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Autumn and Sehnsucht


Here's a little snapshot of my weekend study zone.  Yes, I know September is a little early to be lighting a fire, but I was way too excited by the crispness of the air and the chilly evening temperature (it did make it down to the mid 40s).

I have been in a frenzy for the past few days over the change in seasons.  The oppressive heat and humidity of the summer have finally subsided, and the new air seems to heighten my awareness of the world around me.  I love the crispness, the dryness, the change in the colors (although no bright leaves yet).

Yes, this is my first "real" fall season, but I must say I always feel like this when I think about Autumn, no matter where I am.  C.S. Lewis writes about his "inconsolable longing" for Autumn in Surprised By Joy.  He understands it, and feels it even more deeply than I.  The feeling "pierces us like a rapier," he says.  It's all wound up with nostalgia, but nostalgia for a time that never actually happened.

The closest I can come is to go back to the childhood scenes of Autumn when I started school, looked forward to Halloween, visited my aunt and uncle in northern California, and, most important, when my mother filled our house with beautiful colors and decorations, unforgettable smells, the right music, the right lighting.  So much of this reminds me of my mother and the "far-away country" she was always able to create for us in our own house.

Tonight I lit that fireplace for the first time, but I had the strange sensation of having done it a thousand times, almost as if the act itself was timeless.  Perhaps there's something primal about lighting a fire to keep warm, the glow of light only flame can produce, the soft whiff and patter of the flames wrapping about the wood.

Walt Whitman closed "Song of the Universal" with these lines:

Is it a dream?
Nay, but the lack of the dream.
And failing it life's lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream. 


One of my most important Fall rituals is buying the October issue of Martha Stewart's Living because of how beautifully it presents the best the season has to offer, visually at least.  There was a long article about putting your summer garden "to bed" for the winter.  It had photos of gardening tools, timetables about when to cut back each plant, how to tie up the thin branches of shrubs to help them withstand the coming storms.  There was a little hand rake she was advertising that was meant to rake up the dead leaves and twigs that cover flowerbeds and can interfere with proper distribution of light and water.  I was struck in the heart by thoughts of that little 12-inch rake.  I imagined the damp soil, the crinkle of the leaves, the decomposition that had already begun, the darkness and richness of the earth that would be exposed when the leaves were pulled away.  I dream of gardens always, ever since I started my little gardening experiment earlier this year.  And now I read about them constantly, imagining the gardens I will one day have the privilege to tend.  I love to picture my tools, which plants I'll choose, the books I'll consult when I ready them for their first winter, the friends I'll ask for advice, the feeling I'll have the first spring when the whole house is in bloom.

It fits in with this feeling of longing - wanting badly to have a garden to tend, when there are already so many things that need tending all around me.  If, as Lewis says, this longing is really an ache for heaven, then maybe that's actually what I'm dreaming of - some sort of restoration of the original Edenic charter, where Adam got to name things and enjoy his garden, before the "There shall be enmity between you and the soil" curse.

Does this season of Autumn in some way resemble things the way they should be?  Perhaps it is the heightened beauty, the crisper air?  Or maybe it is that Autumn is filled with a sense of preparation - a long winter is about to set in, and here we get ready to weather it.  It feels exotic and adventurous, and yet recalls so many familiar memories of home and family.  It looks forward and backward at the same time - and maybe that does resemble heaven.


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