For about two weeks, we had absolutely gorgeous leaves on the trees. We have a lot of silver maples around here, so the colors were brilliant reds and yellows as I walked to & from school. Temperatures have dipped and then gone back up again. Twice. We even had an overnight frost already!
There was a day, about a week or so ago, when it was very windy, just after a day of rain, and those two days brought down almost all the leaves around here. (The photo above: a Golden Rain tree, quite beautiful! It held onto its leaves a little longer than everyone else.)
Everyone is raking or blowing or mowing the leaves now, and the trees are just about bare. It's almost shocking to really take in the bareness of the branches. There is SUCH a difference...
And of course, with the time change, it's darker now way earlier than it feels like it should be. The sun really starts declining in the west around 3 or 3:30, and that's just a little unsettling. (Here comes the dark! Get your chores done and get inside!)
But it's more than just the number of daylight hours that's different... it's the quality of the light, the way it feels, that I've really noticed. Maybe "declining" is a good word for it. Like the leaves, the sun is showing us the dying of the year, showing us our movement toward night and death and quiet and sleep. Not necessarily a comfortable place to be, especially when I've grown up in a culture that fears and shuns death and decay...
Death is awful. It takes something or someone away from us; it brings pain and regret and grief. (Is there any emotion more painful than grief?) When death takes something away from you, one of the worst feelings is that you can't fix it, no matter what you do. It's awful.
But this year I realized something: that the beauty of the fall leaves and the reminder of death came together. I actually thought, as I drank in how beautiful the sky looked, and as I now enjoy swishing through the leaves on the sidewalks, that this is death--this, too, is what death means. There's beauty here. Maybe this year I'm on the verge of learning something new about death...
And it helps that at the same time all this was happening, I was teaching Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" to one of my classes. He has such beautiful and heart-wrenching things to say about death. (I'll copy here a photo of "Uncle Walt" toward the end of his life...)
In the 6th section, where he says that the grass seems to be the "beautiful uncut hair of graves," he ends that section with this, about the dead:
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
(I just love that poem... I'm glad I get to explore it again every couple years with my students...)
For us, the living, the turning of the wheel of the year means that we'll be able to see the ways in which life quite literally continues even after everything seems to die. We'll witness the miracle of re-birth in the spring. But for now, I'm happy to contemplate death in a way that's not scary, that makes room for mourning but also appreciates its unique beauty.
I hope you have a chance to linger over something beautiful today!
P.S. In other news of wheels that are turning: we had a march on campus & through a part of our town in support of SOCIAL JUSTICE, and in support of our faculty colleague who was handcuffed at gunpoint at his office. It went really well--it was a great turnout, including faculty, staff, students, and even some community members & children of faculty/staff. The speeches were really good, and the feelings among the group were great. I hope it turns out to be a raising of energy and strength so that we can all continue working on behalf of social justice, continue speaking out when something goes wrong... As several people said there: this is just the beginning; our work has just begun.
P.P.S. As far as I can tell, there haven't been negative repercussions from my letter. Most of the feedback I got was quite positive! No matter what, I'm proud that I worked up the courage to say something out loud about how I felt... Here's hoping I can keep that up!