5 Fall Leaves

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It rained at our house all last weekend. It did this last fall too. Last year it felt like it was summer for like 6 months and then it got cooler for like 3 days and then it started raining. And it kept raining for another 6 months. Last year the winter was mild, but the rain seemed non-stop.

One of the things that scientists tell us about climate change is that weather will get more intense. If you live in an area prone to hurricanes, they will happen with greater frequency and at greater intensity. If you live in an area prone to drought, the droughts will get longer and dryer. If you live in an area where it rains, it will rain more. We have seen these changes play out over the last few years, and they have been part of what has made 2020 so uniquely challenging.

There is another impact to climate change. It serves to make seasons less distinct. This year, there wasn’t much difference between spring and summer. It just got hot and stayed that way. And most of us spent both seasons the same way. On lockdown. Between climate change and COVID, it’s harder to tell the difference between seasons. We have to look for more subtle changes. Like the rain.

The rain is here. Fall is here. Some of the traditional signifiers are here. It’s cooler at night. We have had our windows open for two weeks now. It has been nice. The leaves are starting to change, the final explosion of color before they start to fall.

We call autumn “fall” because of the falling of the leaves. It is one of the more dramatic signifiers of the changing season. Only these days, the trees are often confused. The normal fluctuations of temperature and humidity no longer serve to let trees know when to drop their foliage. We have some trees in the woods behind our house that are holding on to their leaves, and remain deep green. Other trees have already turned colors and dropped their leaves. 

Everything is confused by where we are it seems. And despite our confusion, time moves forward.

This week I will be sharing 5 Fall Leaves, some thoughts about fall, and about change.

Fall Leaf #1

Nothing lasts forever.

A year or so ago, in the beforetimes, Justin and I went to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill for one of our morning outings. We were looking at books in the kids section, and I was on the floor reading one to him when I heard someone calling my name. 

When I looked up I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a while. This was someone who I worked with on various boards and committees dealing with issues of racial justice and equity in schools and in the local court system. Before that, I had been the coach of her daughter’s YMCA basketball team (the same one Lizzie was on). The girl’s basketball team had been for 4 and 5 year olds. 

We spent a few minutes catching up. She knew that Justin had been born, but it was the first time she met him in person. She asked about Lizzie and I told her that Lizzie was getting ready to start school at East. I asked about her daughter, and she said that her daughter would be starting at Carrboro High and was very excited. She took out her phone and showed me a current picture of her daughter, who looked completely grown up.

I have to admit, I was surprised. Like surprisingly surprised. I guess I knew intellectually that her daughter was getting older. I mean, kids do that. But seeing her was shocking. In my mind, her daughter was still a 4 year old running the wrong way on the court during a Y basketball game. I assumed she was still more interested in asking questions about how the scoreboard worked than being ready to go to high school. I showed my friend pictures of Elizabeth. I could tell that she had much the same reaction to seeing her.

We are acutely aware of our own changes and our own growth, and we are aware of the changes taking place in the people we share our lives with. And I think that we understand that other people are growing and changing too. But when we don’t see it every day, we sometimes lose sight of just how constant change is. We assume that everything is exactly the way it was when we were a part of it, and that people stay the same as they were when we knew them.

Visiting the campus of the university that Barb and I attended with first Alex and then Matthew was an eye opening experience. It was still the same place. Some of the buildings have stood for 100 years. And. It was different too. Different offices in different places, professors retired and gone, new students, and an energy that was similar... and different too. Change. It was all over campus. The university wasn’t the same as it had been in 1992. Why would it be?

Change happens. It is a process. It is ongoing. Nothing lasts forever. Not the seasons, not the leaves, not the colors. Not even the rain. 

When this pandemic ends and we start to see one another again, we all will have changed. 2020 has changed us. Trump has changed us. Our collective suffering and ongoing battle for justice changes us. Things will be different. And what will that mean? What will it look like?

Some of us will see each other and it will be like meeting for the first time. And in a way, we will be.

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing stays the same. Change is constant.

Even when we wish it wasn’t.

Fall Leaf #2

Summer ends.

Growing up, summer was my favorite season. I liked the unstructured nature of time that came with the summer. There were chores that needed to be done, but for the summers of my youth were spent unsupervised and without burden. There were no assignments and no due dates. There were very few expectations. I liked the freedom.

I liked the sun and the heat. I feel like I came alive at 90 degrees. I liked being outside, even at the hottest part of the day, riding horses and exploring our ranch, imagining that I was on the Goodnight-Loving Trail in 1880.

My favorite holiday as a kid was the 4th of July. I loved the heat and the cookouts and the beer. I loved the fireworks and the ostentatious performative patriotism. I even loved that damn Lee Greenwood song which would invariably play during the big fireworks finale. I even liked waking up the next day slightly hungover, smelling vaguely of sunblock and bad choices, knowing that it was summer and that a trip to the pool or the lake or the beach would cure it all, and put the stars in their courses.

I loved summer.

I use the past tense because summer has changed. Parenthood had a lot to do with that. The unstructured time that I loved and adored as a kid has become a problem to be solved as an adult. How do I keep the kids engaged for 3 months? How do I make sure they move, get off their phones, stay connected with other people? How do I keep the entertained, engaged, and safe? It’s not easy. And that’s a lesson we have learned again and again during the pandemic.

The heat is no longer appealing. I mean, it’s fine. I will just avoid it if possible. A summer in Iraq’s western desert and some time in the oven that is Kuwait cured me of any kind of nostalgic love of the heat. Sometimes hot is just hot. 

I came back from Iraq in early 2006 and immediately went to an Army school in Georgia that took me away from my family for 5 more months. It was June 2006 before I was back home for the first time in over a year and a half. We made big plans to go to my mom’s house in Myrtle Beach for the 4th of July. It was going to be epic. My favorite holiday. The beach. And not just any beach, Myrtle Beach. As iconic as any place in America, synonymous with sun and fun and parties. I was looking forward to returning to normalcy after my combat experiences. I was looking forward to feeling like things were okay.

It was a goddamn disaster.

On the 4th of July, we went to the beach early. We spent most of the day there. The beach was crowded and loud, with people everywhere. I was on edge and nervous all day. I was agitated and grumpy, and I didn’t even really know why. I wouldn’t understand that I had PTSD until years later. I just knew something was off and I was being an asshole. So to solve that problem, and to feel less anxious, I started drinking. By the time the sun set I was well on my way to being hammered.

When the fireworks started, everything came to a head. I was standing on the beach, in sand. Suddenly there were fireworks not just in the sky, but being set off on the beach by everyone around us. There were pops and explosions, shifting colors and sounds in the dark. The beach was covered in the thick smoke of black powder. Gun powder. People everywhere. Sand kicking up. 

I lost it. For a few minutes I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t distinguish what was real, what was memory. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

And.

It ended. These things have an end. Even when it feels like they never will.

2020 has been the longest year ever. The one thing that comes up in every conversation I have is how tired everyone is. How it feels like the bad news will never end. 

And the truth is that things come to an end. Summer ends. It ends literally. Sometimes, summer ends figuratively, as its meaning changes for us. Summer changed for me on that beach. 

There is always the temptation to believe that what we are going through is all there is. It isn’t. 

Summer ends.

Fall Leaf #3

Winter comes.

I have been thinking a lot about mortality the last 6 months. The deaths of 200,000+ people in your country will do that. I have been thinking about getting older. I am nearly 50. Statistically, I am better than 2/3 of the way to my demise. The days I have left are fewer than the days I have had. 

I am at the age where my friends have started dying. And not of random, unexpected events. The usual stuff that takes people too soon. Cancer. Heart disease. Things that come with getting older.

My beard comes in gray. At least in part. I still have my hair, which is the one aspect of aging that is completely irrelevant to me. Hair has never really been an important part of my self-image. I have shaved my head for years. Even so, the gray is coming.

My body gets sore easier. It takes longer to recover from things. And I even have to be choosy about when and where and how I do stuff. One wrong move and I am definitely tweaking something. 

Winter comes, but it doesn’t come all at once. 

I have watched and read a lot of fictional accounts of the end of the world. Zombie apocalypse and meteors and viruses that kill millions. Authoritarian governments that take over the world and take freedom from the people. In all of these movies and books you are left with the impression that dystopia happens quickly, in a moment. Things are normal and then they aren’t.

But we have seen over the last few months that isn’t how it works at all. Winter comes slowly. Things are normal. Then slightly less normal. Then a bit more. Then a bit more. Chaos and dystopia, it turns out, is just a slow boil. A simmering of terrible things.

I want to avoid it all. I have seasonal affective disorder and the gray skies and prolonged hours inside and the lack of sun all combine to make me a little loopy in the winter. Sad yes, but something more than that. Sad and scared. I think that we are all a little sad and scared now. It’s like our whole country is in this very weird season, and it has affected us. A lot.

I take some comfort in knowing that winter comes. It is predictable. We get older. Snow and ice cover once living ground. Things that didn’t seem possible before come to pass. A mad man is actually inaugurated as president. That happened in winter.

Winter is a part of our lives. It is part of us. It is a season that we pass through, just like all the others. Winter comes, to be sure, but it doesn’t stay. There is hope on the other side. Sun and green and new life.

Nothing lasts forever. Winter comes. But so does spring. Despair visits. And so does hope. 

For a long time winter scared me. The cold and the dark made me feel dread. And there is still some of that. And. I know that this is just temporary. I know it is coming. And I say let it come when it comes.

Until then, I will live in the autumn. I will watch the leaves change. I will let them remind me that change is constant, and that even winter doesn’t last forever.

Fall Leaf #4

Enjoy the changing colors.

Long before he even considered the Air Force, I knew that certain aspects of being in the military would appeal to Matthew. He has always been a creature of habit, and he was someone who craved order. 

We never once had to tell Matthew to clean his room. Not a single time. Everything was always in place and tidy. I dearly love my girls. They were not what one would call tidy. Especially Alex. OMG. That one is half a hoarder. (I love you Al, but c’mon. You know this is true.) And we should have given Justin the middle name Chaos. Because that’s what it is.

Not Matthew. Even when he was little, he kept things minimal and organized. He even lined stuff up on his desk, because we are all a little autistic about some things. One of the ways I used to mess with him was to rearrange the stuff on his desk. I would turn his game cases around. Put his controller in a different place. Place his mouse on the opposite side of the computer.

He would get adorably exasperated. And hey, what’s the fun in being a parent if you don’t make your kids adorably exasperated every now and again?

While he has had to learn a new way to fold his things, and a new way to be organized, the idea of being organized, the idea of having a predictable space and a predictable schedule, none of these are new to Matthew. They are just the water he swims in.

I think we all have a desire for predictability. We all have a desire for some things in our life and experience to be consistent. It helps the world make sense. We crave routines and simplicity, at least in some areas of our life. Like Matthew, we like to have things in their place. We can be creatures of habit.

I think that most of us like to feel some aspect of control over something. It makes things feel smaller, more simple. 

The truth is that very few things are small, even fewer are simple, and control is an illusion. The world is bigger than our efforts to impose order. And that can be scary as hell. I think one of the things that makes 2020... well, 2020, is that events have punctured the veil of control. Things are very very much out of control. And it seems that, in the words of Yeats, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I don’t know about you, but I could use some predictability right now. I think I would enjoy a world where the news made sense, where people did simple things like wear a mask and kept their distance to get the virus under control, where leaders in democracies actually wanted people to vote, where people were truly judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, who they loved, or their number of Instagram followers.

And. That’s not the world as it is. The world as it is feels chaotic and constantly changing. Everything we know is twisting and fading and falling. Like leaves in fall.

Leaves stay green all spring and summer. They aren’t just green, they are life itself. They take in carbon and let go of oxygen. Their shade cools. Trees become homes for an entire ecosystem of life, a predictable protection and resource for birds and insects and other flora and fauna. Then the world changes. Temperatures fluctuate. Leaves turn light green then yellow then orange then beige then brown. They get brittle. The wind gets harsher. Then they fall to the forest floor they once protected. 

Nothing lasts forever. Summer ends. Leaves fall. Winter comes. 

Now what?

It’s fall. Enjoy the changing colors.

The change is the one thing we can depend on. The one thing we know is true. Tomorrow will be different than today. It may be better, it may be worse, but either way it is unknowable. Worrying won’t change it. rearranging our desk won’t make it make sense.

What we can do is sit back, and enjoy the changing colors. We can see the beauty in the world. We can remember the cyclical nature of the seasons, and of human history. And we can find peace in moments, because moments are what we have. They are all we have.

Leaves change colors and fall. We can find joy in the changing colors.

Fall Leaf #5

Oaks grow from acorns.

There is an oak tree in the woods behind our house. There are several actually, but this one is right at the wood line, where our well-manicured (by the HOA, not me) lawn gives way to a thicket of trees. Below the tree on the grass it looks like the acorn apocalypse.

The ground under the tree branches is littered with the husks of acorns. They have been raided by squirrel, deer, and even the occasional rabbit. Bella has even given them a curious sniff a time or two. Justin loves it when he finds one that is still whole. Barb found two that were intact and still connected the other day.

Oaks are beautiful trees, big and leafy. You could even call them majestic. Our tiny neighborhood - Pickard Oaks - is named for the two century old trees that dominate the entrance to our main road. 

And yet for all that majesty, oaks start life in the shittiest way imaginable. Literally.

Acorns contain the seed for the oak tree, which is actually quite small. The seed is surrounded by fleshy fibers and encased in a leathery skin. The acorn is held to the tree by a cupule - that funny little hat acorns wear. All of this makes acorns much too heavy and bulky to be dispersed through the air or by pollination. Acorns fall heavily to the ground beneath the tree that bears them.

In order for the seed inside the acorn to grow, it must make its way past the spot where it falls. The seeds need their own access to soil, sun, and water. That’s where the squirrel and the deer come in. By eating the acorn (and creating that acorn apocalypse up there), the animals move the seed to somewhere else, away from the parent tree. The fleshy part around the seed is digested, but the seed itself passes right through and re-enters the world, ready to grow.

In a pile of squirrel shit.

That’s where the majestic oak begins life. Leaves change color and fall. Acorns fall with them, where they become a feast for small animals, some of whom even hoard the acorns for winter. This is autumn for an acorn. You fall to the ground, you get chewed up, then get covered in shit.

I don’t know if I could write a better description for 2020 than fall down, get chewed up, end up covered in shit. We had the hard fall of a global pandemic, with all the accompanying fears and anxieties and disruptions. We had the constant feeling of being chewed up by stress, the anger and the frustration of continued injustice and disparity, and the seeming lack of accountability. And through it all we were covered in the shit of leaders who care more about themselves and their corporate overlords than they ever have about us.

And.

After all of that the most amazing thing happens. A seed finds purchase in soft ground. It uses the shit surrounding it to propel its growth. It takes root, drinks water, and finds the sun. And it begins to grow. Every part of the journey contributes to what it will become.

Decades later that shit covered seed stands tall and strong. It stretches out its arms and provides shade and oxygen. A journey that began in a free fall ends in solid strength and patient provision.

Acorns fall. Then they become oaks.

This is their journey. This is their autumn. I can only pray that it is also ours.

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