Autumn and it’s Theme of Loss

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rainier Maria Rilke
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

This morning I sat on my sofa and glanced up to the window on my front door, where the orange fire of Barbara King’s glorious maple tree one yard over filled the frame. I love this tree, and until two days ago, it was at peak color. This is a tree of elegance and stature, tall, a single trunk with branches that form a rounded point on top and seemingly trimmed to a perfect ovoid shape. Patient to a fault, its leaves are slow to lose their chlorophyll coating, allowing the base colors to show. While other trees seem to rush fully into the change, Barbara’s begins at the very tip with a few yellow leaves, and by and by, it’s almost as if slow buckets of first yellow, followed by shades of orange-to-red spill slowly over the green, all the colors present until peak. Until two days ago, there were no fallen leaves on the ground; yet winds and rain over the weekend have coaxed a slow fall, a balding, as it were by degrees. Yet many hold on, the blaze still evident through my front door window. By weekend, I will see only the skeletal remains until next May or so, when, as e.e. cummings describes, its leaping greenly spirit returns once again.

From that same spot, Ground Zero for being on the computer, watching TV, even eating supper while watching TV, I read an essay on the Talking Writing site in which the writer spoke of her tendency to hoard details always with the intention of using them one day in a piece of writing. (http://talkingwriting.com/hoarding-the-flesh-house/) The same can be said of visual artists when it comes to stuff, the ephemera, ideas and concepts, each precious in the moment, inspirational, even, yet the collection burgeons, requiring more and more storage space. That someday never seems to come. Yet the thought of discarding these materials is abhorrent, even, I dare say, paralyzing, for the fear of an emptiness never to be filled again.

I am a hoarder. Not the pathological variety with narrow paths between towers of putrefying stuff, but I do hold on. Tightly. Loss, whether it be the last blazing leaf on a tree or an actual death of someone close, is merely a matter of degrees on a spectrum, and my spectrum is weighted toward the higher number. It would be fair to say that my disposition is elegiac: I wear loss like a blanket around my body. That’s why Rilke’s poem holds fast my soul, filled as it is with impending loss associated with winter: Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . These are the images that sound the death knell of hope. And the interminable New Hampshire winter is not to be trifled with.

Except for having my daughters stay with me Wednesdays and weekends and six weeks in the summer until they left for college, or one or more sisters sharing my home temporarily, or a three-year co-habitation with a boyfriend in the mid-Eighties, I have lived alone since 1973. Come March 10th or thereabouts, forty years. Solitude used to be scary; now it fits comfortably (although, it would be nice to have someone help hold up this heavy tent). I have never been truly homeless, out-on-the-street homeless. That said, growing up, I felt homeless in the chaos of our family, and I left after graduating from high school at seventeen, never to return. Still, Rilke’s Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . resonates, particularly since I live on Social Security, and that doesn’t cover my bills. It wouldn’t take much to cause me to lose this rented home, tiny as it is.

The imprint of loss is indelibly engraved on my soul, as if part of my very DNA, and was the theme of both maternal and paternal lines, back to my great-grandparents, at least the ones I knew, and even if not, their legacies were filled with losses. Two World Wars, the Great Depression; my father losing his mother when he was three; my maternal grandmother losing a daughter to pneumonia when a toddler, a son stillborn; maternal grandfather losing his father when he was barely a teenager, and his sister at 22 of a septic abortion; my mother giving birth to me, her first child, seven hours after my father left for the War to name a few. The elements of scarcity and fear were modeled and taught like the alphabet.

There’s a good reason I’m the family archivist: the loss of generations of memorabilia is unthinkable, and when a family member dies, their rich repository of memories goes with them.

Buddhism teaches that attachment to things, people, anything, really, is the root of suffering, and to be able to let go frees oneself from that pain. (I would never make a good Buddhist.)

But what is the price of my holding on to so much? Perceived perpetual scarcity, the fear of never having enough to replace what’s no longer there? Is that fear rooted in fear of never being enough? Which then brings me to Fear’s companion, Perfectionism.

Bingo.

How does one rid oneself of that, for Pete’s sake? Such a loss would be beneficial, no? As a writer and visual artist, I take pride in aiming for the perfect sentence, the perfect piece of art. If you’re going to do something, do it right, my grandmother’s dictum echoes still today as it did when I was growing up. How does one find a harmonious balance?

When I was in Jungian analysis, my analyst asked me what it would take for me to free myself from this fear of scarcity. First thing out of my mouth was, “A Ph.D from Harvard.” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Trust me, that is no guarantee.” Today my answer is, “Being on solid financial footing.”

I have no answers, even after spending almost three hours writing this. A litany of affirmations doesn’t do it for me, frankly, but occasionally listing things I’m grateful for helps. I find at least five before I do my reading at night; still, when I open my eyes in the morning, fear of loss is the monster lurking about, always ready to pounce.

Where is that MacArthur fellowship when you need one?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Autumn and it’s Theme of Loss

  1. Alda Talley

    Darlene, your writing is so personal, so revealing. You are brave for that!
    I, too, have hoarded things over time, most notably fabric and such. I had not only fabric, but things I’d begun to make, and kept, thinking I’d finish one day. I moved them from house to house, from drawer to bin and back dozens of times. Each time I was stabbed with guilt, of not finishing, of no longer having the feeling for the person it was intended for. Finally, about a year ago, I handled them one last time. Arguing with myself with each toss –“you can use this! it’s so cute – you’ll finish that! this is a great idea!” — I still filled the garbage bags and hauled them out. Walking back into my studio, still arguing about retrieving the bag, I closed the door to the yard. Suddenly, I felt free. Lighter. Unburdened. I had room and space. Both in my mind and my heart, I could see what was really available to me, I could spread out, I could feature the real treasures, I could focus on what was to come. My mind and my heart felt uncluttered, opened up, freed, unburdened. I’ve never wanted for those things, that fabric, those notions since then.
    I’m starting on the attic next.

  2. Sweet Alda, all day I’ve pondered what you said about tossing things; I can just see you filling the bags, carrying them out and have the opposing sides of your brain fight it out about whether to retrieve them. That happened to me once when I, in a fit if pique and wanting to BE DONE WITH IT, I gathered up all of Chuck’s letters, wrapped them with string and put them out in the garbage. I went back and forth, too, about whether I was doing the right thing. I left them. It was probably good for my healing, but, I have to tell you, I wish I would have kept them. Hide them away, so I no longer had them accessible, sure. I’m soooooooo over him; it was a folly not meant to be. But to read that he me loved romantically would be a comfort in these distant years without evidence of that sort from anyone else.

    As for all my stuff, things I hoard to make art out of: in the basement I have several shelving units with bins and bins of materials from when I was in art school at SLU, pieces of antique cypress, exotic hardwoods, boxes, stuff–all waiting for me to have a woodworking studio again. Or, at least, a space where I can make big messes and construct larger assemblages, anthropomorphized domestic items, and the like. I even have a collection of piano wires! And then there’s all my art and art from other artists that need a proper house for hanging. I live with all this stuff (plus all my family’s archives) dreaming one day I will live in a large enough space, and the thought of letting that dream go is anathema. Those bins and boxes serve as my hope chest, in a way.

    Still, you’ve planted a seed: should I really keep those piano wires? What else could I bear to part with? Who knows?

    Thanks for your response. I value it enormously. x0x0x

  3. Patrick

    This whole idea of aloneness is both enticing and frightening. I tried it – several times – and found it an interminable effort to occupy the space of myself. The thought of being autonomous and independent is alluring and I sometimes think of it as the superior state, but only as long as I just…think of it. Doing it, at least to me, is agonizing. I immediately yearn for serial affairs with casual strangers and friends who “just drop over and stay the night.”

    Especially now, in the autumn of life, I fear the cold white specter of “whoever is alone will stay alone,” although I deny my age and my appearance and feel that, even at 63 I could win a chippie of my choice if I needed to. In my mind I am still eternally 27. But it’s a lot of work and a lot of agonizing to make it happen, and I haven’t as much time as I used to. So I cling to my relationship because I need my relationship more than I need that OTHER life that I still imagine is out there.

  4. A well-known poem from Emily comes to mind and helps clarify and explain thoughts of stuff and loss for me.

    That it will never come again
    Is what makes life so sweet.
    Believing what we don’t believe
    Does not exhilarate.

    That if it be, it be at best
    An ablative estate —
    This instigates an appetite
    Precisely opposite.

    “Ablative estate” is a brillant pair of words. The Latin root means taken so far away that life, anything really, is essentially vaporized into the aether.

    Gone but not forgotten. The severe ablative disappearance, in good Jungian fashion, calls up its opposite: the urge to grab and hold on, and never let go.

    Holding on is just a synonym for life, so by all means hoard it all. Don’t worry what the well-meaning, but tsk-tsking recyclers might say post ablation as they poke through the mysterious treasures. Leave instructions to them that they are archaeologists who have the task of figuring out what the shards mean. There is no way you could ever explain it all to them.

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