Skip to main content

Pocket of Joy: Loving The Fall's Complexities

Fall, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love the cool mornings, the storms that mix blue-gray rain with yellow leaves already showering down from my walnut tree, and the afternoons that heat up and draw out that rich, warmed-earth, sun-dried leaf scent. I have always loved the dawns of autumn, the tender turning of the earth, the anticipation of color and movement, the coming fall! The motion of it, the actual falling of the leaves, the accelerating changes that saturate the senses. Later comes the Grimshaw phase of autumn, with its metallic sheens and spidery mists. It isn't just the festive harvest season or the bright middle of the fall that I love but the whole arc of it, the warm and the cold, the light and the dark and the glowing twilights humming with the shades and scents of memory mixing with rebirth.

"Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his exquisitely dissatisfying novel about accelerating, blazing, flaming out, burning down, unrequited longing after dissatisfaction, The Great Gatsby.

 
For everyone whose life revolves around a school calendar, it obviously feels that way. But the swift and dramatic changes in the natural world itself are inescapable to all who live in a climate with an autumn season.
 
The threat of impending winter accelerates the urgency of enjoyment in the fall, that zip of transience, the stomach-dropping awareness of mortality that quickens the sensations of life, the knowledge that each day may bring us the year's last golden treat. Many times I've tried to capture the swift, knife-sharp, twirling, fragrantly ripening moods of autumn in photographs and paintings and recipes and words, and no finished creation can hold it in place. A piece of art that strives to evoke the autumn can only work one time, like a jar of scent that dissipates upon opening it. When we first behold it, maybe it can startle us into remembering the full spectrum of autumn sensation at once, like a ghost passing through our bodies, but once that has happened and the element of surprise is lost, the piece goes flat as a trampled leaf the next time we look at it. Fall is the thrill of falling itself, of leaping and dropping and failing and flirting splendidly with death and never having quite enough time to fill up on it before it's gone for another year again. 

Autumn Lane by JA Grimshaw

Fall is a time of heaviness, gravity, and also the most wispy and delicate light.

It is harvest, fertility, abundance, feasting, and an unsettling, naked awareness of our transient life on a tilting rock spinning through a vastly brutal void.


To me, what makes the fall so exhilarating is the gut-wrenching, breathless tension between the beauty and the horror, the brightness and the chill, the arresting sensations and the fleeting winds that take them away too soon. The colors of the trees flame out against the sapphire sky, driving us to fall in love with a vision as transient as spring cherry blossoms, inspiring ridiculous photos, paintings, and poems that attempt to hold motion in stillness and always fail, but sometimes beautifully.

Many years ago, I attended a writers' group where a woman shared a deeply personal essay about the cycles of loneliness, guilt, anxiety, anger, and other emotions she was feeling in her struggling marriage. She used a metaphor of a falling leaf to illustrate the fear and hopelessness she felt at the idea of leaving her husband. Interestingly, another woman in the group read that line and felt elation and hope at the image of a free leaf, drifting on the wind. "Falling" is often a term used to denote sin or disgrace--"fallen women," "fallen from grace"--but it also lives in the phrases "falling in love" and "falling into place."

We chase that sensation of falling when we ride on roller coasters or bungee jump or dive or leap into piles of raked-up leaves. For better or worse, falling is the thrilling passage through a threshold between one stasis and another.

It is Lucifer's rebellion, it is the moment when Eve sunk her teeth into the Fruit of Knowledge, when the stem of an apple snapped over Newton's head. It is the weightless top of an arc. It is Douglas Adams' whale dizzy with anticipation. It is chaos encapsulated in a hovering moment when all things except the status quo are possible.

For me, the fall is a sacred time when sadness and trauma can settle in and ferment into a savory if melancholy memory, like sour grapes transforming into wine. Almost two decades ago, I took the two fall photos above, while roller skating with a college roommate, for my homesick lover in California, who missed the changing seasons of the Midwest so much that he actually lost his mind. I never sent them.

Instead, I realized that fall that he would never be the man I needed, and I would never be the kind of woman that he seemed to want. He hated things about me that I could not change--my tallness, the shape of my hips, the sound of my laugh. And the things I had loved about him had changed or revealed themselves to be lies. How could I know, and what did it matter? So I stopped trying to change him or myself, and I let go.

I fell.

I didn't know where I would land or if anyone would catch me. All my life plans had been woven around him--West Coast graduate school, home, marriage, children. But that fall, I was able to accept that the future we had planned together was impossible, because the people in the dream weren't us and would never be.

Our falling out made room for me to explore my feelings for an old friend, who is now my husband, resulting in decades of romantic happiness and fulfillment, but at the time, I was consumed with guilt and grief.

That week, I painted an abstract picture of fall leaves for a college art class, and soon I remembered another traditional complexity of the fall for me: The crisp, bright excitement about a new school year beginning is always followed by some amount of clammy disappointment, like the colony of slugs often buried deep inside the leaf pile.

I've always loved the electric effect of super-saturated opposite colors clashing up against each other, causing the border between them to visually vibrate. So I chose the brightest warm tones possible and painted them alongside the brightest blue, mixing a clear medium into the paint to allow light to bounce off the white canvas beneath, for maximum brilliance. And then I was frustrated when the professor criticized my painting as lacking "color harmony." He docked my grade for accomplishing the exact effect I had intended to execute.

When I talked to him about it, I learned that not all people can see the illusions of color that I can see--the vibrations, the wiggles, the pushing and pulling against depth perception. He was the littlest bit colorblind, my painting instructor, and that broke my heart.

It reminded me of a music class I had just taken, where I learned that not everybody can hear pitch and tone nor the beating pulses that throb out of a sustained, close harmony so intensely that it causes some listeners to faint. I come from painters and musicians; my grandfather would burst into tears at the sound of his favorite pieces of classical music. I thought other people were simply tougher; I didn't know until college to pity those who couldn't see, hear, or feel the monstrous, aching pleasures that I could experience.

This disappointment happened again when I wrote about my painting class experience in a creative writing class in which the instructor admitted that he could not perceive line rhythms--he had to ask his wife to help him grade assignments on that part of the curriculum--nor could he visualize painterly metaphors. I felt sadder for him than for myself or the painting teacher or the dullards in my music appreciation class who heard everything besides American pop music as screaming or banging or just “ugly noise.”

It is a weirdly lonesome feeling to realize that the other people in the room can’t see, hear, feel, taste, smell, or understand what you are experiencing. And yet it’s bittersweet, because in those moments I realize I am blessed with abilities to sense and appreciate what not everyone else can. I have to feel grateful for that, and learn to enjoy some things in solitude, without being able to share.

The poem that I flunked is, I think, the best poem I ever wrote--and I'm not a poet, so it isn't a work of genius, but I like it all the same because it leaves me dissatisfied in a sharp, hungry way rather than a bored, tired way--which is how I feel about autumn, and so for me it works exactly as intended.

The assignment was to write a "nonsense poem," in which the words could not make literal sense to tell a coherent story, but they had to evoke a specific mood. I wanted to distill the complexity of everything I had been feeling that fall, so I printed out weeks worth of my free writing journals, cut up the lines, mixed them up, and strung the fragments together like magnetic poetry of my own words. I relied upon rhythms and visceral metaphors to drive the emotion, striving for the way Tori Amos' lyrics work without making any sense, and when I handed it in, my instructor expressed nothing but alarm. "What does this mean?" he demanded in the tight voice of someone who has been handed a suicide note. (Isn't that a proof that I evoked an emotion?) I told him I wasn't prepared to explain it; it was the nonsense poem he had assigned. "Yes," he said, "but what is it about?" He pushed it back at me and next asked that I write a poem that told a clear story; when I did that, he called it "too on the nose" but seemed emotionally distressed about thestory poem as well. The next poem I turned in was a piece of technically perfect, humorous doggerel about a failed pumpkin pie. He noted that I was not challenging myself as much as usual.

So. I stand by my nonsense poem. Now, I'll tell what it's about: frustrated longing and grief over other people's lack of perceptive pleasures. Here is what I wrote:

"Close Harmony"

Effigies burn high above in the trees and no angels descend
On their gray-shadowed wings to cover the bloodshed below.
No shelter exists but the smoldering earth which shames the whitewashed flesh,
And its music is crashing splintered wood and string and bone,
Pounding on eardrums that shut in the dark.

A thumbstroke on the waist awakens a thousand lidless eyes.
The two-faced goddess cannot turn to one and not the other,
And the years of blinded longing tied in bedsheets damp with battled dreams
Have stretched the miles from heel to hip that separate me from him,
That deepen the hunger in lowburning places too hazy for him to see.

When I try to ignite the joy of the fall with shivering brilliance on the edge,
There is no harmony.
The eye of wonder sticks tight in the jarring crash,
Pinned in the airless union of neverblending saturations,
Strung in the nonspace between irreconcilable orange and blue.



I still like this emo college poem. My abstract leaf painting which lacks color harmony still hangs in my house. My husband loves it. Sometimes we sit near it and watch old recordings of Leonard Bernstein's "The Unanswered Question" lecture series on music theory. We share many pleasures that, we have sadly discovered, not everybody can taste, and we also share and delight in our sorrows. As we approach 40 years of life, nearly half of it married to each other, we have collected many sad memories and griefs, some shared. With love and patience over time, such memories add depth and richness to our present and future experiences, like layers of leaves, fallen over the course of many years, fertilize the soil beneath the trees.

We don't get everything we want in life. We are regularly frustrated, disappointed, sad, wanting. But I think that, in a way, those shadows add a richness to our life that heightens our joys and nourishes our gratitude. We have learned, together, how to appreciate the delicious, fermented flavor of longing itself.

One of my favorite harvest-season quotes is by author Louise Erdrich, from her exquisitely, painfully, deliciously imperfect novel The Painted Drum:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

Comments

  1. Lovely. Having the opportunity to read into the life and thoughts of someone my own age (and with whom I've lived) is fascinating and sets me thinking. I remember the moments you describe and reading your present analysis completes the picture, like adding the shading to a line sketch.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a beautiful thought, Elizabeth! :) I remember you buying me a Jolly Rancher drink around this time. Haha! I will never forget how gross that drink was, or how nice it was to have a friend to take me to the bar when I needed a shitty drink. <3

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be: You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")    35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't

TBT: The Magic of Essential Oils

Oh essential oils, beloved friend of loopy-goopy women of my own demographic marketing cohort, along with magic crystals, mystic doulas, organic pesticides, multi-level-marketed leggings, anything labeled as "herbal supplements," and alternatives to vaccination. The essential oil craze is something that has a basis in scientifically verifiable reality but has been endowed with magical, holy, pseudo-scientific properties for marketing purposes. I bought into it wholeheartedly before I learned that not all that crunches is harmless. All too often, legitimate fears based in reality (of toxic chemicals, unnecessary medical interventions, pharmaceutical side effects, etc.) are stoked to induce women like me to jump from the frying pan and into the fire of an "alternative" that may be at least as harmful as what it is supposedly protecting me and my family from. I still use certain essential oils for cleaning and other purposes, and I think everything I've stated in t

Rustic Open Shelves for a Bogcore Kitchen

Open shelving isn't for everyone, but it is essential to the 2020s bogcore kitchen. My family's DIY kitchen elegantly blends cultural influences from our ancestors which include Depression survivors, Viking-descended woodbillies, theater people/carnies, art fags, and Slavic sluts. My husband and I have crafted a wall of shelving and a pantry that combine rugged practicality with queenly flamboyance. Minimalist jars of raw ingredients line up alongside a vase of old peacock feathers. A ceramic sculpture displays our collection of grocery store spatulas. In the pantry, a large, cheap microwave nests snugly among rustic baskets, oiled wood carpentry, and our collection of well-loved, antique cast iron cookware. Bogcore is a welcoming, inviting, embracing aesthetic that can truly absorb and accept just about anything, with style. For example, I can hang up a dish towel from a wide range of colors and patterns that will work within the look of the kitchen. I don't have to be pic

Dodging the School Fear Pandoomerang

Can you believe this is the THIRD school year affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? At the beginning of 2020, the novel coronavirus still felt like a novelty. A two-week holiday from office work and school was supposed to flatten the curve, but it wasn't enough. My daughter never went back to finish third grade. Then she didn't start fourth grade in person. Most of the school year took place on a Chromebook. She returned to campus in the spring along with fewer than 1/3 of her classmates; the other families couldn't work around the inconvenient dropoff and pickup schedule or they didn't want to take the risk, even in one of the most careful and safety-focused districts in the nation (now among the minority of districts requiring masks without a state mandate). This year's back-to-school season holds the record as the most dangerous time in all of this long, dragged-out pandemic for children under 12 , and there is no online option. Parents must choose between sending

Pocket of Joy: Starting a Shiny New Project

Oh, the buoyant thrill of a sparkly new idea! Ooh, the giddy joy of starting in on it--like planting the first footprint on a blanket of new-fallen snow, or drawing the first line on a clean sheet of paper, or sweeping the first brushstroke of slick, wet paint across a wall! Of course, it takes follow-through to manifest a dream through the sweaty, dirty, messy middle of any big project. But when you know you can do it, you can hold onto that shiny new feeling to sustain you all the way to the finish. Here I am chiseling away at the remains of my old kitchen back in the spring, when my new kitchen lived only in my imagination. My husband and I have been working on our kitchen (with my parents' help early on) for four months now. Our summer has been a marathon of hard, sweaty, dirty work littered with setbacks, frustrations, and frequent changes of plans--including the decision to redo our main bathroom at the same time, while we're at it! Anyone who has repaired or remodeled a

"September" by Helen Hunt Jackson

"September" by Helen Hunt Jackson is one of my favorite classic poems about one of my favorite times of year. No matter what's going on in the world, the natural splendor of September comes each year as a comfort and a delight. September The golden-rod is yellow; The corn is turning brown; The trees in apple orchards With fruit are bending down. The gentian’s bluest fringes Are curling in the sun; In dusty pods the milkweed Its hidden silk has spun. The sedges flaunt their harvest, In every meadow nook; And asters by the brook-side Make asters in the brook. From dewy lanes at morning the grapes’ sweet odors rise; At noon the roads all flutter With yellow butterflies. By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather, And autumn’s best of cheer. But none of all this beauty Which floods the earth and air Is unto me the secret Which makes September fair. 'Tis a thing which I remember; To name it thrills me yet: On

Pocket of Joy: Two-Month Belly Dance Challenges (with results from my 20s vs. my 30s)

This summer, I'm beating the bloat and feeling better about my belly! I participated in two 30-day belly dance challenges online, first Jasirah's Belly Challenge and then a summer challenge by Mahtab of Best Belly Dance Workout . I chose these two because of the kind of challenges they were--not strenuous and sweaty but instead technically difficult. I am at a healthy weight that I want to maintain, and I am recovering from moderate to severe anemia, so I wanted to avoid anything exhausting or high-impact. This summer, I worked on balance, joint flexibility, and the kinds of technical skills that work out the brain and nervous system, and I targeted the "corset" muscles that cinch in the waist, deep beneath the outer ab muscles. I've said thanks and goodbye to the visible abs I had in my slimmer 20s, which are now obscured by an age-appropriate skim of subcutaneous belly fat that I don't want to starve myself or go under the knife to banish.  And besides, af

$Monday: Bog Witch Style on a Budget

Autumn in a pandemic is the perfect time to tap into your inner bog witch with wild hair, cozy clothes, forest rituals, creepy cats, fire, books of spells, and Dark Cottagecore home decor mood boards on Pinterest . You don't have to live in a literal swamp. The word "bog" comes from a Gaelic term for "soft," and it sounds nearly identical to Slavic words for gods or divinity with Proto-Slavic roots that refer to earthly fortune. Bog witches burrow into the true goodness of life nestled beneath all the hustle and polish and show of making a living. They focus on soft wealth and spiritual power. The vibe is slow, earthy, comfy, moody, sneakily seductive, maybe sticky, wise rather than smart, preferring old things to new, charming rather than impressive. It's about harmonizing with the natural environment, blending, melting, enveloping, and sinking into earthy, downward energy. Bog witchery vibes with hygge, friluftsliv , and the indigenous earth wisdom of whe

$Monday: Testing a New Kitchen Design Before Renovation

My husband and I planned to renovate our worn-out kitchen this year, with my dad's help. And--oop!--we all know what happened to everyone's plans for 2020. There is no way I can keep my family fed properly through the pandemic in my designed-circa-1990, tacked-together, corner-cut, stingy-cheap, crazy, nailed-it-wrong kitchen nightmare that has been crumbling, grumbling, rotting, rusting, and breaking since we bought this house in 2008. We have to do something, so we turned a setback into an opportunity to slow down and beta test some of our new kitchen ideas with temporary staging. It might look insane, but who cares? We won't be having the queen over for tea anytime soon, so we can take time to play with space and function before we commit to building permanent structures and finishing surfaces. For example, open shelves are not practical for everyone. They don't hide clutter or protect things from dust. However, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and prefer