Autumn

It’s the end of autumn in New England. It’s hard to describe how gorgeous it is. I walk around most days with a tight aching in my throat, as though I might cry any minute–the loveliness so intense it’s painful. As I type this, I am looking out the window over our backyard, covered in gold and russet leaves, out over a half-mile of rooftops and red and orange treetops to the ocean, the leaves more brilliant against the slate gray of the water than the blue sky.

I am a pagan at heart; the veneer of my Mormonism shows its bare spots when I’m overwhelmed by this-worldly beauty. I believe that I will never understand birth, death, resurrection, the Plan of Salvation carefully mapped out on the Sunday School chalkboard. All I know in my bones is what I’ve lived over and over again–the first pale green thrust of spring, the slow ripening and heaviness of summer, and the dying glory of the autumn leaves.

This autumn, death has seemed closer than usual. The mother of one of the fifth-graders at our school died slowly and painfully of cancer, the husband of a friend disappeared and was presumed drowned when the boat he had been sailing washed up on the shore of a Wisconsin lake. And a boy from our school, just 14, brave in the stupid way of adolescent boys, dared a train with his bicycle and lost. His mother had been riding a little ways behind him, and came around a corner to find her golden boy lying in the October leaves.

I see her now, every day when she brings her daughter to school, and it is hard not to turn away, to run. She is the spectre that haunts all parents’ nightmares, the embodiment of that fear we never can quite banish. My faith seems too flimsy a defense. I do not want assurance that my children’s spirits will live forever; I only want their bodies to outlive mine. My universe weighs just over 100 pounds, as tall and wide as three adored bundles of skin and bones, viscera and hair, blood and muscles.

I will the leaves to stay on the trees, to hang on against wind and rain, not to leave us with the cold beauty of the trees’ forms and the stark peace of the snow-covered garden. And yet the useless beauty of the leaves’ dying makes room for hope–surely this autumn glory means something.   If death be this agonizingly vivid, life must be larger and more exquisite than we can dream.   Surely a world so beautiful is evidence of sense and purpose, such loveliness the assurance of a great Love over and around us all.

Comments

  1. “All I know in my bones is what I’ve lived over and over again–the first pale green thrust of spring, the slow ripening and heaviness of summer, and the dying glory of the autumn leaves.”

    I want to say that this to me sounds like exactly the message of Christ. Particularly for a Mormon, with our emphasis on embodiment. Except, I guess, maybe the order. You have to include the winter, and then say, “And the pale green thrust of spring again!”

    Am I a heretic? I feel affirmed in this view, though, partly by the detailed rehearsal of the creation story in the temple.

  2. I see her now, every day when she brings her daughter to school, and it is hard not to turn away, to run.

    Indeed, if her experience is like mine, you feel that constantly from everyone you meet.

    It is a terrible part of life, to have all who meet you want to flee.

  3. A. Bartlett Giamatti once said that “baseball is designed to break your heart”:

    “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

  4. Ah, Kristine, we all have our body issues don’t we? Alas, I’m not sure we could blog about it on this site, as it is so male dominated. Unless you guys have your own body image problems? I guess Steve has that chubby Napoleonic thing going and Kaimi has his large neck …

  5. D. Fletcher says:

    As everyone has noted, this was an exquisite post. Curiously, it has made me sad for three days, partly because of its sad stories, and partly because I myself could never write such beautiful passages. Bravo, and have a few tears, on me.

    P.S. The election didn’t help my sadness any.

  6. Beautiful Kristine. That is one thing I really remember about living in New England…the achingly beautiful autumn.

    I loved the thought that you are a pagan living under a thin veneer of Mormonism. I don’t know if I’m a pagan at heart, but everytime I drive through, or wander through a desert, I feel my testimony strengthening, like my spirit recognizes the beauty of nature as being divine. Thank you for so beautifully expressing that.

  7. Christina, I should have been clearer–of course one can appreciate those doctrines without having children. I think I liked them intellectually when I was younger, but I loathed my own body (chubby, awkward, uncoordinated teen that I was) so much that I couldn’t quite get to more than a theoretical appreciation.

    I’m glad there are people less obtuse than I!

  8. Christina, the whole body image thing deserves its own thread. For now I’ll just say I find it staggering that someone who looks like you do would have the same struggles to appreciate her body as I did/do.

    Satan’s clever, no?

  9. Congrats on winning the award!

  10. Greg,

    Yes, there are actually 6 versions of the Frost poem. I quoted the original version from 1920. The first published version from 1923 is as you quoted.

  11. Greg, it has been the biggest surprise for me too. My attachment to this world always seemed casual before, and the parts of Mormonism that are about bodies (vicarious ordinances, literal resurrection, etc.) seemed odd to me. I sort of liked traditional Christian notions about the body being something to be overcome–spiritual communion being the fullest form of contact with the divine. When my children were born, I began to understand why bodies might matter so much. Maybe that lump of terror is the price of such understanding.

  12. a random John says:

    I can’t believe that we actually had a fall in Massachusetts this year. It has been very nice, but I don’t expect it to happen again in my lifetime.

  13. I have recently thought quite often that the reality of this life is much, much sweeter than the promise of any type of eternal life. This life is the one I have, and it’s enough.

  14. If you all really want to do a body image thread you’re welcome to use and abuse my blog for that purpose. Just let me know.

  15. Kris, the physicality of this post is what really interests me, because you’re hinting in a way at what makes our doctrine so fascinating — a physical God. Our religion is all about bodies and flesh and resurrection and perfection, so maybe having children and appreciating autumn in this way is a form of approaching the Divine….?

  16. Kristine,
    I’ve always appreciated the corporeal aspect of our theology. Instead of seeing our bodies as an obstacle to union with God (a la, e.g. Augustine and subsequent Christian thinkers adopting Platonic thought), they are an avenue. I think it gives us exactly the space you describe to not only appreciate the physicality of the creation as manifest in the change of seasons, but also our own bodies. I recently read The Lovely Bones on the plane ride home from a sleepless business trip, and it evoked just that appreciation for our bodies (it is written from the perspective of a girl murdered in her young teens who watches over her family in the ensuing years after her death), for being alive and the joys of having a body.

  17. Kristine,
    Like any woman (person?) I spend a lot of my time fighting my body. I wish my body looked better, were stronger and healthier, could stay up late without yawning, weighed less, could kick higher … But I do have those moments when I recognize what a gift it is to be physical. And then I am ashamed of my frustration at my own body, because I think we do so often overlook that basic gift.

  18. Kristine,

    I loved the physcial image of a mother’s universe. To me, your essay is not the prolactin induced rhapsody which we often hear about a mother’s feelings for her children. Instead, it reveals the simple fierceness of a mother’s primal love. It made me cry.

    Kris

  19. Kristine, I loved this post. Every time I cuddle with my son I am made starkly aware that all my hopes and happiness lie in him.

    By the way, I’m glad someone finally put a name on that beautiful Robert Frost poem. I’ve heard it many times, on Baby Shakespeare, but never known who wrote it. And yes, the authoritative Baby Shakespeare reading favors Greg’s version, rather than Melissa’s. That ends the debate, I suppose.

    Geez, I do a post on the meaning of bodies and people just want to talk about whether Hugh Nibley was a hypocritical professor. Kristine does one and we’re all suddenly exuberant pagan flesh-worshippers. :(

  20. Lisa, thanks, but if we do a body image thread we should do it here–the guys are part of the problem; by golly, they should be forced to read about it in excruciating detail ;)

    CB–I like the quote about baseball. In any other year, I could retort with a quip about Red Sox fans suffering more than anyone else. It’s been a strange autumn in lots of ways this year!

    Ben–c’mon, nobody would say that!

  21. Lord, what a beautiful piece.

  22. Rosalynde Welch says:

    Lovely, Kristine.

    (Though I must admit that during this, my first fall in the midwest and my first experience with intemperate weather, I’d trade the fall colors for my daily jog through the neighborhood with the kids.)

  23. Greg Call says:

    Melissa,

    I’ve liked that poem ever since “The Outsiders”. But I always thought it went:


    Then leaf subsides to leaf
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay

    Is there an alternate version?

  24. Melissa, you could be talking about this old post of mine.

    For me the issue of bodies and self-image also link to how we view our heavenly parents and their physical bodies. We define perfection as mormons to include physical perfection, which generates a whole bunch of images in our minds. I think it’s important to be careful that our images of perfection come through study and inspiration from God, not from images from the media (like extreme makeover!).

  25. Oh Kris,

    I’m feeling like this myself today. I noticed this morning as I left the house that the enormous pot of yellow mums which has graced my porch this month is dying. Such a simple thing, but still a loss since nothing else as cheerful will greet me at the door for many months.

    Later as I walked across campus with a colleague he said he hated the wind. Speaking entirely from my own universe, I said, “me too . .(long sigh) . . the leaves will soon be gone.” He looked at me with patient amusement as he explained that his concern was for his garage which might be taken out if the wind got strong enough to blow down the dead trees nearby. I tried to show proper sympahty for the practical challenge he might face. But, inside my thoughts were with Robert Frost.

    Nature’s first green is gold
    Her hardest hue to hold
    Her early leaf’s a flower
    But only so an hour
    then leaf subsides to leaf
    In Autumn she achieves
    A still more golden blaze
    But nothing golden stays

  26. On body image too, Kristine, your demands of yourself are unfair to the rest of us! It’s as though someone were to say, “Oh, I feel so undereducated; all I have is a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Masters from University of Michigan!” Phooey!

  27. One of my favorite things about spring in the east was seeing the green tips of crocuses pushing up out of the ground. And the fall colors are truly marvelous.

    As I was reading your post I felt like I was reading poetry rather than prose.

  28. Rosalynde Welch says:

    only Keats could make gnats and hedge-crickets sing.

  29. Seems like we already hashed out some body image issues a while back. I distinctly recall having an ultimately fruitless argument with Clark Goble about whether plastic surgery and artificial body enhancement (or whatever they are calling it these days) is appropriate. You can guess which position I took.

    As Latter-day Saints we believe that bodies are really important. In fact, the opportunity to gain a body is one of the reasons we signed up to come to earth. We learn from scripture that spirits who are separated from their bodies describe their state as “bondage.” Further, we are among the few who believe in a literal, physical resurrection of our bodies. I’m not sure how all those Mormon women who get breast implants and such reconcile the LDS doctrine of the body with their choices. What body do they really think they will be resurrected with? The one with silicone or the one without? Will you have access to lipstick in the Celestial Kingdoom or will your resurrected lips just have a permanent rosy glow? The absurdity of the question points to the fact that our ideas of beauty here are distorted.

    This whole issue has been put into focus for me recently as I’ve joined a different gym. For some reason the clientele that attends early in the morning when I’m there is the senior citizen crowd. I’ve learned a lot by watching and listening to them—especially the women in the locker room. To a person they are wrinkled and gray. Various body parts are sagging and mishapen. I’m sure there must have been a few beauties in this crowd at one time, but here they all are now—old and altered. Yet, they are all comfortable with and in their bodies. They talk about their aches and pains but rejoice with each other that they are at the gym—some of them are just learning how to lift weights. Others walk the track or sit in the whirlpool. But all of them are clearly at peace with their bodies. This strikes me as remarkable considering their bodies must surely look very different than they once did.

    I wish that the lovely young women of the Church (because I do think this issue is especially pronounced among Mormon women) could take a page from the locker room gang at my gym.

    As I try to do so I find myself increasingly grateful for my healthy strong body. I’m also grateful that it is young and firm and flexible—but I know that it won’t always be that way and that’s alright too.

    There are lots of different kinds of beautiful—–I think that the locker room girls currently top my list.

  30. Thank you Kristine. I’ve been so deeply sad today and this is exactly what i needed. The beauty and the sadness and the joy of it all. You’re a gift.

  31. john fowles says:

    Thanks for that post Kristine! Autumn is by far my favorite season–your insight has helped me to understand why that is a little better.

    Growing up, I lived for two years in Connecticut. Perhaps that is where my love of autumn comes from. Reading your post brought back memories of the two autumns that I spent there (minus the view of the ocean).

    We are indeed connected to the earth–no need to out yourself as a pagan for that–and I think we can learn a lot from its cylces and seasons. Many of our lessons in adversity during mortality also stem from its influence in our lives, both from the necessity created by its shear brutality, and from the dependence stemming from its high demands. Nevertheless, it gives back to us richly as well.

  32. Thanks Rosalynde. You’ve gone and made me wax poetic. May I offer in return some Keats (“To Autumn”):

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
    While barred 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 red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

    I like the song we’ve been singing on this thread.

  33. Greg Call says:

    Thanks, Kristine.

    To me, the most surprising thing about being a father is that small, but palpable and constant measure of dread you describe so well. I remember my Mom telling me that for two decades she had frequently recurring nightmares about her kids drowning. I understand that now.

  34. Rosalynde Welch says:

    The thread has taken a different turn, but I wanted to post another autumn poem that takes up Kristine’s theme, Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:

    That time of year thou may’st 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 seest 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
    Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
    This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Touching and beautiful. Thank you.

  36. Whenever Sumer talks about moving us to warmer climes such as Florida, I admit I’m hesitant to leave the seasons behind.

    Thanks for posting this up. Autumn is one of the seasons where we can see humanity best reflected in nature.

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