Friday, October 23, 2009

The Thin Days of Autumn

I'm having one of the best autumns of my life.  This is largely because of where I live these days and because the weather has been so perfect.  The proverbial cool, crisp days have been accentuated by loads of sunshine and multi-colored falling leaves.  I was pleasantly startled the first day that I walked to the San Francisco church and the side of the road was blanketed with yellow.

That's the thing about autumn - it's always a surprise.  I'm used to the green of summer, and then all of a sudden everything's ablaze, blowing and falling, and the whole quality of light and air changes.  In this part of the world, many people use woodstoves to heat their homes, so the smells change too.  Last week, walking home from the church, I encountered a symphony of scent within a fifty-foot span - pinon wood smoke, somebody's dinner cooking, the faint smell of diesel from the highway, falling leaves, and that delicious indescribable wet grass aroma.

And yet, I've also been feeling what I can only call bereft.  This word, bereft, keeps floating back to me, trying to fill the space it describes.  It's funny, but the loss I'm feeling is mostly of illusion, comforting fantasies I've carried with me since childhood, but now are gone, or going.  They were heavy.  And noisy.  There's so much more room for beauty and real joy now.  But beauty and joy are light as a feather; in a strange way, they don't fill the space. 

There are other little losses, too.  When I first saw that the flowers lining the church walkway had been mowed down, I was saddened.  The hummingbird hawk moths would have nothing to come to now, even if they hadn't already left.  Part of what originally drew me to the church is gone.

Except for the baby's breath, Clare's garden has wilted and browned like old lettuce.

But the day I took these photos, I also noticed that the rosebush next to the courtyard wall was in full bloom, and I didn't remember ever having seen it bloom before.  I don't think I even realized it was a rosebush.

I was sore tempted to pick one, so I shot one instead.

The bush had four or five blossoms on it, and they smelled just divine, but the next day, someone had cut them all.  I wonder who got them.  Oh well - they're all dead by now, anyway.

I've had to orient myself to these changes, adjust my expectations and purpose for walking to the church.  I've had to let go of attachments, and ultimately, embrace the dying process.

The association of fall with death is inevitable, the paradox being that it's also the harvest, when a profusion of nourishing life fills the fields, the farmer's markets, kitchens.  Pumpkins are ripe, and it's time for pie.  Apples are falling off the tree faster than I can catch them.  I have an excuse to fill my house with the scents of cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. I find myself wanting to bake more, not just because of everything that's in season, but because autumn brings out the nesting instinct in me, to begin that withdrawal into a warm, family-filled house; to prepare for the holidays that will soon be coming down the pike in grand procession.  I want to light candles and have a reason to turn the oven on.

Oh, I know, some of you are gagging right now.  So I'll get off this subject and talk about death again, how's that?

The first holiday of the season, of course, is Halloween, a night associated with all things macabre and mortuous.  Traditionally, this night is considered to be a "thin" or liminal time, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is more transparent and easier to penetrate.  In pagan spirituality, this night is the beginning of Samhain, a word that has ancient Celtic origins.  In Gaelic folklore, Samhain was the celebration of the final harvest, and may have become associated with death and horror partly because it was the time when the livestock was slaughtered en masse to be preserved as winter sustenance.

Halloween has always been an intense time for me.  Many significant events in my life have occurred on or around Halloween.   When I was nine or ten, I fell while ice skating and went unconscious from a concussion.  When I woke up in the hospital, I couldn't remember what had happened.  The second day in the hospital was Halloween, and because I wanted to trick-or-treat so badly, I pretended I could remember and made up a story about how I'd fallen.  I knew I'd been skating, so I just said I'd been doing a sit spin and lost my balance.  (What really happened came back to me a few days later.  I had to pee but was too lazy, so I was skating sloppily, and caught the back of one blade on the front of the other.)

A few years later on Halloween, when I was fourteen, my family moved from Toronto, where I'd spent my childhood, to Baton Rouge.  I had to miss my best friend's costume party and spend Halloween in a strange place where I didn't know anyone.

Then, when I was twenty-four, I got married in a cemetery at twilight on Halloween.  My husband had introduced me to Clive Barker and the peculiar joys of the horror genre.  On one of our first dates we went to see the Barker movie, Nightbreed, which I was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed.  From that point, I read all of Clive Barker's books, starting with The Books of Blood.  I was also working in a New Age bookstore and spending my long days there reading neo-pagan spellbooks and the diary of a woman who claimed to be a partial incarnation of the Angel of Death.  So the cemetery wedding was the next logical step, I suppose.  After the wedding, we painted our faces with fake blood and went out to a haunted house, where he won me a matching glow-in-the-dark skull necklace and bracelet, now lost.

My husband and I divorced after a few years, and I went through a transformative spiritual rebirth that eventually led me to join the Presbyterian church where he worked as a sexton.  Long story short, we got remarried in the church, but this time we did it on November 1, All Saints' Day.  However, we didn't actually sign the papers until November 2, All Souls' Day, so we considered our anniversary to span all three of those days.

Do you know the difference between All Saints and All Souls?  If you're Catholic, you probably do.  All Saints' Day commemorates those who have died and gone to heaven, and All Souls' is for those who've died but aren't in heaven yet.  Most mainstream Protestant denominations tend to give a nod to All Saints but ignore All Souls, presumably because of a lack of belief in Purgatory, where Catholics believe certain souls are purified before entering heaven.

Here in New Mexico, we have the Day of the Dead, El Dia de Los Muertos, a colorful, noisy, and light-heartedly creepy version of All Saints/All Souls involving parties on gravesites, and things like candy skulls and pan de muerte (the bread of the dead). 

While all of these holidays have a distinctly Catholic flavor, as with most Christian holidays a little digging uncovers those pagan roots.  The Day of the Dead, for instance, traces back to ancient Aztec practices.  In the pagan worldview, all things spiritual or otherworldly are firmly linked to something practical and this-worldly.  And so the Christian remembrance of those who have passed on comes from an earlier observance of this world's connection to the otherworld, at a time of the year when the natural world appears to die.

So what ever happened to that husband? you might ask  Another long story - but we got divorced again a few years later.  And while we rarely see each other now, there's an underlying understanding and forgiveness between us that divorce has made possible.

When I started this post, I wasn't expecting to be discussing my ex-husband, but it strikes me now as fitting.  And it's downright perfect that our ex-anniversary falls on the thin days of autumn, because while our marriage is very much over - dead, if you will - it was real with a capital R.   Our divorce is a necessary veil that allows me to continue my journey in this world without him as a partner, but at certain times, I see that perhaps in the otherworld, the eternal world, our marriage will always be.  Maybe this is what is meant by "What God joins let no one put asunder."  Maybe it's not a command but a statement of fact.

What dies yet lives.  The time of gathering in the harvest, preserving it to hold onto for the lean months to come, is also a time of letting go, unfastening, releasing.  Fruit falls - a perpetuation of life in the spreading of seeds.  Trees drop their leaves and appear to die, but the sap still flows unseen.  What lived once in our hearts lives still, no matter how long and deep the winter.        

My mom was telling me the other day about Bright Star, the recent movie about John Keats.  I haven't seen it, but our conversation made me think of Keats' concept, "Negative Capability," which he defined as "the ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

Yup.  That's what it takes when considering conundrums like how to hold on and let go at the same time, and how illusion can have weight and substance while joy and beauty do not.  Negative Capability is one of my primary aims in life, and surely necessary for appreciating these thin days of autumn.


  1. I ain't gagging. I've never heard autumn described so articulately or so beautifully or so resonantly before. I know the feelings you describe: the feeling denoted by the word "bereft," the "nesting instinct" that comes on strong in fall, and the "quality of light and air" which is the reason autumn is my favorite season. (I love the way the light falls in autumn...lots of people honk about the pretty colors of the leaves and the cool air, and those things are nice, yes, but it's the subtle angling of the sunlight that really makes fall such a beautiful season for me.) You have nailed, dead-on, the marvelous feelings that fall fills you and others with. You've also named the ineffable feeling of permanence and inscrutable attachment (however faint) that lingers in the heart after separation from one long known and loved.

    I once thought all of those feelings to be indescribable. You have brought them to light, given them shape, and made them beautiful. Well done. I hope you are successful in enjoying those thin days of autumn, despite your losses and gains and the deaths of the flowers. They do come back, though. Some things always come back.

  2. I need a GREAT deal of time to come to this blog, read and respond. Always I find it hard to temper my need to comment at such length.

    I use to favor one season above another, but somehow I am in a place that each season brings with it something unique and blessed. I miss the length of days of summer and the slumber I observe coming into my body I try to resist...less energy and yet society pulls more of your time in these seasons where nature seems to call for REST. Nevertheless Fall is a season that beckons me. Just this week making All Spice Pumpkin Muffins and a huge pot of Vegetable Soup. Tonight, chicken pastry with sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. (yes I am an "east coast southerner"). I love to feel it, smell it, listen in on it. Just as the many sensory moments you so eloquently described, it draws to me.

    Autumn brings for me a significant anniversary period as well. A time I am strangely drawn to...loss and gain all within the same circumstance. The loss was immediate the gain to be seen only years later.

    As ALWAYS your post delivers me a refreshing moment, it is so experiential...I feel as though I enter into a place that is all my own and yet so meaningfully shared with others. This is so unique. I am inspired by your ability to write with such engagement to the reader that discussions are spawned. I am hoping to learn from this great quality you possess.

    I must admit...I am a tiny bit sad about the roses. The picture, the light captured on the petals, it is GORGEOUS. I feel as though I am leaning into it and it reaching out to me. Just perfect!

    I find your life stories so intriguing and I appreciate the complexity. The journey, the evolving and the ability to draw an education for yourself. Leading you into new places and times.

    I adore your new header and picture. Beautiful.

    I feel so absolutely honored we connected.

  3. You guys overwhelm me! It blows me away to receive such praise. I set my writing aside for so long that I almost forgot it was worth anything, but you guys have made me feel like I do have a reason to write.

    Postman - Your description of how articulate, beautiful, and resonant this post was for you is equally articulate, beautiful, and resonant. I'm truly moved by what you say here. Thank you so much.

    Jennifer - I'm a "southwest southerner" myself, having lived in Louisiana for so long. Could you send me some of that chicken pastry?

    It makes me very happy to know that my writing brings you refreshment and inspiration. I write to connect, and am so grateful for the connection we've made. I, too, am honored and inspired and refreshed by our conversation, and more that I can't even express.

    Thanks for commenting on my header - I'm still trying to decide if I'm happy with it. I like the picture but the white letters irritate me.

  4. Keep the header. I'm liking the picture and the sentiment expressed. Speaking of resonance...

    You're very welcome. I meant every word I said. Keep up the good work.

  5. I hope you'll tell us a bit about the header picture. I am curious...

  6. Lovely post! I especially liked the mention of Keats' concept, "Negative Capability," which he defined as "the ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

    I hadn't heard of Keats' concept before. Thank you. I'll be on the look-out for Bright Star, the movie.

  7. I'm not gagging either, though I think it's because I'm the one who gets to enjoy the baking and cooking and the mother goose phase you go through, free of charge.

    You gave me a new-ish perspective on autumn. It was there, I'd just forgotten it thanks to many bad octobers and the dread for winter.

    Also, the misplacement of the glow in the dark skull and bat necklace is my fault (I'm sure you already guessed as much)
    If I ever get married, I very well may steal you and Dad's marriage idea. I always thought it was the coolest thing ever. I'm still bragging about it to my friends.

    your writing is amazing mom.
    I love you so very much, and it's nice to be able to read what you have to say on my own time, to discover your latest writing on my own, though I do love when you plop down on the couch beside me with a huge stack of poetry in hand and ask me if you can read me something.

  8. Dan - Thanks! I do try to live by that concept; it's not always easy.

    Emmuh - Thanks, love. I'm glad it helped you enjoy autumn more.

  9. "Oh, I know, some of you are gagging right now. So I'll get off this subject and talk about death again, how's that?"

    I wasn't "gagging" at all- because I wish I could bake and do things like that.

    However, I do have another blog I never talk about and keep my identity secret.

    You can call me "Morticia" because I like to investigate all things death.

    Also love horror movies.

    My people came to Texas in a covered wagon from Tenn. in the late 1800's. I take care of their graves.

    It's SO much easier getting along with the dead relatives, you know?

    Polly, you're always so... interesting! What a cool way to get married. You seem like so much fun.

  10. Jennifer - The header pic is of a puddle in the courtyard at the St. Francis church, with one of the bell towers reflected in it.

    EC - I'm very curious about this "other blog" you have.

  11. I'm not sure how I feel about Christian "holidays" or "remembrances" coming in contact with Halloween. It seems contrived. But then again, working for the church for 10 years makes me all kinds of jaded and mean. I like fall, but only because it means winter is coming. I go through a season of death every year and it's always when there's snow on the ground. This year, I'm strangely looking forward to it instead of dreading it.

  12. Thanks for stopping by!

    I'm looking forward to winter too, but as it's snowing right now, it may have already arrived.

    What kind of church do you work for and what kind of work?

  13. i gagged. (not really! i just felt like someone should, because everyone said they didn't.)

    this is my new favorite post of yours. such subtle threads, those skillful hands...i'm up close, watching your fingers weave. i can see it's something beautiful. then i draw back and i draw a sharp breath, overcome with the long view of what you've woven.


  14. That is an enchanting comment you left, rabbit. Well, except for the gagging part.

    Where's your blog, missy??? Such eloquent verbage deserves its own forum.



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