Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.
More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.
The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.
A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.
Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.
Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.
Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.
We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.
Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.
Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.
As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.
For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.
Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.
Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.
I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.
I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.
Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.
While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field, I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle. The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well, and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.
It’s autumn in central Maine, and the leaves are falling. Sometimes they flutter in the arms of a sly little wind under a crisp blue sky, skittering across the road in front of the car, turning me into a more cautious driver than usual because they look so much like a squirrel or chipmunk. Other days they’re torn from the trees by rain and heavy, tropical air under low grey clouds, misty at their trailing hems.
So many leaves in so many shades of copper, bronze, orange, red and yellow. A sodden chaos of leaves underfoot in the rain and an airy whirlwind of them on dry, bright days. It’s as though the trees have been holding their breath all summer and now they relax and exhale, releasing the tension of production, growth and photosynthesis, easing themselves from yesterday’s clothing and burdens, shaking and stretching in naked freedom and settling down with a sleepy grunt for winter.
Bits of the world, leaves, songs scatter in painted light. The days break. –Carol Frost
The past hours, days, weeks and months litter the ground, trodden, damp and fading. Their stories, whispered to the wind, of nest and hollow; bird, insect and animal; stars and rain and dew and the secret underground life of root, soil and mycelium, are lost. From their bodies new stories for the next cycle and generation of life will green and grow.
Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash
I envy the trees their grace and patience. They know how to let go. They turn change into glory. They understand surrender to the fading light and changing tilt of the planet.
I, on the other hand, am not so graceful. Starting a part-time job, even doing something I love and am familiar with, has me wild-eyed and overwhelmed. My carefully constructed and comfortable routine is in pieces. I can’t turn the calendar page and fill in my accustomed schedule. Horrors! Now the days ahead are as naked as the bared trees, allowing me time to reconsider the true shape of things. I think of periods of change as bone time. I can’t see the bones of my life when the calendar is predictable and lists guide me through the day. Habit and routine are powerful, and after a time I stop noticing if I’m staying in balance, managing my time and taking care of my needs well. It’s only in these periods when all my schedules, lists and calendar pages are so many leaves of paper tossed onto the floor that I see the bones again.
To inventory our bones is to let go of possessions, distractions, noise, activity, thoughts, beliefs, habits and behaviors and ask ourselves what our true shape is. What are the deepest pieces of our body and soul? What is necessary in order to express our highest purpose? What destroys our time, energy and joy, and what liberates them?
Can we let go of what’s no longer useful? Can we give it to the wind, to the air, to the frost and rain and snow? Can we give it willingly, freely, with grace and beauty?
Yes, I can let things go.
But grace and beauty are noticeably absent just now!
Still, the trees in this season comfort me and show me the way. They’re not worried about next month, next week or tomorrow. They don’t seem to mind change. They release yesterday’s leaves with careless abandon and show their bones proudly to the sky. They know who they are and they take what they need without apology or shame. They rest in the security of the endlessly turning cycles and seasons.
I don’t think I’ll ever achieve their wisdom or serenity.
On the other hand, I know something about my own bones because life gives most of us more than one chance to begin again, and I’ve had lots of practice. I know shortly I’ll be back in a steady, effective, predictable routine that accommodates my new job as well as my current needs and priorities.
wind tugs leaves away my hat begs to follow guide me wind the way you’re lost i’ll be lost — Kim Robert Stafford
Life is change, and change is life. Old conditions give way to new conditions, and the process is always happening, no matter how stuck or helpless we feel. Chaos comes, picks us up by the scruff of the neck, gives us a good shake, and we find ourselves flung into something new, which will in turn gradually fade away.
Leaves fall. Light wanes. We are lost, torn away from what’s familiar, and then the way ahead opens before us and we’re found again.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.
We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.
Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash
Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.
I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.
In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.
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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.
Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.
Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.
Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones needing the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.
It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.