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 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.

Season of Change


In the early mornings, the little dog Greta goes outside, and she skitters and twitches. Acorns dead-fall from the trees; they land on the street with a pocka pocka. Their hard berets snap off and roll. The dropping acorns make the dog dance.

Some mornings there is fog, too. As Greta steps forward, into the street, out of the driveway, a deer might loom up out of the mist. The dog will turn and bolt for home.

Dark begins to spread at 7:30 PM now; the dog goes outside then, and there are whole families of deer grazing in the gloaming. Greta stands and sniffs, wary. Up on the hill, up by the Helen Purcell home, six deer stop, silhouetted. Two are mature, watchful mamas; two are tiny, leggy, still spotted. One of the inbetweeners has antlers just beginning to sprout. Their heads turn; they gaze at the dog. Their ears rotate like radar panels.

Then they turn and lollop down the wooded hill.

Squirrels dart and scrabble up trunks, clutching acorns in their teeth.  Greta cautiously feels her way in the teeming early dark.

It is autumn, and things are changing.

Jim sets up a work space in the bay window of the dining room; he has a new tall table that just fits into that nook. He plugs in a new laptop, and, once it’s up and running, loads it with new software. He borrows a bedside table from the little guest room and sets up the printer-scanner when it arrives. He has successfully written a grant for this equipment; the local disability services program has funded his purchases.

In the afternoons, from 2:00 until 5:00, he sorts recipes, types them neatly onto pages with headers and footers, creates tables of contents and indexes. He prints and punches and puts things into binders, creating order out of chaos and creating family cookbooks from shoeboxes full of long-kept recipes.

A local advocacy group asks Jim if he might be able to write a skit for them. He attends a meeting, listens as a group of gentle people brainstorm how to demonstrate what it’s like to be an adult with a disability. How can they show children how bad it feels when people are mean and cruel, and also how nice it is when people are kind and welcoming? They percolate a scenario: a boy on a beach, a careening kid smashing into his sand castle. Two possible outcomes.

Jim types it up, adds a strong narrative voice, sculpts the two endings, a sad one and a happy. He emails it to Missy, the group’s facilitator, and her feedback is warmly enthusiastic. They will take this skit on the road.

Jim has his own small business, a daily purpose, and a skit in production. He walks a little taller.

It is autumn, a time when things are changing.

Things are changing for some very dear people.

A lifetime friend texts on her way home from chemo–her second to last session. Done by Thanksgiving: let’s hope there’ll be reasons for her to give deep, fervent thanks. Her illness has forever transformed her life, but surely this treatment will bring change for the better.

A talented friend who has devoted herself to scholarship, juggling family and job and graduate school, pushing, pushing, gets a call with an offer of a dream job. Her hard work has opened doors. How nice, how just and nice: people who deserve to snatch the golden ring sometimes get to do that. She is open, welcoming change.

I have coffee with a friend and colleague. We talk, and I remember what it was like to be young and hurt, bereft and deeply betrayed. I remember what it’s like, first, to learn to trust, and then, to learn to dare. She is going on a date, and this carefully thought-through outing could truly be a game-changer, the first step on a path to new richness.

It’s autumn, when people dare to take chances. They dare to change.

On a cool September Saturday morning, Wendy and I park on the grass beyond a school in a lovely suburban community, and we follow the crowd to the commons. A band plays and an announcer’s voice blares from a dais. Our official numbered tags, with the computer chips glued to the back, are safety-pinned to our t-shirts.  We mill in the crowd; we bounce on the balls of our feet, neither of us entirely sure about our new sneakers. We find our corral, in the back, with the other 10K walkers who are participating, not competing.

Others have long sleeves and layers in the morning cool; we rub our arms and hop up and down, and we are glad when we begin to move.

We’re glad, too, NOT to have layers to peel as the sun burns off the mist and we walk by a sapphire man-made lake, by wooden bridges leading from walkways to golf courses, by sprawling, lavish, pink-bricked houses. And by a violinist serenading us from atop a hill.

We chose the 10K over the half-marathon this time–a challenge still, but not one that required focused, manic training all summer long. We chose to walk just for the sake of walking and not to be timed or ranked. It’s a good push, a worthy walk, and we gather up our bling at the finish line, eat a quartered Asiago bagel each, accept plastic cups of organic chocolate milk, and then we find the car and head back to Zanesville.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

Mark and Jim go to the used book store and come home with three stout boxes of beautiful note-cards, discovered on the clearance rack. They hand them to me, grinning. I open up a pack that night and write a letter to a friend.

At work, one day, I find a basket twined with scarlet and gold silky leaves on my office table; it is filled with squash and gourds and sweet potatoes and apples, all nestled around a round pie pumpkin. There is a little basket of ripe pears.  I think of a home-baked pie, slices of apple and pear, the warm scent of cinnamon, a sugary, flaky crust.


The next day, outside my office door, two burlap bags heavy with golden and red skinned potatoes wait for me. That night, I coat a chunk of boneless pork with olive oil; I roll it in a thick coating of herbs and spices, and I surround it, in the heavy glass baking pan, with neatly cubed potatoes. I crumble herbs, dash salt and pepper.

They roast for two hours, the potatoes and the pork, perfuming the house with their sizzle, crisping and browning. We sauté up a panful of veggies, the last of the summer squash, onions, carrots, peppers, all fresh from a friend’s bountiful farm. And we feast, that night, on things grown in the dirt of this place we call home.

At a meeting, Terry hands out bags of homemade party mix, salty and sweet and crunchy, and coated in a butterscotch-y glaze. I bring it home to share, but it’s so good, I rue the generous impulse. Mark and I race each other to get to the bag.

I’m glad Terry included the recipe.

It’s a time of gifts and plenty.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

The days are warm still, but not nearly so humid.  The morning word puzzle tells me this: Summer’s heat ripens the apples; autumn’s heat turns them into cider.

On Friday nights, the blare of the announcer–as bland and opaque as the voice of a Charlie Brown grownup–floats up the hill from the football field.

Some mornings it’s too cool to sit outside with my coffee.

My work hours shift.

Fall meetings begin, and Saturday mornings become busy times. The yards need tending; rain has persuaded the grass to grow. Bushes need to be trimmed and flowering plants, their leaf tips browning now as the growing season winds down, need to be clipped for their winter’s dormancy.

We read, over and over, that the Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be a harsh one. Plenty of snow, deep levels of cold.  We clean the coats that go safely in the washer; we take the coats we cannot wash to the dry cleaner’s. We pick them up, soft and fresh in their plastic, bag-tied coverings. We hang them, ready, in the front hall closet.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

And the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores bulge with fat bags of candy sheathed in oranges and browns, candy glitzy in golden wrappers. The frozen custard stand has pumpkin milkshakes.  Panera offers sugared pumpkin muffins. The Riesbeck flyer highlights pumpkin roll, freshly made in their bakery.

Campaign rhetoric grows more rapid and more rancorous. I carve out campaign free zones, places of civility, but there is no doubt that the elections are coming.

It’s autumn, and there WILL be change.

In person and on FaceBook and in letters, many people say this: Autumn is my favorite season. There is a sense of both motion and comfort.

There is a drawing in, as daylight shortens and the growing time ends. The freezers are full. There are gleaming jars, filled by other industrious people’s hard work, of jewel-toned jams and jellies and salsa on my pantry shelves. The long push of summer is done; classes are back in session. Energy seems to lift and settle.

At night, I have the urge to knit.
I begin to plan for holidays.
I turn from the light and frothy books of summer and I settle in with some serious reading.

There is a looking forward to a season of tournaments and holidays and families and friends reuniting.

There is a sense of calm urgency: time to bundle things in, time to clean things up. Time to get ready for the winter.

It’s autumn. It is time for change.