It was Saturday morning, mid-September and I was sitting with my oldest friend on a picnic table by the lake. We’d gone for coffee but took a detour on the way home and ended up there – feet from the water’s edge, covered by trees that kept precariously dropping acorns, 10am. We’d brought the New York Times crossword and had it splayed out on the table, weighed down by my car keys and a coffee cup to protect it from the wind. The breeze was steady and with it came the very first hints of fall.
I tucked my knees in for warmth and turned my face to the wind. There aren’t quite words to describe it, but fall seems to smell exactly the same each year – sort of sweet, but a little dusty. Like a sweater stored in a cedar chest all year or the pages of a book left on the shelf for too long. I sat there as he tried to figure out Port near Kilauea, 4-letters (on which I’d given up completely) and tried to breathe in that smell, taste it even. It was all the right kinds of familiar and nostalgic, and as I felt the rush of excitement for fall weather and all it brings with it, I wondered what it is about this season we all love so much.
I thought of the pumpkin patches and cider beers we’d soon see advertised all over the city. The 1,000 Anne of Green Gables posts about how glad we all are to live in a world with Octobers. The unclever and overdone internet parodies of pumpkin spice lattes and white girls in Ugg boots. And the cozy parade of sweaters, tweed jackets, and damnit the pumpkin spice lattes we’d inevitably all soon be marching in.
We love the fall. It seems (at least from my millennial, internet-driven view point) universal. And I can’t help but wonder: why?
Theory A: Mindfulness. I think fall, more than any other season, stirs a sense of mindfulness if you let it. There’s something about a cool breeze after months of endless heat that makes you want to stop and savor it a little. The allure of the other seasons – the excitement of summer, the holiday festiveness of winter, the relief and promise of spring – seems to wear off rather quickly. After a few weeks it’s just plain hot. Or way too cold. Or way too allergy-inducing (respectively).
But fall is different. Its enticement sticks with you, invites you outside, gently commands your attention.
“And so, mindfulness, for me, is the very simple process of actively noticing new things. When you actively notice new things that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.” Ellen Langer, Social Psychologist
The mindfulness of fall – the noticing of new colors in the leaves, new shades of rust you didn’t know existed, that dusty, sweet smell I can’t explain, an unassuming nostalgia. It’s enlivening. And maybe that’s why we love it.
Theory B: Motif. Seasons are often used as motifs in literature. They add a certain element to a story, a feeling the author wants you to have. Spring is used for new life or a dawn of some kind. Summer for vitality of life, passion, romance. Winter for death, sometimes sadness, or despair. But fall is a little harder to define. It’s sometimes used as a season of harvest, though not very commonly. More often it’s just tossed lazily in with winter, as if the foreword for death, the leaves falling from the trees and all that.
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
But I wonder (humbly, Mr. Hemingway) if we don’t miss something when we lump them in together like that. Perhaps the motif of fall is that there isn’t really one, that it’s simply a transition from one season to the next. Not so it can be absorbed into the motif of winter in want of other options, but so we will notice its absence, and pay attention to the lack of definition.
Are there any phases of life that don’t in some way feel like transition periods? Wouldn’t our rhetoric suggest that we’re all just transitioning from one thing to the next, adjusting, getting settled (as if to say that the state of being settled is attainable)?
You go from one grade in school to the next, trying to find yourself in each of them, and then you’re adjusting to college and redefining yourself there, and then you’re getting settled into that new job/town/marriage, transitioning to adulthood, getting used to it all. You’re in the lag between marriage and kids, waiting for the kids to be out of the Terrible Two’s, out of middle school, off to college. You’re empty nesting, maybe divorcing, maybe settling into the sunset years. Transitioning from one thing to the next, endlessly changing.
Does it ever just feel like we’ve made it somewhere and we’ll stay for a while? Is it ever not the foreword for something else?
Maybe sometimes. But it seems more often than not it all feels like transition. There is always a lack of certainty, lack of definition, lack of motif. And maybe (albeit, subconsciously) that’s a little bit of why we’re so drawn to this season. Maybe we’re designed to love the fall, to have heightened sensitivities to a season of transition, a season equal parts undefined and beautiful, so that its goodness – its colors and breezes and lattes and sweaters – reminds us that transition can (and should) be enjoyed. Pointing us to a larger motif, one for every migratory, undefined stage: the delightfulness of the indefinite, the pleasure of transition.
Neither theory may be true. Or perhaps both are in some way. Regardless, I can’t help but feel like there’s a reason we share this affinity for fall, a part of its design that makes it a little easier to be a human for a while. Be it colors and crisp air, mindfulness and motif, or simply gentle mornings by the lake with that bronze, familiar smell.
I thought of these things that morning but couldn’t quite put them into words. Instead, I warmed my hands against my cup of coffee and watched him write “H-I-L-O” in small, blocky letters. Port near Kilauea, 4 letters.
“Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are falling and they’re falling like they’re in love with the ground.” Andrea Gibson