Autumn: On Elections, Fear and Planting the Future


Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

— Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet

Autumn is a time of endings, the season of loss. Nature descends into darkness, dormancy, and death.

Powerless over this massive impermanence, our response to autumn is to compulsively build, begin anew. With grand flourishes, gala openings of theaters and symphonies, ballet and opera, as schools start fresh, we gather ourselves for adventures, uncharted beginnings, unknowable destinies, asserting our capacity for hope, our reliance upon rebirth.

Even the lilacs in my neighborhood are preparing to bloom. They fashion the buds of spring upon each branch before receding into their necessary dormancy. This is their prayer, a promise of resurrection. In May, spring-starved souls offer gratitude for their blessing, firmly planted in the soil of fall, long before winter gives way to spring.

In 1890, the city of Rochester, in upstate New York, dedicated Highland Park as an enduring gift to everyone in the community. Elegant in design, this stunning collection of over 1,200 lilac shrubs was complemented by a collection of Japanese maples, magnolias, 700 varieties of rhododendron, garnished with wildflowers, spring bulbs and azalea.

This magnificently luminous gift was crafted by the legendary Frederick Law Olmstead, inspired architect of Central Park, Boston Commons and countless American parks. As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, I learned that the whole populace of a place, every citizen, young and old, could hold its collective breath, anticipate as one beating heart this singly orgasmic season the miracle of a thousand lilac trees erupting at once.

They were planted on a hilltop, at the near edge of the city, by unimaginably thoughtful city planners and philanthropists, civic-minded neighbors and ordinary people everywhere. Over a hundred years ago, they gathered their time and labor, they shared their money, offered care and attention to detail, so that we — descendants they could never meet or know, of whose world they could never have dreamed — might share in a miracle that prospers in its increase with every cycle of seasons.

Like the trees they planted, they gathered their best energy, sent their most promising buds, shoots and saplings into a most uncertain autumn of time, with a prayer that those to follow would seed for all generations to come an exquisite, eternal spring. So that when the breeze carried the fragrance of that hill through homes and stores, offices and streets, without regard for class, race, wealth or status, all would receive their gift. For free.

Our national election cycle mirrors this season of beginnings. But this year we groan under the terrible weight of fear, arguably infected by the most corrosive onslaught of terror, both real and imagined, since September of 2001.

In this season of fear, our nation feels perilously autumnal. Our collaborative hope for the common good — the tools and institutions upon which so many have relied for so long in times of vulnerability and want — feels threatened, susceptible to the cynical weapons of efficiency and political expedience.

The ground beneath us is moving, we lose our balance, we feel clumsy and overwhelmed, uncertain and afraid.

Institutions that once united us — Medicare, Social Security, even the Bill of Rights — reveal incomprehensible fractures, seemingly ready to wither and fall as so many leaves.

The first generation in memory may fare worse than their parents; the unthinkable is commonplace, as pensions are raided, or gone bankrupt; good work — jobs, security, income — are simply taken elsewhere, offered to anyone anywhere willing to work for less; indentured servitude is exported as the new American dream.

Presidents of both parties claim their right, their imperative, to imprison anyone in the world, Americans and foreigners alike, wherever and for however long they wish, without charge of any crime. It is, they insist, for our own good. When courts object, they immediately and endlessly appeal.

Our portable devices collect information about where we are, what we are doing, and who choose as friends. The world is changing swiftly; we awake feeling that the world in which we fell asleep has already disappeared by morning.

In this golden time of autumn, seeds are planted in secret, below ground, beneath surfaces of things. One day they will reveal their call; a heliotropic certainty will open, petal by petal, some certain coming of spring.

And yet. In this fearful season, there is no hopeful planting of seeds. The land feels fallow, and we crumble beneath the weight of impotence sadness, and fear.

What prompts a generation of women and men, rich and poor, to gather up the best of themselves to create, plant, insure safe passage of such precious cargo, a most generous, priceless offering — something they would never in their lifetime fully enjoy — solely to insure something indescribably beautiful would await those who would come after?

In this season, we desperately need to remember who we are. Human beings have a miraculous capacity to fall in love with something that blooms only when we think of those who will come after, to shape gifts and blessings for the generations to come.

Our fear is selfish and narcissistic. It is imperative we give thanks — not for what we have accumulated, but for what we can offer, what we can leave, as a truly generous and necessary gift for those who will follow in the path we walk, together, this season.

A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller

How Then, Shall We Live? by Wayne Muller

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