Today is the first day of my favorite month of the year, and also strangely, my most painful month. I have certainly experienced some picture perfect October days in my life – cool crisp sunny days with a smoky smell in the air, scarlet trees, and leaves crunching under my shoes. As a child I never cared for homework (I have yet to meet a kid who does) but when the assignment was to collect autumn leave samples I did it with great enthusiasm. I used to love to press leaves in books and iron them between pieces of waxed paper.

Living in October would be pure joy except for one thing: it’s not so much the real Octobers that I love as much as the idea of October. When the real October fails to live up to the idea it can be painful, like the loss of something precious. The month has only 31 days; every day that the weather is too warm or a cold miserable rain turns the crisp leaves into a sodden mess seems like a lost dream.

Today was an almost perfect October day: 68 degrees with a brilliant blue sky full of fluffy silver clouds. The only problem is that the foliage here in southeastern Virginia is still mostly green. I hold so tightly to my idea of October that I keep forgetting that. A few years ago I scheduled a family photo session for the middle of October hoping to get some beautiful fall pictures. I bought coordinated sweaters for the four of us and off we went to scenic bridge with our photographer. The weather was warm and the trees were green. We ended up rescheduling for November.

Lately the leaves around here do not reach their full autumnal glory until mid-November but for some reason I can’t shake off the October dream, the way October is supposed to be. Maybe it’s better this way – to have the dream develop slowly, tantalizing me with hints and foreshadowings of the glory to come: a sweet cool breeze here, a woodsy aroma there, a few scattered leaves on the ground, some golden brown weed stalks, dry at the edges….

My backyard, Fall 2010. Cocoa on picnic table and AJ

 I grew up a couple hundred miles north of here and also it seems like the climate has shifted since my childhood. In my memories of long ago Octobers I am crunching through piles of maple and oak leaves, filling a paper bag with the most perfect leaf specimens and big smooth acorns. What is it about this time of year? It always evokes the sweetest longing feeling for me. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis captures the October feeling: “….it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is in itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Lewis calls this feeling “joy” and distinguishes it from both happiness and mere pleasure. If the desire for this joy causes pain (because it is not satisfied) that pain is more desirable than any other pleasure this world can offer.

Joy can come to different people from difference sources. I also get the searing pain of desire sometimes when I look at a beautiful mountain scene. But I think many people feel it in autumn.  Perhaps there is something evocative of desire in the combination of splendid beauty and the sense of the lateness of the hour, the knowing that something is coming to an end. Lewis also describes autumn joy. In Surprised by Joy, after describing the overwhelming feeling he got once as a child in a garden, he says:

“The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered a shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that is impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it.”

I think Lewis hits the nail on the head about the nature of this kind of desire. I get it when I look at certain mountain scenes – the ridiculously unrealistic desire to possess the mountain and the overwhelming sadness of knowing I cannot. It’s not reasonable – it’s a feeling that seems to overtake you from the outside, like a wave.

So, it seems, spiritual experience can descend on us from anywhere any time – from nature, from books, from a stranger’s smile. You cannot make it happen; it just does. That’s why Lewis was surprised by it. And that’s why I meet this October with some trepidation. My expectations are so high and I’m afraid this earthly October will not be able to meet them. I will surely appreciate ever moment of beauty it does bring, but I must hold to the belief that if there is an “idea of October” that is so exquisitely beautiful that desiring it is itself a pleasure, then somewhere in eternity such an October must exist. The possibility that I may one day stand in such a place is enough to keep me moving forward through the imperfect copies of this world, always on the alert for the smallest whisper of the glory to come.

Now I think I will gather my browns, vermilions, and deep reds and draw some pictures.

Fall 2010 - The road on the way to work

14 Responses to Glorious October! (Or at least we can hope)

  1. Renee says:

    Carol, a true autumn is a wonderful time of the year. Hopefully you'll get to see a glimpse of what you where expecting. The scenery near your home is amazing, specifically the coloring of the trees.

  2. Carol, I don't experience Autumn or Winter in Singapore, but I've always been fascinated with these cooler months. In my mind, you've painted such a romantic dream for October: a brilliant blue sky with silver clouds. I imagine the leaves will be turning red these two weeks, and the woodsy smell will arrive, too. Have a wonderful October. =)

  3. Brenda says:

    I love the original Carol art work. I got stuck there before venturing into the post. Then I was stuck on the idea of a favorite month, is it like having a font? I have a favorite font, but not a specific month or day. I live in California so my understanding and appreciation for the seasons is dicey at best. Having made my case, I was captivated by your post. You almost had me sniffing and hoping this October is perfect for you. It isn't much, but I hope it holds out. I don't think you are alone in your love of a season, or having one, although your reasons is the most passionate and unique I've ever read. Does it count that I have a favorite temperature?

  4. Well, your drive to work certainly looks autumnal. I share the same sentiments about the month. Not only is it my birth month, but it is that time of year when fire places ignite, when leaf jumping becomes an afternoon sport, when winter stews and pot roasts begin to cook, and when the beauty of changing trees captures the soul. Often, the October – and the other "seasons" of our lives, as well – don't meet our expectations. And perhaps they never did. Our high expectations, however, are reflective of our capacity for hope, for love, for dreams. And that's a beautiful thing, I think.

  5. Marcy says:

    I live in Connecticut, and I have the sort of October you are picturing. I love it, too, but my heart belongs to summer. I love to travel and play tennis and have blocks of unscheduled time. (I'm a teacher with the summer off.) I liked the thoughts about trying to possess places. I think that's one of the reasons why I like taking photographs so much. Photos of mountains, though, never capture them right! (At least mine don't.)

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      I recently read that northeastern USA is one of two places on earth where the leaves turn the deep red. I forget the other place. Most of the planet has to settle for yellow and orange autumns. Down here in the southern tip of the mid-atlantic (or the northern tip of the south) we get a touch of red, but pale in comparison to New England. You are one of the lucky ones, to live in Connecticut. Of course, if I lived there I might never get any work done in October.

  6. Scrollwork says:

    How intriguing that C.S. Lewis called unsatisfied desire joy. Contrast that with Buddha's definition of desire as the root of misery. And then add in the line from the movie about C.S. Lewis' life, in which his wife, Joy, prepares him for her impending death by saying, "The joy now is a part of the sadness then." Poignancy flavors the very temporary nature of happiness and exalts it to joy, I think.

    Such a sensitively written post, Carol.

    There's a scene in Stepmom in which children are running on a hill as autumn leaves drift down. It left such a longing in my heart to retire somewhere with a hill and four seasons. Sigh.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thanks Scrollwork for the great comment! I think unsatisfied desire is joy only if you believe that someday, somewhere it will be fulfilled – i.e., heaven. If you believe that the desire has zero chance of ever being fulfilled, then of course it can only be torture. Interesting comparison. It gives me something to think about as I drift to sleep tonight. Poignant is a excellent autumn adjective.

  7. Thelma Z says:

    My feelings about October match yours. Not quite fall here but the beginnings. Football, sweaters, acorns. And the month my husband died, so pain and joy are mixed.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thelma – I can only imagine the feelings October brings up for you. What an intense month October is, for so many reasons. Blessings to you!

  8. Lovely piece! I can relate to the ideal of a how a season should be. I live in California and we don't always get a full autumn or a full spring. We joke about it, how we get maybe a tease of each, then BOOM its' winter, or BOOM it's summer. Nothing in between. But I still hang onto the notion of four seasons. Sigh… well, now you've inspired me to go take a walk in this not-so-autumn-ish California weather ;-)

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thank you Michael Ann. I hear some great things about California weather though. There are always pros and cons, wherever we end up living. Where is the place with four perfect seasons and no hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes? If I find out I'm moving there!

  9. October was always my favorite month. I love the crisp air and the smell of October. Yes, October has a smell. I'm guessing you know what I'm talking about. I love your picture (the one you drew–though the others are nice, too). Walking and running in this weather is just amazing.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Kelly I know Pennsylvania is one of the BEST places for enjoying fall. You are so fortunate to live there. Yes October does have a smell – it's one of the many things I love about it.

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