GRIEF AND GRATITUDE, LEAVES AND RAIN

chickenLeaves are falling now in a deluge. In the windless days, they dip down like feathers shaken off from some great, molting firebird. The forest floor is a fantastical mosaic of flame colors as autumn burns away the greens of summer in an inferno of golden, red, and orange. I’ve been wondering whether I could gather the leaves inside and decoupage them onto my kitchen counter, and marvel at them each day, all year long.

Yesterday, I mulched the leaves in the garden, and came across dozens of tiny, sleepy salamanders that I gently placed near boards and stones so that they might slumber in safety for the cold months, and wake up to green, green, green. The toads have vanished, but the frogs still swim in my pond on warmer days, and I come across wandering turtles in the woods whose varnished shells mirror the same bright colors in the leaves beneath them.

turtOver the weekend, Carter and I stopped to help several box turtles—one a brilliant orange—across a busy country highway. I always feel like I’ve earned my keep on the planet on those days when I assist road-bound turtles. I say to myself, “See? There is a reason why you are alive today. Go make yourself useful and save that turtle!”

There is only one animal currently occupying infirmary space here at our digs. That would be Maybell, a young banty hen who was attacked by Gertrude, our much-larger, nasty Wyandotte. Before Gertrude’s reign here ended, she had killed or scared off all our other hens. That only amounted to a grand total of three, but heck, three chickens is a lot of carnage for one bird! Gertrude abides elsewhere now. Maybell, who was fiercely pecked in the eye, has taught me yet one more great truth about life: You can’t wrap a comfrey and onion poultice on a chicken’s head. Just can’t do it. And goodness knows, I tried.

You can, however, feed chickens comfrey and onion poultices, and they like them just fine. Maybell is a very feisty little English game hen, who now follows me like a puppy about the yard. She is doing well, but has a necrotic, nasty smelling sinus discharge remaining from her Gertrude enounter. Hopefully, a long-term course of antibiotics, plus comfrey, onion, and garlic will make her less socially off-putting.

On these mile days of fall, a surprise three offers floated in for our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. All were for considerably less money than we had into the place, yet we were in no financial place to reject them. We settled upon the best of the three, and sent the signed contract in this morning.

The cabin was to have been my “retirement.” In my heart, it had become more like a savior to me, offering up the salvation of financial security in my older years. But alas, that was not to be the case. We all know what these times have done for home prices, and Carter and I were no exception. It sold for half of what it was worth three years ago. Half! Yikes!

johnfallAutumn is a time for gratitudes and griefs. Gratitudes for all the abundance of the summertimes of life, and grief for all that has been taken along the way: dreams, loved ones, eras, ancestors. I’ve written before that all these things we feel have been taken from us can be transmuted into precious gifts we have given, with little more than a simple shift in our inner perception. Forgive me, did I say simple? Let me retract that. Such things are never simple. Still, the promise is there.

But rather than make this honest case for allowing one thing to be transformed into another, today I champion the goodness of autumnal grieving. This season can embrace whatever deep-felt sighs we need to give over to it. The four seasons are the keepers of each and every human emotion, and grief and gratitude are autumn’s special expertise.

My father passed away in an autumn long gone. Carter lost his father and brothers to the season in years past. My first bout with cancer was diagnosed over two decades ago on Halloween. In just these few experiences, not even counting the many, many more, I hold both the gratitude and grief of the season in both hands. My loved ones are gone. My loved ones are at peace.  John’s father is gone. John is blessed to have been loved by such a father. Years ago, cancer terrified me and still sends me into unconscious trembling on Halloween. Years later, I remain alive. I make no effort this season to transform anything, but rather to feel the lightness and heaviness of it all at the same time.

This morning as Carter and I sat in a coffee shop together after signing and sending the papers that will finalize our cabin sale by tomorrow, I listened as Carter spoke quietly about his father. He was such a good, quiet man, Carter said. A man who could do whatever he set his mind to. A man that never missed a day of work in his life. Carter said that of all the losses in his family—all three Knilans brothers, and his mother and father—that it is his dad whom he misses most.

We drove home to a gentle, quieting rain that spilled rivulets of water down the ditch-stream in front of our house. Out my window as I write this, nickel-sized golden leaves drift down with the raindrops and I hear the soft hymn of water and leaves landing on my deck.

I “lost” my secure retirement this morning. Carter “lost” his hope for some breathing room with our budget. Our fathers are gone and remembered and mourned. The wondering is over, and funds will be in our hands by the end of the week. Not what we had hoped for by any means, but enough, I think, if we are careful. Enough.

How blessed are we to have enough. How blessed to live where leaves drift like feathers, and turtles lumber in their jeweled casings in the woods. Last night, three of a tribe of seven flying squirrels ate seeds from my hand in the moonlight. I slept beneath clean sheets and a secure roof. I feel the ache of what is gone, and the exaltation of what remains like opposing streams of ice water and steam in my veins and I shiver. And I smile. And autumn enfolds it all and anoints me with raindrops and leaves.

My you be so anointed and sad and jubilant all at the same time. May fall’s bounty of inimitable beauty fill you up and sustain you. May you be in awe. And may that awe bring you to a state of peace. And remember—no matter what—don’t try to put a poultice on a chicken’s head.

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6 Responses to GRIEF AND GRATITUDE, LEAVES AND RAIN

  1. Cindy says:

    Beautiful writing Susan, as always….

    Fall is the “quieting time” which my heart craves. As leaves turn, so do I…..inwards. As the tress become barren, I feel the need to pare down to the essentials. As the trees become stark against a leaden sky, I stand unadorned, completely stripped of pretense and emotionally naked. It’s time to feel what you need to feel. In early October I am exhilarated and energized, I greet each day like a child bursting to run out the door and dance in the brilliance of the sun, the golden hues of my surroundings beckon me to open myself up to every moment this precious and spectacular month has to offer! But then comes late October, and the chill is definite, like a doorstep, and the melancholy sets in. I, too, lost my father in the Fall, my grandmother too, and once a long time ago a crime was committed upon me on a Fall day, and my innocence left as well, without a goodbye. But like you Susan, I have since learned to hold the hands of both joy and grief, for how can we not embrace both aspects of ourselves, how can we not put the soothing balm of love and attention upon our wounded selves? We are women, and it’s what we do. For others absolutely and without a second thought……so why not for ourselves? I learned that these emotions, these “things” that stay with us forever can turn into our best friends if we let them….if you invite them out to play. It’s how I learned to dance with the emotions that hit me in the Fall. I dance with them, cheek to cheek, and I listen intently to the wisdom they impart. It was a long road before I fully understood how to live side-by-side with these “visitors”. I used to dread Fall, it meant for me the end of a mindless summer filled with excesses used in an attempt to try and fill myself up….and with what? It never worked. It took Fall in all her glory and starkness to show me what my heart needed…a time to reflect, a shedding of superficial things, a dying of sorts. With all the lushness of the foliage gone, I didn’t even have a place to hide…..and this was there I met myself. This was where I began to heal, in the heart of Fall ’96, as I began my road back home.

    The work we do this time of year, all the gathering, the raking up, the mucking out, the pruning back, surely can prepare us for wonderful things to come. For me, it’s to greet winter pristine and joyful, open to her own special gifts, a contented heart, a warm home and lessons learned….lessons now savored.

    In gratitude for all things…..

    Cindy

  2. “. . . I’ve earned my keep on the planet on those days when I assist road-bound turtles. I say to myself, “See? There is a reason why you are alive today. Go make yourself useful and save that turtle!”

    What a beautiful way to phrase this. With humans encroaching more and more on turtle habitat, help across the road (in the direction it is heading) is essential to their survival. I also move them when they are visible on the shoulder and have seemingly safely crossed. Unfortunately, I have seen people swerve purposefully off the road to hit animals.

    They were probably heading to their winter hibernation locations. The cool temperatures set them traveling, sometimes long distances and sometimes to the very same hibernaculum.

    Your efforts will ensure one more season of mating. Due to their low reproductive rate and age of sexual maturity, every box turtle is vital to the population’s survival.

    Great work!

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Patricia, these box turtles were one of my greatest delights in moving to the midwest. What amazing, peaceful, beautiful, prehistoric-looking beings they are! Every time I come upon one in the forest, I gasp outloud in surprise and glee. No two look alike, and all are gorgeous and precious to me. Thank you for reminding our kindred spirits to assist the turtle in the direction it is headed. Folks, if you carry them back to the same side they came from, they are strong of will and purpose and will head right back for the road. Their traveling paths are important to them!

  3. kathey says:

    Hi Susan and All; Thank you for your lovely words. Autumn, for me, comes on like a reprieve from the last hot and humid days of summer. Most of the garden’s produce is put up or finally composted for next year. Then sadness sets in with the loss of the summer beauty and the short, brief time in which it all WAS. I sit and remember, reminisce, in this new silence as I wait for the events of the new season and whatever it may bring. The unknowing of what autumn and winter will be is always unsettling yet also a time in which to grow and try to perfect awareness within the solitude in which I still choose to live, which is becoming harder. Recently I made the biggest effort ever, to get it together and move from this home and landscape of 30 years into a nearby city and fell apart eventually. The fall colors are just too too beautiful, etc., leaving me asking “will I ever be able to leave”. Our Mother gives us so much to revel in that I don’t want to miss any of it, from day to day. I will wait a little longer before leaving for good. And enjoy this new cycle of change once more. .

  4. What a darling photo of you with your chicken Susan 🙂 You look absolutely adorable. Beautiful thoughts on how helping animals along the way make our passage here worth it 🙂

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