Most years, I feel like autumn sneaks up on me. The heat gradually seeps out of the late summer days too slowly to notice, and then one day suddenly I’m walking to work and the wind comes up and I’m realize I’m cold! But this year I actually felt autumn arrive by degrees. A. and I spent last week working from a cabin not far from the beach, one of those thin-walled places with no insulation or heat, and only an outdoor shower. (Wifi, though, that essential utility, was there in abundance!) I packed a down vest and a scarf, but for the first few days I was wearing tank tops and capris, having to duck out of the midday sun because it was so hot. I drove to the store each morning for iced tea. In the mornings I wrote in an armchair next to an open window, sunlight and breeze streaming in. By 2pm, when the shade covered the yard, I moved outside with my laptop and sat under a big maple tree.
This routine kept up until about Thursday, when we woke up with cold cheeks, the blankets feeling thin. A morning fire suddenly seemed like a good idea. I put the kettle on the range and packed the wood stove with kindling, still in my pajamas. It seemed too cold to step outside and brave the shower first thing. Still, the afternoons were warm, and the iced tea and outdoor writing ritual continued. By Saturday, the cabin’s walls felt like cardboard. The morning fire had gone from a novelty to a necessity. Outside the breeze smelled of dry leaves. We had crossed the invisible line between days when you seek the shelter of the shade to days when you unconsciously gravitate towards the sun. We had arrived in autumn.
Autumn has always been my favorite season. Something happens to my energy, like blowing on a fire, it ignites with a sudden whoosh! Brisk winds clear out the last of the summer lethargy. Paradoxically, as the days get shorter my stamina (weirdly, now a loaded word!) gets longer. I want to do everything at once.
That autumn should be joyful is somewhat counterintuitive. It’s a slow slide into winter’s barrenness. It’s a full-scale immersion in the experience of decay. Theoretically, that should be depressing as hell. But the way I see it, autumn is also the sign of a year going down in a blaze of glory. It’s a stunning last act, a vibrant refusal to just fade away. If fall had a mascot, I think it would be Iris Apfel or Emiko Mori, women whose auras seem to expand in old age instead of shrinking in the way the world expects. All the color, the scents, the foods: like the finale of a variety show, autumn pulls out all the stops. I think of Wordsworth:
“Wild is the magic of autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.”
Something I’ve been exploring lately is the idea of bittersweet joy: the joy that mingles with sadness, loss, or nostalgia. A poignant kind of feeling, it’s a mature strain of joy, a joy that is somehow deepened by its imperfection. Many things become more complex with age: wine, houses, friendships. Our emotions do too. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, it’s that moment where the emotions start to become tinged with blue, holding sadness and joy together. As we age, we seem able to hold more contrasting ideas together in our minds, and more conflicting feelings in our hearts. If summer is pure, unadulterated joy, then autumn is a deeper, less obvious pleasure.