I spent most of the day driving around Ohio in gorgeous, breezy late-summer sunshine. The air was humid and soft from last night’s thunderstorms, but the angle of the shadows and the underlying coolness in the wind hinted that the season’s arc has begun to bend towards autumn. There is a bronzed glow to the green hillsides now, and yellowing leaves fluttering and twisting as they fall. The highways are still edged with cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace, but they are gradually being joined by the golden faces of sunflowers. The lengthening nights are signaling the earth to hasten its harvest before the snow flies, and all of nature is responding. The nights are thrumming with the calls of cicadas and frogs, and the mornings are heavy with dew. Change is in the air, it seeps into my pores and nostrils, and my mind turns to thoughts of what is passing, and what may come.
Autumn is my favorite time of year. I love the way its promise hovers over the dog days of August, and how its colors—gold, scarlet, ruby, purple—gradually emerge from the canopy of summer’s green and gently fade into winter’s neutrals. I love the warm days and chilly nights, the crispness in the air and the vistas of impossibly blue sky. Autumn speaks to my inner child that loves stories with sad endings, and my outer adult who finds awe and comfort in the huge rhythms of orbits and seasons. Autumn is the downward slope after another birthday, the acclimation to being a little older, a farewell wrapped in the gleaming sheen of a culminating year.
As another autumn approaches, the world seems almost painfully beautiful in its ephemerality. Not just the colors of the forest and the warmth in the air, but the larger dance of life itself. Birth and death, weakness and strength, youth and age, how inevitable their blossoming and their fading. How we lose ourselves in the present, in the seductive and necessary delusion that we will always be exactly as we are today. And yet, on days when light and shadow hang in perfect balance, we are snapped into sudden awareness that today will not last, that we are travelers on a road with no stopping. At the same time that our hearts fill to bursting at the joy or sorrow or injustice or beauty in the world, we know that they—and we—are only shadows, and that our excitement and our heartbreak are only shadows of shadows. Does that make our experience more beautiful or more empty? Does the knowledge that we are only brief visitors here in our bodies make their journey more or less meaningful?
As I slide down the increasing slope of middle-age, the poignancy of autumn is increasingly rich at the same time as it stings with deeper sorrow. This is the late summer of more than just this year, and this path of the planet round the sun. This is my own August, my own season of delicious harvests and long, soft nights. I have grown tall and strong enough to weather a howling storm or two; it will still be a while before I am broken down enough to fall. In these days of freedom and courage and strength, however, the chill of that future is present, coiled and waiting. Its promise is inarguable, inevitable. There is no point in fearing it, for it is as much a part of life as squalling infancy or nubile girlhood. The whisper of mortality contained in a living moment is the reminder that we are only passengers in these meaty packages. Their hungers and hopes and desires are our songs to the world we live in, and our pleasures and pains are the world’s songs back to us. Our bodies are the instruments we play in this grand symphony that spans from birth to death. They bow to the same forces as every other living thing; they partake not only in the cycles of growth and decay but in the deeper cycles that turn random bits of matter into creatures and back again. We inhabit them only long enough to become aware of our place in the world before the world dissolves us back into itself again.
Feeling the weightiness, the thingliness of my body as it tiptoes along the crest of these harvest years is odd for my self, the spirit that inhabits it. I don’t feel old. I don’t feel like a different person than when I was a little child making doll clothes out of petunias or when I was coming of age in college or brooding over my own children as they slept. It was all me, is still me. It will keep right on being me until there is no electricity left in my brain to fire the thought. It’s an incongruous notion, existing as a timeless soul encapsulated in an envelope enslaved to time. But it feels natural, too. The world as we know it is subject to time, while our ideas often tend towards the eternal. Surely there is something vital in this tension, which simultaneously defies and defines our experience. Everything around us speaks to a natural cycle that dictates our death at the moment of our conception, yet we experience ourselves as eternal. How much of our living in our minds, in our ideas, is because we are unwilling to face that final moment when the last neuron fires?
For my part, I am not keen on losing my place in the world any time soon. I’m not eager to weaken, to slow down, to realize that the last day of summer was, indeed, the last. But I like to peep at it occasionally, to become familiar with it, to acknowledge it as part of who I am and will become. The best time to do that is on days like this, when it’s easy to see that the shadows are what brings beauty to the light. Being wide awake to the shape of the journey makes it possible to walk it without fear. There will be more summers, and more impossibly bright days and one of them will be my last. Until then I’m grateful for every bit of every one.
©Mary Braden 2015