Welcoming Autumn

Autumn is always hard for me. From the end of strawberry season to getting up in the dark, nothing about this time of transition flows smoothly.

Toward the end of August I start to feel summer’s fullness slipping away. During the longest days of the year, I could sink into the world’s ripening with trust. Autumn, on the other hand, brings a death, and we never know what waits on the other side of dying, whether the small deaths scattered throughout life or the one that ends our existence.

A friend recently sent me a Rilke poem about this emptying time of year. At first glance, it’s not encouraging:

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

We may be tempted to run from the loneliness, but let’s not miss that this season invites us into the vastness of our hearts, a place we might not hang out very often. That vastness can scare us as it opens up the mystery of our selves, an uncharted territory whose exploration demands some solitude, some loneliness.

Perhaps all endings open up unforeseen space. They enlarge us in ways we could not have predicted; they tumble us into our surprisingly spacious hearts because suddenly nowhere else has anything relevant to say.

Rilke gives instructions for how to navigate autumn: “Be earth now, and evensong.” Though he warns that it won’t be pleasant—“The days go numb, the wind/ sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.”—I love the idea of being earth, that nurturing home that accepts everything back into itself regardless of what form a life took. Whether it was kind or harsh, generative or walled in, earth waits to receive it without judgment or exception.

Summer offers us a dwelling place, but in autumn, we must become the home for all that we have been the previous year, all that is passing away within us. We must stand on that vast plain and welcome our failures and endings and missed opportunities into the soil of our hearts. It is big enough to hold them and deep enough to transform them because there, as Rilke concludes, “he who began it all/ can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Dwelling in Discomfort

I am generally not a big fan of mental/emotional/spiritual discomfort, to the extent that I usually do something to avoid it—make plans, eat chocolate, beat up on myself and promise to do better next time—before I even realize my motivation. But this week, I had a few moments of recognizing, oh, I’m uncomfortable and apparently it’s not going to kill me.

Ronald Rolheiser advises us not to resolve tensions too easily. Perhaps sitting with discomfort, with tension, allows different options to grow.

I’m reminded of getting to know loneliness during the year I spent teaching English in China. I lived in a small city and had only one other American to share the experience with. Everything from the language to the food to the social norms was unfamiliar; people stared at us wherever we went; and though I wouldn’t trade that year for the world, it was intensely isolating.

So I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, which at first also felt awful. Then I began to recognize loneliness. Then I realized that I was likely to survive it because, after all, it had happened before and I appeared to be OK. By the end of the year, loneliness and I established a familiarity, and when it came around, it was like opening the door to an old friend—oh, loneliness, hello, come on in, have a cup of tea.

Perhaps now I am beginning a familiarity the uncomfortable state of not knowing what comes next. Discernment—paying attention to where God or life is leading us—doesn’t generally happen on our timeline. Most things that come into being, from oak trees to humans to right action, seem to require some kind of gestation period, a process that this human is often impatient with.

But just as it’s much better for a baby to be carried to full term, so too with taking the next step. And just as it is not the most comfortable thing to carry that baby, so too with the next step.