I always feel a twinge of disappointment when October arrives. It’s not because the temperatures begin to fall or because the nights lengthen. On the contrary, autumn has long been my—well, I would not want to play favorites with the seasons, but if I did have a favorite time of year, autumn would be it. I love the glow of the sun through the cooler air; I relish the warm colors of the changing leaves; and I enjoy the escape from air conditioning to open windows and hear the crickets as I await (and await, and await) the night’s slumber. I happily anticipate the season’s call for pumpkin oatmeal, apple cobbler, and split-pea soup.
Whether I actually get around to making any of these delights is another story, though they are all long-established culinary rituals that I try to make time for and share with friends. Later on, winter brings spicy solstice cookies, which require a hammer to smash whole peppercorns, cloves, and star anise. (This is done lovingly, in the service of alchemy.) The slow cooker, an inheritance from my mother, comes out to simmer with broths and sauces. When the days lengthen once more, Pasta Caprese announces spring. There’s always a lot of Pasta Caprese, straight through summer. And in August, it’s blueberry pie, the recipe adopted from my mother’s Bible, Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook. I’m pretty successful with pie crust, only because when I was a teenager with Crisco in hand, no one told me that rolling out the dough was difficult. Thus I did not know to fret. (No one warned me of the dangers of Crisco either; it was a different time.) Each autumn I remember a friend proposing that we should meet up “as gin-and-tonic season gives way to Scotch season,” and I now extend the same invitation to him. Indeed, I am pleased think of mulled wine and sangria perching at opposite ends of the wheel of the year. In October, I have lovely reminiscences of taking my tricolor beagle, Shiloh, to the woods; he perked up as the weather cooled, nearly camouflaged by the trees.
There is the abundance of the harvest, coupled with the knowledge that it will not last forever: I’d better get to the farmers’ market these next few weeks, before it closes for the year. The corn, already, is gone, but there are apples for my cobbler. There are asters in my garden, and the myrtle I planted months ago has begun to fill in. I’ve always been cheered and calmed by the waning of the sun, for it cannot but bring acknowledgment that all is impermanent. This reminds me to cherish what I am given while I am able. Spring, with its promiscuous, bursting blossoms—well, it is beautiful, to be sure, but it always seems a bit manic, overdone, urging me to forget how brief the life span of those bright colors will be.
Why, then, does my secretly favorite season—okay, I might as well admit it—bring such feelings of disappointment? Is it because I remember three anniversaries in a row? My mother died in 1995, two days before my fourth wedding anniversary, as my then-mate and I were on our way to a luxurious—I was a proverbially starving graduate student—weekend in Philly, occasioned by a once-in-a-lifetime Brancusi exhibit. As I passed by the museum for the funeral home, my family members expressed sympathy that I would henceforth experience these two anniversaries in tandem. Then, five years and two days later, my father died, on the wedding anniversary. And a few years later, at the same time of year, my spouse and I began living apart, though we continued, for a time, to visit; the dog had died a few months before that, so our walks lacked Shiloh’s baying at squirrels and struggling to evade his leash.
No, the confluence of all these losses fails to dampen my enthusiasm for the shifting colors, sounds, and sensations, though for years it felled me. Instead, the advent of autumn feels reassuring. It underscores the way joys and treasures visit for a time, only to elude my grasp in the end. Long ago I learned to accept, even welcome, these reminders of transience, and I feel more soothed than deflated at the turning of the wheel of the year, at the inexorable movement toward the longest night of the winter solstice and back around again.
What dismays me in October is not the departure of summer or the reminders of other sorts of leave-takings. It is, rather, the overbearing presence of the color p$#k. Just as autumn begins to make herself felt,—and heard, in the crunching of leaves and the blasting of marching bands at football games—Breast Cancer Awareness Month enters the stage, draping and drowning this sweet and tender time of year in garish p$#k ribbons. They festoon ham sandwiches, manila file folders, candies, hair-care supplies. It seems an ill-mannered intrusion: just as things are winding down and entering the quiet, my surroundings get painted brightly and incongruously with an aggressively cheery hue. P$#k obstructs my autumn.
Fall can offer a gentle invitation to surrender, to sink, to reflect, just as choosing to stay with any loss may cultivate serenity. Pema Chödron, ever constant in her wisdom about inconstancy, says of the desire to evade discomfort and run elsewhere: “Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice.” In a post titled “The Importance of Sadness,” Susan Piver asks questions that reflect gracefully on our autumn leaves: “What if I told you that the way to change the world was not to be bold, resolute, brilliant, or even compassionate? What if I told you that the way to change the world was to be sad?” She muses that denying sadness may cause despair and blocks one’s own compassion. Parker Palmer wrote last week about “The Complementary Natures of Beauty and Melancholy“: the way that gratitude may arise—or, one might say, might descend—at this time of year.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month, though, encourages one, at least in part, to turn away from difficulty and loss. Such resistance and dodging is more unsettling than grounding, and I cannot but question a call for “awareness” of a grueling illness that saturates itself with p#$k. The ribbons promise to lift my spirits in the face of a deadly disease, a disease that entails great suffering, that reminds me daily, through the cycle of the year, of the cycle of life, of my impermanence. It seems, well, ghoulish to stain this time of year with lurid p$#k trinkets. So I turn away less from the illness than from the rose-colored glasses offered by Breast Cancer Awareness. I guess that’s another form of resisting the moment—or is it? What does it mean to resist resistance?
I want to ease into the quiet, to enter a hard-won peace in the shadows, not to be disturbed by simplistic statements, as empty as the branches of the trees will soon be, about awareness. Awareness: of all but decay and decline.
So, bring on the pesky p$#k pumpkin. October is here.
I’ll take mine straight, though. Orange works just fine for me.
—Posted by Rosie Untied