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My grandpa would always read Psalm 90 for family devotions on New Year’s Eve. I witnessed this once, and my mom said it was that way all the time. Good Christian Reformed elder, he left ritual—“mere ritual,” it always was—to Catholics and others, some of whom were doubtless good Christians nonetheless. By rebound effect, perhaps, or by his unwitting New Year’s Eve example, I’m a sucker for rituals of most every sort. Well, not the patriotic ones that have been fatally tinctured with militarism. But for the rest, I’m there. Especially when the seasons turn. We need so badly to have a rope outside the echo chamber of our minds to bear us over the hard endings, the severings in time that show the past to be irretrievably back there now, seemingly dearer because lost.
Psalm 90 does that for our standard dividing of the years, the last day of December. The collect for the first Sunday in Advent does it too, at the hinge of the church year, falling as it does besides near the earliest sunset of the year. The dark not only comes quick then, but deeper, with harvest home’s Thanksgiving behind us. “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.” Yeah, that just about nails it.
But what about this weekend’s turning, Labor Day, the psychological if not the meteorological end of summer? For, lo, we are delivered into the School Year, and there will be no break until Thanksgiving. You can already hear the hammer of the galley master beating time mercilessly for the accomplishment of the SLOs that are now mandated to appear atop every syllabus, assessable per the itemization thereof on the course evaluation, and woe be unto me and thee if the students haven’t picked them up. The SLOs, that is. The course content? A new angle on the world? The shock of recognition in a poem a thousand years old, or in the swirl of a galaxy far away? Meh.
There’s a little death of the educational dream that attends late August, then, but it’s the end of summer that really hurts. Autumn will bring its glories of color and crisp air. But the late sodden demise of summer’s once open promise hits hard.
A wonderful tonic, then, to come upon this poem by Rachel Hadas entitled, no less, “The End of Summer.” The stuff I’ve found on her, besides listing her estimable record of prizes and teaching stints at premier universities, emphasizes her formative immersion in classical Greek and Latin literature. But I hear echoes of Psalm 90 in this poem too: “One more year in everybody’s life./Add a notch to the old hunting knife/Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.” And “the milky magical debris/arcing across [the midnight sky], dwarfing our meek mortality.”
Then there’s her echo of the opening of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word…” Hadas’s version reads: “Not light but language shocks us out of sleep,” only it’s not the incarnation of the Logos on earth but “ideas of doom transformed to meteors/we translate back to portents of the wars/looming above the nervous watch we keep.” Yesterday’s news was Putin and Ukraine, and Ebola now cropping up in Guinea. ISIS and Syria and Iraq are back to page 2. The news nine years ago yesterday covered hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans.
Portentous turnings, personal and public. The weight of memory. So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent oh Lord, how long? But until then, establish the work of our hands, also in the year that now slips its berth and bears us away.
The End of Summer, by Rachel Hadas
Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
An early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation are done.
One more year in every body’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
Source: Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).