Every autumn some of us might wonder, “Just how did August become September?” Do you ever whisper to yourself, or want to shout, “I’m a summer child in a winter world!”? Probably all of us take stock of what happened over the summer when September arrives—favourite things we could do, good things not done, and the various challenges and sorrows that have come our way. What are we taking with us into this fall season? The sweet along with the sad, always. (“Autumn” does sound so much better than “Fall,” but words can only do so much).
How are we all doing on this “swiftly tilting planet” (as Madeleine L’Engle entitled one of her novels)? How much more perplexity, confusion, unrest, and outright chaos can we take? Will need to take? Do you hear more sirens in your neighbourhood too? (Another siren just went off as I’m writing and is getting louder. And from different sources I’m hearing that the stats on domestic violence and drug use, are up, up, up.) How palpable is the worry, fear, even rage that you encounter? That you struggle with yourself? How are you coping? Maybe let’s just switch the topic. Enough bad news.
The other day I again raked leaves from our big maple tree in the front yard. Large orangey leaves, dry, crackly: beautiful still in their descent onto the driveway, the lawn. What a joy—after something like a week of thick smoke from the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington State layering our region, so acrid that you couldn’t open windows—a new afternoon of blue skies and sunshine. A wonder. Thank God for autumn rains! Children playing on scooters in the neighbourhood. Folks going for walks. An older sister pushing the stroller, her mother following. High schoolers traipsing home, talking loudly. Raking leaves is for me a delightful respite from other tasks, tasks also delightful in their different ways.
A line from Laura Ingalls Wilder rings true: “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things in life which are the real ones after all.” And I wonder, in this season of approaching harvest, which sweet, simple, splendid harvest fruits might we notice? Enjoy? Sure, we count what we have lost, and must, but what might we have also gained?
I recall the young mother outside our local grocery store a few weeks ago, quietly coaxing her three young children into a shopping cart. Her voice was gentle, protective, and firm: “No, you’re causing a problem for other people. They don’t want you to come around them.” This mother’s shopping cart solution to the “problem” that the existence of her children pose to some sits with me. An older woman had walked out of her way to avoid this family, looking, it seemed to me, displeased and possibly fearful of catching the infamous virus. Case in point. So much has changed—or is it just that our circumstances only more clearly show our condition? What then is our gain?
How therefore do we do life in this new season? How do we deal with the little annoyances and the bigger bad news? How do we become and remain resilient, human, in such a time as this? Is it really true that the tough times, lived well, can make you stronger? I’m reminded of this idea by a sign in my herb garden: “Where there is struggle, there also is strength.” Perhaps what we need to do is salute all who have gone before us, many of whom have endured great trials, some beyond our imagining, and pray for similar courage and faith for whatever lies ahead. Perhaps pray for a double portion of their strength since many of us need to exercise muscles we didn’t know we had.
Meanwhile, as we’ve been wisely told, take one day at a time, one moment at a time. And count the joys, keep counting the joys, as we go.
In my basket of gratitude I see things like
- Gales of laughter over a silly joke (the joke fades from memory but the laughter shared rings on in our hearts);
- Kindness smiling in a passerby’s eyes, all the brighter when so many avoid eye contact altogether;
- The greeting on a closed theater’s sign: “Be calm. Be kind. Be safe.” (so much more compassion in this world than I’d noticed in “normal” times);
- People beginning a professional email with the hope that I am well, followed by another email beginning with gladness to hear that I am well (and exclamation marks in professional emails are, yes, noticeable!);
- Humongous red and white impatiens flowers that spell welcome at a friend’s door;
- Sunday evening home-cooked dinner, with candlelight too yet, experienced even more deeply, with a greater sense of awe that we are alive and together this day;
- Being able to go to church on-line, greeting everybody with a typed phrase or two;
- Chatting and praying over the telephone with a dear friend who lives over 3,000 kilometers away (and just knowing that she made butternut squash soup from scratch the other day warms my heart);
- The cheerful IT fellow patiently helping me use the tools I need when I’m stuck, as often as I ask, ever patient and kind;
- Creating new classroom communities this semester via Zoom technology, all of us giggling when one of us in a region far away says it’s so cold at 26ᵒ Celsius the same day that another of us elsewhere on the continent is cheering that summer has returned at 22ᵒ Celsius!;
- Talking about George MacDonald’s fairy tale “Little Daylight” with my students, experiencing how their somewhat hidden “oh no, another princess-meets-prince fairy tale—so not true!” response changes to “This is different! Cool! Love isn’t about appearance, but. . . .”
With this basket full of autumn joys, I’m thinking more about how MacDonald’s Princess Daylight, who in spite of the evil spell that was put on her, is “dancing to her own music.” In the end, evil is overcome, as it always is. But here’s the thing: how important it was for Daylight in the long meanwhile of suffering to dance to her own music as much as she could. No, she wasn’t always dancing, but as much as she could dance she did—perseveringly, repeatedly, joyfully. Some days she was just plain too worn and decrepit to dance, and the only thing to do was sleep and, more than that, especially when sleep didn’t come, wait.
MacDonald really got this right. The curse can’t necessarily reach your heart; and we should guard our hearts against its force. But we need to choose to rejoice. No matter what happens to us, we’ve got to celebrate the precious moments of the precious days that we’ve been given. (For how long or short our days, we leave to Heaven.) Keep dancing to our own music through the brief and also the enduring trials. Remember that good always has that miraculous way of bringing even greater good out of evil—and we want to be ready to revel in this greater good when it comes. Meanwhile, we practice: we dance and keep dancing through it all, as best we can. Like Daylight under all the many silvery moonlit nights, we dance when we can.
This autumn I could pray for a double portion of courage and faith. That’d suit me fine to get it. But right now maybe I’ll just ask for an outbreak of sanity in my own heart, in this hour, on this day. Start where I am. Maybe that’s how to get ready to receive more courage, more faith. And when I can, which is most likely oftener than I suppose, I’ll dance to my own music, celebrating all things bright and beautiful.
P.S. My music? Well, actually, if it’s anything like half right, it’ll be my way of dancing to that Great-Music-Like-No-Other which heals the world—not really mine to tell the truth, but also mine when I make it so.
P.P.S. My friends, let’s revel in the blessings.
(One more tinier P.P.S. Did you spot my paraphrase of a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost?