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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.


  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.

  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


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