This is the time of year in New England when a visitor from away could be forgiven for thinking it is all an elaborate hoax. The trees look as if someone set them alight; the crystalline clarity of the air seems somehow to make the leaves appear to generate their own luminescence in ways you must exaggerate to capture. For nature to create such a display, not for reproductive fitness, nor sexual selection, but rather to herald death and the coming of the cruelest times, seems an impossible extravagance.
My 16 year old son told me a couple days ago that he felt melancholy looking at the trees. The brilliance is fleeting and the hard rains and high winds of the next few weeks will reveal the aftermath of tonight’s star-studded performance in the morning’s litter and detritus; soon only a few brown and yellow stragglers will be left, clinging to the oaks and the beeches. Even the greens of the pines and the firs tend to muted and dull tones. We feel the sun’s retreat and recognize the changing shadows that accompany our daily rituals.
I often feel that an essential quality of the beauty of fall is the cold that dwells at the edges. Just as the power of spring is in the whisper of warmth threaded through the chill breezes, the portent of autumn is the warning of restive rustlings reminding us to lay up stores and stack wood.
Deep in my bones, I know I’m not here forever, even in this life. I’ve learned not to try to dictate the timeline; I don’t lead this dance. But I have moments where I catch a glimpse, like those same quiet counterpoints that weave through the winds of the shoulder seasons, of a place and a feeling that is not now and not here but is, most certainly, a some time and a some where. There are many more waypoints on this lifetime’s journey, and who knows what else is wrapped around that?
I could become an addict of the show; a true believer, running without rest to remain always in the perfect light, never acknowledging the coming of winter.
I could try to run away from the sadness of the world.
Humans are desperately drawn to promises of edenic bliss if only we just embrace an ideology entire. Gurus give us relief from self-responsibility, credos give us purpose, congregations give us protection. The demands of discernment are many; we must learn to listen to our hearts, we must own our errors, we must strike out away from the herd into the cold wilderness when we see through the veil. We must face the mirror alone.
Religious fanatics abound. They come in the form of the Taliban, dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. They come in the form of hypnotized children possessed by the anti-humanism of apocalyptic environmentalism, vandalizing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Couldn’t life be lovely, couldn’t life be easy, couldn’t we achieve Heaven here on Earth, if only we all swam the same way through the clear waters of divine truth?
I propose to you that this would not be freedom, and it would not lead us to peace.
Why does blood lead? Why does bad news travel faster than good? It is because we see ourselves in contrasts and comparisons; our material bodies have boundaries and we must contend constantly with what is out and what is in. We are tempted to need to know that someone is in pain in order to feel secure in our comfort, however relative it may be. To say, I am grateful, it could be worse, is not to express optimism and humility but rather to distance ourselves from greater misfortune.
It is okay. It does not make us ignoble and cruel. It makes us human. Where horror is begotten is in denial.
I once knew a woman who was so thoroughly convinced of her superior goodness over all others that she was unable to accept, not just criticism, but even another person’s ideas, as anything other than an attack. If you challenged her, it became her obsession to search and destroy, to amass an army of acolytes to nod in assent to her every assertion of victimhood and righteousness. She cuts a swatch through the world leaving destruction in her wake; the wreckage of relationships and organizations bobs gently in oily puddles where she has trodden.
Any one of us is capable of this error. All it takes is to bury the creeping shadow and silence its voice in our heads. Only when I recognize that whispering demon and welcome it as the part of me that resides across the line that runs down the middle of us all, acknowledge it and perceive where it would lead me if I lost my way, am I integrated and whole.
This bittersweet taste of this old world needs the darkness to elevate the light; that is where beauty comes from. The sublime is terrifying.
Know that cold wind when it is blowing underneath the golden air. Put up stores and stack the firewood. You came for this; you were born for this moment. Allow the splendor of the world to make you weep. The glory of the phoenix is in the full foliage of the feathers on the edge of immolation. Run your fingers through the ash and know what beauty is.
I do not lead; I am danced.