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….
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.
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