Autumn's Dying


By Joy Netanya Thompson Growing up in Los Angeles, I am accustomed to hearing transplants and tourists informing me that my fair city does not experience the four seasons. I always nod in agreement, but with a smile that hides something I know and they don’t: we do have seasons here in L.A., but they are subtle and nuanced, a familiar rhythm to the native who knows the scent of fall coming in on the heels of August, the sight of jacaranda trees celebrating the summer solstice with brilliant purple confetti, the majestic oak trees’ stately look of determination as they stand bare and waiting through winter.

Autumn is the most discreet of Los Angeles’s seasons. Though the scorching heat of summer does not often subside until late September, the fall-fragranced breeze always dances into our days in late August, preparing us for darker mornings and cooler evenings, accompanied by frothy pumpkin lattes and hearty dinners. Even now in my late twenties, these subdued signals of autumn are enough to give me the same butterflies I’ve felt since I was a child anticipating a new school year.

We are just entering September and the autumn breeze arrived last week to sweeten my bike rides through tree-lined avenues of my neighborhood in Pasadena. But for the first time in a long time, I’m not starting school in a few weeks, and those anticipatory butterflies only fluttered for a moment before I shooed them away. In June I finished graduate school, and this summer, which started with a glorious month of resting, celebrations, and vacation, has ended on a long monotonous note of job-hunting in a sweltering apartment.

As the seasons prepare for their quarterly changing of the guard, my tediously long days become almost unbearable, and I itch for change not just in the weather, but in myself and in my life.

Yet this is how the seasons save us, and shape us. If I am still unemployed come October, the crisp sunny days cartwheeling toward pumpkin patches, football games, and changing leaves—and eventually, turkeys and giving thanks and even the distant twinkling lights of Yuletide—will lift my heart and give me a sense of movement, even as I sit at the same chipped wooden table in my apartment, hunched over the same sluggish Macbook and searching for jobs.

We need change, and the seasons are a release valve for our need, as well as a chance to surrender to this facet of our humanity with grace and glory. Often it seems the whole year is leaning forward toward summer, with visions of cookouts, beach trips, and watermelon dancing through our heads. But by the end of that yearned-for season—those long dazzling days of sunlight and draining heat, of thinking up ways to fill the endless hours between the tireless sun’s rising and setting—our mouths are dry and dusty with their thirst for change, for relief from the unceasing heat and light.

What’s interesting about our turn toward fall is that we are so desperate for change we actually choose to embrace death. That’s what autumn is, really—if not death than dying, a quick trot through crunching leaves and golden sunlight to winter’s deadness. Our desire for change is so fervent and ingrained we are willing to exchange the eternal bright glory of summer for the crimson decaying glory of autumn and, inevitably, the dark, dead, iced glory of winter. Our souls are seeds and they beg to be buried in the silence, away from the light. Our souls are squirrels, instinctively busying ourselves through autumn so we might survive the meager portion winter will dispense.

Yet somehow autumn, with its first signs of death, gives us a shiver of new life, an echo of what is on the other side of our winter’s death. Even as children, we couldn’t help feeling excitement at the prospect of the school year, although it meant the lowering of summer’s flag of freedom. We busied ourselves accumulating school supplies, reading lists, rumors about our new teachers; we buried ourselves in schoolwork and activities. Now that we are grown, we realize that every fall we learn to surrender as squirrels and seeds do: to burying and being buried, to hibernating and waiting, so our souls might feed on the change that is their food, and so in the soft light of springtime we might produce new life—green tendrils shooting forth from the rich soil of our being, promise of hope and nourishment once more.