There is something about autumn that I have loved since I was a wee child. The quality of light shifts a little lower, the leaves turn color and the wind, and rain returns. I think I ended up moving to the Pacific Northwest in the hopes of extending autumn to six months instead of two or three. This time of year is both celebratory and contemplative. We rejoin family for the holidays, see old friends, attend parties and over-eat and over-imbibe. We also turn a bit more inwards as the days shorten and the weather turns colder, wetter. It’s the contemplative aspect of fall I look forward to most.
This year the harvest season brings with it something additional to contemplate—mortality. Several of my friends are facing the reminder that we’re all here temporarily as they deal with loved ones, pets, and surgery. It’s hard to see those you love in pain. It’s harder than enduring the pain yourself. It carries with it the extra weight of loss. It’s loss that is really at the core of our relationship to death. We fear losing someone or something in our lives, or we fear losing time to do more or to do things differently. The hurried pace of our lives means we also hurry toward death. Death happens all year round, but autumn seems to be the time when we are most affected by it because it is a reminder of that loss. Nature is shedding or losing its color, and so are we.
In some ways, I feel lucky due to my genetics. My Viking ancestry means I’m more comfortable with the short days and new darkness that comes with fall and winter. Then again, that’s likely just stoicism. I do think that autumn brings with it a gentle lesson on coping with loss that we can all learn from, the inevitability of entropy. Perhaps if we see dying less like a loss and more as a natural cycle, it will make it easier for us to contend with. Our culture is a youth culture, and it favors youthfulness, and the pretend immortality that goes along with that. We don’t prepare for death, and we don’t talk about it, and I think that’s unhealthy. The Irish make jokes about dying, and they hold wakes that are parties to celebrate the life of the deceased. This to me seems like a much healthier approach.
The next time you head outside in this autumn season think of the colors and the disappearing foliage (assuming you don’t live in the Florida Keys) as one big joke. It’s nature’s way of teasing us so that we’ll be a little less worried about loss. It all comes back in the spring, and we all eventually become fertilizer for that spring bloom. Use the introspection of autumn to think less about loss, if you can, and more about remembering the joy that has come from the people or animals that you have lost. Like the falling leaves that produce vibrant color before dying, we should see the colors in our lives and remember to keep them brilliant before we go.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold