April 2018

Saturday, November 9, 2013


We've had a long and lovely Seattle fall. Mornings have been crisply cold; in the east purples, reds, and pinks are striated across the skies; the sun has been bright in blue skies and doesn't warm me like the summer sun did; leaves turn gold and red and yellow, some trees' branches looking like paintbrushes: green until the reds of their colorful tips; eventually winds whip the leaves in the trees so that they swish and some fall, drifting softly to the ground. It's lovely.

When my partner Ann and I walk, I often hold Ann's arm to keep me more steady in the fall wind. As I'm holding Ann's arm for support, I must anticipate crunchy leaves on the sidewalk ahead and prepare my balance because she'll swerve to step on a leaf for that satisfying crunch (this is her only swerving). We both laugh when she gets one just right. We are delightfully nerdy in this way.
I have always thought that winds stripped the trees of their colorful coats, and the fall has thus been a bit melancholy. I have for many years held in my heart Wordsworth's thoughts on this time of loss, this autumn, in his life in his Ode “Intimations of Immortality”:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
        We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
As my brain tumors and disabilities ushered an early fall into my life, like Wordsworth I have remembered wistfully the spring and summer of my life and have resigned myself to appreciating what’s left. Like Wordsworth, I no longer trip as easily as the springs, but I have found strength in the gift of this aging: the philosophic mind.
A story on National Public Radio recently about how trees lose their leaves has me thinking differently, however. In the story, I learned that trees don’t actually lose their leaves passively, victims of the season.  Trees are more active in their loss that that.
Trees prepare for winter by throwing their leaves off.   According to the NPR story, trees prepare to lose their leaves through a chemical process where the trees produce cells called "abscission cells" at the leaves' bases. The word "abscission" has the same root as the word "scissors" so that the cells make a cut that prepares the leaves to fall when the wind blows. (You can read the story at ) So really, the leaves aren't falling helplessly so much as they are letting go. And the trees are letting them go. Encouraging them to go. Insisting that they go.
This autumn—I call it “Autumn” now instead of “Fall”-- I am moving in my life from the color of early fall, entering the less colorful rainy season when leaves squish rather than crunch underfoot and tree branches, bereft of their leaves, look more like skeletons than paintbrushes.
This year, the Romantic poet Keats, who seems to have made a peace with the fall of his life, resonates with me more than Wordsworth. I have always loved Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” probably the least well-known of his odes. In the early stanzas, Keats writes lyrically of the time of harvest, and he closes thus with the beauty of this time of loss, beautiful not because it is all that’s left behind, but beautiful in its own way:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river-sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Perhaps you have noticed that I have been grieving my losses, my early entrance into fall, recently. I have been thinking about my own death, my own losses during my life, and I have been in a kind of whirl.

I do not think that I am in denial or wrapping my grief with a cheerful bow when I tell you that I have come for now to a kind of peace with my place in life. I do not think my joy is left behind. I am indeed joyful. I am also sad, and perhaps this moment invites me to hold these antipodes in my mind and heart together, rather than choosing one over the other.

During morning sun salutations, I breathe deeply and the breath steadies me for holding such joy and grief together, honoring both and denying neither. At times, when I am most in touch with my breath, I can now thank God for the confluence of joy and sorrow.

My first yoga teacher Denise (for whom I thank God with a sun salutation every morning) writes a blog that often resonates with me. Yesterday’s entry embraced me. She wrote, in part,

Darkness is our familiar, our gestation place, our source of juice and creativity…. Our broken hearts, which can seem so dark, are our whole hearts, our unsettledness is our steadiness, our inner lives, sourced in darkness and silence, are our passion and blessing. 
I still swirl and struggle, but for this moment, I am steady even as I tremble. For this confusing and life-filled moment, I feel grateful.
And I feel so grateful for you, my community, for reading and sharing your own stories and resources. My college friend Susan, who I’m coming to love again in the fall of our lives, sent me this Wendell Berry poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” today: 
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Thank you for journeying with me.
In peace. Namaste


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