Two weeks ago, the first bursts of red and yellow leaves on the trees started to surface from a sea of green in Litchfield County, Connecticut. The earlier setting sun had begun to inch its way Southward, slanting the afternoon light in a subtly more golden hue. For weeks, the big box stores have been advertising their Back To School sales, peddling reams of paper, 24 packs of pencils, and giant three-ring binders that would make any paper-loving lawyer drool with Pavlovian spontaneity. Along the familiar highway home to Montclair New Jersey, the sunflowers were in full, tall bloom, bowing their heads to the setting sun and bidding adieu to a waning summer, their leaves almost hugging their strong, succulent stems more than six feet tall, against the evening chill. Katydids chirped at the arriving dusk, the old wives’ signal that first frost was anon.
Most spectacularly, monarch butterflies practically swarmed in the earlier afternoon warmth, fluttering their way from Canada to Mexico. A fabled migration with heavy symbolism, the fourth generation of this spectacular insect that is born within the calendar year often only makes it half way to Mexico before landing in the Southern United States. It migrates as far as it can go before spawning a fifth generation. A combination of this yearly fourth and fifth generation arrives in Mexico in late November, where it enjoys the longest life of all the annual generations, the entire winter in sunny Mexico. The observant human population can see dozens of the traveling insect, roosting in trees, on flowers, in swarms above their heads, particularly during the early fall on the Eastern seaboard.
The 25 or so monarchs in Connecticut marked the final day of summer vacation, fluttered brilliantly in orange and black and white and reminded me of the singular story of a dear friend. On September 12th, 2001, when he finally found a way out of New York City and back to Montclair after the terrorist attacks, he sat stunned on a train, stalled in Secaucus. Another brilliant early autumn day, starkly clear, he pondered to himself how he made it out alive, whereas 76 of his colleagues did not. Looking out the window, he was startled by familiar streaks of orange, black and white: the same colors of those horrifying fires spewing from the windows of his office building. These, however, were belonging to the body of something entirely more peaceful: 100s of monarch butterflies that had begun their migration to the South. They rested by roosting on an obliging field of white flowers that had somehow found the Meadowlands a suitable locale to bloom, thrive and host a bevy of butterflies on their way to a warmer clime. Juxtaposed amongst the despair, in a polluted wasteland: a palpable piece of evidence that life does indeed go on, and more accurately, it is beautiful.
He didn’t brave the commute too long after that. A few short years after installing his employers in a more safe midtown locale, he took to the suburban streets for his livelihood and searched for his monarchs there. Acquaintances tell me that this time of year spurs some tough feelings in my friend, and we will keep a polite distance, all the while searching for signs that he is ready to come back to the morning discourse on the path where we walk our dogs each morning. Now that more than a decade has past, I imagine fatherhood can get in the way of some of that tension, tending to his sons’ back-to-school stresses rather than his own.
The end-of-summer phenomenon has many of us feeling vestigial emotions, tensions. Our children are ushered into another school year after months of idle creativity, an abrupt end to a romantic world where the sun shines them drowsy and the crickets wake them at night. Parents struggle to reverse the circadian rhythm of the natural child, as they recall their own experiences of returning to the day-to-day drudgery of another school year.
The French have a separate title for what we are experiencing, La Rentrée: the time in September when nos amis françaises return from their August hiatus, rested and reassured of their personal rather than professional selves. What is most impressive about the French, in fact, is their ability to understand the distinction, but best of all , not to lose the former to the latter. Le soliel d’August makes drowsy every French citizen, or so it seems, as all depart for the beloved and inevitable vacances for the entire month of August. They work to live, not live to work. They take their sacred month-long vacations and leave all projects on pause until after La Rentrée. From the looks of it, they are much happier for having done so.
In America, the fluttering monarchs will serve as a reminder of the pleasures in life that surround us. Take the summer and carry it with you in a Mexican state of mind, grow drowsy in the sun with your children, read the entirety of a novel tucked into a bed with them with the covers to your noses, and eat more ice cream than what your practical side allows. Take the challenges of these busier days with a more laid back attitude as best you can, and always do so with bon courage.
With special thanks to my dog walking friend for allowing me to share his extraordinary story.