out of those shoes.

I remember these discussions clearly because our Sunday afternoon fate hung in the balance.  We would get a little more time at our grandmother’s while they made their calls, and that was fine by us. We might have held secret discussions of our own, wondering if we might squeeze in a whole afternoon without parents bugging us about “school tomorrow,” those dreadful, dreadful words. 

My grandmother, on the other hand, loved such visits and sometimes it was she who had to make her hospital rounds as she rushed Sunday dinner and shooed us out the door. In those days, if she was lucky and the prayer list long, she might get to hit both hospitals in town. 

She loved gory and disgusting procedures and would pump the poor bedridden patient for the details she would later spill for all and sundry at canasta on Monday.

I imagine the Sunday hospital patient was eager to tell her all about it, just for a little attention,  since it was not uncommon for the room to be full of well-wishers talking to each other and not the poor patient in the hospital bed. 

I was indoctrinated in the practice early, when my grandmother sometimes dragged me along.   I hated it. I almost never knew the person, but that didn’t keep my grandmother from pushing me toward the bed to say hello.  As more people arrived I circled back to a corner and watched as whole parties and gabfests erupted, the poor patient clearly wanting only ice chips and to be left alone. 

Or worse, the visitors would gather around the foot of the bed with an expectant air as if the one in the bed was the afternoon’s entertainment. What was the thinking back there in the Sixties, the Seventies? But maybe, in a way, going to see someone in the hospital was a kind of entertainment, really, what with blue laws and bad afternoon TV.

The best hospital visitors I ever saw were my sister-in-law’s parents.  My father, nearing the end of his life, was again in the hospital and they arrived early on a Sunday afternoon, not to visit, but to check on him.

First they poked their head in the door to see how things were, then, holding hands, they took a few steps inside the room, refused  to sit down, said they just wanted to say hello and see for themselves how he was doing.  They asked if we needed anything, gave their good wishes, and took their leave.

It was such a classy move, warm and considerate, that I haven’t forgotten it.  In fact, in moments of boredom I have dissected it, deconstructing every move.  For example, the hand-holding.  While they were an affectionate couple, I believe it also served the purpose of keeping each other in check, to help remember and reinforce the mission, so that if one of them  got too chatty, the other could lead them gently toward the door.

They smiled, asked concerned questions, maybe three or four, expressed their love and concern, then floated out on a cloud of goodwill.  And they generated such goodwill, we almost wished to call them back. 

Now, of course, even major surgeries and procedures might not require more than a couple of days’ stay.   And Covid limits and sometimes prohibits visitors altogether.  Weekend stays are rarer now, unless they can’t be helped. We designate visitors as we continue Covid precautions, and in most hospitals it is one visitor per customer. 

For the duration. 

And as long as it the visitor of your choosing, you might find that one is quite enough.