“I’m trying to live by heart, because it’s the one human organ in which I’ve never lost faith. When brains break they usually seem to stay broken. When hearts break, though, a surprisingly frequent result is a torrent of newfound compassion.” – quoted in Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, 123.
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For me the world began in autumn. I was born while foliage launched its dramatic maturation, and I blinked brand new blue eyes as temperatures fell and hues heightened around my parents’ place in the foothills of the Rockies.
Whether because of the timing of my birth or independent of it, I feel a deep bond with the season of crisp-clean-cool-calm-colorfulness. Maybe too much of a bond, because driving becomes a hazard for me when the mountains and their expanding patches of orange and red and yellow command my attention and eyes more than the road does. Although I miss school something fierce, I suppose it’s a blessing that this year—the first in many—I won’t need to hole myself away to avoid losing focus by gazing through windows at Squaw Peak instead of gazing at books or computer monitors. Homework is decidedly duller than fall. And the season passes so quickly. I don’t want to blink and miss beauty.
So I love September walks and impromptu nature photo shoots. I love shivering in a cardigan, or lying on the grass to watch low-hanging clouds spill out of the mouth of Rock Canyon and roll across the valley. Once I chanced to catch a leaf in my hand as it spiraled toward the ground. The fortune excited me so much that I skipped—an uncommon occurrence for such a stiff stoic.
The season tingles me. Were it possible, I’d capture it and keep it on hand all year long.
But when I break down autumn into its basic processes, sometimes I shudder and wonder what kind of a morbid nut would get giddy over a season that symbolizes death. What’s my problem? I mean, my goodness, I like watching things die! That’s what goes on, after all, on the mountains I love to watch while shades shift. Trees sense cool weather and short days, so they trigger their leaves to quit photosynthesis, to build up a cell wall that plugs the connection between leafstem and branch and that essentially says, “Thanks for your service, but you’re done, and you shouldn’t expect to receive any more minerals from the ground through the trunk.” So the leaves lose their green. They dry up. They starve. And a soft September breeze knocks them clean to the ground where some student will veer slightly out of her way to smash them in hopes that they’ll crunch. And when they do, and they crumble to dust beneath the sole of her sneaker, let’s be honest—the student rejoices. Rejoices in the destruction.
Which is, frankly, a little macabre. Sometimes I feel a slight twinge of remorse when I glory in dead, dried-up leaves.
Until I remember that fall isn’t actually terminal. The dust of crumbled leaves will seep through the soil under the weight and water of winter snow, and will become the nutrients that fuel buds in the spring. The buds of spring will become the verdures of summer, and the process will start over again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains as the earth makes its orbit, and new babies are born, and humans and trees feel their way through the miracle of slow, stretching growth.
The scripture is familiar: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4), and all this, it says, “is the gift of God” (13).
If you count the one that greeted me to the planet, then this is my twenty-sixth autumn. Across the years that are marked by those falls, I’ve fallen and watched others fall more times than I’d like to count or remember—but somehow we’ve all gotten back up again. Between the time to be born and the time to die there are plenty of breakdowns, and I’ve done my share of weeping and mourning. But in spite of it all, there have been times to dance too. And to laugh—sometimes, irrationally, at the peak of tough times when emotions run high, and a sudden stumble on the stairs, or pun from a professor, or YouTube clip shared by a roommate is enough to spark all the tears and side-aches and suffocation that lead from laughter to healing.
Human beings have the astounding capacity, if they will, to identify God’s gifts even when things appear to be drying up, withering, and falling apart. So I guess what I love about autumn is what I love about people as well.
I know humans whose breaking hearts have brought to them the fiery orange glow of a compassion that carries warmth to others even when the temperature drops. I have friends who’ve been crushed and who’ve turned into dust and who’ve relied on that dust to fuel vibrant growth in the future. I’ve watched loved ones regenerate again and again and a hundred agains. And they’re doing it still. And they will, I believe, ad infinitum, because people are strong as trees. Stronger, I guess, because although I don’t know what it’s like to lose leaves, I’d wager that losing jobs or homes or limbs or sight or brothers or daughters or husbands or hope is an awful lot harder than anything oaks have endured in the chill of September.
God bore hardy children made of spirits that remember Heaven closely enough to appreciate joy, filled with hearts that pound fiercely enough to survive discouragement.
And He gave them autumn to remind them of a plan that brings healing, wholing and reviving.
Essayist Brian Doyle captured in words the beauty of burdened people who commit to carry on. Pondering the weight of disappointments or heartbreaks or duties, he wrote:
“I think about this all the time. I find myself staring at the shoulders of counselors and priests and doctors and mothers, to see what the weight looks like. I find myself thinking that most people sure are extraordinary. I find myself thinking, as I get older and less cocky and less sure and more merciful and more hip to the fact that everyone has scars on their hearts or will, and everyone carries loads or will, and everyone carries their load alone or will, that maybe all people are extraordinary, whether or not I see that clear, and that my seeing it or not seeing it has nothing to do with the reality of grace under duress, which is pretty much the story of the human race. Love carries a lot of pain in its chest” (The Wet Engine, 131-132).
A friend’s mother once told me that she wants a deciduous tree to stand over her grave. “Most people I talk to want evergreens, since they defy death,” she explained, “but I want a tree that shows resurrection.”
The more I think about it, deciduous trees really do make a more fitting legacy not just at death, but throughout life as well. Jesus didn’t only make possible the resurrection that will take us from our tombs to His arms, but also the ones that occur day to day, year to year, fall to fall. That’s why He could promise that “whosoever liveth and believeth in [Him] shall never die” (John 11:26). He is the promise that there will always be new seasons ahead. There will always be purpose, hope, healing, and life. If we clutch Christ’s pierced palms and hang on to His truths, then “all things wherewith [we] have been afflicted shall work together for [our] good, and to [His] name’s glory” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:3).
The trees that color and bare during autumn are not only lovely for their shades and their warmth, but because of their pledge to bring beauty again. They’re resilient. They’re tough. And I love them for it, and I believe that God counts every leaf as it falls, just as He’s aware of each sparrow, each hair, each skipped heartbeat, each pit in the stomach, each cry. And what’s more, God calculated a plan that based life and the world on the doctrine of resurrection. There’s a season for everything, and seasons repeat, and we laugh and we sob and we fall and we grow, and the plan carries on, and we rise and we pray, and we lean on Christ’s breast, from which vantage point we can see that this plan of renewal is indeed a great gift from the God of things that fall beautifully.
So perhaps for us all the world begins in autumn. And each autumn it will begin yet again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains still to come.
 “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” LDS Hymns #104. Text by Edward Hooper.