When I was a boy, each August the 15th was a bit of a milestone for me and for all of my friends. In the Catholic tradition, which we had grown up in and which we were so steeped in that it was a part of the very fabric of our lives, this date was what used to be called a Holy Day of Obligation. It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (for those unfamiliar with Catholic lore, this refers to the story of the taking of the living body of Mary into heaven by angels at the end of her life). On that day, all practicing Catholics were obliged to attend mass, under pain of mortal sin, which meant that – if you died with it “on your soul” and without having confessed and received absolution – you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.
But for those of us in what was still referred to in those years as Grammar School, being condemned to hell could seem almost like something of a reprieve in comparison with the reality of returning to class once again. August the 15th meant summer was, alas, almost over, and we had only two weeks left; so better make the best possible use of these last few, final days of freedom.
All this took place in upstate New York, not far from Albany. Even in those northern climes, it was still far too early to even think about fall color. That wouldn’t happen until the beginning of October. And yet, all you had to do was to look around and you could see that summer was drawing down, nearing its end. The trees themselves had a kind of tired, shopworn look to them, as if they’d been working full bore since April or May and they were beginning to feel the effects of all that effort. The leaves seemed drier, dustier, less verdant, a little tattered along the edges. The oaks, sugar maples, and sycamores were drooping a little, and their leaves were beginning to make strange, rattling, almost brittle noises in the late afternoon breeze. The light, too, was changing. Now, almost two months past the Summer Solstice, the sun was setting earlier and earlier. We could tell that, as we rode our bikes after dinner. Dusk was settling in by 7:00 or 7:30, and it was getting harder to see. Mothers were calling their children earlier to come in for the night, and somehow, as much as we might complain, we knew we were ready, too. As we took those last bike rides of the evening, we ourselves had begun to talk about which nun we were going to have “next year,” as we still called the start of the fall term, already looming so close. Would it be strict but unstable Sister Mary Clotilde, or bumbling but sweet Sister Mary Barbara? It was all up to Mother Amabilis, the Principal of St. Patrick’s School, the decider of our fate. But one way or another, we were beginning to accept the stark fact that summer was almost over, and the day of reckoning would soon be upon us.
Now, in retirement all these years later, there are no more fall classes to dread, no more wondering which of the sometimes not-so-merciful Sisters of Mercy might be standing in front of the classroom that first Tuesday after Labor Day. And yet, August 15th somehow still stands out to me as a marked day. It still signals the fact that, even in sunny Southern California where I live, summer cannot last forever. It denotes, it highlights, it memorializes the fact that seasons pass, that time shows once again its frightening, fleeting evanescence, and that yet another year has flown by and is now two-thirds on its way toward completion. Jokingly, I tell my partner that Christmas is almost here. He tells me he doesn’t want to hear it and, when I am being most honest with myself, neither do I.
I am 68 years old, soon to turn 69. The big seven-oh, as they say, looms on the near horizon. I have been retired for over six and a half years. And as lucky as I freely acknowledge myself to be, I also think, what have I done? How have I used this precious time? Work is over, at least in terms of the day-to-day drudgery of going into the office and dealing with one problem after another, only to come home at night, exhausted and drained. But have I fully made use of the time I have? I have written an unpublished novel, and it will no doubt remain unpublished, unless I choose to put it out there myself. I write regularly on this blog, I go to the gym every day and exercise, even pretty vigorously sometimes, and I feel as though I am in good health. I make masks and other odd creatures that stand about the house, silent watchers of my quotidian life. And most happily, I enjoy more and more life with my partner of 33-plus years.
But, at the winding down of summer – and this may be the case with the passing of every season – I do think a lot about the question of making maximum use of whatever time is left. I suppose it could always be said that, for most of us, there remains some not fully defined yearning, some only half-conscious desire, a hankering, a craving, a deep-seated hunger to do something bigger, to accomplish something beyond explanation, something past even the crispness and the resolute acuteness of rational thought. To achieve something that answers an urge that transcends all else. What is it that so calls out to us? What is it that pulls at the heart in ways we cannot finally define? Is this what makes us human, after all? This profound longing for what we feel we have not yet achieved?
Maybe, all those years ago, we weren’t so wrong to mark the Feast of the Assumption as an annual milestone in our lives. Maybe, if we think of it more symbolically, we can see that what it’s really about is an innate desire in all of us to rise above the plane of our daily lives, to reach for the stars, and to be carried on high by the angels of what is best and most perfect. Maybe the end of summer marks the beginning of something else. It is a time for reflection, a time for contemplation, and a time to wonder why in the first place we wonder at all – why, always and forever, we yearn for what is beyond reckoning, beyond our daily, workaday lives, out there, which is also within, to where we are borne by what is highest and brightest in all of us.