I am back home on this rainy day in the Northwest. I was discharged from the Cuckoo’s Nest late Monday afternoon.I had not been outdoors in a week, beyond the cement patio outside the ward where we gathered once every few days for a few minutes when the weather wasn’t bad.
My, but the foliage can do a lot in a week! Here at home our dogwood tree is bare bones now. It was flaming burgundy when I left. A nondescript Japanese maple off of the side yard has decided to make herself known by dressing up all showy and fine in yellows and mauves, with a flashy edge of eye-popping scarlett. Slugs have turned just about every leaf in the garden into lace…
Autumn is in her glory here now, all her flash and pageantry belying her foundational energy of inward turning. Slowly, every living thing is heeding her call. More and more trees stand naked. Flower heads bend down brown and sodden. Rain falls with a soft, lulling murmur. I look for signs of that rash exuberance of summer, and am gladdened when I find few beyone the stained-glass brilliance still on many leaves. I am glad that the seasons turn. I am happy for this annual march of summer to autumn. I treasure this time when nature begs us to slow down, bundle up, and ponder.
Here at home, I am making small, thoughtful lists of the things that help me de-stress. What are the simple things that build a strong foundation, day-to-day? One thing I find helpful to my mental health is the comfort and grounding of daily chores. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about cleaning the cat box or scrubbing the bathroom floor, but there are other chores that I have tackled these past two days with gratitude: The smell of fresh sheets and the snapping sound they make when I shake them out onto the empty expanse of the mattress. The clink of dishes in the sink and the soft uttering of water rushing over my hands. The startling roar of the vacuum cleaner. The smell of apples cooking.
Outside my windows, the creatures of my neighborhood and yard are choring right along with me. There is a sleek squirrel shoving sunflower seeds into a small hole he’s dug near the strawberry planters. A fierce-hearted rufous hummingbird patrols his feeder by the door. The ruby-throated hummingbird sneaks in to take a sip at the feeder by my bedroom window. A neighbor’s cat washes her face and tail on my front porch with great deliberateness and watches the raindrops splash up like miniature fountains as they hit the wooden steps.
I raked leaves today, grateful for the garden gift of leaves. They are soil food of the best kind, and raking them was soul food of a very simple and accessible kind. All it takes is a rake and a basket to be both busy and at the same time, still inside.
Carter took himself fishing this morning. The salmon are finishing up a run soon, and he is spending hours by the water’s edge, his hands busy with the tackle and line, but his spirit settled still within.
Author Thomas Moore, who writes much about the soul, says that the soul tends to swing between polarities. It is not a lover of balance. When we are surrounded by company, the soul swings and whispers to us about how nice it would be to have some solitude. When we are quiet inside, the soul nudges us to distraction. When we are aimless, the soul dreams of routine and fixedness. I think the seasons are like that, swinging like the soul between abundance and leanness, green hills and white, Sun and shadow.
I’ve spent the past week in intense retrospection, and now my soul, through my hands, seeks the comfort of busyness. But not too much busyness. In choring, I can keep a portion of my mind inward, because the hands know the activities well and can perform them with near-automatic efficiency. I don’t have to think to slice up the apples, stack them in the crockpot, and push the button. My hands know where to tuck the sheet ends. My feet know the path to the barrel of sunflower seeds and peanuts.
I have never noticed before the wonderful stillness in the body that can come from routine movements: Brushing teeth, drinking a cup of hot broth, hanging a bird feeder. It is as though my body pours itself like warm syrup into these simple, significant daily rituals. The effect is even deeper when I put mindfulness to these tasks, when I pause just the briefest of instants to feel what I am doing.
This, then, is an autumn gift I had not before now. The season invites pauses. Now that the busy work of gardening is waning, and the cold, wet mornings and evenings encourage more house time, I see the stark simple beauty of easy, useful choring.
Let me put it this way: Busyness can be a mindless distraction, or it can be a mindful ceremony. The choice, autumn whispers to me, is ours.
In summer, life seems to welcome the loud laughter, the shouts, the dazzling activity. But the feeling I have about the world I see outside my window now—that soft and confiding gray world—is the sense I get when I step into a library. Nature is shushing me now, and I am listening. I am listening while I fill the tub. While I fetch and sort the mail. While I grab up the leash and ball-flinger for a walk with my dog.
Are you listening, too? What is this grand season whispering in your ear, through your hands, to your heart?