There’s just something about sunrise on a cool autumn morning.
There’s something about the way the light wicks up from the horizon only to gather in the sky and pour back down through the riotously-colored chaos of shedding trees.
There’s something about the way those sunbeams spear down to a crunchy carpet and catch in their fingers the rising incense-swirls of the morning mist.
There’s something about those playful eddies that appear as the last gasp of fallen leaves, dew-glistened and dying.
There’s something about the crisp clarity of a cold inhalation, slowly drawn, that curls the furthest reaches of the fingers and toes – twin lung bellows pumping breath and wonder and life, life, life.
It’s something like magic.
Recently, I had an early morning commute that whisked me through miles of wooded countryside at dawn. The land was wreathed in mist and set on fire by the rising sun, and by the time I reached home that evening, I’d sketched out the above prose poem.
Which was unusual, considering I’m not typically big on poetry. It always seems to have some hidden dimension beyond my ability to grasp, and with its general reliance on stylized and symbolic language, I’ve rarely read poetry and felt afterwards like I “got” it. I’ve canvassed before what a mediocre poet I am and how little inclined I am towards it… except, apparently, in the autumn.
I mean, I’m a mediocre poet in the autumn, too, but none of the other seasons even vaguely tempt me to break out in the moody sentimentalism this time of year brings on. Happily for me, it turns out you don’t even need to “get” poetry to be a poet, you can just start typing italicized words that don’t rhyme, call it a “prose poem,” and no one can argue with you. It’s art.
In any case, these little verses have been bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks now, sharing mental real estate with two other quotations that together have defined this season for me.
The first is a snippet from another poem, penned by the superior Seamus Heaney. It runs thusly:
To be first on the road,
Up with the ground-mists and pheasants.
To be older and grateful
I came across this excerpt on Twitter all the way back in April of 2019 and it’s just been hovering in my hippocampus waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. This autumn, with its rural sunrise drives and settling sense of age, was it.
Ironic. Heaney is writing about his wife being in labor as they head to the hospital to deliver, but the poem is all calm quietude. This is their third child, and they face the process of this delivery “clear-headed, foreknowing,” and “self-possessed.”
None of which I feel.
The other quote for this season is from a movie called A Little Chaos, which, at least in its title, better captures the mood of my last few months. The film itself is a middling period drama about which I have no particularly strong feelings, but there is a scene – or rather, a 15-second clip from a scene – to which I keep returning.
The two main characters, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) and André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), are 17th-century landscape architects more at home working in the royal gardens of Versailles than living amongst the French court with which they’ve become entangled. They obtain a brief respite from the complicated scheming and interpersonal drama of the aristocracy when they fall to the rear of a walking party in the countryside. The camera frames them alone against a backdrop of green woods and fields. They move across this landscape to the amplified ambient sounds of nature and Le Nôtre remarks, “I sometimes feel entirely defeated by life’s extremities. When I come to a place like this, gradually a small courage takes hold of me, and I feel fitter for things.”
So, listen. The short story is that I got a job. It’s not the one I was expecting to get back in the summer, or in the spring, or last year when I finished my graduate degree. But all by surprise, there I was in August hired to do this job. Therefore, in September I moved to a small town and began working in a position that is intensely people-oriented. In 2020. In the middle of a global pandemic. That’s obviously a little complicated.
The natural fumbling of being new in a new position in a new place was compounded by the unnatural fumbling of figuring things out in COVID conditions. No internet, no furniture, no hot water, water leaking, wires crossing, asking questions, second-guessing, third-guessing, messing up, putting out fires, seeking grace, trying again, challenge after challenge in a whirling maelstrom of activity and emotion until finally…
A breath. An early morning drive. A living silence of wind and leaf in the perfect shivering stillness of first light. A mesmerizing vapor curl rising from the soil, seeking sun. A single moment of rest. A small courage.
It’s not a courage that’s grand enough to face the world, but it’s good enough to face the day. That’s all you ever need, really. Just the one moment of beauty, noticed – a simple incursion of grace ushering us into another day of hard and holy work that we will do because it must be done.
What a gift to find myself first on the road, older and grateful for a calm that settles confusion. What a joy to inhale fortitude and exhale mediocre poetry, and to find in the artistry of autumn a small courage that fits me to face the challenges of winter.
I think it’s something like magic after all.