Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Autumn of Our Content

Harvest: Picking apples and pumpkins.

WARNING: This will be a personal post.

I love Autumn in New England, especially with my family. We all recently spent a fantastic morning in our backyard. Our neighbors' kids were over, and we all (the wife and I, too) played at catching wind-blown leaves before they landed on the lawn. The morning sunshine, the colors of trees and grass and sky, the laughter of children at play with one another, the unbridled joy of living without worry for anything but this moment: at one point, I counseled myself to remember the day and what it was like to be present then and there.

Fall is often taken as a season of decline, and understandably so. Autumn's eternal place is between the free fullness of Summer and the powerful austerity of Winter. John Keats takes it upon himself to console sad Autumn:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats' Autumn is a downtrodden sibling, the one who never quite measures up to the other. Keats turns the lamentations of the Fall--presumably, for the dying of the year and so then for our own dying--into a sweet and self-possessed song. The poem redeems Autumn as a melange of sounds.

But what redeems my Autumn song, which emerges from the depths of happiness? Keats approaches Autumn one-on-one, the solitary man and the somber season. Yet my Fall season is more populated. Keats heard sounds; I hear those and also a human chorus.

I recall sitting on the grass recently with my two-year-old son. We watched the chickadees, robins and blue jays dart to the bird feeder for seed. I remember another Fall, back in 2005. I was recovering from Sarcoidosis. My oldest daughter and I walked together down to the lake. We held hands, and I became choked up inside at how glad I was that we had this time. I have a picture in my mind of my younger daughter, in pink hat and pink coat, chasing after her sister through the leaves. Later, I took an actual picture of her smiling face, one cheek reddened and the other with a fading painting that she had received on the town common. These moments are all a happy song that I cannot save.

Cherished moments float in and then fly away: optima dies...prima fugit. They'll never be back, so enjoy them and be immersed in them while it's possible. Today, I struggle to lift my oldest girl up above my shoulders, and one day I'll no longer be able to wrestle my boy. Soon, my younger daughter will outgrow her lisp and get her f's and th's straightened out. The children mature, and I am aware that I am aging. How many more Fall seasons will I get? How many Autumn days will I have with my kids?

Robert Frost faces this kind of question in his usual way, dramatizing a very human dilemma in terms of work:
Gathering Leaves

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?
None of us knows the final fruits of our labors, Frost says. Our big-man work and big-man tools count for less than we think. All our efforts, a shed full of leaves, and "next to nothing" for weight or color. Yet, "a crop is a crop," suggesting the results of our efforts may indeed have value, even if we cannot recognize it at the moment.

I wonder what my children and I will reap from these happy Fall days. It's a nearly constant thought. I want them to remember. I want them to draw comfort, strength, and compassion from what we've done and the memories of what has passed. I want them to enjoy their own spouses and children.

For me, well, I want to remember it all. I don't want to forget the features of youth in my children. I want constant access to the feelings of being a father of young children. Mostly, however, I want my kids to know that because of them--that through them--their father knew joy in his life.
Joy commands the hardy mainspring
Of the universe eterne.
Joy, oh joy the wheel is driving
Which the worlds’ great clock doth turn.
Flowers from the buds she coaxes,
Suns from out the hyaline,
Spheres she rotates through expanses,
Which the seer can’t divine.

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