Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese“
There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese. Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.
I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.
“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte
Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day, we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other. We were always sure to be home for supper, and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up, we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek. The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty, and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.
The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping, with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months, it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat, although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber-soled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead?
In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.
This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise, the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.
In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again, moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready,” they honk. “Prepare,” they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.
There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.
Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees, where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese, too, it seems.
Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book Frederick by Lio Lionni. It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.
Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.
So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.
Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.
How are you restocking your pantry?