“Rebellion or surrender?”
“Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
What signal from the stars? What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender? and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time.
If a star at any time may tell us: Now.”
Until I moved to Chicagoland in 2013, most of my life was spent in below the Mason-Dixon line. With a few exceptions (a flurry of March snow when I was a little girl in Louisiana; a late blizzard in Virginia when I was 13 where I watched the wind whip and listened to Silverchair’s Neon Ballroom on my portable CD player; a frigid Christmas in 2006 spent not too far from where I live presently), the climate of my memories is marked by heat and humidity. If I hadn’t spent a lifetime visiting my grandparents in the mountains of the Monongahela Forest, autumn and winter would be little more than abstractions.
I’ve lived in the Midwest as an adult for three years now, and even with those Appalachian memories, the creeping change in the leaves every fall sets me on edge. The earliest weeks are the strangest: that’s when I grow aware of the shift in my vision, barely-perceptible, akin to the moment in The Giver when Jonas begins to see the color red (and no, I’m not going to link to any scenes from the 2014 film because even without having seen it I consider it an affront to God, Man, and Lois Lowry.) Some of the trees go all at once: little almond-shaped leaves are all at once a drape of gold. Some of the trees go slower: a cap of rust and ocher in the very highest bough that seeps into the green below and slowly overcomes it.
I first noticed my discomfort with the season in October of 2014, when I was pregnant with my son. My office is a 30-minute drive from my home if you stay on the expressway, but I favor a less populated, east-west state road for my commute. Grey noise barriers buffer the north side of the road, and as the fall season geared up that year, I noticed veins of ivy along the walls bursting into the most vibrant scarlet I’ve ever seen before or since. It was stunning, to be sure, but more than that it was unsettling. I’d find myself zeroing in on the ivy with a heady combination of anticipation and anxiety. How far had the red progressed? Did any trace of green remain? Had yesterday been the peak of the color and now I would only see the leaves brown, wither, and die?
After some consideration on the matter, I reasoned that I was hormonal and exhausted, that the color was reminiscent of just-spilled blood, and that the two things in conjunction was responsible for the pricking of my thumbs. The feeling faded by the time the full bloom of the season set in, but those first few weeks when the leaves began to turn inside out filled me with a low-level feeling of dread.
My experience in 2015 was much the same, although that year I placed the blame on my still-regulating hormones and the sleeplessness that comes part and parcel with having an infant. This year, though, none of the excuses hold. My apprehension remains. I watch the trees grow russet and gold and soak up the fading green with a sense of loneliness and loss. I see how color progresses from day to day and it triggers something that feels like panic. Why? Why does this gorgeous, gilded season —hitherto my favorite season— make me so restless, so ill-at-ease?
As a rule, my sense of comfort is rooted in things far more permanent than color — I mean, the dress had no effect on me whatsoever. Could it be something else ushered in by the cooler weather: some scent in the air, some angle of the light? I read a study about the effects of the autumnal equinox on those with bipolar disorder when I started thinking this over. Is my brain subject to the shifting light in some similar way? Is my dread the product of some tiny seizure brought on by the slanting October sun?
Or is this slow burn of anxiety something social in my brain rather than something chemical? In October of 2014 I had just begun to feel fetal movement. Pregnancy was at once this quotidian biological experience and yet entirely unknown to me: unsurprisingly, I was wholly affected, wholly changed. While my body was signaling the imminent arrival of life, autumn was signaling the imminent arrival of death. No wonder I felt such strange, stirring disquiet: here I was blooming when all around me the world was beautifully, colorfully dying.
And now? That life that was so imminent in 2014 is now present: this autumn I’m mothering a toddler, a dimpled charmer with a husky voice and a Star Wars obsession. This year I don’t need October to tell me the world around me is dying down. My kid makes me aware of it every second.
The thing no one tells you about giving birth is how fixated you become on the nearness of death. The gifts of parenthood cannot be denied, but those gifts come with the knowledge that no matter our devotion to our children and their safety, the world does not offer the same protection. I contend daily with not only that knowledge, but also the knowledge that my presence in my son’s life is not permanently assured. My body is fragile and fallible: no matter the force of my love for my child, I am beautifully and terribly mortal.
This stage of my life is vibrant and luminous. It is all bracing, brilliant skies and fierce, fiery foliage and a beautiful, terrible reminder of the crawl of time.