Every year my mother takes great delight in ‘changing the clocks’, because rather than fuss with the hands on the clocks in the great room she actually switches the clocks, pulling out the winter clocks and stuffing the summer ones away. With the time change coming even later than usual this year, I have spent the last few mornings stumbling around trying to get out of the house in the dark, going so far as to walk directly into a door late last week.
Leaving my late afternoon class a few days ago the teacher commented that starting soon the sun would be going down closer to the beginning of class than the end. I looked out the windows of the new class building as dusk fell at dismissal time and thought “for someone who gets sad in the fall, I’m doing OK. The sun is setting and my mood is all right”.
Then I got in the car and put on Rufus Wainright and that all changed.
The first time I remember having an emotional response to the autumn was while I was still in elementary school. I felt nostalgic and a little melancholy and very confused about why these feelings had seemed to come from nowhere. Even now, away from the town where I spent the autumns of my youth, the smell – rare in the city – of burning leaves takes me back to that revelatory afternoon on the swingset, a little amazed that the seasons could affect me so powerfully, and a little, well, sad.
Every year I think maybe this is the year I can write about seasonal depression, and despite always writing a bit that springs from it, I can never quite write about it. For a while it was because I was embarrassed and ashamed, but that’s not really it any more. Now when I try to write about it I become totally stuck, because I just don’t understand it.
Can I live with that mystery? I have no idea why, at this time of year, every goodbye and disappointment I’ve ever had becomes wrapped up in each sunset. I don’t know why the way the falling leaves match the stripe of yellow down the center of the road makes my eyes well up through all of October. Maybe this is just when I mark the passage of time – New Year’s never really did it for me, but I can mark the time by each somber, sensitive fall.
Tonight’s sunset, marking the bridge between the commemorations of All Saints and All Souls, really threw me, even though I was sitting in a room with a bunch of other people talking about nothing that had anything to do with sadness or darkness. Without my knowledge or will thoughts crept in of those who are on the other side whose closeness we celebrate these days. There’s a reason so many cultures remember their dead this time of year. I beg the forgiveness of my Southern Hemisphere/Equatorial friends, on whom some of the fall-in-New-England imagery might be lost.
The evenings get dark and I do too. Even though I can’t explain the darkness, I fear a part of me has started to take comfort in the yearly ritual of staring out the window at sunset, brooding, or as Hopkins writes in verses that could have been written for me “grieving over Goldengrove unleaving”. Despite the heartache there’s something oddly beautiful about being pushed and pulled by nature, year after year. I didn’t always know what I know now: that this will pass, and that April will see us all alive again. Despite Eliot’s claim that April is the cruelest month, I know the cruelest is October, mixing memory and desire even as our dull roots grow duller, well aware of the long sleep that is coming next.
I have spent some stretches in very dark places, and my spirituality has been shaped by that. Life is hard; it’s a blessing anyway. We are confronted with incomprehensible suffering; God exists anyway. Sadness can stretch us across herself like we’re prisoners on a rack; we worship anyway. In our cold and broken halleluiah faith breaks forth, quietly resolute, sometimes too weak to even be a sign of determination, just there, in a silent confidence that defies the present pain.
Spring and Fall: to a Young Child
–G. M. Hopkins
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 & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & 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.