NOVEMBER POST: BEGIN THE HOURS OF THIS DAY SLOW

October. In days of old, back on the farm, the harvest was in, the hard, hot work of summer was over. Before air-conditioning became the norm, the low humidity was a heaven-sent relief, the cool evenings, good sleeping weather, with the windows open, a couple of quilts on the bed. Summer was great but by September you were also a little tired of the long days and the hard work and the heat.

Little of that way of life applies today. Nonetheless, October is still a lot of people’s favorite month. It’s the colors, of course, but something beyond the colors, too — some ancient instinct that says to slow down now, to go more within. Winter’s coming. The landscape is about to go into a deep sleep, and we are — at least subconsciously — reminded us of our coming eternal sleep.

No need for immediate alarm, since the human animal gets seventy Octobers on the average. There are new springs coming as well, new summers. And just in case we knowingly arrive to our last autumn here on earth, there’s still the afterlife, a concept that was planted into our minds before we could reason. “Where did Grandpa go, Mommie?” “Grandpa’s in heaven now.”

Most of the world’s religions insist upon it — the continuation of this life in a new form that is still somehow us. In the Hindu worldview, there is reincarnation, a new body, after, say, a ten month rest in a new womb. (Though I’ve heard said that some souls may need a thousand year rest before they reincarnate.) It’s not terribly dissimilar to the Christian view of an afterlife, where persons supposedly pass through death into a new form, yet still a continuation of themselves.

We may reasonably suspect that herein is the very origin of religion, and its mainstay: the denial of death, the promise that, against all appearances to the contrary, we as individuals never really die.

Is that promise needed? Most likely. Because if we believed we were going to die and stay dead forever, how could we make any sense of life, or enjoy it, especially old age when it comes, the October inside of us. Not even to mention November, December, January and February?

But how deep does that promise settle within us? Even for those with faith in the afterlife, death is damned hard to swallow. Emotionally who celebrates it — that we disappear like this! Or, as the New Agers say, change forms.

Listen to King Lear, wildly weeping, beholding the death of his daughter, Cordelia: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?… Thou’lt come no more. Never, never, never, never, never.”

Or to Macbeth, speaking with grief and rage, in reference to his newly dead wife: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour on the stage and then is heard no more. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Whereas the art of the undertaker is to make the dead look like they are peacefully sleeping, depth literature sticks death in our faces, insists that we look at our mortality more honestly. And since truth exists side by side with love in the hierarchy of human values, depth literature (as opposed to escape literature) teaches that it’s a necessary part of our well-being to face up to it.

For depth psychology it’s the same. Freud and Jung suggest that to not look death in the face is to deny our most precious human attribute – our ability to be aware of our lives as we live them, an awareness which cannot exclude the fact that, from all evidence to our senses, our lives end.

A more recent depth psychologist, Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, says that to deny the stark reality of death is to deny reality all over the place. Denial of death brings with it an array of other irrationalities, a mixed bag of crazy notions.

Becker intimates that it is the current stuck point in human evolution. As death deniers, we have gone about as far as we can go.
. . .

Having fully walked into the October of my life, I take a parallel walk around the 3 and ½ acres that I call “my” property. Actually it’s the state’s property should the state ever decide it wants it. On a deeper level, it’s nobody’s property. It belongs to itself. It belongs to Nature. To God. Take your pick. I’m thrice or four times removed from ownership. It’s on loan to me, though I may end up buried in it.

But on a grunt human level, it’s mine in that I’m the human being who’s presently living on it, who’s the most familiar with it, and the most appreciative, although my love for it feels almost impersonal, like nature loving nature — not wild nature, in this case, but elemental nature, these few acres bordered on two sides by Evitts Creek and Rocky Gap Creek, with Wills Mountain in full autumn dress in the distance. A bountiful feast for autumn eyes.

One of my favorite Robert Frost poems is “October.” These lines in particular: “Oh hushed October morning mild/ Begin the hours of this day slow/ Make the day seem to us less brief/… Release one leaf at break of day;/ At noon release another leaf;/ One from our trees, one far away,…”

In a reverent mood, I pause before two huge oaks and talk to them, as if they were horses or people, apologizing for how long it has been – several days — since I last acknowledged their beauty. I check out my asparagus patch and flower beds, now going to sleep for the winter. Beginning the hours of this day slow, I sit for a half hour on a stump overlooking Evitts Creek. Secluded by the steep bank behind me and a woods on the other side (from which deer, and an occasional black bear, cross over onto my side), for all appearances I could be in the Maine wilderness.

I take this little tour of the grounds maybe once a week. From one angle a dead oak appears in the woods across from Rocky Gap Creek, standing tall and stately in the midst of the living trees. There’s usually a bird or two perched in it, and this morning is no exception. A crow, I think, but it is too far away to tell for sure.

For years I’ve wished that the “owner” of those woods across the way would take this tree down, cut it up for firewood. One day, recently, I thought he had done just that. The tree wasn’t there anymore. Then I realized, no, I wasn’t standing on quite the right spot. From a few yards over, there it was again.

And here’s what surprised me: how happy I was that the tree was still standing. Over the eight years I’ve lived here, without my being aware of it, I’d grown to appreciate it’s skeletal starkness as a regular part of my long view.

How often I’m surprised, by experiences such as this, to discover that I’m thinking differently than I think I’m thinking. Sure, death represents the melancholic side of life. But since it is what it is, doesn’t something deep inside of myself want to line up with it. Isn’t that the path that takes me to the big YES to life, in spite of its profoundly dark side…. Or because of it maybe. How do you appreciate anything that always is, that never ends.

So, yes, I am saying to myself, on this particular morning. It’s good that death is represented in clear view on my property. Nothing is to keep. Nothing lasts. That’s what love is: a powerful attraction to what we cannot possess.

Like October. Where things are at their very best and coming to an end.

And as I am standing there, observing the tree and the bird, the bird takes flight in a straight line towards me, a distance at least the length of a football field, and flies directly over my head, no more than ten feet above. It’s a smaller bird than I first thought. Now a crow at all.

A dove, I’m thinking. I don’t see an olive branch in its beak. But thank God that I don’t see everything. Thank God for what cannot be seen, or owned, or known, and that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

4 Comments

  1. Mireya Mudd

    The darkness of dying reflects on this outstanding writing.
    Makes one feel one is here with no purpose. Sad but true.
    Like your writing. Gets in everyone’s heart and mind reminding us we are nothing.

    Reply
    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Always love your comments, Mireya.

      Reply
  2. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

    Great comment, Charley. This is precisely the level of “discussion” I crave. I feel so fortunate that I have a healthy measure of it with you and a few others.

    Reply
  3. Charles Sullivan

    With my 64th birthday approaching, I fully appreciate the deliberate pace of this essay. It reflects the grace of a sunny October afternoon. October was the month of my father’s birth. He died when he was 68, in the autumn of 1990. I thus see myself as having entered the early winter of my seasons. We have no sure way of knowing where we are in relation to the western horizon, the place where our soul sets, never to rise again. I also appreciate the author’s definition of love as “a powerful attraction to what we cannot possess.” Our lives would have little meaning if not for their transitory nature. It is rarity that makes things precious. A spent moment can never be reclaimed. Love and life are nicely equated in this piece.

    Reply

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