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Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sukkot and Settling Into Fall

 [Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This year I planted a spring garden for the first time. Probably because of the pandemic, but because of other plans that I've been thinking about for a while, I decided early this year to up my gardening game--putting in raised beds at last, planting in mid-March, expanding the range of vegetables I aimed to grow: lettuce, broccoli, eggplant, green beans, and more. Most didn't work out, but it was a good struggle along the way. But with August and September, and the need to convert my classes online, the pressures on my time increased, and the garden (along with some of those other aforementioned plans) got pushed to the side. Perhaps not coincidentally, my once rewarding garden took a serious dive, in terms of both productivity and the enjoyment I took from my increasingly limited engagements with it. So it was with some satisfaction that yesterday I ripped out all the wilting tomatoes and long-since-exhausted peppers, as I usually do around this time of year. But this year, I also started prepping for a fall and winter garden. It's Sukkot, after all; time to build my settlement anew.

I've always been a fan of holidays, about which I've written a great deal over the years. I suppose I've always attached myself to them because something in me is always looking for ways to ritually connect myself to the seasons, to the rhythms of life, and to the people--family, friends, and other communities that I find myself, by choice or chance, enlisted into--who go through those rhythms and seasons with me. Holidays allow me to take a moment of time, a day on a calendar, and find in it something that puts me into a collective articulation of meaningful connections, through traditions and practices and celebrations and acts of remembrance. So I seek out holidays, and grab onto whichever one's I can. And the beginning of autumn gives me plenty to graft into my yearly routines, none more so than Sukkot, an ancient Jewish festival of the harvest--or the "ingathering," as it is usually translated.

Sometimes spoken of as the Festivals of Booths or the Festival of Tabernacles, the idea being to remind the ancient Israelites of the tents they dwelt in during their years in the desert, with the harvest association being a component of both the time of year when Sukkot falls (after the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, both of which connect to the autumnal equinox), and the tents or booths which would be erected out in the fields, as people worked day and night to get the crop in on time. The result is a joyous holiday of thanksgiving, with commemorative, temporary sukkahs being erected in homes and yards by observant Jews. The sukkah, taken in its fullness, is a sign of both permanence and transience, of coming out of the desert and settling into the promised land, the land of Israel, as well as a consciousness of how the blessings of that arrival, and the harvests having a home makes possible, are contingent things, as easily taken away as the sukkah is taken down once the harvest season is complete and the seven-day holiday is at its end. That ambiguity, that the felt need to make and identify with and make fruitful use of a home, which at the same time will never, ever--at least not during this moral existence, anyway--truly be one's own, speaks to me deeply, and never more than in the fall.

I've written about Sukkot a few times before. I reflected upon it back before my family found its place here in Wichita, KS, and I first planted my vegetable garden; I wrote about it again a few years after that, once we'd put down roots here and the kids were finding their place at school and we were finding our rhythm in our congregation; and then I wrote about it one more time, about six years ago, when I was deeply engaged in a slow, long process of Bible study, perhaps as a ways of dealing with the fact that our family had just started going through what would eventually become the most consequential, disruptive, and stressful time we've ever experienced, the effects of which are, perhaps, in our present pandemic moment, finally playing themselves out...or perhaps will just continue, in different forms, so long as we have our place here on Earth. Throughout it all, the seasons have turned, and my gardens have (usually, anyway) grown. What calls me back to it today?

It's the idea of the fall garden, I think. It's that, instead of beginning to move into my usual fall and winter mode, I have instead decided that, with a little planning and work and luck, I could have growing things into the winter months--and then maybe , after a spell of dormancy, into the earliest spring as well. Not a huge amount; I'm no master gardener. But I think I can keep the soil and water working well enough, and I think I can turn the compost frequently enough, that some Swiss chard, sorrel, and spinach might carry on through. Hardly a radical idea, but a challenge to the seasonal routine for me--a disruption, even, though a positive one. It means that instead of tearing down and leaving fallow, I am tearing down and settling on some other temporary arrangement in its place. Not all the hoses will go in the shed for the next seven months; I'll still be doing the work of ingathering for months and seasons yet to come. That pleases me. It makes me, at a time when it sometimes seems that the only constant is the legal and electoral and climactic and epidemiological chaos, more rooted than ever before.

In a couple of my previous Sukkot essays, I ended up making use of the writings of the scholar and Times and Seasons blogger Rosalynde Welch, which surprised me as I looked up these old posts of mine (perhaps our seasonal sensibilities are similar). In one of them, she compared the bi-annual Mormon tradition of watching General Conference broadcast from Salt Lake City to the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar--but then added an important caveat:

Of course, worship always involves more than an act of communication; it is also a sensory and social experience that video can never fully replicate. So streaming video will never replace the experience of worshiping together during the rest of the year. No matter how capacious the broadband connection, it cannot transmit the warmth of a handshake, the space of a chapel, the taste of the sacramental bread and water. Those human-to-human connections will always be at the heart of Mormon religious practice–and of virtually all other cooperative religious endeavors, as well.

As our family begins our seventh month of home church--a practice that, despite the fact that our ward (or, rather, the ward we've been assigned to, since boundaries got changed during the covid summer) has begun limited meetings again, is likely to continue for at least a while longer yet--these words of hers are particularly poignant. Our family is more than a half-year into making new rhythms and traditions, all without the handshakes and hugs that our local instantiation of the Mormon community might have provided. The bread and water emblem's of Christ's sacrifice we have in our home, but the chapel space we do not. Insofar as matters Mormon are concerned, our home has been our sukkah, the temporary--but feeling more permanent by the week--place we have settled on. It was one thing to imagine our worship community reduced to various distanced and streamed routines during the summer months--but now, as we move into fall, into winter, into the times to holidays and collective articulations to come? this may be the hardest time of all. Like Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf told the assembled Mormon faithful listening to General Conference yesterday, there may be even harder times yet to come as well.

Uchtdorf also told us about planting our seeds well, though. Buried in soil, the seed, like the soul, nonetheless continues its work. So this Sukkot, perhaps in the spirit of all my other ruined (perhaps later to be reborn?) routines, I am not putting away my seasonal arrangement, but stretching it out, and maybe stretching out our family's harvest too, keeping my hand in the soil, to see what can be gathered in yet. I am settled on this commitment, this additional engagement, and feel good about. How permanent will it be? How permanent can anything ever be? For now, I'll just wait on, and work towards, the coming winter, and after that, the spring.

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