The leaves on the trees on my block cling to branches longer than usual. We haven’t descended into the monochromatic world we will see in Wisconsin before too much more time passes. Two days ago, I enjoyed a long bike ride on a trail along a river, beside troops of cattails, stands of milkweed pods opening, the occasional fallen bee’s nest. Often, I pedaled over matted, fallen leaves, and once again, Gerard Manley Hopkins and his beautiful poem, entered my brain. I posted about this moment on facebook and a writer friend asked, “Did you memorize it?” Well, actually, yes, I did. It wasn’t a requirement of that long-ago English class at Mount Holyoke, but it was necessary for me. That poem spoke to me unlike any other had, since Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in sixth grade and Paul Verlaine’s “Chanson d’Automne,” in eleventh grade. I decided it was time to rerun a post I ran last year about my love of Hopkins’ poem. Enjoy.
Some writers (at least this one) are sensitive and attuned to the ticking clock of life. Autumn — my favorite time of year — thrums with reminders to breathe in and fully experience your life, here and now.
- At The Clearing in Door County, WI 2010
Often at this time of year, my mind wanders to a moment in my childhood on the swing in our backyard. I must have been in the seven to nine age range, as I could get on the swing myself and reach to kick the autumn leaves underfoot. Our house was on the edge of a large forest and the leaves filled the space with splashes of red, orange, yellow, occasionally violet and brown. As I pushed my feet through the leaves, the sound of them moving – the scritch and scratch – was rhythmic and musical. Above our green ranch, I could see blue sky and the tops of my favorite clump white birch tree on the other end of the house. Happiness filled my little body – I wouldn’t have thought peace and contentment then, but I do now. Slowly, as I continued swinging, pointing my toes to the treetops, a strange feeling, an awareness and understanding I didn’t want to have then, descended on me and pushed the contentment away.
This peace, this joy, this life I loved would end. I would have to grow up, that was my first scary thought. I would have to move away from my home. My parents, grandparents, sister, brother, cousins and friends — we would all die. I might have to live through some of them dying. That was a truly terrifying thought – not a melancholy one.
I don’t remember how I left that moment – maybe a neighbor ran over to play and I skipped off to continue playing Laura and Mary Ingalls in our big woods. That’s what I like to think I did.
Early in my days at Mount Holyoke – an exceptionally beautiful place to be in autumn – I was introduced to Gerard Manley Hopkins. One poem of his, “Spring and Fall: To A Young Child,” has always resonated for me. I could have been the Margaret he addresses:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Life has many seasons, not just the four that dictate much of our schedules here in the northern hemisphere. Perhaps my early sense of impending death strikes you as morbid or simply depressing? And, at times, it can be. But I believe attunement to not only the fragility of life, but also its vicissitudes is very useful for writers. You may wonder how your character stands on a particular life change or season – will that feeling be important in your story? Maybe, maybe not, but its likely to be important in the backstory if nowhere else. If your character can’t face these changes (like many people you may know), how is that important in your story?
May you enjoy your autumn – if that’s the season where you are. And, if that’s the season of your life, remember it could be that season for any of us, whether we know it or not. Love the colors, love the words, share the gift.