There must have been an autumn when I was a child… But those days I remember as being full of the smell of sharpened pencils and graphite shavings, the rustle of notebook pages, the glint of bent spiral bindings and — sometimes — at the bus stop, a glimpse of horizon between the houses and the whispering golden pear trees, a full moon setting pale opposite the rising sun.
This morning, I glance out the window between sips of mint tea. The vines cascading down the garage have flushed to copper and rust, fading back into the old red brick. The sky is overcast, but the sun is low and spills in shifting rays over the tall grasses of the backyard, coming and going, light and dim again as it sinks. A neighborhood cat prowls, its black body slipping through the weeds that bend and shift in soft browns almost like wheat. The silent overhanging trees are limp with mottled yellows and golds.
Somewhere, a cloud changes. Suddenly the scene is awash in early morning sunlight, illuminated, every leaf translucent like a moving, living fountain of stained glass against the low, dull sky. The cat pauses, a dark shimmering shape stilled in a shaft of light, its ears and tail twitching. I can almost see the tips of its whiskers shining. Then, it hunches down again, head low, its form one long line of shadow slinking off.
Death slips in. The dead among us rustle like dying leaves, or notebook pages.
I could write something here about harvest and blood sacrifice. I could write about the thinning veil and the shifting worlds that turn and loom up from the dark, that gape open like a wound, sewn up again with our firelight and our dancing and our spooked laughter. But all you need to do, really, to know the season is to listen, and wait. The days are growing darker. Although this morning blossoms into an afternoon as warm as a summer day, the light is long and the wind prowls restless through the thinned trees. Night will be here soon. Autumn beats like a thready pulse through the years.
When I was a child, this time was always so full of bustle and noise, schoolwork and excitement, and later the beat of the drums and the call of the horns blaring out above the gusting wind and the stadium full of high school football fans. Summer was the time of energy and freedom, and I reveled in it — fall was all discipline and direction, when enthusiasm for the school semester was still high and the stress of homework and midterms hadn’t yet set in. Yet as I grow older, and my time becomes more and more my own, I find that the tides of autumn sweep me up into their subtler beauty, more reflective, more solitary and still. Now, most afternoons I can hear the distant staccato thunder of the marching band drumline bouncing off the brick walls of the local high school and echoing out over the neighborhood. The starlings scream at one another like hecklers. The crows gather on the power lines. I have time to sit and listen, and watch the cats prowling.
A few years ago, my cousin wrote me an email asking what kinds of holy days Pagans celebrate around this time of year and what we mean by the “thinning of the veil” between the worlds:
Maybe this is when dreams involving the dead are more pervasive than any other time of the year? But, would communication between the living and dead need a certain time in the Earth’s rotation cycle, or couldn’t they do that at any point?
What is this connection between the realities of the Spirit and the spinning of this tiny blue gem of a planet through all that darkness?
I’ve been pondering this question. It was not many years ago that I lay on a hillside under a crabapple tree whose branches hung low with end-of-summer fruit, turning over Whitman’s poetry of death, regeneration and the thousand leaves of grass over and over in my mind. I had decided, then, that I was ready to die, and as I lay still in the warm, long sunlight of that afternoon, I imagined that I could feel the dissolution of my body back into the mud and worms of the earth — the veil between self and other, between spirit and soul, slipping off like a death shroud lifted and tossed by a turn of the wind. I had lost yet another friend to death, too young, and I was very much alone in the world… yet the world itself was with me, a landscape thick with presence. It was honor then that kept me alive, my sense of honoring the body I was in, of caring for it for its own sake as part of the sacred world, and having the patience to allow its story to unfold into whatever grief or joy might come.
Why should our communion with the beloved dead depend on the coincidental turning of the Earth on its axis? Why should we not always be in touch with those who have crossed the threshold, in touch with our own mortality and death? One might as well ask why the angle of the sun should sometimes grace the crocuses and wet new buds of spring and at other times drop down heavy and hot into the deepest reaches of summer lakes, why childhood should burst with curiosity and buzzing movement and adulthood settle into the long, gentle pull of days one after another beneath a bright, cool sky. The truth is, I suspect, that there is no Other-world. That we live in this one world, together with the dead and the long-departed, drinking in the same gulps of breath as they once drank. They are as close to us now as our own skin and bones and blood. This is true, just as it is true that the sky is always full of stars, whether we see them striking out towards us through the darkness of night or lose them awash in the brilliant blues of sun-filled days. Just as it is true that we live embodied, embedded deeply in the seasons and moods of the landscape which lays heavy around us, even as we spin through space on a speck of dust and sea held together by gravity and speed. It is all one world.
Autumn beats like a pulse through the years, but the blood is always moving and the heart always remains. We feel the contraction in the land around us, the breathing in, the tension of something drawing close. With every beat, the heart draws nearer to itself. We taste the fruits of harvest. We smell the blood of slaughter. We shiver at the setting sun, earlier each day. We draw nearer to ourselves and to one another, for warmth or comfort, or out of necessity. The dead draw near as well. We say the veil has thinned, but perhaps it is only distance that has grown lean and pale between us. We can see farther now, deeper into the woods now that the leaves have fallen. The sky draws closer with its low clouds and ever-briefer days, the sun slinking along the horizon like a prowling feline.
Past and future reach towards one another to brush fingertips in the here-and-now. There is the thrill of recognition and bated breath.
One day each of us in our turn, too, will brush the veil aside, the flimsy liminal sheen that demarcates the boundaries of our bodies. That veil will lift, like a death shroud pulled aside by a sudden gust of wind. And like the stars and the inconstant dead, we too will reach through darkness to tell our stories ceaselessly to the living land.
Alison Leigh Lilly dwells in the lovely, rain-drizzled cityscape of Seattle, where she shares her home with her brilliant and bearded husband, her black cat, two pet frogs, and innumerable cedar trees. Nurturing the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, she explores themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work on her website at: alisonleighlilly.com