The wind is howling its way around our house, an invisible beast shaking all but the most stubborn autumn leaves to the ground, which has a slight dusting of snow.
The end of my favorite time of year is coming to a close, and I am lucky to resist the attendant call of melancholy. “You were born happy,” my mother used to tell me. Nearly two decades after her death, I finally understand the hint of envy in her voice.
Technically, we are still in autumn. The party is over, but the memory lingers. At the height of its bounty, autumn urges us to celebrate the beauty that comes only with aging. No small comfort, that. Here at season’s end, we are reminded to shed what isn’t working. How else to make room for the glorious new things trying to be born in one’s life?
Here in Cleveland, the trees are mostly bare now, the bony fingertips of their branches reaching upward for something I can’t see. Nestled in their crooks are the homes of birds we heard but couldn’t see through the spring and summer. One of them, a robin’s nest, was hidden in the tree planted for our second grandson. Leo’s lilac, we call it without fail.
The sounds of freight trains threading through our part of Cleveland are no longer muffled by bushy trees. The steady ch-ch-ch in the near distance takes me back to warm summer nights in my childhood home, where we lived close enough to tracks to hear through open windows the occasional engineer’s shout in the night. We were no New York, but my small town, I assured my teenage self, was a city that never slept.
Our dog, Franklin, hears something else in the railway’s comings and goings. Often when a train whistles its approach, he tilts his head to howl his grievances. Surely, he has them even with us, his steadiest companions. We are ever so human, and we all know how disappointing that can be.
The holiday season is here, and as it does every year, it has arrived without regard for the state of our hearts. Most of us try, at least, to live up to the hype, but so often, magical thinking is no match for what the heart knows. If we are paying attention to the news, we have reasons to mourn.
How quickly the mood can shift. One minute, I am seeing the smile on our 5-year-old grandson’s face as I tell him about the baby robins born in his tree, and the next, I can barely breathe from the grief I feel for people I have never known.
Look up, the trees beckon. Reach.
“There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow,” psychologist James Hillman wrote.
What an optimistic note, and one that reverberates in my heart at the oddest times. I look out the window and see the plaster gnome that has toppled onto its side. More mischief from the wind, no doubt, but that beast is no match for this memory.
He’s about a foot tall, this gnome, one hand resting on his hip, the other propped on a “Welcome” sign. He wears a pointed cap, of course, and his white beard stops at the top of his big belly. His black boots are ridiculously large.
This gnome is exactly what I swore would never exist in our yard, until our 2-year-old grandson, Milo, raced across the garden center at the sight of him last spring. He smiled at the gnome, and just like that, the little plaster guy was real.
An hour later, and with great ceremony, Milo lifted the newly purchased gnome in his plump little hands and headed for the frog statue standing under the serviceberry planted for granddaughter Jackie. He stood him up in the frog’s serving dish. “There,” he said.
Immediately, 4-year-old Jackie pointed to the gnome’s “Welcome” sign. “Hey, now the birds know we really mean it,” she said, referring to the berries. She looked up at the sky and lifted her arms wide. “Welcome, birds. Remember to share.”
As soon as I file this column, I will tighten the shawl around my shoulders and go fetch the gnome for his temporary stay on our mantel. Winter is coming, after all.
“The work of the eyes is done,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. “Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”
The season of reflection is nigh. I will work on discarding what isn’t working and cling to the gnome’s reminder that spring is always on its way.