The dark is gathered tight outside the bay window–the only light there, staring at me, is the reflection of the dining room lamp. It is cold, wet, early. When I let the dog out, she stops and she shakes, and then she looks back. She has urgent business, but seems unwilling to run too far into the depths of the yard. It is a secret-hugging, opaque day’s dawning.
The sealed drive, the sidewalks, the gray-paved street–all are slickened blackness. Wind flails–a precursor of high winds to come, eager tendrils of Hurricane Patricia’s wildly whipping fronds. Falling leaves are wet and heavy and wooden; they scud reluctantly and slap down, exhausted.
I think of Mary Poppins–the brooding book, not the light-hearted movie. I think of Poppins warning that the wind brings change. That’s what this is–a changeable dawn, a gate-keeper day. We are moving from the light-filled seasons to the time of drawing-close dark.
I herd the dog back inside where she runs, manic, three times through the downstairs rooms, around the stairway pinioned in the middle of the house, a superstitious kind of circuit, shaking off the ghosts of this gateway day. I treat her with Beggin’ Strips and frozen coins of hot dog. Satisfied that no more goodies are forthcoming and that the darkness is firmly at bay, she subsides, a warm and snoring furball curled into the pillow on the couch.
It strikes me that we’ll do much the same, this weekend, with our little costumed visitors; we’ll treat them with store-bought goodies, fill their arms-out bags and plastic pumpkins with sugar and cocoa, lecithin and guar gum oil, ooh and ahh at their transformatory garb, and send them home to settle in. Hoard acquired, they will gather ranks with the mama, the papa, the siblings, and see what they have gleaned to stave off winter’s warning chill.
It’s a gateway day.
This weekend just past, we drove home, home to where we grew up, to spend time with Grandma Pat (Pat, who claims this current raging hurricane. “They named it after me,” she asserts firmly), to gift a nine-year-old granddaughter, to steal a moment to visit with friends who were visiting, too. They are friends who once lived close enough that we could cut through yards to each others’ houses; now we are flung across the country. The sky, on our traveling days, Friday and Sunday, was perfectly blue, the air had that crystal, champagne quality, and the trees were at their screaming glory.
“This will not be a beautiful fall,” many people had sagely cautioned, harking back to odd summer weather. But the leaves didn’t listen. The golds were thick and almost viscous; my mind kept racing backwards to a paint by number set I’d gotten once when I was eight or so. The little plastic pot of gold oil paint there–gold for a palomino’s gleaming bridle–was just exactly the gold of those leaves. I lowered the car window and expected to smell the paint.
There were deep, exuberant orange leaves, too, and russet leaves that rustled and shone, and every once in a while, there’d be a blaze of outrageous scarlet. It was like summer’s sunlight was trapped in those leaves, the tight-fisted trees holding it close for as long as they could.
And then, the winds this week: those laughing, sly, knowing winds, ripping inwards, tearing leaves from branches. Quenching the concentrated summer sun. Opening the gateway to the time of fire-huddling and flaming window candles. We may be alone in the darkness, but we’re not giving in…
For a week I walk past apples, green apples, sitting in a bowl in the kitchen in my building at work; finally I email my colleagues and tell them I’m taking the fruit. I bring the apples home and slice them up. As I do, my mind ranges over memories, sorting and picking; I think about peeling apples as a child, with the goal being to have the longest continuous peel. My mother would tell us to throw the peel with our right hands over our left shoulders. Then she’d bid us turn to discern what letter that flung peel most resembled, and we would know the initial of our one true love.
(I discovered this week, in a lovely blog— http://21timetraveler.com/2015/10/its-the-great-turnip-charlie-brown-and-other-samhain-traditions/ —that the peel-throwing is a custom left over from the ancient celebration of Samhain, that bonfire against the darkness, earthy festival–a custom that surely seeped into my mother’s childhood self via her Scottish roots.)
I pull out my Tupperware rolling mat and sprinkle flour that flies over counter edges and onto the floor and into the toaster. I pull out the heavy marble rolling pin, a gift, once, from my oldest brother to my constantly-baking mother, and I energetically flatten and smooth the pie dough into almost-transparent circles. I line the pan, glaze the dough with egg white, then layer the apple slices with cinnamon and sugar, nutmeg and flour. I lay the second pastry circle over the top, folding it to cradle the apples, tucking in the edges tenderly.
I paint the top with the leftover eggwash; I sprinkle sugar over all; I cut in vents, and I put the pie in the waiting oven,–which exhales its hot breath at me when I open the door, and consumes my little pie. In minutes the smell of hot cinnamon pervades the house, and Mark comes downstairs and grabs his book and a fuzzy blanket to cozy up in the reading chair. Jim brings his Mac-book into the kitchen and settles at the little glass-topped table, his back to the long window, his back to the glossy, windy blackness.
It is a time to bake, to scent the house with comfort. I dig out my old cookie cutters and l think about shortbread cookies shaped and sugared like autumn leaves. And I think about stews and pots of simmering sauce. I think of casseroles and bubbling applesauce and warmth amidst the darkness. Soon I pull the pie out of the oven, setting it on its rack to cool, to take to work and share with colleagues.
I request time off, a week to clean and prepare, to ease summer’s careless grit out of corners, to rub oil into wood and to splash vinegar on the windows. (Let’s capture every bit of sun; let’s not let a tiny ray be obscured.) It is a ritual, the cleaning, a practice engrained deep in childhood–one can’t approach the holidays without a thorough house-cleaning! I try, though, to embrace this necessary cleansing mindfully and not grimly, to revel in the treasures revealed by a deep down search-and-sort, in the beauty and luster uncovered with the rigorous application of Murphy’s oil soap. Let the cleaning usher in joy and warmth and safety.
I start to think about gifting, about ornaments and picture frames, about classic games and about popping corn grown in nearby fields, and about knitted slippers and favorite photographs. Christmas stockings and tiny treasures. As the days shorten and the frost dulls those glorious mums Mark planted, the prospect of creativity spreads a simmering grow.
During a Barnes and Noble foray, we find wonderful Christmas cards and we bring them home and stash them; soon it will be time to send them out, and to receive others–little transmitted slivers of light and connection.
We’re prepared, I think; we’ll weather this darkness. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, Lois comes into my office. She is her usual smiling self as she explains that she’ll have to cancel class because the hospital has called, the one in Cleveland, two and a half hours away. And then the smile abruptly melts away, and she is crying, she is sobbing; something horribly contained has just loosened its bonds, and I am helpless to give comfort.
One month ago, she says, Danny was out painting a house. Five days later he can’t walk. She talks of cancer and tendrils that can’t be lanced away; like the hydra, more monsters spring up wherever those tendrils toss their infinitesimal teeth. All that can be done is chemo, and now the chemo has caused clotting. His lungs are filled with clots, she says, and they say, the doctors, that she’d better get there fast.
She turns at the door and says her stalwart son has taken a leave from school, come home to help his dad. He can go back, Lois says, her son can go back to school. But when his dad dies–she grips the molding, and breathes in a ragged breath–when his dad dies, my life will be over, too.
My hands are empty. She walks away into darkness, and I have no light to offer her.
This other darkness: it snuffles and explores. My gentle boss Jim’s face is taut and cautious; this weekend, he buried a brother-in-law who died suddenly, aged 61. There is the pain of sudden loss. And there is this: His kids, said Jim, realized for the first time that he and his wife could also die. Would die, sometime. This death held their faces to the window, forced them to confront that dark truth.
I read a book that’s long been on my shelves: it’s a luminous wracking story of a family’s journey with muscular dystrophy. The author tells how, generation after generation, beautiful boys grew out of toddlerhood and into illness, weakened, wasted, and died–at age 12, age 16–some few stronger boys made it to their mid-twenties. The girls survived, scarred and battered; the mothers knew they had carried the gene that sickened and killed their sons.
The author writes so beautifully; she is wrenching and she is funny, but her words unlatch the door and that snuffling darkness peers in. There is sickness and pain and death, it reminds me, and it chortles, and it pushes the newspaper at me. I read about a shooting, about unrepentant cruelty, about the gross and disgusting misuse of power, and my stomach lurches.
I can light a brave flame in the physical dark; how can I combat this other?
I do not know the answer, but I know you can’t stop the dark by standing still, and so I light the oven and I stir the sauce, and I sit down to write a letter. I visit a friend undimmed by cancer’s twilight, and I seek the source of her illumination. Rusty, humbled, out of all practice, I pray a prayer with no words, and I feel soft comfort, whispered warmth, sense some sort of unknown promise.
It is, today, a gateway day; the times are changing. Draw near, the season tells us, draw close and take your comfort. Your lights shine brighter multiplied within a company that cares.