I was brought up to believe that the months were consecutive and intrinsic to the calendar, serving solely as a measurement of the year. After all, isn't the seasonal continuum all part of the time continuum that culminates in New Year's Eve?
I no longer believe so.
With this autumn, I've come to see more clearly that the months are individually essential to the character - not the length - of the year. I refer to the ''creative'' seasons, the seasons that spell out life and continuity.
For the first time, I've realized that the year climaxes at the end of October, not at the end of December! Such a climax has nothing to do with duration and everything to do with celebration. As autumnal color spills over us, we look beyond a time continuum to something like a cavalcade.
I'm not thinking of the year in terms of diary entries or media sequences. The true year is to be valued for its beauty, not for its news value.
When you really think of it, the procession or cavalcade of ''creative'' seasons - spring, summer, autumn - is telling us that the need for celebration springs out of the need for continuity.
But wait a minute, what about winter?
Winter is a parenthesis in the year. Life goes underground. That season's beauty is stark and insular: It is the beauty of struggle, not of celebration. During this parenthesis, the real life-giving action proceeds from you and me, not from the season itself. We talk of ''wintering'' in Bermuda or of ''wintering'' our animals. For farmer and land, winter is a time of gestation and peace.
You might say that spring, summer, and autumn are gifts of the season bestowed upon us, whereas Christmas and New Year's Eve are gifts of the heart bestowed upon the season.
The deterioration and devastation wrought by winter have no headlines in the year's spiritual chronicle - no more than hurricane or earthquake, no more than man's inhumanity to man. Isn't the very beauty of the universe more representative of the cosmos than our fascination with any of its black holes?
The year is not to be viewed as a passive, impressionable surface on which the human predicament imprints itself. Outside a time frame, what we see is a threefold seasonal force with a purpose and impetus of its own. Like a good play, the year's true character portrayal reaches its high point just before the curtain falls. That high point flares through the transition of October with November.
Autumn, then, in all its glory, is an apotheosis - not a requiem. Autumn epitomizes the year's lyrical, throbbing nature as benign. Today I cannot escape this conclusion.
Right when the news media dutifully record the dark winters of world tragedy, seasonal explosions of color are offering new heights of hope.
Sometimes that hope comes across in a surprising way. Many years ago, I was backpacking up Longspeak Mountain in Estes Park, Colo. About halfway up (some 2,000 feet or so), I came across a small lake. The view was breathtaking. It was late October and was unusually warm. Butterflies danced over the motionless blue water on a cloudless day.
I was completely alone, and nature's invitation was irresistible. I heaved off my backpack, stripped, and ran through the thin grass to the lake's edge. Without hesitation, I propelled myself into a low racing dive.
I shall never forget what happened next. As my shoulders hit the surface I felt a great thud within my chest.
My body suddenly lost all sensation - except for my arms, which thrashed the sub-zero water as I curved shoreward, almost hydroplaning my way to freedom. The warm sun bathed my body while I jumped around on the grass, seeking desperately to regain normal circulation. (Later I learned that this unmarked stretch of water was formed by overflow right off one of the glaciers!)
As I rubbed down briskly and hastily dressed, the foothill's peak continued to look down benignly at me, and the lake's smiling seemed to be beckoning me again. I began laughing. What I had experienced was not the kind of climax to the year that I could have foreseen in all my naivete!
Now as I write this, I glance out the window. Autumn is not writing its own story. From deciduous tree to tree, I catch glimpses of spring and summer there in the different stages of the leaves' shading. In no previous autumn has this been so noticeable.
Suddenly, I see it all happening in one tree. The late afternoon sun is highlighting clusters of color in a single maple - yellow against green, indigo against gold, crimson against russet.
A cavalcade of the seasons.
Before my eyes, as the leaves flutter frenetically in the wind, this elect procession of months is moving symbolically through these color contrasts into its final act of celebration. In a special sense, autumn is the autobiography of the year.