On October 1, I started spending half an hour in the morning in front of my SAD light with a cup of coffee, a book of poems, and a bird feeder just outside the window. My days could be filled with dread for the effect the short days could have on my energy and my mental health. But I can't go there. I can take care of today and begin it with a lovely ritual. Some winters have been fine, some have nearly broken my spirit. But today, I'm fine, and that's all I can be sure of. That's all that's certain.
I've been trying to renegotiate my relationship with certainty. Part of that has to do with my obsession with news: I could see that I was spending fruitless time collecting as much intel as I could so I might have some sense of what was coming. Covid-19 made that impossible. No one could have predicted that, on the two-year anniversary of the Chinese Government's admission that there was a new virus that was killing many people, we would have more cases than ever thanks to Omicron. How do you 'predict' a virus's mutations? The war in Ukraine also made that impossible. We know some things: that the Russian army and their weaponry are not particularly effective. But I'm not sure even Putin knows what he's going to do when he has to admit he is well and truly cornered. Meanwhile, he continues to lob bombs into Ukraine, often destroying apartments, schools, hospitals and energy infrastructure. Young women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban are not only forbidden to go to school but are often raped and abused. Is this what religious fundamentalism and all its obsession about purity comes to? Covid numbers are heading up, as they are wont to do in the fall. My daughter's 16-year-old cat had all but stopped eating, in spite of appetite stimulants. Then certainty fell in on us: We needed to put Whimsy to sleep.
(No. Searching for certainty isn't the only reason I watch the news. Every day when I eat my morning oatmeal, I ask "How is it with humankind this morning?" See above. Yet we don't live in a world where cruelty and disaster are the way of the world. Future Crunch reports that poverty around the world is falling significantly. India's Supreme Court has deemed that women have a right to choose whether or not to see a pregnancy to term. We're discovering that Basic Income works as we thought it might--having positive impacts on children's health and adults' search for good jobs. In the last twenty years, 2 billion more people gained access to safe drinking water. (Canadians had better get busy.) And today, David Wallace-Wells, the climate emergency prophet who wrote The Uninhabitable Earth, admits he's hopeful that we are on our way to avoiding the worst of what he predicted.)
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often convinces me that the very state of being alive is chock full of uncertainty. If I'm having trouble getting metaphysical with her, I simply think about moving parts. How many moving parts are there in my body and my mind? How many moving parts there are in my relationships, moving parts within each of the people who are a glorious part of my sense of well-being? And in the world outside my personal bubble? All those moving parts add up to profound uncertainty.
Paradoxically, this may explain why I love fall, even when it comes with snow and cloud.
I watch autumn carefully. There's a lovely mid-sized tree that the city has planted on boulevards, an ash of some kind. It is one of the first trees to turn and it is the creamiest gold in fall: the colour actually seems to have a softly silky texture. Then the plants on the creek bank begin to turn shades I cannot name. There's the ruddy-green the wild roses turn, the ruddy brown of some weeds. There's the sound of the grasses with their tall dry stalks. The humble cotoneaster begins to turn next, but it takes it a while to go from gold to red--and in fact made that final turn into red just as the snow came down. The elm trees are outliers. Some years they simply give up their green leaves like frightened comic book cats shedding fur. Other years the colour drains out of them subtly. This year they have hung onto their leaves for quite a long time, becoming a golden green, like some unearthly metal that suffered a sea change, becoming something rich and strange. Yesterday I went for a walk and had plenty to study in spite of the snow. There were lilacs that looked like decorative sprays of antique bronze unearthed from somewhere unknown. Bright jack-o-lantern plants glowed in the snow.
All this slow-busy change, I remind myself, is in the service of gathering energy: plants draw down the energy captured in their leaves to store it underground. Some of it will be syphoned off to feed the helpful fungi which tangle in their roots. (If you haven't read Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life or Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree, you must. They are the perfect books to read in the winter dark.) When spring comes, the trees drive that energy back up to the tips of each stem, where it turns back to leaves.
So here I am, seemingly poised in the middle of uncertainty, engrossed in watching change happen. It's a matter of how I watch, deliberately and carefully, immersed in the present moment.
I've been writing about minimalist composers Philip Glass (who wrote the soundtracks for Kundun and The Hours) and Arvo Pärt, whose Fratres or Fur Alina you might know. Some people call minimalist music "going nowhere music" for its tendency to repeat and repeat and repeat--changing your whole sense of time--to suddenly but subtly change. Because most minimalist music is beautiful, I'm willing to listen closely, waiting for the change to come and appreciating it when it does.
Minimalist music and the acceptance of uncertainty encouraged by Buddhists come together here to explain why I love fall. I'm encouraged by beauty or philosophy to be patient, to watch or listen carefully. That is to say that I'm deeply planted in the present moment. The paradox is accomplished: I'm here right now. But I'm inside a moment created by nature's changes or uncertainty in the world. Since I'm more than just fine right here in this moment, I will find a way to be fine in other circumstances.