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Jane Ahlin, Published November 05 2011

Ahlin: It’s happiness and sadness in our bittersweet autumn

My brother and I sit on the end of his dock on a quiet Saturday morning early in October, a morning of reprieve following big winds that roared for two days straight. The view of the lake has changed dramatically from the previous Saturday. Tree-plumes of brilliant color against bright blue sky – mirrored on the still and shiny water a mere week ago – have turned into upside-down brooms with gray-brown bristles rimming a lake gone gray. What was last week’s glory on the trees instead softens our steps, a multi-colored leaf carpet underfoot.

The week before, sun and shirtsleeves were the order of the day; on this day, it’s clouds and fleece. My brother brings the coffee pot to the dock, and, committed coffee-drinkers that the two of us are, we sip and sit quite a while.

Although we are longtime dwellers of this northland, the suddenness of the change in landscape from breathtaking to bland surprises us, almost as if we hadn’t noticed the same thing happening, year after year after year. (On the up side, being surprised yet again must mark us as optimists: Like Linus waiting confidently for the Great Pumpkin to come to his pumpkin patch, we’re sure autumn’s glory will last all through October.)

There’s something about the trees suddenly losing their leaves that takes away our defenses. We’re sobered. In fact, the overcast day – the specter of bare-branched trees and leaden sky – defines our mood. Subdued, our conversation is quiet with lapses of silence.

Of all the seasons, only autumn is bittersweet, drawing out feelings of happiness and sadness at the same time. No pretense in these sentiments: A season begun in splendor will (and must) morph into the next season of snow and cold, ready or not. We’re helpless to change it. And because life’s seasons strongly echo the seasons of the year, emotionally, we find ourselves as stripped down as the natural world. We’re vulnerable, exposed for who we are. Unexpectedly in touch with our basic selves, our thoughts are basic, too. Frankly, we can’t decide whether we ache because life is so good or because, by its very nature, it’s filled with loss.

Loss comes in many forms; indeed, we can’t count the ways. At its worst, we lose people we love – absolutely nothing is harder. However, that’s not the only category of loss that leads us to carry a sense of bittersweet with us as autumn leaves drift down.

The truth is, nobody grows or changes without loss. In her book written over two decades ago titled “Necessary Losses” and subtitled “The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow,” author Judith Viorst looks both at the constancy of loss in ordinary living and at the problems of getting stuck when we don’t understand that the pain of loss moves us forward. From a baby figuring out that life doesn’t begin and end with “Mom” to a young adult struggling to leave the safety of home (and the exact opposite of “Mom” not facing the fact her baby is in a new stage or parents unable to let their grown-up children go), something has to be given up before something else is gained. Such experiences are universal, and yet, they also are intensely personal.

By the time we reach middle age, we’ve figured out that no matter the stage of life, what’s really happening is that we’re always losing our younger selves.

Two Saturdays later, my brother’s dock has been pulled from the lake onto the yard, where it will sit until ice-out occurs in the spring. A pleasant surprise, Indian summer reigns, and he, his wife and I enjoy hot, fresh-from-the-oven muffins she’s baked while we sit on their lakeside porch, basking in late-morning sunbeams and warm temperatures. The lake sparkles in the sun and breeze, its glitter the silver shimmer of autumn rather than the diamond-like effervescence of summer. By now we’re into the rhythm of the season with its meteorological ups and downs and are particularly aware of autumn’s cardinal rule: When the sun shines, get under it.

The trees are bare, but life goes on.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.