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As autumn rolls in with blustery winds and leaf-strewn lawns, I find myself in a contemplative mood. This season, to me, is evocative of change and even sadness. It was in autumn that my father died. Several of my friends are also facing losses and challenges of a deeply personal kind. How we weather the season depends largely on thorough self-care and unflagging support from those who love us. Prayer, of course, always helps, too.

In the autumn of our days,
may all fall softly.
May heartache land lightly,
astounding us with color:
russet, gold, garnet.
Let us note the blue of the sky,
even as it bulges gray with rain.

May we, like the beasts,
gather what we need
in empathy and acorns,
scattered seed and gentle touch
to last the lean months ahead.
What we cannot glean,
let us amply share.

Just last night,
the trees shrugged off their leaves
as if to say, We are done. Done,
as we all are, with this
annus horribilis.
Still. Under the piles of russet,
of red and gold and brown, there is a sliver
of silver new hope. Can you see it?
We need a God who can take a spark
so small and fan it, with gentle breath,
into a conflagration of love.
Add your own exhalation,
even if it is only a sigh,
and perhaps we will work up
something to warm ourselves by.
And, with time, others will come,
drawn in from the cold.
Here is our directive:
Fall into winter
with a clash of cymbals:
something new is coming soon.

The weather’s gone bitter cold, winter cold. Autumn in all its burnt ochre, crisp brown, burgundy brightness has seemingly been skipped over. Just thinking about trees — as they drop their leaves precipitously — makes me ponder harvest. Trees do as God intends for them to do: They grow, bear fruit, shed leaves and begin the cycle again. But what about humans? What is God’s intention for each of us and how can we know if we are fulfilling it? It is indeed a puzzle.

Trees we judge by their yield, yet —
what is the measure of mortals?
Not rings to mark time
nor grandeur of height.
Surely nothing as showy as an apple,
dappled, toothsome, sweet.
Making money is not near
as lovely as leaves, less utile
than blade and bud that sustain
whole species over long winters.
What have we to give but kindness
and the consolation of a listening ear?
You cannot put these on a table
or measure yield in bushels.
God alone will part our needles,
tap our trunks, ascertain
whether we have given good home
to those who alight on our branches.

Remember Madge the manicurist? She was a character in a commercial (I’m dating myself here) wherein her poor client confessed to having “dish-pan hands.” Well, Madge knew just the cure for that — soap so mild, her client was (gasp!) already soaking in it! It was an ad that incited many questions, not the least of which is what manicurist in her right mind soaks her client’s hand in dish soap? Still, that key line —“you’re soaking in it” — still serves as a trenchant reminder of that which we take for granted.

For instance, gratitude. As Ruth so sagely pointed out, our blessings are all around us. Yet how often do we take the time to say “thank you”? With all the goodness surrounding us in this country of great bounty, we forget how rich we really are. We become “blessing-blind,” convinced that our own virtue and hard work have earned us all that we have. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing we do can earn God’s love. That’s freely given. And our material fortunes can be a combination of many things — some of them unsavory, like greed and manipulation. A group called the Calvinists believed that a person’s material wealth pointed to their favor with God: Lucky on earth, lucky in heaven. But as the parable of Lazarus the beggar reminds us, this isn’t always so. In fact, heaven seems set aside for those who might be best described as “losers”: the poor in spirit, the mourners, those who struggle in vain for peace and justice. “Dish-pan hands”? No problem!

I’ve compiled a brief poetic list of blessings. Take some time to note them when you see them, or add your own to the list. And remember to say a word of thanks. God’s no Madge the manicurist — God made an entire universe to dazzle and amaze us. We’re soaking in it.

The cure for blessing blindness:
one perfect fall leaf,
the smell of a loved one’s sweater,
the blue of the sky,
bread baking, soup bubbling.
Humble human touch.
But bigger, beyond —
the thought that though
our planet hurtles through space
turning, turning,
our feet stick fast to the floor.
Simple gravity. Simple gratitude.

tree-99852_1920Sorry this is late going up.  Autumn is a crazy busy time for me.  I have a book due in 11 days.  The church rummage sale was this weekend – I donated 7 boxes full of stuff and only brought home 2.  And I had a stomach bug that’s going around.

In spite of the craziness, this is one of those times that I always feel closest to God.  Maybe it’s because the weather cooled off for an entire week.  One day it was 90.  The next it was 65. For a week we’ve had the windows open.  I got to listen to a gentle rain while I sprawled out on the sofa with a book.

Tomorrow we are even having an outdoor service. We had a great pavilion and the congregation is going to gather out there to praise God.  The apartment complex next door will be able to hear our music.  Maybe a few extra people will join us.

Tonight, in preparation, we are going to camp out.  We’ll start with s’mores and tonka toasters.  Then we’ll all sleep out where we can hear the breeze and, less wonderfully, the squirrels.  Am I the only one who wonders how a healthy squirrel can make some of those noises?

Whether you get to sleep outdoors, worship under the open sky or just open the windows as the temperatures drop, autumn blurs the walls that we often put up between ourselves and God.  It gives us a bit of an opportunity to breathe deep, make connections and make some breathing room in our souls.

Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite time of the year.


Our Gus died this week. He was a common-looking tabby with uncommonly sweet green eyes, filled with the same uncomplaining gratitude as his mother’s, a stray named Elsa whom we also adopted and lost too soon. But I suppose all death feels too soon; Gus was a senior citizen by kitty standards. Still, we were not prepared for the tumor that quickly overtook his lymph node, growing monstrously in a week, and slowly choking him to death.

Gus was unbelievably kind-natured. He could not sleep alone; he had to be snuggled up against at least one other member of our household, and preferably several. He liked nothing better than to be petted, to bump his striped head against a person, or if necessary, any random soft thing. They say cats are loners. Gussie was proof positive that people say a lot of wrong-headed things about cats.

Although I love autumn — as do so many of us — I find that quite a bit of mourning is associated with this time. So many people I know have lost someone dear to them during these months, and the falling of the leaves, the dying of the light, all remind them of this loss. My friends Alice and Gina lost their mothers in the autumn. I lost my father, as did my friend Maureen.

Some say animals don’t belong in heaven; they have no souls. I cannot countenance such remarks. I think animals know God in a different way than we do, perhaps a more primal way — which is not to say a lesser way. In fact, they may know God more intimately than we can ever hope to. And I cannot believe in a heaven that does not include our pet friends. The day after Gus died, my husband wrote me the following message: “I like to think that when Gus-Gus isn’t teaching “Headbutting With Love” seminars and chasing featherstrings for hours without getting winded, he is snuggled in the middle of the biggest catpile ever.” It helped. But nothing can take away the pain right now. And nothing should. Every life should be mourned, however small, however furry.

Gus taught me that to be loving is a life’s work. And a darned good one, at that. I just hope that his passage was quick and painless, that in an instant, he found himself in that great catpile in the sky. In this season of death, sweet whiskered friend, I pray you found safe passage.

When I was nine, my best friend Teresa and I decided to count to one million. My family had recently moved, so we kept track of our progress through breathless play dates and eager letters: “I’m at 21,345!” “I’m at 33,590!” I knew Teresa would never lie about her progress — she was scrupulously honest, and I took care to track my count by making hatch marks in a spiral notebook, one mark for every hundred. We never got much further than one hundred thousand; I suppose constantly counting in one’s spare time became tedious, especially as I got acclimated to my new school. It was with misgiving that we decided, jointly, to quit.

Some things are practically impossible. Even if one approaches a task with great enthusiasm, the uphill climb may prove insurmountable. And then there are miracles, those wondrous earth-movers that can propel you from the “low thousands” straight up to a metaphorical million in one fell swoop.

I believe in miracles. (As I’ve said dozens of times, anyone with asthma must believe in them. How else to explain the panic of drowning, drowning, drowning, and suddenly emerging, porpoise-like, back to breath?) But miracles don’t always turn out the way we want them to. They are chimeric little things, insisting on their own mystery, only sometimes conforming to our wishes.

This does not make them any less miracles. I feel certain that miracles are softly showering us all the time; we simply don’t notice. We’re too busy under our umbrellas of busy-ness and rote activity (work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep) to take heed of the plethora of wonders landing like roses at the feet of an operatic diva.

Today, I want you to pay attention. Look up from your computer, your plate, your rake and see them: See the miracle of changing leaves, of toiling insects (do you suppose they recognize the miracles that are us, looking down at them?), of the gift of breath, warmth, love. Take heed of miracles. There are millions of them out there, right now, waiting for you.

I thought about calling this
“Season of Loss,”
but Autumn knows better than I.

Leaves leave the tree
with no sense of loss;
they russet, spiral, spin away
freely. Autumn air catches them
at their gilded best.
There is no regret.

The maple does not pine
to be evergreen,
but disgorges her foliage in bunches,
in great, crunching piles,
like an heiress, heedless of her jewels.
There is no sorrow.

That which bore will be barren
soon. Fall does not weep for Winter,
no more than Winter laughs for Spring.
They circle round like dancers,
each season a waltz.
There is no ending.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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