The fall is exciting when you are a child. You're nervous but eager and also a little afraid. You get a new box of Crayolas or store-brand crayons. The tops are sharp and the bottoms are round and the papers around them are not furry yet. By the end of the year they'll be broken and rubbed and the sides of your hands will be blue and your desk will have marks that you've tried to rub off with your wet spitty fingers but can't.
Your mother has bought you some skirts and a couple of shirts and, some years, a pair of shoes. One time when my father came home he looked at my shoes and said, "For God's sake," then brought out his kit and taught me to polish them "decently." After that when we thought he was coming home, I'd polish my scruffy shoes until they shone.
You don't notice a lot when you're a child. This helps you remain a child. Stay innocent. You don't see how the world or you is changed. Sometimes when you're a child the time does not appear to pass. But it does.
Summer is pimples and sour sweat and girls in bikinis at the city pool with their not-quite-ready-to-shave and acne-shouldered boyfriends putting lotion on their backs. Summer is half of everyone half undressed and all of them better than you.
So after that, in fall, you cover up. Your mother no longer buys your clothes so now you can cover up differently. One day in eighth grade I wore a pair of midnight-purple corduroy pants and a long-sleeved top made of T-shirt material that had on it an appliqué of Saturn. The planet was almost the same dark purple as my pants. The rings around it were pink and chartreuse, my older sister, a hippie by then, having bought it for me at a brand-new store called a "head shop." I was kicked out of school and not allowed back until I agreed not to break the dress code again.
You want to appear like who you like. You don't want to look like you do. But the world around you changes, the time gets out of whack and you get looking wrong. Others around you are faster than you. You try to keep up but you can't. You walk around awkward and dull and feeling fake, and never know what to do with your stupid hands. You want to be like the ones you like and not have anything wrong with you and no one to think there is but something is.
The year after high school I got a scholarship to go to a school in England. I got there in September. The skies were like steel but misty and soft, and the sidewalks were wet in the morning. They'd told me I would be homesick but I was not. Then late in the morning the mist burned off and the trees shone slick with rusty-red and bright-yellow leaves and I was happy.
That fall I left home I fell in love. I remember her standing in the hall, her dark hair and her pale skin, the light pouring over her shoulders and hair that came from the window behind her. The shadows were long and the sun was low and the light was like honey and gold. I waited because I needed to (she was older than I and I knew how to wait) and then when we could we did what was meant to do. I remember a room and a cottage and walks and poring and poring and saying and not saying what. A long time after she wrote me a letter in which she tried hard to explain. One sentence said I had unmoored her, I'd "blown into [her] life like 'the Wild West Wind.'"
I had to look it up.
This is the start of "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Shelley:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...
He wrote this in Florence, which I know because in the years since meeting that woman, I'd become somewhat obsessed with Shelley. He wrote it when he was living there, where I, in my early 30s, went to live too. On the morning of October 25, 1819, while walking alone in the Cascine woods on the banks of the Arno River, Shelley was caught in a storm. He and his young wife Mary (née Wollstonecraft Godwin) had been through a time of trouble.
They had had babies that lived or died, and she'd had a few miscarriages. He'd lost an ex-wife to suicide, she'd lost a half-sister to suicide, and Mary had written Frankenstein. ("It was on a dreary night in November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony..." Victor Frankenstein recalls of the moment he brought his poor monster to life.) Percy had gotten some vicious reviews and wondered if his work would ever be read the way he wanted. The storm and change of the season gave him an image of loss and redemption. The poem ends with a question: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
I went to the Arno on October 25, 170 years to the day after Percy Shelley's storm. I stood on the bank in the quiet and warmth and said to myself some of what he had written. And then I sat down to wait.
Fall's also a season when someone can fall out of love. It's gradual and sad, or wild and thrashing, but always a beginning of an end. Was it something you did? A way you became disappointing? Or were you just stupid to think someone could love you? Did someone who once considered you novel get bored? Had they been mistaken to think you were worthy of love? Were you a fool to hope you maybe were? What's wrong with you? Or how can someone not love the way one did?
What did you mean when you said, "I love you"? Why did you tell the things you did? But someone falls out, then you must too, or act as if you have, like everything's fine, you're fine, as if you are no longer a child or think like one or think or hope you could prevent or undo what has changed. Inside you are broken and partly dead, but you can't die just yet. You have to pretend you're fine. You have—even you—your pride.
Pride goeth before the fall like Adam did, and Eve, and also, I think in my pathetic, excusing, stupid way, the snake. They tried to know something they shouldn't know, do more than they knew how to do. They tried despite all the things they were told, they wanted to know too much. It goeth before the rest of us too, us misconceived and miserable, miscarried, poor, aborted, lonely, self-devouring selves. You know you've been given a gift—a life—but what are you doing with it? How will you carry on when you've been so wrong? It's damp and decaying outside, a mess, and you're out in the mess of it. While inside you are hollow, dry. Your mouth is dry, it's getting tight, you do not want to think the way you think. You try to go back, undo the fall, forget the falling out. Perhaps the way you felt was wrong. Perhaps how you remember isn't right.
In Florence I also used to go to the Brancacci Chapel to see the frescoes. The Church of Santa Maria del Carmine was going through restoration then, so scaffolding and white cloth covered everything, but I went there and looked and waited. I waited and waited and looked, and sometimes, if there was a breeze, a part of the cloth would lift and I would, through a shift or slit or billow, sort of, see. I remember sort of seeing though I do not remember what I saw.
But in a book I have at home, I looked it up.
Masaccio shows the story of The Fall. In The Expulsion of Adam and Eve they cower. Adam's shoulders stoop and the back of his bent-over neck is dark. He's covered his eyes with his hands and though his mouth is slightly open, he is quiet. Or maybe his voice is just so small that nobody else can hear him. He's ashamed. Eve is looking somewhere halfway up. Her right arm covers her naked chest, her crying mouth is open as a hole. She's crying—not tears—but crying like moaning, agonized, like, "God, what have we done?" Their innocence—like children's—has been lost. An angel dressed in red is hovering above them and wielding a sword as black as a blackened heart. The angel points away as if to say, "Get out." They're banished from Paradise. They're no more what they used to be. They know now, though they don't even know half, their lives will be full of suffering and they'll die.
If you look up "Fall, The" in The New Dictionary of Theology, published in 1987, the entry on page 386 reads, in its entirely: "See Original Sin."
The Gnostics imagined it differently: Adam and Eve, by eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thereby gaining of the knowledge of evil and good, did not commit the sin in disobedience to God, but were released from the jealous demiurge who'd created them but didn't want them to know the stuff he did.
I never saw all of it all at once, but just in little glimpses. I cannot imagine it differently.
Fail is fall except for the added I.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in 1919, just after the end of World War I and after he'd lost his faith in the Irish Republican Brotherhood's attempts to peaceably create an independent Ireland. The war to end all wars had not ended war; the dream of returning to a traditional Irish past had proven, if not impossible, naive. The state of before can't be restored; all things fall apart in time. When blood is let it can't un-let. The fallen have fallen finally; they're dead.
"The darkness drops again..." the poem goes on. Yeats believed that history repeats itself in cycles. "And what rough beast," he asks at the end of the poem, "its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
History cycles in gyres like the seasons of the year. After the darkness falls there comes a time to rest. Then after a time something else begins, an innocent or Jesus, or a rough and slouching beast. Then there is a spring and light again, then fall, then dark again, again, again.
September's the ninth month of the year, but the syllable sept means seven (from Latin: septem). It used to be the seventh month in the 10-month Roman calendar; octo, novem, decem (8, 9, 10) were the rest. We kept those names when we switched to the 12-month Julian then Gregorian calendar. The names of these months go back to another time and another way to measure it. The words are the same but now mean something different.
In September the calendar goes out of whack. In fall, we set clocks back to save the day; the light is getting scarce. Outside is the smell of decay and dirt. Evenings are cool but nights turn cold. You curl up as small as when you were a child and try not to think of your body.
In 1976, Neil Young made Decade, a 10-year retrospective triple disc. He was just in his early 30s but had already been looking back wearily for years. His fourth album, Harvest (1972), begins "I think I'll pack it in..." He wondered what he had accomplished so far ("Will I only harvest some?") and how much he had left ("You gotta tell your story before it's time to go"). The hangman tells someone "It's time to die." He'd lost friends who'd died of drugs ("The Needle and the Damage Done"). In "Old Man," he tells an old man, "I'm a lot like you were." Already Young felt old. He took up with country musicians and bought a ranch. He lived with a woman and they had a son and he saw up close the passing of seasons: "Out in the field they were turning the soil." Maybe the end of something allows for the start of something new.
Before it was called autumn, some Europeans called this season "harvest." This was the season of gathering, of seeing the yield of your work and saving up for the winter. You harvest crops with a sickle or scythe like you've seen in the old paintings and woodcuts of "The Grim Reaper," the harvester of souls. November 1 is All Saints' Day, then comes the Day of the Dead. They follow Hallowe'en, the holiday most looked forward to by children and queers. The word comes from "hallow," for holy, and evening. You dress up like something dead, a ghost or a ghoul or a skeleton, or a half-dead thing like a vampire or zombie or body snatcher, or something that never really lived—a character from a cartoon, a hero, a goddess, a doll. You make bigger or smaller a part of yourself, or show a hidden part: A man becomes a woman, a woman a god, a child somebody permanent and strong.
You go to the graveyard on All Souls' Day. You try to pretend the fallen can come back. You try to pretend they do, if only for a single day or night. Because you would give anything for just one day, for just one night or word or look or hand. To have them back with you, you would give anything. You would give up your life.
In better years you'll celebrate, remember and be grateful that you knew them though if only for a time.
On the hallowed holy night between All Saints' and All Souls' Days, the veil between the worlds gets thin. You can believe, one time a year, that someone you once loved could be alive again.
You cannot, though, believe that way for long.
Last year my artist friend Noah Saterstrom and I made a Day of the Dead altar together for an exhibit in a library in Tucson. He painted a picture of a woman and children, and in front of the altar-like thing was a screen you could almost see through. We put things of ours on the altar and made crepe-paper flowers and invited other people to too. The back of the altar was chalkboards I wrote some sentences for. They said things like: What did he leave you with? and What did she take? and What are you waiting for now? What can you not remember? Can you forget? What will you do? What do you wish you'd done? And people wrote answers and other questions on pieces of paper and slipped them behind the screen like we were leaving them for the dead. It was sort of like writing Santa letters except everybody knew. But everyone also wanted to act, for a while at least, that the words and things we left for the dead would get to them. That maybe they would know. People left things privately, quietly, made pictures or wrote little words and tucked them in. We did this throughout our allotted time, then at the end of the exhibit season, returned the flowers and things to people who had left them. We couldn't pretend they'd gone somewhere they hadn't.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me... then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
That's Ishmael, near the beginning of Moby-Dick. He's feeling like a dying, if not quite dead yet, soul in his brain. When Melville was writing, "hypos" referred to what we would now call "depression." Some writers go through this from time to time. Some people say it's seasonal. It's nice to think it's limited to that... Sometimes Melville was dull or weird or volatile, but also sometimes he escaped by going to the sea. Then when he came back he wrote what became successful adventure books (Omoo, Typee, etc.). In 1850, he was finishing another novel that he described to an acquaintance as "a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends of the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author's own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooner..."
Then he read Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here's some of what Melville wrote in an August 1850 review of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse:
For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side—like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black... You may be witched by his sunlight,—transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;—but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright gildings but fringe, and play upon the edges of thunder-clouds...
Then later: "It is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes and fascinates me."
Melville was 31 that year and Hawthorne was 46. The younger was "fixed" by the elder's "blackness," and then, when he met him, all of him.
My New Oxford American Dictionary defines "Indian summer" as "a period of unusually dry, warm weather occurring in late autumn." A season has left, but then it comes back like a hiccup. It jars you and reminds you what is missing. The sun on the side of the soul, Melville thought, was paired with a dark, concealed side. Hawthorne showed Melville, or so he thought, his own dark soul, and also that a writer could actually write it. That fall, when they met, they took long walks and talked for hours, and wrote each other letters. In one of his letters to Hawthorne, Melville says: "The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds." A later one rhapsodizes: "Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling... when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning."
Melville, the way one writer can for another, fell in love. This is the state in which he rewrote the harpooner adventure into the massive, great, Romantic Moby-Dick.
I don't know exactly why Melville thought of Hawthorne's soul as having an "Indian summer," but no one really agrees about exactly where the phrase came from. Some people think that "Indians" first described the seasonal phenomenon to Europeans, others that Europeans first noticed it occurred where in "Indians" lived, others that it most often occurred when trade ships arrived from India. But I learned this phrase as an echo of the offensive phrase "Indian giver," which meant someone you couldn't trust because when they gave you a gift, they later wanted it back. The hiccup of "Indian summer" is seen as a tease, a cheat, a gift that is not a gift. You might think that way if you don't understand the kind of circular economy or culture of reciprocity described in Lewis Hyde's The Gift. There he explains that when you're given something, you want to give something back. Your wealth is not about what you have or can get or get away with. Rather, it is about doing something good for someone else, passing a blessing around to make it more. What you have isn't only yours but sometimes others' too.
"Indian Summer," from Beat Happening's 1988 Jamboree (K Records), and the best twee-indie song of the late 1980s, begins, like All Souls' Day, in a cemetery. It's by Heather Lewis, Calvin Johnson, and Bret Lunsford. It's about when your childhood is almost over but you still have a kind of innocence as an adult. It says nice stuff about growing up and not wanting yet to forget.
Breakfast in cemetery
Boy tastin' wild cherry
Touch girl, apple blossom...
We'll come back for Indian summer...
What is that cheerful sound?...
Motorbike to cemetery
Picnic on wild berries...
We will never change...
But of course people change. Like cherries and apples and berries, we are seasonal. Then after they're ripe the bushes and trees they grow on are stripped down for the winter. One time in your life a cemetery can be a place for a picnic date. Another time it turns into a place you pray you will not have to visit very often. One time in your life having sex is being a cheerful, hungry kid at a picnic feast. But when a part of you or someone you are trying to love has been messed up by memory or loss or grief then you cannot be a kid like that again.
When I was 40, my parents died. My mom died first then one month later my father. A month after that, I had a "commitment ceremony" with the love of my life who is now my legally married wife. The same year I published a book, The End of Youth. If you're lucky your parents will die before you, as is the natural order. If they are unlucky, you'll die before them, and they will remember the rest of their lives their child who died.
It was right before the fall—in August—when my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. I quit my job and went to care for her. We didn't have any old business by then and were grateful to be with each other. She died six months later, in January. My father died very suddenly the following month of a heart attack or stroke (we were not ever sure). He'd listened to Frank Sinatra some and I think kind of thought of himself as somewhat like him: a man who held court, who could tell a good tale and always looked good in a suit. A drinker, a smoker of one pack a day, a serial spouse who didn't put up with what he called female "nonsense."
When Frank Sinatra turned 50, he wore a hat all the time in public because he was going bald. In 1965, after already having had a successful career, he and his sometime arranger-conductor Gordon Jenkins, who was also in his 50s, decided to make an album of songs they thought of as "self-remembrances." It's called September of My Years.
The first song on the album—written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn—begins:
One day you turn around and it's summer
Next day you turn around and it's fall
And the springs and the winters of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all?
Now I'm reaching back for yesterdays...
A lot of places on the album refer to being in the "autumn" of life. I find this word more honest than "middle age." When you get to your 40s or 50s, you're not in the "middle" of your life; you're past it. Whereas in autumn, the year is three-quarters over and it's time to gather, and if you don't what's left will rot. The winter is coming, you're slowing down and looking back. You think either "It Was a Very Good Year" (the fourth song on September of My Years, written by Ervin Drake) or that it wasn't and there is not much good to store up for the cold.
Though it would have fit in, Sinatra did not include "Autumn Leaves" on this album, that perfectly September song by Jacques Prevert, Johnny Mercer, and Joseph Kosma. Translated from the French "Les feuilles mortes" (literally "The Dead Leaves"), the words include:
The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold
Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I'll hear
Old winter's song
Sinatra had sung it on a previous album, Where Are You? (1957). Perhaps, with Elvis's ascent, Sinatra was already thinking his days were numbered. Perhaps, like Young, he felt prematurely old.
Actually, I'm only guessing that my father thought of himself like Frank Sinatra. I do not know because I never asked him. Maybe I never asked because when he was in his cups, he sometimes got belligerent. Or maybe I took it too much to heart that I should be seen, not heard. Or maybe I never asked because I decided early on to act like I cared even less than he. But I have also never, before I was thinking about this stuff this week, asked myself why I didn't ask. I never asked my father what he remembered about his youth. Or what he remembered about being a brother or son, or what he did in "the war," or how it was to come back and why the navy made him leave. I never asked my father why he left.
Another song on the Sinatra album—"It Gets Lonely Early," by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn—goes:
When you're all alone
All the children grown
And, like starlings, flown away
It gets lonely early, doesn't it?
Lonely early, doesn't it?
My mother died in her 60s and my father at 73. Sinatra lived till his early 80s. Neil Young is still alive. My wife is now three years younger than the age my mom was when she died.
In a year and a half I'll be 60. I find this a little hard to believe. A few years a lot of years ago, I didn't expect I'd live this long. But now that I have, I am grateful. Not only grateful that I am still alive and have the life I do, but also for even the things that I regret.
The older you get, the more people near you die. If you're lucky you see it coming and can prepare or make amends and be with them. You can remember with them and be glad. You can tell them "I love you" and "Good-bye."
But if you can't remember, if you cannot look back at the very good years or bad ones, it's like there is nothing to harvest. It's like whatever you did was never done. It's like part of the person you were is already dead. If you can no longer remember yourself, then who is there to know?
I saw my friend Tom the other week, and he asked about our mutual friend and I told him her mother had died. "It ended quick," I said, "a heart attack," and Tom said, "Oh." Then he paused and said, "That was lucky." Then he looked at me a second and said, and he sounded ashamed when he did, "I kind of wish that would happen to my dad." Tom's dad, like our friend's mother, has Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's can go on a long, long time and Tom's father keeps getting worse. He's getting lost all the time these days, forgetting not only recent stuff, but old things and confusing them and always forgetting more. "He's scared a lot too," Tom said. He looked scared too.
There's a "care home community" in Arlington, Texas, the last place I lived with my parents, "specifically designed to deliver... unsurpassed care to seniors with memory impairment." I think this means it's for people with things like Alzheimer's, people who can't take care of themselves because they can't remember things. You do not know how to care for them and can't bear to see them not be who they were. At least, you remind yourself, they got to get old. They had, whether they remember or not, a life. You try to remember for them.
The name of this care home community is Autumn Leaves. I think that's a reference to both the song and the season of leaving.
You look back and think about what you did and what you neglected to do. You fall back on excuses: "If only..." "If I..." You're happy or grateful or sad you don't forget. You miss who is dead and you fear for the next to die. You, selfishly, want to have no more grief, but you know you will unless you're the one who dies next. The fall is you trying to live how you are, not spending too much time remembering, but neither afraid of how little is left. You have learned now, despite what always has been since you were a child, there will come a winter that will not be followed by spring.
Rebecca Brown is the author of a dozen books, including The Gifts of the Body and The End of Youth. She won a Stranger Genius Award in 2005.
Illustration by Claire Cowie