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Jane Ahlin, Published September 19 2010

Ahlin: Savor the beauty of autumn because it cannot be saved

In the first years after my grandparents bought their Minnesota lake cabin (a full 150 miles from our prairie hometown), I had a love affair with cattails. As far as I was concerned, cattails edging that Minnesota lake, spilling out into every ditch and low spot, were a delightful display of opulence that the prairie lacked. More than indicating the end of summer, they were a legion of little soldiers trumpeting the glory of fall.

With their tubular shape and rich brown fuzzy sheaths atop long stalks, they so charmed me that one Labor Day weekend when I was in high school, I insisted on cutting a dozen or so and carting them home. I intended to make a wonderful centerpiece for the dining room table. My mother was dubious about my plans, telling me, “They’ll burst and send fluffy seeds everywhere.”

But I insisted I’d hang them to dry on the basement clothesline and spray them with acrylic. “They won’t burst,” I said confidently.

A few weeks later, they burst and sent fluffy seeds everywhere.

I don’t remember ascribing a moral to the cattail tale back then, but I might now. Indeed, it’s an uncomplicated thought, one echoed in the seasons of life. Simply put, the beauty of fall can be savored but not saved.

When folks talk about fall’s “peak,” they’re usually talking about those few fleeting days after almost all trees and shrubs have turned color and the resulting montage is a panorama of brilliance – a brief and stunning instant before winter sets in. I look at fall’s peak, however, as the seasonal moment when we have it all: harvested wheat fields shiny with rubble; soybeans, reddish yellow and withering; corn, tall and rusty-tasseled; sugar beets, green and full; ivy, overgrown and red-tinged; and maples, aglow all by themselves while neighboring trees are green, dotted only here and there with yellow patches. Lawns still need mowing, flowers bloom, and shirt-sleeve weather prevails (at least, shirt-sleeve afternoons). The end of summer and the beginning of fall intermingle.

In the seasons of life, it’s harder to recognize when we have it all. Only after loss or change do we see – albeit in the rearview mirror – the fullness we’ve enjoyed.

My sister-in-law’s mother died a few weeks ago. She was a capable, energetic woman, a loving wife, mom and grandmom on the early side of her mid-70s. One moment she was making morning coffee, and the next she was gone. Her family is in shock: She was their center. It wasn’t that they took her for granted, and yet, they hadn’t entirely realized how integral she was to every facet of their lives. In her, the threads of their lives became cord and cable. Now, they feel frayed, unraveled.

No doubt, kind friends assure them they will pull through, that she would want them to get their lives back to normal. It’s our cultural expectation. But if we think about it, it’s as silly as telling new parents to get back to what they were before their baby was born. Folks aren’t wallowing in grief when they face that loss has changed life irrevocably. Quite the opposite: Trying to live as they did before is the harmful pretense.

In a philosophical piece for The New York Times titled “On Not Returning to Normal,” Tom Sorell, the director of the Center for the Study of Global Ethics at Birmingham University, says that tragedies and emergencies “should usher in discontinuity.”

Most of his discussion is about the enormity of public emergencies, such as the tragedy of 9/11, but he extends it to personal upheavals in life. He ends by saying that “break(ing) from our past” in the wake of misfortune or loss “is not at all for us to be broken” by it. We reconsider what is most important and reconnect with life as changed people.

Saying fall is “bittersweet” is cliché. But it resonates. The season begins in sensory fullness and predictably ends bleak and bare. As the season goes by, nature’s glory gives us moments we ought to enjoy, moments that don’t last.

We’re wise to appreciate beautiful moments in our lives, too – times to savor that we cannot keep.

Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum’s Sunday commentary page.