On Sunday, sitting in church, I knew it was fall. During the sermon a raucous chorus began outside the window----ahhh yes, there they were: the crows squabbling over the mountain ash berries. Soon they would be drunk. I go to church for worship and joyful company. The crows flock to our church for the alcoholic berries. We both emerge tipsy and happy, (but my Spirits last longer than theirs!)
I watch for signs of fall every day, and I watch far differently than I watch for signs of spring. I feel like a child when watching for spring, ready to gambol and run. In Fall, I am practicing death. Soon, the drop of all leaves, the steady loss of light, the hunker beneath winds of howl and ice. We know what this is like.
This year, I am ready. I am not cringing. I am not examining my survival plan for the season. I am not dreading the coming dark.
As I look about me, I am remembering that dying, that winter's lapse into long sleep can bring furious beauty out of some. For these, the shorter days slow and halt the cholorphyll, and the leaves bloom out their truest colors: yellow's (xanthophylls), oranges (carotinoids) and reds (anthycyanins) emerge. The loss of light ignites the trees, the bushes, even the lichen.
The same is true for us: when the sun goes down, when the light shrinks back, this is when our true colors emerge.
And you know about the red salmon. How they stop eating as they leave the ocean, returning to the river of their birth, pointing all their strength now against the current to spill their eggs or their milt, and how, in all of this, while dying, they bleed into scarlet, brilliant, dying yet so alive . . .
But not all is beauty. Sometimes death is just dying without beauty or notice. Some salmon turn hideous as they struggle toward their spawning bed, just wraiths, leprous.
The banks of the salmon-blooming rivers are paced by bears, who smash the grass and gobble the salmon, leaving only ghastly pieces behind.
The mountainsides hold death as well. We drive by, awake to the falling colors, and we do not see it at first. Just beauty, fading . …
and then we see and remember-----
the four who died in the plane crash on that mountain some falls ago . ..
It is written into the grain of the universe, this dying, this descent into dark, into cold, the yearly launch of the earth far, farther from the sun. And it is written in our cells as well since the time we all turned away from our Maker, launched off into a wild, cold place, far from the light. But we need not despair. Even in the midst of it, even when we descend into insomnia, depression and immobility, all this is covered, known, provided for-----from the very foundation of the world. From before the very creation of the world, it was done: the wheat kernel would die before shooting to new life, the old would give life to the young, a lamb would die for his people, and death only lights the trees on fire.
Because of this, for all of us, when we die little deaths along the way----a child turns his back and is silent for a decade, a father and a mother cannot love their children, a good friend dies, a father abandons his son, a beloved sister dies, your best friend betrays you . . .. We cry and we die a little, for short or long------but we do not die. We do not die.
I am reminded of John Donne's famous sonnet,
Death, be not proud
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Two and three months ago I thought I was dead. I go this weekend to lead a retreat. I go alive, full of joy, to speak about forgiveness, about light, about all the ways we're given to live, again.
We will live, all of us. The coming dark will ignite our truest colors. Death is swallowed up and we are all aflame.
Go, burn bright. Do not let death be proud.