(all images by Kate Kennington Steer)
As a photographer and visual artist I sub-consciously take note of the level, type, angle, and colour of light throughout the day, month, season, year. Yet in the past few months I have been trying to be more attuned to my feelings about the changing light rhythms that make up different cycles. In particular I’ve been paying attention to the Solstices, the Equinoxes and the cross-quarter days in between. This year my feelings about the Autumn Equinox can be summed up in two words: ‘gathering’ and ‘gold’.
Somewhere in my psyche my English cultural heritage associates the end of September and beginning of October as ‘harvest festival’ season, even though the agrarian calendar might show that in fact that cereal harvests are long over, and the next crop of winter wheat is ready to be sown. There are many traditional rituals around the cutting of the last sheaf, and its grain being used to make a communal loaf or sheaf of bread for the coming festivities when all the harvests – cereal, vegetable, fruit – are completed. And as I was thinking about the rhythm of cutting and sowing, I remembered being a child in Norfolk and seeing farmers burning the stubble in the fields.
And suddenly, shockingly, I felt fear: have I been cut down? Have I been burnt utterly away? For a moment, my fear coalesced around the word ‘gather’: I have nothing to show for myself, there is nothing to gather, nothing to store, nothing to bring out in the coming long winter nights and reflect upon. And it occurred to me: perhaps the Autumn Equinox is the corrective festival a perfectionist most needs to celebrate? For, of course, when I ask myself, ‘what do you have to show for yourself? What do you have to share from yourself?’, below the shrieking fear, the deep-down answer comes back: lots.
Lots of admittedly messy, unfinished, half-baked ideas, thoughts and projects; lots of acts of daily seeing, even if fewer of them than I would like were glimpsed through a camera lens; lots of words written, even if few of them are yet in a form that will make sense to anyone else; lots of doodles in sketchbooks that nobody has seen; lots of painted postcards that remain unsent. Much of this hoard needs sharing. Yet much of this hoard also needs ploughing back into my ground to form a rich enough humus for the next cycle of creation my Maker has in store for me.
In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper cites Mark Greene’s term ’small fruits’ to describe ‘small-scale change which can make a big difference to you and the world around you … It’s a way, perhaps, of taking stock and taking encouragement along your journey, of seeing what difference your journey is making.’ (41) The idea of micro-changes or ‘microshifts’ has become part of business management lexicon, but I continually find it a challenge to sustain them for very long. But something has been shifting, clarifying as I have watched the light lope across the ceiling of my bedroom these past few months: I have a very stark choice to make. Do I want to life a fear-filled life or a creativity-filled life? Which of these energies will take me across the next threshold of my becoming in a way which helps me flourish? Which of these energies do I need to gather to myself? Which of these energies do I want, need, to share with others?
So my inner perfectionist needs to confront the language she uses. I am not cut down. I am not left behind, brittle, arid and useless. I am not left a mere husk of myself after the anxieties of COVID-19 lockdown, with no sense of an opportunity to rest before the potential onslaught of whatever unknown health crises this winter might bring. And the best counter I know to perfectionism is the redemption of gratitude: ‘I will gather you to joy’ says ‘the searcher’ in Rilke’s poem.
I wrote a post on my blog imageintoikon in Lent reflecting on how often I need to remind myself to flex my ‘rejoicing muscles’, and I found that trying to increase my gratitude for what is present to me during the course of a day, week, month, season, year, is the key to this. My most regular gratitude practice focuses around making what I call ‘Grace Notes’ in my journal. But on the dark days I can only find a way to be truly thankful by digging beneath the surface stubble of my day, ’mining for gold’ as I go. ‘Mining for gold’ can sometimes be a rather arduous form of self-examination, and it reminds me of the hard, physical labour that is involved in ‘gleaning’ after a harvest.
In the Bible the principle of ‘gleaning’ is first laid down in Leviticus 19.9 and Leviticus 23.22. God tells Moses that fields, vineyards and orchards are not to be harvested to the very edges or to the very tops of the trees and vines:
‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’ (Leviticus 23.22 NIV)
The principle of looking after others as being of equal importance to looking after oneself is thus deeply ingrained in the traditions of gleaning. So I wonder, as I look for all the golds the Autumn Equinox might bring me this year, what scraps of nutrition do I especially need to pay attention to? What do I need to gather to myself as encouragement or fuel or inspiration for the season after the Equinox? What gold can I share with others rather than hoard it to myself?
Ultimately, can my private, inner reflexive gratitude practice spill over into a microshift that could make a practical difference to someone else? Perhaps today’s literal equivalent of the Biblical principle of ‘gleaning’, in our city-centred, twenty-first century life, might be found in supporting ‘Food Bank’ charities? Perhaps the Anglican Church’s recent institution of making this time of year into a liturgical season called ‘Creation Time’ might suggest ways in which I can join in with a communal celebration of God’s gifts all around us, even whilst I am mostly home-based and solitary?
I am yet to answer any of these questions I pose to myself. But I know now what needs to characterise my celebrations of the Autumn Equinox this year: gathering, gleaning and gold.
(This post was originally written for Godspace as part of their series on ‘discernment’.)