At some point in my life, I lost all connection to the seasons. One memory stands out as an example: I think it was New Year’s Eve of 1996 or ’97, as a teen, I went to New York City with two friends to experience New Year’s there, and see the ball drop if we could. It was extremely cold, with icy wind cutting through the skyscraper canyons, and everyone in the city was bundled up against the weather. Everyone except me. What did I wear? I wore a rather thin coat, and underneath, a T-shirt and jeans. No gloves. No hat. Just a coat and T-shirt. I was miserable; every bit of wind sliced right through me, and my hands felt like they were going to break off and shatter on the ground.
Why had I worn such ridiculously inadequate clothes on such a cold night? Because I had lost touch with the outdoors. Whenever I went anywhere, I would simply run from my house to the car, from the car to the building, and never spent any time actually outdoors in the cold. For this kind of life, all I needed was a thin coat, to keep me warm for the few seconds between climate-controlled interiors.
Life after high school has been a long process of getting reacquainted with the seasons. College, and living in New York City (both pedestrian lifestyles) certainly helped. At least I started dressing weather-appropriately. But I think what changed my way of thinking was really living in Japan. It’s a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless true, that Japan is a very season-conscious nation. Everything has seasonal variations. Restaurants, from the highest kaiseki ryori to McDonald’s, vary their menus by season. (God I loved the autumn-only chestnut cream donuts at Mr. Donuts!) Pretty much every advertisement will have some kind of seasonal reference, if only the appearance of cherry blossoms in spring and snow in the winter, red maple leaves in fall and fireworks in the summer.
For many people perhaps these commercial acknowledgments of season, more because they are expected than because of any feeling, are meaningless; but for me they made me think about and notice the changes as the year rolled on. Mindfulness. I don’t know if I would even have noticed the tsuyu or “rainy season”–not so much rainy as drizzly and humid–if people didn’t talk about it and the flowers that bloom then, but it became my favorite time in Tokyo and especially in Kamakura nearby. In Japan I paid attention to the cicadas singing in the summer, the moon in autumn, all the conventional symbols, and it led me to notice more and more, to pay attention to the world and its changes.
When I got home and found this book, the Berenstain Bears’ Almanac, I realized that in some way I was just re-learning what I had always known as a kid. This is a book about, as it says on the title page, “holidays, seasons, and weather.” I’ve always loved it, especially the large illustrations with rhyming captions showing attributes of the seasons: “eggs hatching, bear scratching” in Spring, for example. And every page brings me back to childhood, when I spent enormous amounts of time outside, unsupervised, running amok with my brothers and sister. We knew nature intimately then, in our backyard and all the surrounding area where we would wander. I knew what flowers bloomed when, and when the raspberries would come, and how long the shadows got at different times of the year. I’m still working on re-learning all this. But I think I’ll get there.
There’s something comforting as well as awesome about the seasons. They are irrefutable evidence of enormous forces entirely beyond our control working on us; but they have worked the same way on all the people of the past. To look at the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the prints of Hiroshige, or even at Stonehenge, is to see how universal their influence is. Think of it as Persephone underground, or the Earth spinning tilted around the sun; either way the world around us changes into unrecognizability, and then it comes back again.
It’s New Year’s Eve!
A whole year ends.
Tomorrow we’ll start
A NEW YEAR, friends.
So, now, we can all turn back,
to the beginning of our Almanac.