The Flower of Fall
There’s a old bridge over Bayou St. John in New Orleans, made from wooden planks supported by a steel frame and now used only for foot traffic. A Vodou ceremony is performed here on St. John’s Eve, just after the summer solstice, but recently I’ve come to associate the bridge with the autumnal equinox — because of a flower, of all things.
I first noticed them a few years ago, gorgeous crimson spidery blooms which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere in mid-September, in a little planter box at the end of the bridge. A friend told me that her grandmother called them “naked ladies,” I suppose because they emerge tall and proud atop leafless stalks.
It wasn’t until several years later, as I was studying up on the equinoxes, that I realized these flowers are associated with the beginning of fall. They bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox. It’s a testimony to my own alienation from natural cycles that I noticed this not from direct observation or local lore, but by reading about rituals of Japanese Buddhism on the internet.
The Higan Service has been observed at both equinoxes by Japanese Buddhists for over a thousand years. It’s traditionally a time to visit graveyards and honor ancestors. The “naked ladies” which I see in New Orleans are called “higan-bana” in Japan; they are often planted in graveyards and usually bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox.
Some say the flower has over 900 names in Japanese, including poisonous flower, fox flower, the flower of the dead, samadhi flower, abandoned child flower, and the flower that looks like a phantom. The Latin designation is Lycoris radiata, which I find almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. In the American South they are also known by a variety of evocative epithets: red spider lilies, red magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies, hurricane lilies. They have become for me one of the signal harbingers of autumn.
Methods of Gratitude
When I left off last time, I was talking about fear and denial, which are certainly fundamental responses to loss and encroaching darkness. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. However, there is another response which may seem surprising and counter-intuitive, though just as fundamental, and that is gratitude — the reciprocal of the spirit of desire which we celebrated at springtime.
In fact, this cuts both ways. Reflecting on one’s mortality can enhance one’s sense of gratitude, and gratitude helps us cope with loss. There is now abundant evidence of the many benefits of gratitude in the emerging field of positive psychology sciences.
Most ancient wisdom traditions have also emphasized the importance of gratitude. Gratitude is like any other capacity we have: it grows when we exercise it regularly. So it’s good to be intentional about it, to set aside time for gratitude.
A fun way to do this with family and friends is to make a gratitude chain. Cut up some strips of colored paper, and on each strip write down things for which you are grateful. Join the strips together to make a chain. Add to it daily throughout the season and soon you will have visible evidence of just how much gratitude is flowing through your lives.
A craftier alternative, perhaps appropriate for a gathering, is to make a gratitude garland. Each person can bring a token to hang on the garland, representing a blessing which they wish to celebrate. As the garland is constructed, each person can share the story of their gratitude.
Another worthwhile exercise, suitable also for the solitary practitioner, is drafting a gratitude letter. This is simply a “thank you” letter to someone you’ve never adequately thanked, but it’s surprisingly powerful. Try it sometime.
There are other methods. Whatever you do, do something. A recent study by Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra indicates that cultivating gratitude may help you manage stress, reduce toxic emotions and materialistic striving, improve self-esteem, enhance your ability to remember the good things in your life, build social resources, motivate moral behavior, make you more spiritual, help you reach your goals, and promote your physical health.
Objects of Gratitude
I am riding my bike to my daughter’s school on a warm September afternoon. It’s sprinkling gently though the sun is shining. As I ride I puzzle over an issue related to this essay, a philosophical snag over which I’ve dithered for years.
We may feel immense gratitude for favors large and small done us by our fellow human beings, which is truly wonderful, but what about that gratitude we feel for a beautiful day? For sunshine or rain? For the blooming of Lycoris radiata? What about the whole of existence?
Gratitude is usually constructed as having two objects. We feel grateful for something, and we also feel grateful to someone. Note that in the standard formulation, this second object is typically a person or agent of some sort. Does it have to be that way, or can we have gratitude to impersonal forces? Does gratitude even require an object, or can it be sort of free-floating?
By the time I arrive at the school, the sprinkle has thickened into a more substantial rain. The September sun is still shining brightly, however. I’m supposed to take my daughter to aikido class. If we ride in the rain we’ll both get soaked. Fortunately a friend shows up. He’s taking his daughter to the dojo too, so he gives my daughter a ride.
I stand under the portico waiting for the weather to clear, appreciating the beauty of the raindrops sparkling in the sunshine. I wonder about the nature of this appreciation. It feels akin to gratitude, but for many years I scrupled to label it as such, because it wasn’t clear to me who the object of this gratitude might be. I am grateful to Jameel forgiving my daughter a ride. Am I grateful to the rain? To the Sun? While the rest of the human race gets on with feeling grateful, some of us stop to wonder: To whom or to what am I feeling grateful? For years that question was my stopping point.
Since my daughter was born, however, many things have changed. I started to experiment with some things, tentatively at first, but in time — slowly, cautiously — with greater enthusiasm. I thought to myself: Why not? Why not give it a try? Why not allow myself to feel gratitude to the rain, to the Sun, to the Earth, to the Universe? Was it possible to experience gratitude to everything for everything?
We began to say grace before dinner. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for the food that gives us life.” I started visiting a certain tree each morning for a brief meditative moment, and I found myself saying “thank you” to the tree. These practices felt good, but they had other consequences. The world around me began to seem more alive. An incipient animism was springing up in my breast. I noticed that most children seem to relate to the world this way.
When the rain abates, I get on my bike and head up Moss Street, along the edge of Bayou St. John. That’s when it hits me. One of the prime functions of mythical metaphors is that they allow and even encourage our expressions of cosmic gratitude. That’s kind of the whole point.
Gratitude surely is a social phenomenon which has evolved over millennia as part of humanity’s web of interdependence. Yet that web extends well beyond humanity without any clear limit. It’s only right and natural that we’d want to extend our social feelings to the natural world. This gives an emotional validity to the hard fact of our manifold interconnectedness and conveys many benefits besides. I suspect it’s “selected for,” as evolutionary biologists might say, but I’m speculating again.
This may be a minor revelation but it comes down on me with some force, just as I arrive at the foot bridge where Lycoris radiata will soon be making its annual appearance, the very place where I started this overly long rumination on the autumnal equinox. It seems a fitting place to stop, and to express my gratitude to you, Reader, for coming with me so far.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Eversonis a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.