One Week of Golden Leaves

I am raking the driveway. (Thank goodness for sturdy, plastic-tined rakes. I have always hated the sound of metal tines on the pavement.)

The leaves are thick on the driveway, which is bordered in the back (our yard) and on the side (neighbor’s yard) by tall oak trees. Those sturdy, leathery leaves fill the drive and drift up against the hedge that curves around the front yard. That yard, protected by the hedge, is relatively unlittered—by oak leaves, anyway—but the driveway has undulating oak leaf dunes.

Leaves in the driverway

It’s weird, though. We call our oak tree the Whomping Oak, after the Willow in Harry Potter. Usually—every other year we’ve lived in this house—it holds on to its leaves, which turn golden and then crisp up and turn brown.

They stick tight to that tree, those leaves, rustling and whispering in the winter winds, a presence in the backyard. Then spring comes. Buds form on all the trees, and one fine, warm, day: whomp. We walk into the backyard and find the Whomping Oak has dropped all its old leaves and is working on shooting out new ones.

Not this year, though. One day this Fall—last week, in fact, Mark was in the driveway, staring up. He had just gotten home from work; I heard the car door slam, and waited for him to come in.

When he didn’t, I stepped out onto the stoop to see where he was.

“Everything okay?” I asked, watching him stand, eyes skyward, hands on hips.

“Look at this tree,” he answered.

And then I saw what he meant. The backyard oak’s leaves were beautiful. They had turned a red-gold color. The tree was ablaze.

Leaves on the tree…

After a few days, the leaf color started mellowing more to the gold side.

After a few more days, the leaves started blowing off and into the driveway.

Why is this year different? I think about the long summer we had, with temps staying in the seventies and eighties through September and into October. I think about how trees stayed green well past the usual optimal leaf-peeping days.

I think about the snapping cold nights that then descended, saying ‘bye-bye’ to our long-lived tomatoes, and triggering whatever system makes leaves preen and glow with reds and oranges and golds. That happened late. In fact, that is still happening; James and I dropped off gently used coats at a drive this morning, and the sun chased away the clouds left from last night’s rainstorm while we drove. Bright and clear, the light shone through, from a sky the exact color of Crayola’s sky-blue, and the leaves left on the trees dazzled.

They shivered and shook in the mischievous breeze, and they golden-glowed, as if they were grasping for just one last second all the sunshine they’d sucked up and hidden away in the summer and spring.

***************************

Yesterday—Veterans’ Day—we slept in until 7:30, and, instead of going to the gym, I took a nice ambling morning walk with Mark. We scuffed and crunched, like little kids, through drifts of leaves, kicking them up. The leaves were golden.

Because I was a child who always seemed to be hungry for something, many of my personal nature metaphors were food-related. There was brown sugar snow, for instance,–when the snow was deep in the streets of my western New York town, and the cars, pre-pollution control devices, colored it with their exhaust: a deep, rich, edible-looking-but-ickily-poisonous brown. It LOOKED just like the dark brown sugar we used in the chocolate chip cookies we made only on memorable occasions.

And I thought of leaves like the ones Mark and I crunched through yesterday as corn flake leaves. They crackled like cereal flakes, and I even convinced myself they smelled grain-y. And they were that perfect toasted-gold color.

We walked through corn flake leaves on Veterans’ Day.

The sun poured down on the fallen leaves; the leaves turned their crisp faces to the sky and reflected that glory right back.

*****************************

It’s been, for sure, a golden leaf kind of a week.

*******************************

And also this week, I met Lee, who’d been absent a couple of weeks ago, when I first started my strength/core training class.

Here is how I happened to be in that class: I went to a new doctor for the first time last month, and she was very supportive of my walking efforts. I told her I was re-upping at the gym for the winter months, and she got very interested.

“Consider doing some weight training,” she said. “I think you’d really benefit from weight training…”

[—at your age, she was diplomatic enough NOT to say. So I finished the thought for her.]

So, I got up each morning and I went to the gym, where I walked a mile around the indoor track, then got on the recumbent training machine for nine minutes (Why nine minutes? I don’t know.) Then I walked another half mile.

As I walked, I watched all the serious lifters—kids on, I think, high school or college sports teams; a doctor (I know this because he often answered calls while training, saying, “This is Dr. ____…”); four or five women of a certain younger-than-I-am age. All of those people were impossibly fit and lean.

I circled, and I watched them work with dumbbells and with those cute weights that look like plump little handbags and that come in vibrant colors.

They hefted, they heaved. They grunted. They turned red.

They had spotters.

Sometimes their weights crashed noisily to the ground.

I walked faster. THAT looked like dangerous territory.

It was certainly, for me, unknown territory. I wouldn’t, I thought, know where to even start.

**************************

Then there were the fitness machines—not the treadmills, recumbent trainers, or stationary bikes, but the ones that target specific bodily areas. People would get on them, arrange their limbs in just the right way, take a deep breath, and then huff and press, or huff and pull; they’d cross their hands over their chests and slowly dip backward; they’d extend their arms and do a sort of hard cruise forward, then way, way back—arms still straight.

There is a machine that makes people twist. There are huge, inflated balls that people sit on and do painful-looking exercises of all kinds.

This area, too, was a mystery to me.

I kept walking.

******************************

Then, my first week back at the gym, as I was deep into my recumbent nine minutes, a former colleague, Eric, stopped to chat as he walked around the indoor track. Turns out that Eric, in his ‘retirement,’ teaches a strength/core class on Tuesday mornings at 6 a.m.

What he does, he explained, is show us exercises, teach us a routine that uses all of our muscles, help us figure out which weights to use, and show us how to pick and navigate those machines.

If I was interested, Eric said, I could just join in next Tuesday.

And didn’t that seem pretty fortuitous? Just, in fact, what the doctor ordered.

So the following Tuesday I showed up at 6, and Eric took another student, Judy, and me through an hour-long workout using machines and the walking track and resistance bands. (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” Eric joked, “blame the bands. Not me. Not MY fault!”)

He explained that the workout used every set of muscles in the body. He showed me which weights to use (light ones) and how to set the machines for (minimal) resistance.

And so the next day, feeling I had entered a little way into the mysterious Kingdom of Barbells and Machines, I switched up my routine.

I walked half a mile. I used the machine that works on arms and shoulders, then the “abdominator,” and then the stretch-your-back machine. I walked some more. Then I got a set of light barbells and did the lifts Eric showed us.

I walked some more.

I did my nine minutes on the recumbent machine.

It felt pretty good, and I did that every day for a week.

The next Tuesday, there were three of us in class. Lee was back. He’d been on vacation.

Lee was a cheerful, energetic man. He also happened to be in his nineties.

Eric put us through a workout very similar to the previous week’s, adding in sit-ups on a fitness ball. I kept imagining the ball popping out from beneath me and hitting the wall while I splatted ignominiously on the carpeted section of gym floor, but I am thankful to report that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that we did a rotation: the ab machine, the ball, the back-stretcher. I followed Lee and let me tell you this: when he got off a machine, I had to adjust the resistance, or weight, or whatever. Lee works out at a level far beyond my capability.

Sometimes when we talk about the Venerable Old ( The Venerable Old are…older than 90? as opposed to the Regular Old, of whom I am one), we use hushed voices. We say things like, “She is still as sharp as a tack.” The implication, of course, is that, my gawd, she’s older than dirt and still knows her name and address!

Lee did not make me think ‘Venerable Old” when I saw him. He was just a regular person, enjoying a strenuous workout, who happened to have lived 90-some years.

When we finished (“If you’re sore tomorrow,” said Eric, “blame the exercise ball. Not me. Not my fault!”), I stopped to retrieve my jacket, zip it up, chat a little before leaving. I wound up walking out right after Lee. He kind of bounded down the stairs and trotted out to the car he drives, a little PT Cruiser-type mobile, with WW II Vet markings. He waved and peeled away.

**************************************

Is that what weight training can do for me? I wondered. I’m  doubling down on my weights and machines.

And it feels good.

******************************************

I’m really, really tempted to do that English teacher-y thing and stretch the metaphor—talk about the long summer leading into a long golden fall, and then apply that to Lee in his own golden autumn. Yadda yadda yadda.

That’s not really what I’m going for here, though, except, of course, that Lee is pretty freakin’ amazing, and I hope I can be like him when (if) I grow up. It was just a kind of a gift of a week—a time of golden leaves before the grim and serious winter moves in and takes over. The sheen and the glow and the crisp, corn flake leaves were invigorating.

And trying to keep up with Lee was invigorating, too.

**************************************

Every once in a while, a week comes along, and it’s crammed full of messages like, “Maybe you should try something different,” and, “Maybe you should wake up and be aware of the beauty all around you.”

That’s the kind of week this was, an unexpected, late autumn week of unanticipated beginnings, unique inspiration, golden leaves. I don’t even mind that it’s time, now, to go out again and rake them from the driveway.

Raking Leaves

On Monday, after work, I pull on a light T-shirt and capris, and I go out to rake one-half of the front lawn. It is seventy degrees out, and sunny, and I am hot by the time I’ve raked a good part of the lawn half. The leaf are crisp, and little white midges—or SOME kind of bug—swirl up from the grass where the rake upsets them.

I rake the leaves down over the little retaining wall, and then I run down the two steps to the street. I use the rake like a shovel, heaping leaf piles, making sure they are, at least for a moment, all piled up on the hell strip.

Tuesday’s weather is much the same. My cheeks feel a little sun-toasted. I notice the leaf-sucker has been by; all the leaves from the right side of the front yard have been snuffled up, carried away.

I use the rake to wiggle leaves out from under bushes and up and over the rocks between my yard and Sandy’s. I clean out a column of yard, pushing leaves into a wavery line; then I go around on the other side and do the same thing.

When there’s pretty green space all along that wavering line of leaves, I start at the top—up close to the house,–and I push and rake and bulldoze those leaves down to the curb.

These are neighbor-leaves, the bounty of a beautiful neighborhood filled with shade trees. When they splay onto the concrete, they make a lovely collage—oak leaves and maple leaves; little yellow oval leaves with pointy tips. Sweet gum leaves.

Some leaves crisp and flake as I rake them. Others are as tough as vintage leather.

*****************************

On Wednesday, I run the mower in the backyard, chewing up pine needles that spread, golden, everywhere. Piney scent hangs in the air, dense and Christmassy.

Once again, out front, the leaf sucker has made away with the piles at the curb.

*********************************

When I go out to rake on Thursday afternoon, I wear my jacket. A little rain has scampered through town, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. But the sun shines pale when I start, again, to clear those wandering leaves nestled on my lawn. This year, I vow, I am going to keep on top of the leaf situation; this year, I’m going to get them to the curb to be sucked away before the wind takes them and scatters them in yards that are innocent of trees.

These particular leaves may not originate in my yards, but my sweet gum is waiting, still mostly green, breath held. It will let Sandy’s trees shed completely; it will let the neighborhood clean itself up. It will wait until the leaf sucker has decided, “I don’t need to make any more runs!”

And then the sweet gum will start, sassy and lazy, to drop its leaves. And the wind will pick them up and sprinkle them, judiciously dividing them up among neighboring yards.

That can go on until Christmas; the sweet gum is big and it’s loaded with leaves and it is slow—so slow—to let them go.

So I build a daily practice, do penance beforehand for my messy tree, send as many leaves as I can off to Leaf Sucker Land.

******************************

In other years, more recent ones, I have not raked this much. I pulled the mower out and mulched leaves into great piles, and breezes ruffled that mulchiness gleefully and scattered it, but the mulch didn’t deface lawns like big chunky leaves do. Sometimes I would get the rake out and Mark would plug the leaf blower in, and we would tag team the front yard, working quickly, our minds set on just getting ‘er done.

Now I am leaf-raking-mindful. After the rain, when the temps drop, the scents of fall change. There is a musty leaf smell, and the rich earthy tones of the dirt. The sun breaks through the cloud bank, and I am immediately cheered.

The clouds close ranks again, the sky darkens ominously, and worry wiggles around the back of my neck.

“Powerful thunderstorms” the weather app warns.

I want those clear green patches—even knowing that, by this time tomorrow, more merry little leaf-pranksters will have raced to fill the vacuum that nature abhors. A person riding by wouldn’t say, “Gosh, she’s keeping up with raking, isn’t she?”

No, they’d say, “The leaves are really coming down now,” instead.

But I don’t care. I am driven to rake this year, and I am finding out a surprising truth-for-me: raking leaves makes the whole adventure of autumn more intense.

********************************

The act of raking calls up memories.

I am three and dressed in flannel-lined blue jeans, folded up at the cuff, and a long sleeved, striped T-shirt. All of those are hand-me-downs from older brothers, but the Red Riding Hood cape is all mine. It has a hood I keep perched on my head, covering the tightly wrought French braids, but not obscuring the short, short bangs on my forehead.

(Once, after she died, I found a cache of special cards my mother saved. Among them was a Hallmark card I gave her, probably in my young twenties. The cover said something like, “Happy birthday, Mom! I appreciate all the great things you do…”

And when I opened it, I read this, “…and I forgive you for all the times you cut my bangs too short.”)

At three, I like jumping and crunching through piles of leaves in my Red Riding Hood cape, pretending I’m on my way to Grandma’s, pretending that I, personally, will vanquish that dreadful wolf. Someone takes my picture on the sidewalk next to the school I will attend. Great piles of leaves have blown off the retaining wall, and I am buried up to my shoulders in leaves, only my red-hooded head sticking out. I am grinning.

I have the picture in an album. It is hard for me to sort the memory from the knowledge of the black and white photo, with its date stamp and crinkled white edges.

Do I remember this time in the leaves, or does the picture give me the knowledge I wish I could claim as memory?

A little bit of both maybe. And a little reminder, to me, how important leaves are to fall.

********************************

I remember ‘helping’ rake the leaves at home. I remember jumping in the leaf piles; I remember when the work had to be done all over again.

Later, I remember being at the mercy of the leaf sucker schedule at several homes where we lived along the way…and my neighbor Rosie pounding on the back door in Mount Vernon.

“They’re up the street!” she yelled, and I ran out and grabbed the rake; Rosie wielded hers, and we both raked energetically, shooting great piles of leaves toward the street.

Rosie was eighty-something at the time, and I was hard-pressed to keep up. We cleared an amazing number of leaves before the hungry machine lumbered to my curb and snuffled up the fresh foliage dunes we’d created—the leaves still quivering and settling.

And I remember Rosie shrugging off my thank you’s with a grin and a wave.

**********************************

The weather cools after a long, warm fall. The furnace kicks on one night.

I cook pots of chili and minestrone. We peel apples and chop them into the crockpot with butter and brown sugar and cinnamon and come home to a house scented with hot applesauce. This is part of Fall, too: the urge to turn the harvest into food for now, and food that will last..food that will nourish us through the winter.

***********************************

We check outdoor clothes. A new pair of ankle boots with furry cuffs arrives in a smiling box. Coats hang ready in the back hall closet, plastic peeled away. I wash and dry the gloves and hats and knitted scarves and bring them all upstairs.

Some mornings now, I pull thin gloves on my hands before I take my walk.

*************************************

But the walking gets later and later. Now the sun rises at 7:45 a.m.; now if I take a morning walk in the light, I am rushing to be at work at 9:00.

One day I bow to the inevitable and go to the gym and re-up our memberships.

Now I can creep out to the car in the early dark morning and drive to the gym. I can walk on the indoor track, then pump my arms and legs on the elliptical, moving the day forward, walking into the light.

It grows light later; night falls earlier.

Is that why we call this season ‘fall,’ I wonder. And Dictionary.com tells me it is for the obvious reason—that leaves, in autumn, fall from deciduous trees—just as, in spring, shoots and stems and furry, fuzzy-eyed babies spring forth.

In autumn, night falls earlier. Rain falls more often. And leaves fall, fall and bluster, playing with the wind, sheltering in the nooks and crannies of my yard.

*****************************************

I think about the inventions whose creators we’ll never know about. What genius carved the first spoon? Who perfected shoe laces? And who invented the rake, for heaven’s sake?

I picture someone, in a cultivated field, maybe, trying to move leaves and debris left by a storm. She opens her hand, splays her fingers, and rakes the clutter away from her food plants that way.

She cuts her flesh and her fingernails tear, and she develops a picture in her mind—a big hand-like tool, but made, maybe, of strong wood.

When she has cleared the space she needs to clear, she cleans her poor battered hands and goes back to the hearth. And she talks about the big, wooden hand to her mate, a person who makes things. Together, they gather limbs from a hardwood tree and vines to tie them together, and they experiment, and they work, and they revise until they create an effective rake.

Maybe it happened something like that, the process lost to history. And once the rake was developed, generation after generation improved the design.

***************************

I remember the thin metal tines of the rakes I used as a young person. I hated the shrekking sound they made, scraping across concrete or pavement; that sound made my teeth hurt. Now, my rake’s tines are sturdy plastic; they don’t bend, or fall off, and they don’t make they awful sound.

Now I rake the leaves from the cement floor of the car port, and from the black-topped driveway, and it’s an easy process that doesn’t jangle. The only jangling note is that, next day, there are more leaves where I’ve cleared. It all needs to be done again.

**********************************************

It is a season of falling things, but not all falls are negative. There is falling in love, after all, and there is another wonderful kind of falling—falling into a reverie, one that transports and refreshes. These cool, gray days are perfect for fascinating reveries, for long descents into deep thoughts.

I want to feel the pulse and the meaning of this season, to participate in all of its preparations and rituals.

I want to be aware of the changes, to be there as they happen.

So this year, this fall, I am raking leaves.

******************************************

https://www.dictionary.com/e/fall/

Fall comes

Squirrels

Chitter and chase

the neighborhood

manic as Batman’s villain.

Fall comes, sometimes,

With tears and whispers.

Plump tomatoes

Shiver on woody branches

Begging to be plucked.

Pocka pocka pocka

Thing fall from trees.

Freezing rain sluices

Then a brilliant sky gleams blue.

Deer cluster

And pick their cautious ways

Through the yards.

Fall comes 

With loss and promise.

Some dreams die in fall

And some go dormant

And we won’t know,

Till then,

Which ones are which.

Growth in Autumn

Mark goes out early in the morning to check the tomatoes, which are on the back steps that we DON’T use, barricaded behind every stick of outdoor furniture we own. He waters the tomatoes; he nips off brown, crisped leaves. Occasionally, he feeds the plants a little fertilizer.

          And the tomatoes are burgeoning, heavy with fruit. Even the Roma plant, which the deer, or raccoons, or squirrels, or whomever, decimated last month, eating all the hard green immature tomatoes AND all of the tender yellow blossoms—even THAT plant has come back.

          The Roma plant was elsewhere-started and store-bought, and the cherry tomato was too. But the others—those glorious, four-foot-high Cordell tomato bushes—were started from seed in egg carton potting soil early in January in my dining room.

          We started them, really, without much hope. The seeds were old; we’d forgotten them for a year. And we’d never had much luck, anyway, growing things from seed.

          But these seeds had a will to grow, I guess, and we spent late winter and early spring gingerly moving plants to bigger pots as they outgrew the egg carton, the two-inch pots, and then the four-inch containers. They sat on the old painted dresser by the living room window, those plants, and they thrived. They brushed their leaves against the cool glass, longing to feel the sun on their greenness with no pane-d interruption.

          Finally, they were too big for the house. We moved them, in their new, large pots, to the carport roof, away from ravenous deer. Storm after storm, gale after gale, blew through and knocked the pots over, spilling the soil, baring the roots.

          Mark would be out first thing the morning after, up on the ladder, scooping dirt and righting pots, saying, “Sorry! You’ll be okay!” until it happened one time too many, and we acknowledged that the tomatoes had to come back to earth. Down they came, down to the back steps, where we bedecked them with jingle bells, baptized them with garlic powder, and surrounded them with yard furniture.

          Those plants have had Mark’s tender care. They basked in a summer that was hot, but not TOO hot, and wet, but not TOO wet. They survived the depredations of deer, and we circled the lawn chairs more tightly, doubling the garlic douse.

          Now we eye the plump, heavy green fruits just beginning to blush on the tomato plants’ sturdy branches. We dream spaghetti sauce dreams.

          And the tomatoes aren’t the only things growing in my yards this mid-September.

************************************

          There is the hanging plant that suddenly, toward the end of July and despite tender ministrations, crisped up and turned a deadly brown. I took the planter down and examined the plants inside, wielding my handy new garden clippers. I discovered, as I clipped away deadness, that moist green growth struggled underneath, along the very surface of the dirt. I thought about what Sandee told us—that commercial hanging plants have peaked when you buy them, that the flowers are crammed unhealthily into too small a space.

          I remembered Sandee’s wisdom, and I cut away all the brownness, and pulled out some dead plants that clearly could not be saved. I threw away crisp leaves that littered the planter; I watered and fertilized the fragile green growth that was left.

          I hoped for the best.

          And now the best has happened: that plant is a glory of white blossoms—blossoms we didn’t even see in the busyness of the planter when we first bought it.

The comeback planter kid

          The herbs in the kitchen sink garden—rosemary and basil—are getting their autumn growth on, too. The basil, like some of the tomatoes, is grown from seed, another little wonder. And a small pot of rosemary marched its growing minions off, staking out expanded space.

          With the oregano that swarms two flower beds, we have the ingredients for fall cooking–pasta sauce and chili and tomato pie.

Herbs grow in an old kitchen sink

          The coleus in the window boxes obscure half the windows.

          The little seedling Matt gave us is growing strong; now I can see the lemon tree emerging.

          Then there’s my Weed, grown from a tender little sprout I decided to preserve. I noticed a bunch like it throughout the backyard as I mowed. They had stems and leaves that reminded me of day lilies.

I wondered what one would look like, grown. So I chose the most pugnacious plant, and I mowed around it. It grew tall and strong. I protected it all summer.

Now it’s five feet tall or so, tough and woody. In the last two weeks, it’s sprouted kind of a topknot, and the topknot has birthed tiny pink blossoms. It’s a weed, for sure, but kind of an amazing one—and one that likes mid-September, too.

*********************************

Labor Day, unbelievably, is in the rear-view mirror. The calendar says summer still is with us…and I am a great believer in not rushing the seasons, in letting summer stay as long as it will, no matter what day school starts again.

But even I have to admit to the season’s changes.

It is dark now by 8 p.m.

It’s cool when I walk in the morning. Yesterday, Mark said to me, “You might want to take some gloves.”

I said, tough and haughty, “I will be FINE,” and then walked off, wishing I had some thin little knit gloves on my cold, cold hands.  

The lawn doesn’t need mowing quite so much anymore.

Today, I took down the flowery summer wreath from the front door. In its place, I hung one that has spears of wheat, and golden and orange berries, and silken leaves of amber, red, and brown.

The calendar is reluctant to concede, but here’s the truth: autumn is here.

And still, things grow.

***********************************
We think of autumn as the ‘wrap things up’ time, the time when things die or go dormant. It’s a time of harvest, for sure, but it’s the waning season…the one leading up to the cold winter.

And yet, I look around and realize: autumn is a time of growth.

************************************

We use autumn, too, as a metaphor for a certain time of life—for, in fact, MY time of life. We call the years after 65 “golden,” like the rich tones of some leaves that are just beginning to fall.

It sounds beautiful, but, in reality, I think our society looks at these years with pity, with a little disgust, certainly with condescension. Aging, it seems, is a kind of shameful thing.

Am I being too cynical, unnecessarily negative? I ask myself that.  And just to see what happens, I type, “What to expect when aging U.S.A” into my search engine. Here are the first things I find:

  • AARP’s Parents caregiving guide. In this ad, there are articles that discuss the future of health service for older adults, caregiver stress, and COVID in care homes.
  • Caring.com talks about how to find assisted living and how much it will cost.
  • Healthprep.com offers “10 Ways to Age Successfully.” (Wouldn’t to age UNsuccessfully be to die???) “Sure,” says the writer, “you cannot avoid the aging process, but you do have some level of control when it comes to how you age.” Ten tips to graceful aging include
  • Stay positive;
  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink moderately;
  • Watch your weight;
  • Keep active;
  • Eat a healthy diet;
  • Stay connected to other people;
  • Laugh; see the humor;
  • Set goals and dream.

SOME level of control: huh. It’s funny to read this article; it’s illustrated with pictures of people in their twenties and thirties—sleek, sexy women; loveably geeky young business-type men (lots of man buns on those heads without a hint of gray.) There are buff athletes. There’s a young family with kids still small enough to carry. How old a person is the illustrator thinking about when they think, “Aging”?

                   In contrast, though, are the ads. Most feature soft, dumpling-like white torsos with livers floating high up beneath a floppy man-breast. The ads are all about fatty livers, and what old people with the condition can hope to do about it.

          Then there’s an article called, “Aging: What to Expect,” from the Mayo Clinic. It starts off like this: “You know that aging will likely cause wrinkles and gray hair. But do you know how aging will affect your teeth, heart, and sexuality?”

          If I thought the news was bad before, just wait till I read what the golden years are going to do to my bodily systems. My blood vessels are a-stiffening, and my bones are a-shrinking. I can expect growing constipation, more and more pee-ing, memory challenges…and here, I stopped reading. I didn’t even start the next article, which promised seven signs of aging, mentioning liver spots and incontinence as the first two.

          There were discussions of dementia and medical issues, the adverse effects of an aging population on the rest of the world, and somber treatises on end-of-life issues. These articles paint aging as a shutting-down time…a time when people slowly, surely, become burdens.

          Where are the articles on the glory of THIS autumn? Where are the stories of growth?

**************************************

I’m thinking of a brave friend of mine who retired and got in her car and set off in quest of a whole new way of life, leaving behind the dysfunction she had tried for years to mend, to knit together, to salvage. Her own life, and all of her wonderful talents, were often submerged in those heroic efforts.

          Now though, at age 65, she’s a travelling woman, not sure where she’ll wind up, but on the road and finding out.

          Now, she is still growing.

          **************************************

          I’m thinking of another friend, also in her “golden years,” who used the isolation of the pandemic to do some drawing. She discovered a wonderful talent she had never explored, and now she draws every day, her mastery growing in amazing ways. Her other quarantine activity was to walk, and she set about discovering the trails and hiking paths in her area, and what she discovered on those hikes shows up in her sketch pad.

          Now she’s been asked to show her work. Now she’s setting up an art room in an unused bedroom. Now she is growing into a new understanding of herself and her gifts.

          ******************************************

          I’m thinking of another friend, a quiet, thoughtful, introverted friend, who in her sixties, is learning to dance. She is pushing herself physically, and she is pushing herself emotionally. Performing doesn’t come naturally, but she is growing.

          ******************************************

          I know people who’ve carved out entire new careers after they retired—and stayed in those new careers for twenty years or more. They just kept, in the autumn of their lives, on growing.

I know people who retired and wrote their first books, got them published, and started on others.

I know people, ‘golden year’ people, who are gleefully tackling their bucket lists–challenging themselves, traveling, exploring…

*************************************************

          You can think of many examples, too, I bet. I wish THOSE stories were what I found when I searched ‘aging’ on the internet.

*********************************************

Christopher MacDougall tells this story in “Secrets of the Tarahumara.” In 1993, there was a Leadville Trail ultramarathon. The course was through the Colorado Rockies—rough and mountainous terrain. Experienced runners from all over participated. They wore the latest shoes, had the best technology, donned the fabric most likely to wick away sweat.

          But some other runners participated, too. These were Tarahumara tribespeople from the mountains of Mexico. They wore junkyard-scavenged sandals.  They smoked and drank and ate very little red meat. When the gun sounded and the runners moved off, the Tarahumara faded off into the middle of the pack.

          Toward the end of the grueling race, though, MacDougall wrote, “…sandalled feet were pattering hard behind the leaders.”

          Victoriano Churro, a 55-year old Tarahumaran, won the race. Another Tarahumaran, Corrildo Chacarito, came in second. The tribe took fifth place, too.

          It was not a fluke. Since then, the Tarahumara have repeated their performances in race after race.

**************************************************

Here’s the thing about the Tarahumara, writes Matthew Kerster in “Running With Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians.” The tribe retreated from society, protecting themselves from violent masters. Kerster quotes McDougall as writing, “For hundreds of years they remained isolated from the outside world, growing their own corn, potatoes, and beans, while living in caves.”

          The people learned to run swiftly through the mountains to reach each other, to carry messages. And because, no one told them that they would slow down as they aged, they did not. They thought that the longer they ran, the better they got.

          And some of their very best runners—the best among champions—were in their 60’s.

Or older.

*****************************************

What would I do, in my own autumn, if no one had told me I was too old to do it? How would I keep growing?

*****************************************

Perhaps we need to take back the meaning of these years, to insist on the wonder of them—to forget about the omnipresent threat of adult diapers. These are the days we worked hard to achieve…and I know many people, more deserving, who didn’t get to appreciate their autumns.

          These are years to celebrate, not dread; we have packed up all the wisdom of the struggle and brought it here to guide us. And now we have the choice: what will we do with these blessed years?

          Perhaps we need to treat this time as tenderly as Mark tends his tomatoes: protecting and nurturing, fertilizing and feeding, giving the days lots of water, balancing the shade and the sun.

          Perhaps, I think, looking at my hanging plant, there are dead leaves I can trim back in order to let new green shoots emerge.

          What will blossom? What amazing fruits will grow?

*********************************

We make bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches on a Wednesday night. Mark slices up a good-sized tomato from the pots outside the door. He puts big tomato slabs on his bread, and he eats the whole thing and goes back for more.

          “So good,” he says. “SO good.”

          We’re savoring those things that grow in autumn.

When the Furnace Comes On

I came downstairs at 6:07 a.m., and it was cold in the house.

“I’m NOT turning on the heat,” I said to myself, “not when it’s only halfway through October.” I went and got an old jacket and threw it on over my teaching togs. I made a full pot of decaf and warmed my hands on the mug.

The car, by the time I hit the interstate, was warmer than the house had been.

That night, at a meeting, we discussed the sudden chill temps.

“I refuse,” said one of the women, “to turn my furnace on in October.”

We all nodded sagely, although some of the assembled looked hastily away. Ha, I thought; your heat is on, isn’t it?

By the time I got home, just after 9:00, it was downright frosty outside. It was a-soak-in-a-hot-tub kind of a night. And when I woke up at 3 a.m., I realized that the thermostat, or one of my housemates, had undermined my firm intent. The house was warm, and the furnace was chugging.

I smiled and went back to sleep.

And in the morning the house was toasty and welcoming to early risers.

***********************

There’s a certain smell when the furnace first comes on,–even when someone has changed the filters and cleaned the big old machine. It’s an odor of roasted paper and friendly dust. It rises up for a morning, and just smelling it is an event. And then the scent settles down, settles in; the heat reaches into all the nooks and all the corners, and it becomes, firmly and with no nonsense, furnace season.

***********************

Why, oh why, oh why, I have been moaning, did I agree to teach four classes this term? And why, having done that, did I construct my syllabi so that all four had papers due—big papers, significant papers, papers that require intensely focused responses—in the second week of October?

Oh, woe, oh, woe, I have been saying, and I have been walking hunchbacked, as if tumbled over by the weight of all those papers on my back.

I’ll never get caught up, I might have lamented once or twice.

And then Wednesday, while my class of lovely, smart, and witty people were taking their midterms, I graded the last of one set of essays, and I realized I only had one more set to go. The students completed their midterms; since most of them had opted to put pen to paper, I bundled the stapled documents into the Wednesday class folder. The last student waved and left; I chatted for a moment with the instructor who teaches in the room after I do; and then I walked outside.

It was crisp—one of those blue-sky days where the air is champagne-clear. The trees, since the temps dropped, had finally started to turn, and the colors were creeping up, glorious. A breeze chuffled dry leaves around and about; every once in a while, that breeze got really playful and swirled those leaves in circles, then lifted them up and let them fall. I was smiling when I got in the car, and the almost-hour’s drive melted away, and after lunch, I put my sneakers on and went for a long, stretching walk. I wore my skinny knit gloves, and when I came home, I graded three more papers and then I took James to the library.

And suddenly I wondered what I had been so worried about. The grading was getting done. After the midterm, the semester stretches out into the final paper process, and the grading slows way down. I shifted my shoulders, and I realized they had been tight with tension, and I chided myself.

I got a couple of soup and stew cookbooks to look through while Jim browsed the DVD’s and the manga section, and I imagined the house smelling like beef stew and baking bread while leaves swirled outside, and everything clicked into place.

This is completely doable, I thought.

There’s a little bit of magic in the days when the furnace clicks on.

******************************

There’s magic in each season, really, but if pressed, I would have to say that autumn is the best. These are my days, I thought suddenly, and I realized that Fall is my favorite, with its outrageous colors and whimsical decorations and rolling chestnuts and skittering leaves.

Manic squirrels run across streets, daring and urgent. I look out the kitchen window and there’s one frantically tunneling in the front yard.

Hide the acorns! I imagine them chittering to each other and they scramble off in every direction, blatting at the neighborhood cats, frantic to get their pantries settled before the really cold weather settles in.

I understand how they feel. I press Jim into service, and we inventory the freezers, and I make up my shopping list. It is hunker-down season. It’s time to be sure there’s plenty on hand.

And that of course, must be some atavistic, inherited autumn impulse, because the supermarket is eight minutes away, and I could walk, if need be, to the corner store. But something impels me to bake cookies, to vacuum and mop, to sweep the back steps, and to rake the leaves out near the street, where the leaf-sucker has easy access.

And on Friday, after lunch, James gamely plays wingman for a long afternoon of errands.

We recycle ink cartridges at the office supply store and buy new pens and replace my missing ear buds.

We drive to the bins back behind the animal shelter and recycle cardboard and paper.

We shop at Kohl’s; we buy some small plates, orange and red and gold and brown, that say things like, “Thankful for Fall!” on them. As the last of the soft soap dribbles away, I am replacing the plastic dispensers with ceramic plates to hold bars of soap—bars that come in little cardboard boxes…one small way to circumvent household plastic.

We buy some birthday surprises for the dad.

And then, on this glorious afternoon, this perfect fall day, we head north to Dresden, and then we turn onto Route 16, and we drive five miles more to the apple stand. “Our own apples!” says the sign, and we pull up next to the red-painted barn and go exploring, hunting for apples to make a birthday pie and a big batch of applesauce.

The woman behind the counter, my age or older, is bundled up. She wears a knit cap, pulled down to her eyebrows (little sproings of gray hair escape) and a puffy, pale blue jacket. She looks at me through steel rimmed glasses; I am comfy in my long-sleeved knit shirt.  She says, “I think it’s warmer outside than it is in here!”

And she’s right; the big, clean-swept barn is downright chilly. She advises us, and we choose a big bag of Melrose apples for cooking and baking and a small sack of McIntosh for eating. Jim buys a package of cheesy snacks, and we chat with the chilly lady for a moment or two before heading back to town and to the little family market whose butcher shop we love.

I buy sliced ham, boneless chicken, a big chuck roast for stew, and center cut pork chops. We wander by the frozen section and choose some birthday celebration ice cream.

For dinner, we eat roasted pork chops and roasted apples.

The ice cream will go nicely with birthday apple pie.

****************************

It is a time for cooking and sharing. It’s a planning time, a reckoning time. It’s a time of energy and accomplishment and a funny little pulsing beat of joy and anticipation. It sneaks up on me; I feel the first curling fingers of winter cold sliding down my forearm and think, “Oh, no; not YET, you don’t.”

But the chill is here and it waits for me and it brooks no argument. And finally, we have to give in, don’t we?

We turn the heat on.

And with that capitulation, a door opens. The season opens up, opens into a time of warmth and possibility.

“Oh, yes,” I think. “If I work hard, and if I work smart, I can manage this just fine.”

These are the days when the air is clear and crisp, when the house smells like baking bread and bubbling soups…the days when the furnace first comes on and the fall draws close and wonderful mysteries push close to the membrane, waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

Autumn, Already

“Here,” I said, and I thrust the prompt jar over towards Mark. “YOU pick one for me. My steel trap mind can’t seem to clamp down on a single idea.”

Mark shook the jar and dug deep. He handed me a folded yellow slip.

I opened it. “Autumn,” I read. Then I said, “But…it’s not autumn YET.”

*******************

I packed up my morning page binder and slid it into the cabinet, and Mark took his mug to the sink. He went up to the shower, and I tied on my shoes and headed out for a morning walk.

It was my first morning walk since classes started on Tuesday. I had to be on the road pretty early; there wasn’t time to squeeze in a walk and a shower before lift-off. So I’d been walking after class, on the campuses where I teach, and dragging James off to mall-walk when I came home. It had definitely been too hot a week for long, outdoor, late afternoon hikes.

This term, I am a traveling teacher lady, on two campuses one day and another the next. I drive along pretty country roads, and I have to admit that leaves have begun to fall, doing lazy spirals as I zoom past, swirling them on. Not a ton of leaves are falling, mind you—but there are enough to give me that uneasy, end-of-season feeling.

It is, for sure, a changeable time.

And it’s back to school time too. On those 90 degrees days, I ironed new cotton tunic tops and wore them with new slim-legged pants and summer sandals: back to school clothes anchored in summer reality.

Some of my younger students determinedly wear their new garb in the chilled classrooms—pre-ripped jeans and soft hoodies, long-sleeved knit shirts whose cuffs reach almost to finger-tips, trendy tunics over patterned tights. It’s hard to have new clothes and not wear them, and I appreciate that start-of-classes excitement: new clothes for a new term. And yes, for a new season.  But, oh, those students melt when they walk out into the blast of heat.

Now, I connect ear buds to my phone, shove my keys into the left pocket of my shorts and step outside. And I realize that, for the first time in a very long stretch, it is cool. The weather app tells me I am walking through 60-degree air, and I crank up the music and walk faster. My bare arms get a little goosefleshy, and I march along, ready to work up a little morning heat.

And as I go, I notice the leaves that have fallen off the trees, that were splatted by last night’s rain onto the street in front of Sandi’s yard. Her tree is always the first to shed, and we spend September mowing or raking the leaves that scrabble into our yard, chased by the wind.

That tree bares itself, and then, when it is done, the trees in my front yard return the favor.

Today, I think, I’ll mow the first of those autumn leaves into mulch.

The calendar tells me I have almost a month until real autumn begins. The outdoor world has a different message for me.

*************************

My rainy-day soup last week turned my food-brain to thinking about steaming concoctions simmered up, all in one pot. I take a couple of packages of beef chuck steak from the freezer. I rummage in the refrigerator and realize we have two bell peppers, one red and one green, from Mark’s trip to the Wednesday night farmer’s market in the square.

And I am remembering pepper steak—such a seventies kind of dish—made by energetic chopping and sautéing and opening up cans. I search through my cookbook shelf for instructions. There is nothing in the newer cookbooks, but I find exactly the recipe I remember in the Hunt’s Tomato Sauce Cookbook, copyright 1976. On the inside flap, many years ago, I wrote my name, and underneath it, my phone number. Then I crossed off that number and wrote a new one.

I did that four times, and my last four phone numbers never made it into this old treasure. This book has traveled with me from youth till now, and from house to house.

And I remember cooking pepper steak in the autumn, the jewel tones of the peppers, the rich, red-brown sauce, and the sizzling beef echoing the colors of autumn leaves.

I open out the book on the counter. Pages flare up, disengage, and threaten to escape.

Jim offers to transcribe the recipe for me.

I slice and chop: meat and onion and peppers. I heat oil in a sturdy pan and toss the beef in it, and I shake salt and pepper and stir and mix and simmer until, as the recipe says, the beef is cooked through and the peppers, crisp-tender.

I steam rice.

We fill thick white bowls with scoops of rice and pour the pepper steak over the top and settle in.

“Now this,” says Mark, “is a blast from the past.”

A blast, I think, from a past autumn.

***************************

The Fourth of July would pass in central Ohio when first we moved here, and friends would start lamenting.

“Summer’s almost over,” they’d say, and I would be appalled. Surely, summer had just BEGUN.

Summer isn’t officially over until the end of September, I would think, and certainly, in a practical kind of way, summer is summer until Labor Day.

But schools start earlier here. Back to school shopping has been going on in earnest since early July, and now, as I get back into a commuting routine, I contend with stopped school buses and sweet, excited kids humming with excitement and trying to elude anxious parents’ firm grips.

The bus’s magic doors swing out and open, and the wee ones clamber up the steps, talking earnestly to their new driver. That driver will not budge the bus forward until every child is seated.

Finally, they inch away. Parents stand and wave until the bus rounds the curve, is out of sight, and then they slowly disperse, shoulders sagging, trusting and hoping those precious little ones, so excited, will be okay. They look at watches and head into their days, accepting that a new season—of the year, and of a childhood,—has begun.

Autumn may be more an attitude than a couple of months on a calendar.

***********************

I start the task of remembering student names, and they help to anchor their personalities in my mind. They tell me stories: how their name came to have that unique spelling, why they decided to major in addiction and recovery services, how hot it is, in the summer, in Nepal.

“I just hope,” one worried older student mutters as I go by, “that I can handle this class.”

We talk about what’s to come and what’s expected.

The students are a little anxious, a little excited…partly confident and sometimes terrified.

****************

Change is happening. The Navigator has his hand on the tiller; we stand on the thick, iron wheel, and hold onto the poles that define our spaces. And the tiller pulls back, and the heavy wheel turns.

When it’s turning, we ride, enjoying the cool breeze, the presence of good companions.

When the wheel stops completely, we can step off, mingle, chat and explore. All summer long, the wheel has stopped near the same place.

Today, the wheel stops for a moment, and the landscape I step off into is changed.

***********************

Calendar be damned. Autumn IS beginning. It begins in the curious excitement of students returning to classes, in their hopes and anxieties, and in their sparkling new shoes.

It begins in crisp temperatures, in mornings that beg early risers to find and slither into those comfy old cardigans.

It begins in determined leaves plunging to the ground.

It begins in earlier sunsets, and in morning darkness that lingers longer.

Autumn signals harvest, and this season begs me to begin celebrating that with bubbling, brothy pots—rich, steaming mixtures that comfort and warm.

Autumn brings us that dichotomy: the realization that the year is starting its downhill slide to winter amid the excitement of new beginnings.

We get ready to hunker down, to slide a movie in at night and pop some corn. The patio furniture gathers dew, empty in the dark.

But we get ready, too, to launch new explorations,–to read, to write, to figure and contemplate. To expand.

Perhaps autumn is a season of seeking physical comforts and intellectual challenges.

********************************

So, I bring the lightweight jackets to the forefront of the closet. I order a comfortable pair of black school shoes, shoes with toes that are not open. I sit after dinner with cookbooks, and I ponder soups and stews and casseroles.

And I concede; I accept; I recant. No longer chirping, “Not yet, not yet” I admit: It’s autumn already.

And life is good.

Lightening Strikes

September is a nice month. I like September.

But this year September was a little…grindy.

September was a new routine, a return to teaching in earnest after a time away. September was writing tests and creating assignments and acclimating to a whole new learning management system. September was figuring out rides and fitting walks in, in-between, and grading big batches of papers.

And September was a big event, a master responsibility, that grabbed the month’s hem and stuck a pike through it, pinning it down firmly. September said, “I’m holding you here, right here, until you get this planned and shopped and communicated and executed.”

“No shirking,” said September, “and no time to waste.”

September, a bossy, belligerent month, grasped my wrists and pulled me along, dragged me over pot-holed roads, and didn’t care when I pleaded with it to slow down.

I like September.  But, gee.

So I slogged along; what else, after all, can we do? I learned all the students’ names, and I got to a point where I could ramble reasonably through their on-line course world. I graded papers; that rhythm kicked in. And paychecks came in—paychecks: oh, boy! I filled the freezers and lined the pantry and shoved cleaning supplies under the sink. The house was stocked, and James was rolling along in his new fall schedule, and Mark was getting up three times a week to hit the gym.

 
And then, all of a sudden, that event was over.

And one morning, I woke up and stepped out the back door; the five deer nibbling on the frail bushes at the back of the side yard looked at me, mildly curious. I waved to them, and I thought, “Something is different.”

And I realized the air was lighter and fresher, the sky was softer and closer, the leaves were trembling and turning.

October, I realized, has come.

***************

I round the corner, heading home, and see the flower pots on the little gray chairs at the side of the house. The flowers—red and yellow-orange and white—that we nurtured along all summer (flowers that went along with us, sort of good-naturedly, but never really sprang into ecstatic bloom),…well, those flowers are dead. I park in the carport and wander down the brick path on the side of the house; I grab the black plastic pots and drag them out behind the carport. I trundle the little chairs to the front, put one on either side of the front door, and James and I go shopping. We buy two fat pumpkins to sit on the chairs. We buy two hearty mums to sit in front of them.

I take the summer wreath, with its soft violet flowers, from the door. Later that day, I splurge on a new wreath, one with pine cones and wheaten sheaves, little orange gourds and pumpkins,–one twisted with bronze and golden autumn leaves.  I hang the harvest wreath on my door.

Across the street, one neighbor has filled her window-boxes with tiny orange pumpkins, and another has hay bales and scare-crows in her front yard. October! says the neighborhood, and we all relax a little because the grass slows down. The lawn doesn’t need to be cut every day that it doesn’t rain, and we can sit outside, in the cool wash of the early evening. We can sip a coffee, read a book, and not be nagged by that thought that I really should mow…

The larder is full. Some deep urge impels me to buy things I might ordinarily pass by—leeks and potatoes, squash and beans. The freezers are filled; the pantry is stocked.

It’s October now, and I wake one Sunday morning and think: STEW. I pad downstairs, barefoot; pad down another set of stairs to the basement. I root in the well-stocked freezer until I find a boneless beef roast, and I set it out to thaw.

That afternoon, I cube the meat and shake it in a plastic bag, coating it with oat flour and a fine dusting of potato starch, and I sauté it in a thin pool of sizzling olive oil. I add onions, sliced thin; garlic, crushed; and carrot coins. I defrost beef broth and pour it in. I crumble herbs between my palms and sprinkle them over the bubbling pot; I toss in a bay leaf. I shake salt and pepper. A concoction, I think, and I feel like maybe I should be waving fingers over the pot, chanting about toil and trouble. It is October, after all.

I turn the heat down, and, later, I add the potatoes; the rich stew simmers all afternoon. We eat it from thick white ceramic bowls as the sky darkens on that Sunday night, sitting at the scarred oak table, feeling safe and sated and secure.

I give in, again and again, to the impulse to cook big pots of chili, of spaghetti sauce, of stew, of soups. Harvest time: that sense of completion, of reaping the benefit of our hard work during the growing season.

The sky is navy blue velvet, deep and secretive, by 7:10 p.m. I am drawn to reading fat books, to carefully plotting out my sewing projects. I gather in birthday gifts for October’s special people. I write letters, and I use the stamps with the scratch and sniff popsicles—summer’s leftover stamps,—to pay the bills.

One afternoon, I go through my syllabus and realize that it is midterm, and that we have, next week, a midterm break. I feel that lightness in my shoulders; I remember the student joy of break time. I think about planning a solitary October adventure on that magically unlocked day.

I get my calendar out and realize that there’s a treat built into every week of October. There are lunches with friends. There is Mark’s birthday coming. There is a hay ride (how is it that I, growing up in western New York farm country, have never been on a hay ride? Forty years later, I’ll make up the lack). There are road trips and get-togethers, and there’s the impending fun of trick or treaters.

Thanksgiving, I think. Christmas! I make lists. I start ordering books for our December book flood.

I think of baking apple crisp, and I plan to stop at the farm market on my way home from the far-flung campus. But a storm breaks, clean and sudden, just before I round that corner; I come home without apples.

But it’s okay: there is time.

**********

And that’s the message of October, isn’t it? There is time now. Take a breath.

The hot scramble of summer is over; the hard and grinding September slog is past. I stride briskly on my morning walks. Acorns pocka pocka all around. Each day, more leaves accept their autumn gold, their last-legs crimson. The trees hold on tight for one last minute; they sigh and then release. I walk and leaves float down around me, and I am glad of the warmth of long pants, of my long-sleeved shirt.

The air has lightened, and it swirls.

The harvest is in. Some ancient rhythm quells my rushed thoughts, whispers that the harvest is safe, the animals are snug. The braw, boisterous work of the year is coming to an end.

The urgency and the burden of completion have lifted, and a door has opened into a restful, thankful time. September has ground away the rough edges; October bathes us in clear amber light. We settle in, the striving over for a little time. For now, it’s time to savor what we’ve wrought.

The winds blow; rain clatters at the windows. I grab my book and head for the reading chair.

Autumn In All Its Crispness

It is 6:30 a.m. when Mark glides the Impala into the car port. He is back from the gym. The coffee is churgling to completeness, and I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet. I pop my morning old person’s pill, and I settle at the table.

But Mark does not come in. Before I pick up the pen, I go to check on him.

He is standing on the back steps, looking out over the yard. I step down onto the cement stoop and shoot him a quizzical glance.

“It’s just…nice,” he says.

I step up next to him, breathe deep. Birds are starting to trill and chitter, and there’s an underhum of cicada. The breeze brushes our hair back gently.

And it is cool, that special cool that only comes when autumn dances over. There’s a clarity to that coolness, a transparency that has nothing to say to summer’s humidity.

“Crisp,” I say.

“Crisp,” Mark agrees, and we stand there for a long moment, reluctant to leave that refreshment to enter a house that now seems stuffy and stale.

****************

Later that day, some tasks accomplished, I sit down to do some writing, and I find my mind is filled with empty rooms. I go wandering, looking for a topic, searching for a shard or a crumb that might lead me on a word trail. But, instead of the usual tumbled clutter, I find nothing.

I wait a bit, expecting an overhead door to open and some fine thought to come dropping in—to bounce on the bony floor of an empty room and come rolling over to nudge my consciousness, which is sitting sadly, its head in its hands. When nothing happens, I go to my prompt jar. I shake it, and I stir the little slips of paper. They are goads I prepared three years ago, over a period of a month or two, getting ready for moments like this: creating suggestions for the days when it seems there’s nothing to write about.

I stick my index finger deep into the papers, and I stir them again, bringing the bottom slips up to the top, bringing the oldest slips up to the present. I shake the jar, I swirl it around one more time, and then I reach in with finger and thumb—pincers—and I draw out one folded yellow sheet.

Here is what it says (I kid you not): CRISP.

Crisp.jpg

************

Crisp is such an autumn word.

I remember crunching through autumn leaves with my mother, walking to pick up the big boys from the Catholic school down the street. I was dressed, if that memory serves, in my Little Red Riding Hood cape, which I had decided was a fashion necessity. I had my black ‘hard’ shoes on (sneakers were ‘soft’ shoes). Piles of leaves were snugged up against the stone retaining wall that fronted the school grounds, and I stood next to my mother and stomped on leaves.

They made me think of corn flakes before the milk hit.

“Crunchy!” I said, looking up at my mother.

“Crisp,” she agreed, eyes searching the emerging children for a brother who had, I think, a dental appointment.

“Crisp,” I whispered, and I knew she was right. Crisp was the perfect word for Fall.

*************

The air is crisp. The leaves are crisp. I like that. Crispness is what it is, sharp and hard and no-nonsense. Crisp doesn’t float on top of a ninety per cent humidity pool. Crisp grabs the curtain in one strong hand and pulls.

“So,” it says. “Take a look.”

And it shows us leaves shaking out of trees and cradling to the ground, and summer flowers drying into brittle black stalkiness and hard beige patches of grass that would pricker my feet if I were silly enough to walk on them barefoot.

“That’s it!” says Crisp. “Like it or not.”

I think of a person I’ve worked with recently, a tech support person, a busy lady, who sat me down, showed me exactly what I needed, and asked, “Anything else?”

“Uh…no,” I said. “No, I think I’m good.”

And she got up, trotted briskly around the desk and held open her door with a smile.

Dismissed, a little light-headed, I packed up my stuff and headed home. Where, when I got on my computer, I discovered that I did indeed have everything I needed to accomplish the task at hand.

My tech support person was crisp, but very, very helpful.

Crisp can be like a splash of vinegar in a spray bottle. Oh, the smell makes me wince. But when I spray my windows and scrub, it does its job, crisp, fast, and well.

**************

Of course, I start wondering about the roots of crisp, its definition, its etymology, and I log on, pulling up etymonline.com, which shares some wonderful facts.

Crisp, the site tells me, comes to us from the Old English, meaning “curly, crimped, wavy,” and being applied to heads of hair and pelts of sheep and such-like.

And before that, Latin had it at crispus, which meant the same. And way before that, in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots of the word, it was sker. And that meant to turn or to bend.

To turn or to bend! And I picture autumn reaching for the lamppost at the end of summer, grasping it firmly, and heaving the whole long body of its season around the corner that lamppost guards. For autumn is the turning season, isn’t it? It bends us inexorably, often unwillingly, toward the bare bold face of winter.

*********************

But there is beauty and joy in crispness, too.

Here come those changeable days—one humid and summery, one crisp and clear. And on those crisp, clear days, back to schoolers gladly pull on long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants. They wear wooly soft socks, and they lace up sturdy, beautiful new shoes, and they go off in crystal clear air to crunch and stomp and wind up in the classroom, cold-cheeked and open-minded.

On those days, teachers can just lift the hinged top of each noggin and liberally pour in the learning.

Crisp, clear, learning days.

Smoke floats on the outdoor breeze; in these climes, people still burn their leaves in autumn, spreading the ashy residue for enrichment. The air tangs; it bites with that pungent smoke upon it. Crisp—that smoke-scented air.

The leaves crisp up and fall. Warm rich colors bloom. The apples plump up and blush up and wait to be picked.

I drive by a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Thursday on my way to a campus in Coshocton. The first time I stop, it is for the mums: five mums for twenty dollars! I pack a couple of cardboard flats into the back seat and load them up with potted plants. A couple bloom gold; a couple are a kind of copper with a golden-orangey eye. There are some that are a sort of maroon, and one, at least, in an autumnal purple. Crisp colors for the season, for the front yard.

And then the apples begin to arrive, and I drive by a couple of times, and it’s like there’s a magnet there I can’t ignore. One sunny day, I pull in and look through; I chat with the helpful clerk—We like ours pretty crunchy, I tell her—and I load two burgeoning white paper bags of varnished fall fruit onto the floor of my back seat.

It is just warm enough that I roll the windows closed and turn on the AC. I  drive the thirty miles home with apple perfume floating around me, enticing me to think of recipes: apple pie, of course, and baked apples; applesauce  set to simmer with nutmeg and cinnamon all day in the crock pot.

And apple crisp, for heaven’s sake. What is autumn without an apple crisp to top off some kind of pork-y, potato-ey dinner?

***************

At home, I go searching. I look through my wooden recipe box of family recipes. I find apple bread and apple bars and apple cake instructions.

There are no recipes for apple crisp in my notebooks, or in the family cookbooks Jim put together for me. And then I know just where to look.

I pull up Jodi McKinney’s blog, The Creative Life In Between, and have the recipe I need within minutes—a crisp little expense of time:

Double Crumble Apple Crisp

Sunday, I think. Sunday will be an apple crisp/crisp apple day.

*****************

Today I woke up and the sky was pressing down, trying to rub up against a damp and surly earth. Pushing humidity at me. Hot. Muggy. Dense.

But we have sker-red; we have turned the corner, bent the season. The muggy days will come, here and there, but more and more, we’ll feel the brisk breezes beneath the heat, and clear days will shove the dense and heavy ones aside.

Autumn is upon us, clear-eyed autumn, offering its hand to guide ours, ready to help us safely ascend into the shelter that winter demands we find. Autumn instructs us to harvest and save, to snuggle in and hunker down, to get ready for the frigid beauty that is winter.

Mark and I will greet more and more days on the cement back stoop as they rush in, cool and refreshing. I’ll take the energy those cool moments share.   I welcome Autumn, acerbic and plainspoken, that crispest of seasons.

What Autumn Brings

Late tomatoes

We wave Mark off for his weekend in western New York. I turn to walk through the carport, back into the house, and I am distracted by a brisk breeze that tipples dry leaves in the front yard. They float, crisp and yellow, on the updraft; they lazily wend their ways into the neighbors’ yard across the street.

I have been taming the lazy early-autumn drift by mowing the leaves into mulch, but suddenly the trees are industriously shedding, getting serious about molting their summer growth. This weekend, I realize, it’s time to break out the rake.

But it rains all day Saturday, loosening even more leaves onto the grass. On Sunday morning, I wield the rake, and I drag loads of leaves to the grassy strip between the street and the little rock wall. I fill four sturdy black bags, and Jim helps me drag them back to the alley, to where the city workers will pick them up.

It is autumn, and time to rake.

The rains come back, and it is good: there are things to do inside. I finish one project, corresponding madly in the last days before deadline with Terri; we make a concert of words and thoughts. Finally she emails me a picture of our finished product, now delivered, and we both feel very proud.

I drag my notes out and polish up a paper. I email a new contact, and I back-and-forth with some other women, retired women, who want to get together for lunch. We pick a place and set a date and mark our calendars.

I think about the season, and I think about retirement, and I ponder new starts and the growing flexibility of time and pursuits.

It is autumn and time to hunker down inside, to reconnect, to rediscover interests long left to simmer unnoticed.

I buy two bags of McIntosh apples. I make a pie. We eat polished apples, crunching juicy bites. By the time Mark drives off, there are only five apples left. A friend mentions that she has made apple crisp.

I peel apples and lightly grease a thick ceramic pie plate. I heat the oven and I mix brown sugar and rolled oats and butter and cinnamon until it’s a crumbly mass and I layer and sprinkle and put the stuff in to bake.

“It smells like fall,” says Jim.

Another friend mentions making gumbo and I run to open The Joy of Cooking. I pull chicken thighs from the chest freezer and smoked sausage from the freezer upstairs. We will have spicy gumbo for Mark’s homecoming, with apple crisp and whipped cream. All that cooking warms the rainy day kitchen.

By the time Mark pulls in the next day, the sun is high and the temps climb into the 80’s.

It is autumn, time to bake and simmer; time to welcome a completely changeable day.

I read my way into a stack of thick books, and I realize I have appointments on every single day. I email retired friends and we joke about not having time to work—how did we ever fit that in? I meet with some new connections, two passionate professionals working to build college opportunities for young people who are disenfranchised and often forgotten. They are wonderful people; it is a wonderful cause. I leave the coffee shop excited and ready to dig in.

And we travel into the hills of Ohio, to places we’ve never explored before. We see the home where Clark Gable was born, meet two amazing volunteers who helped to make the museum a reality, look at pictures of The King, and at his 1954 Coupe de Ville, at his monogrammed pajama top. We think we need to get a copy of The Misfits, read a biography of Gable.

We drive through a torrential downpour, on winding, narrow country roads, past where a peace officer waves us into the other lane. There is a tow truck pulling an aging minivan from the roadside ditch.

There is no emergency medical vehicle; we hope that no one was hurt.

And we twist around corners, and we edge over on the odd times when another car approaches, sharing that narrow strip of asphalt. The wipers whip madly. And then suddenly the rain abates. The sun shines, and we pull up to another historical marker, this one for the birthplace of George Armstrong Custer, whose story was both lustrous and deeply tainted. We wander through the informative kiosk, our curiosity about his Civil War life teased by shared shreds of story. We stand before the imposing statue. We look over the hills and there is a rainbow, strong and bold.

It is autumn, with triumphant stories and desolate ones, with reminders of disaster and hopes of glory.

I come home, in the dark, from a meeting, and the dog trots gingerly out to meet me, gently butting, turning her head.

“Wait,” I say, “is something…?”

Mark crouches, turns Greta’s muzzle, and we see her left eye, swollen and weeping.

“Damn!” he says. “She surprised a black cat on the backyard step; they got into it. I think it scratched her.”

She goes to ground, Greta does, creeping into her doggy bed, sighing, hiding the hurt eye. She does not move when I reach to pet her. She does not want to eat.

She is so still I check to see if she is breathing. I make an appointment for the first available morning opening at the vet’s.

And I realize my foot hurts and my knee creaks and that age brings more than freedom with it.

It is autumn and I begin to dread goodbyes.

But the morning brings sunlight and the dog, suddenly, lifts her head and jumps from her perch and trots to the back door; she opens both eyes wide and licks my hand, and we walk through falling leaves and crunching acorns. She sniffs and explores, and she is trotting; she’s excited. At home, I scoop out a good bit of food and she eats greedily and begs for hot dog treats.

The vet finds a scratch on the white of her eye, administers drops, tells me she’ll be fine with rest and medication.

And I bring her home. We turn right around, the whole family, traveling to take Jim to an appointment, to hit our favorite bookstore, to eat a hearty dinner at an Italian restaurant. It rains a little on the drive in; the sun pierces scudding clouds as we head for home.

And Mark picks the last of the kitchen-sink-garden tomatoes, and the carport shelters drifting piles of leaves. Even when the days are hot, the nights are cool. It’s dark by 8 PM.

I think that we need to sort the winter coats, get the boots out, match the gloves and mittens.

It is autumn: winter is coming.

***************

Metaphor and reminder, paradoxical vortex, wind-blown messenger-season. Time of change, of growth, of healing; time of comfort. Time to recognize the reality of loss.

It is autumn and time to hunker down, to appreciate; time to prepare for what’s to come.

Rainbow in the hills

Considering What to Write on the First Cold Day of Autumn

First, I thought I’d write about history.

I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.

And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.

They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.

But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.

There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep  receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.

Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.

Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?

Is it always better to know?

I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.

And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.

The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”

We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.

I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.

I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’

And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.

So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.

I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.

It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.

By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.

The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.

I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.

We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.

I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings.  I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.

I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.

And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some  water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.

The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.

I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.

The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.

Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.

And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.

The wind blew.  I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks.  Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.

And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.

Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.