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Autumnal

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

Archibald MacLeish‘s, “Ars Poetica” is one of the poems that have stayed lodged in my mind since I first began studying literature, and these two lines are among my favorites:

Every year at this time I see friends posting photos of the trees where they live, or their romps through fallen leaves.  It is indeed a glorious show nature puts on, but I recently learned something about maples, aspens, and other showy fall trees that has transformed the season’s  meaning for me.

Leaves don’t “change colors.” When a leaf unfurls it contains chlorophyll for photosynthesis. We see it as green, but in fact all the colors it will become are hidden under the green our eyes perceive. When autumn approaches, the tree no longer needs its leaves, and the chlorophyll fades. It is only then that we see the other colors that were always there.

That thought stops me in my tracks.  Aren’t our own lives like that?  When I was younger I thought I knew myself.  I thought I presented who I really was to the world.  But it is only in getting older that I can see the deeper nuances, the colors that were essential to who I am, but that I had not yet fully appreciated. 

As we get older, we see ourselves stripped to essentials, the distractions of green youth now faded. The rich hues that are the through lines of our lives emerge to show us the path we have always been on, the values that have kept us whole even when we were shattered, the moral compass that brought us to shore when we were adrift. 

 I first understood the word “autumnal” when I heard it applied to the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss.  The music is full of the history of grief, all the empty doorways, all the fallen maple leaves.  Some things can only be understood when life becomes bittersweet, when we see our hidden colors and wish we had appreciated them sooner. 

When we become autumnal. There is no better season for the poetry our lives are writing.  As MacLeish puts it, “A poem should not mean, but be.”  There is poetic meaning to be found in the leaves of autumn.  I found some for myself in what I am writing here. But really what they whisper to us is just to be. To dance in the golden light because we are, and we are still becoming.

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