Autumn-child: So lovely being born amid crackled-leaf, cider-steeped, cinnamon-spiked days of ever-bright, flaming color, crisp and glittering under first-frost grace. Hallowed moments infused with joy while I dream of kissing your fuzzy head, your little newborn face. My precious Micah, never doubt your Franna’s fierce love, opal-bright, like autumn fire, perpetual, eternal, quietly flickering, radiant and sacred, throughout all our tomorrows together. Upon your coming, beloved Baby Girl, veritable heart of my heart, I wait in the wings with hugs (ooooooo) and kisses (xxxxxxx) all for you from your Franna, so blessed with new-life zest.
—My friend had a Little Mermaid one but I want a Frozen one.
—I see. Was this your friend in preschool?
—Yes. Before coronavirus.
—Well. We will have to look for a Frozen umbrella, then. To keep you safe and dry when it rains…
She picked it out. It just so happened to come with a little rain jacket.
The week before torrential rains in this long, long hurricane season, in this long, long year.
When I was about her age, my grandmother gave me a ceramic ornament—two children in yellow rain slickers and galoshes hunkered under a big gray umbrella. If I held the base and twisted the top, it played a tune… I knew the lyrics, and sang…
Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red Crying’s not for me ‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining Because I’m free Nothing’s worrying me…
And so the seasons turn, turn, turn, many times over, and here she stands in the autumn of this dreary year, excited for the rain, making her own special brand of magic under a celestial, bright-aqua canopy of love, wonder, and song… I once read that the umbrella is a symbol for power and dignity.
Autumn. Hallowed season, full of color and oblique light, slanted and golden. Echoes from distant places wafting in chilly air, laced with spice and earthy riches, tasting like promise. Leaves falling like pages of a book turning, ending another chapter, moving to the next…
A time for contemplating life.
And what they have to say, about being alive.
I am drawn by research on ways that trees communicate with one another. Their intricate root system (scientists call it the “wood-wide web”), their pheromones, their electrical pulses… so much more is going on than what we humans can see or hear. Trees can warn each other of danger; they can nourish and heal each other.
I stumbled across a book I am going to need, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, by forester Peter Wohlleben. Journalist Richard Grant writes of Wohlleben’s observations on the topic in “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018):
Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches. Reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time, so that what we see is a freeze-frame of the action.
Wohlleben also discovered chlorophyll in a huge beech stump from a tree felled four to five centuries ago—meaning it is still alive. Grant writes: There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he [Wohlleben] says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”
I contemplate these words, considering the trees undergoing their autumnal change. Communicating with each other, communal to the end…
For some reason, lines of the old hymn, “Abide with Me,” come to mind: The darkness deepens…change and decay in all around I see…
What might the trees say?
Let us reserve our resources pool our energy by the still waters. By this reservoir we drink our fill after the darkness we shall be here, still.
They shed their fragile, light-capturing organs because it would require too much energy, would be too costly, to try to keep one’s leaves alive in winter’s dark, icy blasts. They cannot live if they don’t let go.
Shed your shoulds like leaves in woods Trees shorn of fragility preserve their ability to survive.
Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’ like leaves curling with regret Spiraling, sigh by sigh piling inside, dead and dry cluttering today.
Beware should’s false measure robbing Now of its pleasure Shed those shoulds like autumn woods composting for tomorrow.
For me, in the autumn of my own existence, everything is bathed in oblique light, slanted and golden…I walk my wooded path, here and there scattering extensions of myself, posts and poems and words, stopping to gathering those of others, a communal communication that never ceases to amaze and which has everything to do with survival. Perhaps writing stems from a deep-seated need to renew, to live life anew, to make something new and beautiful from the jumbled pattern of our days, while they last.
In the great scheme of things, it’s a collective glory-story.
Can’t you hear each leaf whispering, as it falls:
with thanks to the nourishing, beauty-scattering Poetry Friday community and to Robyn Hood Black for hosting today’s Roundup.
The others will have their turn, soon. For now they wait in the wings and on the screens…
In a month when masks are normally worn for celebrating, they came masked for protection—of others.
Several of us stood as sentinels in the misty gray morning, waiting, also masked. Gloved, thermometers ready, when the first bus rolled up and its door opened to release three children.
Another bus carried only one.
But when the first child passed inspection and entered the building, the gathered staff cheered. Applauded. Like welcoming a hero home.
They are heroes.
These kindergarteners, these first, second, third graders in their colorful masks, quietly navigating the building, sitting socially-distanced (alone) at lunch… I suspect these images are etched deep in my brain for the remainder of my days.
I saw this verse on a StoryPeople print by Brian Andreas (1993):
When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need.
I think about how trees
help us breathe
cleanse the air
soften hard edifices
change with the seasons, yet remain constant
color the world
Tree leaves do whisper. Trees talk to each other (they do). They live in groups and look out for one another.
They carry the stories they live within them. You can read them, in their rings.
I cannot decide which is best, to be the tree with deep roots, waving my leaves at the children on the way to school, singing in their dreams…or to be the child, asleep, hearing the tree-song…
I stand, a sentinel in the gray silence of the empty bus loop, masked, gloved, thermometer in hand, watching bits of red and yellow and fiery orange swirling through the air as if stirred by an unseen hand… tree confetti, celebrating life, letting go in order to hold on through the coming winter, who knows how dark or cold, and I’m seized by the sudden desire to run into those dancing colors…
—I am bits of both.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the invitation to share on Slice of Life Tuesdays and for also knowing about the things that children need. They, too, carry their stories within them…
A list poem, of sorts, inspired by Wallace Stevens‘ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” shared this week on Ethical ELA. The Open Write challenge: “To look outside ourselves to the larger world. Craft a poem about it…the larger world is many different things to people, and in many cases, it’s America.”
Everything hinges on interpretation. There are infinite ways of looking.
It just so happened that this week marked my return to campus in preparation for student cohorts transitioning back to the building. Driving along the familiar back road for the first time in what seemed like ages, car piled with stuff, brain churning with things to do and how to do them, trapped in a constant state of COVID suspension, in a fog very like the one rising from the ground, smoky swirls lending a seasonal eerie-ness to beguiling red-gold trees against an obscured sky, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the sudden darting of a black cat from the woods just ahead on the right. Neatly across the ditch bank it sailed, mission-like, directly across the road in front of me…
13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of ElectionYear 2020
I. Unexpected poetry in motion from the russet woods, long, lithe feline fluidity rippling low along the golden ditch bank, ebony mercury flowing across the gray asphalt, a thing of beauty, a joy forever or at least until… II. Still alive. I didn’t hit it. III. Spawn of inexplicable, maniacal laughter (nowhere near the Joaquin Phoenix level) IV. The omen of—misfortune? As in—Google crashing?—no Wi-Fi?—more lost instruction?—a forgotten mask? —one more directive on what to do or not to do with data, disinfectant, distance? V. Will I even make it to school today? VI. Will students (onscreen)? VII. Spirit of the season, shape-shifter running to and fro on the Earth, demon on the loose, witch’s familiar, unholy harbinger … VIII. This election. Heaven help us. IX. Misrepresentation and slaughter of God’s creatures. X. Curiosity. Where are you running to, little black cat? From where? From what—or whom? Do people other than scientists know that your fur holds secrets to disease resistance? Can the mystery be unlocked, decoded? Pandemics of rats and bats. What if healing sprung from cats. Poetic justice. XI. Portal of memory… I had a little black cat, once. She had no tail and no one else wanted her. The last left in a box of kittens a guy at college was giving away. Brought her home, named her after a magic cat who was exceedingly wise, in a book I read as a child. Couldn’t take her with me when I married and moved into an apartment so I gave her to my dad. He bought turkey from the deli, tore it into small bites, and fed her on the countertop. She wasn’t magical. Just full of ever-purring love. XII. The great portender, seeming to be what you are not… all I know is you are poetry in motion. Run on, blithe spirit. Run on, long, lithe spirit-lifter, ebony mercury flowing… how glad I am our paths crossed. Fear not. We bring one another no harm. XIV. I skipped #13. Too unlucky.
Note on IX: For centuries, beginning in medieval times, superstition and associations with evil led to widespread killing of black cats.Many shelters today will not allow black cats to be adopted near Halloween for fear of their being used as decorations and mistreated, tortured, sacrificed, or abandoned. Just one way of looking at those lines.
Someone I love just gave me this “Brew” cup and infuser ball along with loose black tea leaves mingled with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, milk chocolate curls, and calendula petals… what’s not to love? I am sipping liquid Autumn.
In my online writing voyage, I’ve just come to a new port of call—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
Those words, stories and magic, are all the passport I need to disembark and discover…
Today’s open invitation is writing about a favorite fall food, or one loved as a child.
My mind goes immediately to the breakfast cereal Count Chocula. I look for it at the beginning of every autumn now, but, if I recall correctly, it used to be available all year round when I was a child. I could be wrong. At any rate, I hadn’t seen it in decades when, maybe three years ago, it reappeared on grocery shelves as if by magic—poof! Voilà! —catapulting me, wide-eyed, open-jawed, straight back into childhood, to age 8? 9? 10?, hunkered over the cereal bowl, immersed in a book (for one cannot eat a bowl of cereal without a book, right? Isn’t it some unwritten law?). I wouldn’t stop at one bowl, see. Usually it was two. Maybe even three… suddenly my father is walking through the kitchen again, scowling: “First ketchup! You use way more than you should. Now this. Nobody needs to eat this much cereal…I’m buying three gallons of milk a week! For only two kids!”
What would he say if he could see how many boxes of Count Chocula I have, at this very moment, squirreled away my cabinet? Yikes!
Once this prompt got me walking around in Long Ago, savoring my Count Chocula, I began tasting other things… my mother’s peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses on top, slightly melted from the fresh-baked warmth. She made them when neighborhood kids gathered at our house to watch the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on TV, in those pre-cable days. I think this was in fall… there was a chill outside. The grainy-crunch cookies with their soft-bottom chocolate caps, Dorothy, her comrades, her red ruby slippers (which I later went to see numerous times in the Smithsonian), dear Toto, Glinda in her iridescent bubble, the Emerald City, the music… all magic, all warmth… there’s no place like home in the living room with friends and family, taking a trip down the yellow brick road once a year.
I do not know why memory leads from that scene to school carnivals, the caramel apples and Crackerjacks that I did NOT like, the scent of hot buttery popcorn in the air, the delicious excitement of reaching my arm into a giant clown face with a cut-out mouth for a grab-bag full of little treasures…and onto Halloween, the shivery joy of putting on a costume and going out into the cold dark night with friends who looked funny, creepy, and spooky but never really scary, in a time and place where it was safe to go trick-or-treating from house to house to house…oh, and I never did like candy corn, although it’s pretty and fun to use as decorations, like for turkey beaks or tail feathers on tabletop arrangements at Thanksgiving.
My mother’s carrot cake.
Locally famous, the only carrot cake I’ve ever really liked. Everyone loved it. I have her recipe. I make it every Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Her secret: carrots finely-grated to pulp and extra cinnamon.
—And there it is.
My favorite flavor of fall.
Cinnamon isn’t exactly a food in itself, but to me, it’s the essence of celebration in my mother’s cake, the aromatic allure of my new autumn spice latte tea, the crowning glory of hot apple cider, the thing behind my longing for pumpkin spice coffee at the first hint of coolness in the air, just as reds and golds begin tinging the leaves… interesting, isn’t it, this tree-connection. Cinnamon is, after all, bark. The dying of the leaves, the dying of the year, going out in a blaze of glory, cinnamon their royal embalming spice, rich, fragrant, preserving like memory, like immortality, like being a child at home, face pressed again the window soon to reflect candlelight, the holiness in holidays, flickering bright with hope and promise when the days grow short and dark…
My best-loved taste of fall.
Well, and Count Chocula.
I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic
The words roll round my mind as I drive to work, noting how the rising sun gilds the trees in all their fall colors against a deep charcoal sky. The sharp glory of it is beyond my power to describe. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Fierce. How can there be such detailed color and brilliance when the sky is so strangely dark? If a storm is brewing, why is the light so golden-bright? And where exactly is it coming from? The sun itself is hidden.
I cannot quite capture how I feel. It’s more than one thing. Awe. Reverence. Curiosity. A bit of foreboding.
Mostly gratitude for having been here to see it.
I am thinking a lot about the interplay of light and dark this holiday week.
And the fierce beauty of life.
My husband is here after a massive heart attack this summer. His surgeon said that his blockages were such that when the last artery went down that day, he had no reserve; he made a “medically inexplicable recovery.” This coming only three years after my husband lost an eye to ocular melanoma.
Light and dark, dark and light.
He lives to see our son get married the day after Thanksgiving. Not just to see it, but to officiate. After all the years of praying for the boy to go into the ministry and the boy saying, no, Dad, that’s not for me.
He ordained our son into the ministry three weeks ago.
Never say never.
Today the boy took the last of his things out of our house to finish setting up his new home. He’s gone, but not too far away.
He took his dog.
The last dog.
In two years, we’ve lost three: Nikolaus the dachshund to old age. Banjo the yellow Lab that I raised from age seven weeks to a new home because my husband can no longer manage a 90-pound dog after bypass surgery. And now Henry, the best of the best, the rescue dog whose sole mission in life is to extract and exude as much love as possible.
I am now dogless for the first time in almost two decades. On every one of those days I could always count on a happy greeting, an ever-faithful warmth, some commiseration or comic relief. No tail thumping tonight, no snuffling, whiskered nose in my hand, no nails scrambling on the floor in exuberance for a pat, a treat.
How strange is it that my son moves out and I write about missing the dog.
And another thing: I recently wrote about the two old mules around the corner, how one of them was sick. I often saw it lying on its side in the pasture as the other mule grazed nearby. The farmer didn’t want to put his ailing mule down, knowing that the other mule would grieve, as they had never been apart. He finally had to. When I rode by the following week, I saw the remaining mule standing bereft in the pasture. My friend who lives on an adjoining farm said the mule hadn’t eaten since its sister died. I dared not drive that way for a few days afterward, fearing what I’d see, or not see. But this week I braved it. I drove past the pasture. There was the mule, grazing, which made me happy. As I watched, a big orange tabby cat came strolling across the pasture to sit by the mule. It looked right in my direction, swishing its tail.
A once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that I couldn’t stop and capture.
And then today as I went by . . . the cat was still there. In all these years of loving those old mules from afar, I have never seen any other creature in the pasture. That cat is there keeping that mule company. It was sent. I am sure of it.
What is life but a bizarre balancing act, a series of give and take, comings and goings, losses and comforts, laced with love, fierce in itself. A mosaic of light and color, a stark silhouette against a backdrop of darkest gray.
Every day is one to be celebrated.
Tonight I go to sleep in my dogless house, beside my husband who’s still here. We have one more son sleeping upstairs. Although there’s an ache, there’s not emptiness. I am grateful for that big orange cat who’s out in the pasture with the old mule left behind. I am grateful to see the glory and drama of autumn with the promise of celebrations to come. I am deeply grateful my oldest has found his calling at the same time great love has entered his life; on the day after Thanksgiving, he becomes a husband and a father all at once. It just so happens that his wedding day is the second anniversary of his grandmother’s passing; how she’d rejoice for him.
Light and dark, dark and light.
Oh, and on the wedding night, I get to bring home a little girl, officially my granddaughter; she and I will have our own celebration with Bride’s Cake ice cream and peppermint bark Oreos and probably the movie Frozen.
I put the Christmas tree up early, just for her.
How can there be so much light.
Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.
I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.
They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”
So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.
One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.
In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.
The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.
I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.
On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.
I started to cry.
It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?
And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?
I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”
“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”
“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”
“Uh, no . . . .”
“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”
His nonchalance irritated me.
And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!
I drove by several times, rejoicing.
—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.
And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.
But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”
Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.
And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.
I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.
I reach the pasture. I slow down.
Annie’s lying on her side.
I come to a stop.
Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.
Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.
We watch each other for a minute.
I wonder what they think.
I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.
That was yesterday.
Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.
Sisters to the end.
I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.
More so than ever.
I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.
Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.
Maybe it’s illogical.
I only know it’s true.
For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.