Category Archives: Seasons

Michelle Obama’s journal

Sarah L.Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Just in time for winter holiday giving, journal-keepers and their friends can look forward to the release on November 19 of a new guided journal created by Michelle Obama.

The publisher, Penguin Random House, bills the new book as a companion to her recent bestselling memoir. The journal is said to be packed with “more than 150 inspiring questions and quotes that resonate with key themes in Mrs. Obama’s memoir and that are designed to help readers reflect on their personal and family history, their goals, challenges, and dreams, what moves them and brings them hope, and what future they imagine for themselves and their community.”

As a companion volume, the journal book echoes the memoir’s title Belonging and adds the explanatory subtitle “a guided journal for discovering your voice.” As cited by People magazine, Michelle Obama describes her own, brief experience with journal keeping in the book’s Introduction:

“I’d only kept a journal for a short period of my life, for a couple of years during my late twenties as I was getting more serious with Barack and contemplating a new career. It was a tumultuous time filled with change, and I found that dedicating time to writing my thoughts down helped me navigate all the transitions. Then I put it away and didn’t pick it up again until I began writing my memoir. Instantly, I was transported back to that earlier version of myself, with all the warmth, heartbreak, and frustration flooding in.

“The experience left me asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I journal more?’ The answer, like for so many of you, I’m sure, was that I simply got busy. I switched careers. I got married. I had children. Somewhere along the line, I ended up in ball gowns at the White House, however that happened.

“Looking back, I wish I’d taken more time to write down what I was thinking and feeling. I didn’t journal much because I talked myself out of it—journaling can feel a little intimidating and layered with implication, the idea being that once you put pen to paper, your thoughts have extra weight and meaning.

“What I recognize now, though, is far more simple: We don’t have to remember everything. But everything we remember has value.’ “

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Journal for the seasons: autumn

On this day of the equinox, we find insight in an essay by Maria Popova, who writes on many topics in her online column, “Brain Pickings.” Popova describes autumn as the season most difficult to pin down, a time that can seem “temperate” as easily as it becomes “tempestuous”—a season often associated with the approach of winter and a process of inevitable loss, decline, and decay, while at the same time celebrating the abundance, ripeness, and fruition of yearly harvest.

The changing length of days continues to provide the most predictive cues for many organisms that adjust their physiology or behavior in accordance for the timing of vital activities like migration, reproduction, or hibernation. Days grow shorter during the entire time between summer solstice and midwinter; today we have reached the midpoint, the balance. How do the extending hours of darkness and the ever-scarcer hours of daylight affect patterns in your own day-to-day, journal-keeping life?

Maybe it’s easier to sleep on cooler nights, or harder to get up when the sun hasn’t finished rising. David Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, writes that many animals “become frisky in spring and hibernate over the winter.” Does time feel deeper or slower at this time of year? For many plants and creatures, “sensors of various kinds nudge [them] to keep track of the earth’s rotation around the sun” (Science Weekly, The Guardian, 14 January 2018). Can we still sense this rhythm?

Surrounded by artificial lights and temperature controls, having much the same range of foods to choose from all year round, and spending little time unprotected in the outdoors, to a large extent we have the luxury of ignoring the fluctuations of seasonal change. We don’t feel the physical effects or depend on reading the signs of earth and vegetation as vitally necessary to decisions that determine our food supply or preparation for getting through winter.

We have an abundance previously unknown—a year-round harvest season—and maybe also a loss that’s harder to register, a sameness of experience regardless of time of year. The practice of keeping a journal, especially one that observes nature over time (a phenology journal) can help to recover the balance of seasonality, the varying rhythms of outdoor experience, and an acute awareness of this halfway-between moment, the equinox of the year.

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Journal for the seasons: summer

Seasons inscribe themselves into a journal. Even our modern lives in technology-regulated settings can’t entirely shut out seasonal variations in temperature, precipitation, and light.

For thousands of years, wherever they lived, people have kept track of seasonal change, because human lives depend on animal migration patterns and plants’ growing cycles, those natural cycles that include a seasonal rhythm of alterations in daylight and temperature.

If a journal truly reflects the here and now, its entries will acknowledge not just the details of daily life that differ according to the four classic seasons of the year, but also those subtler phenological effects that might be called micro-seasons or “seasons within seasons.”

Phenology, as journal writer Hannah Hinchman explains in her book A Trail through Leaves, is “the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically [and] their relation to climate and changes in season.” Phenology studies the life cycles of living things as they respond to weather conditions and to astronomical cycles of the earth.

Governed by these rhythms, the changing length of days (photoperiod) is the predictive cue for timing many predictable changes in the physiology and behavior of living things. On this day, the summer solstice, I want to share with you how Hannah Hinchman connects the more recent practice of keeping a diary with the ancient human practice of tracking the seasons:

“Journal-keepers, because they are creating a life-long record of their encounters, are natural phenologists. The habit of granting each day its singularity lays the groundwork for seeing into the hidden seasons, and seasons-within-seasons.” (A Trail through Leaves, 134-5).

In the Menologium, an Anglo-Saxon calendar poem that describes and praises each season around a year, the poet describes how in June “the sun lingers in field and furrow/and leaves its lovely gift of daylight/a little longer before it disappears/down under the horizon” (translated by Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems.)

Eleanor Parker calls this poem “an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time.” The Menologium moves around the year starting and ending with winter solstice which it connects with Christ’s birth; its account of summer solstice is placed precisely at the midpoint of the poem.

What in your life reflects midsummer? Whatever significance the day has for you, you can describe its sensory details for the reader so clearly as to make your words come to life. Picking up the diary even in midwinter, your reader will feel this morning darken as heavy storms flash in, swaddling an early sunrise in heavy blankets of warm humid fog.

You may honor this day as the anniversary of a deeply sad event as my family does, or you may remember the year when you visited a place so far to the North that the sun never set at all in 24 hours. Maybe you once saw the year’s first firefly at summer solstice, or maybe you just now tasted the first green lettuce leaf from your own garden.

Does the extreme length of daylight make it harder to sleep at night? Does it allow for more hours spent outdoors? How will you write the solstice into your journal?

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