Six years ago, I decided I wanted to mark the beginning of the harvest season in a specific and flexible way In the middle of the summer, we are rarely home on a predictable date and we have a hard time keeping any sort of routine, so any family tradition in this season has to be portable and simple.
My solution? I found a durable table cloth and each year on August 1 or 2, the Celtic feast of the first harvest, I ask everyone who happens to share a major meal with my family, to sign the table cloth. We all sign as well. Then in odd moments over the winter, I embroider all the signatures onto the cloth.
I'm not an expert at embroidery, so some parts are a bit clumsy, but it is a meditation in gratitude for me. Every year, that meal has been a special one, serendipitously surrounded by good friends or supportive and lovely strangers. As I embroider my gratitude is as much for the community and friendship of those brief summer moments, as it is for our physical harvest.
The harvest feast and the sense of relief and gratitude for winter's security that went along with it was a crucial part of human experience for millennia. Today we have kitschy phrases for affirmations of gratitude, which we tend to force on people who are surviving the hardest moments of their lives--telling those fighting cancer or grieving the loss of a loved one to focus on "gratitude."
It isn't working.
Our society is increasingly disconnected from thankfulness and moreover we almost never feel that relief and satiation, the knowledge that our families are secure for the upcoming season.
Our economic ideology is one of constant "demand." We are encouraged to feel--even manipulated into believing--that our livelihood is insecure and we need more. "Employee insecurity" is a prized goal in business circles--keeping professional staff on their toes in a scary marketplace.
And the modern world really does require an awful lot of expensive stuff, if you want to have a career and not live on the margin of society growing herbs, like... ahem, some people you know.
The reason I want to mark the harvest season isn't just because we have a garden and actually get some small harvest at this time. It has more to do with things everyone today can relate to. After all those thousands of years, humans still need a moment of relief. We don't do well in a constant state of need, anxiety and uncertainty.
Harvest isn't just about gratitude. It is also about securing the hatches and experiencing a moment of safety.
Gratitude is good. If you can truly feel thankful for what you have and know you have made it, marking the harvest season may come naturally. But if you are really struggling, either materially or emotionally, as so many people are today, being told that you should focus on what you are thankful for at any time of the year is not likely to help.
Instead, especially at this time when the harvest season is just beginning, there is also a need to find a moment of relief. Whatever it is that troubles your life, what would let you know that you can get through the next few months? Can you reach for something now that will give you at least a brief sense of security and stability?
Whether that's taking a much needed break and going on a well-earned vacation or reaching out to supportive friends at whatever distance, this is the modern spirit of the harvest feast.
Our modern harvest may not be an annual event, timed to the growing season. It may not even involve food or material things at all. But the biological rhythm of our bodies needs this sense of relief and security periodically. And this is a time when we are naturally yearning for it.
In the age of too much consumption, a celebration of bounty and prosperity may not make the most sense. Instead it may help to take this time to reevaluate what we truly need, to gain a sense of fullness, so that we can let go of over-abundance and clutter.
Our greatest need today often isn't material but rather social and emotional. What about instead of celebrating matieral bounty, celebrating the family, friends and community we have, be it small or large? What about looking at the emotional strength and balance you have built up--even if it still isn't perfect--as a harvest after hard work?
Gratitude is important. In fact, it is probably the most necessary prerequisite for happiness. But I don't believe in feigned or forced gratitude. If you don't really feel thankful that you are not hungry, then there is little point on trying to make yourself feel it.
Looking at those things that are hard-won in your life, whatever your important milestones are--gaining confidence at work, finally starting that creative project you've dreamed of, growing a family or network of friends and so forth--may be more useful. And sharing whatever you have in over-abundance, whether it is time, knowledge or material goods, with those who have needs in that area is the best way I know of to foster your own gratitude.
Once harvest celebrations were about amassing enough food to tide us through the lean times. Today we can adapt this concept even if you live in a city without so much as a house plant. Harvest is whatever you build up to tide you through hard times. That can be emotional, financial, social or life energy based.
Now is the time to fill the reserves, to figure out what it is that will tide you over. You have the strength for it now.