Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Equinox with TS Eliot - by Lu Hersey

Somehow September seems to be passing at record speed, and we're nearly at the autumn equinox - the day the hours of daylight and dark are of equal length. As we head towards the shorter days and longer nights of winter, this is my attempt to explain how I feel about this particular time of year, and why it always makes me think of TS Eliot's Four Quartets (even if I never really entirely understood them).

Traditionally the mid point of the harvest, in Avalon (which translates as the Isle of Apples) the orchards are heavy with fruit. The equinox is mostly celebrated here as the pagan festival of Mabon, one of the eight annual Celtic fire festivals, supposedly a time to take stock and enjoy feasting before the winter sets in. Of course in Glastonbury this presents an excuse for an army of pagans to drum for much of the night up on the tor and blast their blooming horns of Gondor (or worse, play bagpipes) at dawn. Fortunately I have emergency earplugs.

The equinox is a significant time in other cultures too. Japan marks it (both spring and autumn) with a time they call Ohigan, or O-higan. At the equinoxes the sun sets directly in the west, in Buddhist tradition seen as the way to the land of the afterlife, so these times are associated with transitions of life and death. People visit the graves of their ancestors, leave flowers, meditate, and feast with the living. In China and Vietnam, people celebrate the full moon nearest the equinox as the Moon Festival, a time to gaze at the moon and eat moon cakes. The same festival in Korea is known as Chuseok.

The Christian festival of Michaelmas, probably a replacement for earlier pagan celebrations (as many festivals in the Christian calendar tend to be), is also around this time, on 29th September. Michaelmas marks the feast of the archangel Michael, but somehow still gets mixed in with the celebration of harvest - and you'd be wise not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas as apparently they then belong to the devil. Or so my grandmother told me...

So whether they're creating an altar covered in autumn leaves and seasonal apples (many traditions regard the apple as a sacred fruit, probably because of the magical, five pointed star that appears when you cut the fruit horizontally), going to a harvest festival, or eating moon cakes and visiting ancestors, it seems many of us still celebrate the equinox.

I've found my own (bagpipe free) way of marking this special time of the year. If possible, I go to the sea, timing the visit to coincide with either high tide or low tide (depending on daylight hours and the journey time it takes to get there). When the tide is either right out, or right in, there's usually a patch of relative calm, like a breathing space when the world stops for a moment, before the tide turns. And even if the poem is about something completely different, I think of Burnt Norton in Eliot's Four Quartets.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I sit by the shore and try to empty my mind of all the noise and clutter for a while. It doesn't really matter what I'm writing, or trying to write back home - or what I will write in future or have written previously. Just for a few precious moments I don't worry about any of it.

And that's how I spend the equinox with TS Eliot. It's really worth finding a tiny bit of calm away from the madding crowds, even if it's only for a short time, twice a year. I really recommend it.

Lu Hersey
t: @LuWrites


Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for this post, Lu. I've been less busy and much more aware of the seasons recently, and this year has seemed to slow down, which is a good feeling. And now I'm going to read the Four Quartets again...

LuWrites said...

Thanks Ann - and enjoy the Four Quartets. I only understand parts of it but think it's making more sense as I get older...