It seems like only yesterday we were caught up in the heated joys of summer: ice cream and beach parties; walks in the country, seeking out shade under the canopies of lofty trees; cool evenings with friends on the terrace or in the garden, the smoky evening meal on a barbecue and the glowing taste of a good wine. And now we look forward, as if cut off in one stroke by the whims of a calendar created hundreds of years ago, to mulled wine, warm pullovers, nights huddled around the health and a blazing fire. The ideals we read about in books, see in magazines promoting healthy living or the ideal interior for our home which, for some reason, always seems to have an ideal size far in excess of reality. Autumn is, I must admit, a time as pleasing as spring, but in a different way: I enjoy, as do most people, the colours we are confronted with, the sudden blossoming of vivid reds and oranges where, before, we only had the mantle of green over our heads. It is as if the final fires of summer have been lit in all their glory and, when they are finally extinguished, we will have nothing left but the bitter, barren greys, blacks and whites of winter. And yet…
And yet. There is a wonderful feeling about such cliff-hanger words, as if we’re about to turn the page in a Sidney Sheldon novel unable to stop reading at the end of one chapter, despite the tiredness of our eyes and the knowledge that we ought to sleep; tomorrow is another day. And yet despite all the beauty which disappears as winter takes hold, and the feeling that everything has gone to sleep for eternity, we know that spring will sneak up on us, that there will be small green shoots around trees, in hidden corners of the garden, between stepping-stones on a patchwork path. We struggle through the bitter cold of December – which is never as cold or as dismal as it was once, back in or childhood, when snow was real and not just a Walt Disney invention – and then into the new year in January, hoping that it will pass quickly and we can return to what we call a normal life. And, at the same time, as autumn is here and we relish the colours, we seem to regret the falling leaves as much as we bless their colours; forced to gather them up for burning, for turning into compost,
For some reason I have more memories of spring and summer joy than I do of autumn. The holidays were there too, I have no doubt of that, but no trips to the seaside, no excursions out into the country, no visits to grandparents and other relatives. Autumn, as a season, seems to be encompassed exclusively within the boundaries of colour, of falling leaves, of rising dampness in the air and departure; the departure of summer weather as much as the foliage, of birds and beasts as much as warmth. Perhaps its beauty is there simply because we tend to forget autumn, pass it over as we anticipate our complaints about the coldness of winter, or its relative warmth, and the advent of spring. Even Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his beautifully sad poem Tears, Idle Tears seems to pass briefly over this wonderful time, and fill it with regret, as if the beauties of the season are only to be seen as a time to look back and feel sorrow for what has passed, for what was rather than what is right now, for times which can only be held in our memories as we struggle to come to terms with the reality of the future, of what lies before in the winter of our lives:
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Such melancholy in a time of great beauty, when we should be celebrating what has happened, regaling our neighbours and friends with glad tales of events, of experiences, of feelings and emotions and not, as so many do, regretting what might have been. And the autumn of our lives when, some seem to imply, we should settle down and turn gold before simply fading away but we, active in mind and spirit, wish to continue, to beat that on-coming winter and, quite rightly, exploit the brilliance of the season to the best of our abilities and create new memories to be told in years to come.
Autumn, in life as in Nature, is very underrated, in my opinion. Everything seems to be closing down as if there is no more to be done this year – even the Italian ice cream shops in my small town are preparing to close so that their staff, with their wonderful accents and affected manners, can retreat to the warmth of their homes in Sicily – as if the year is at an end, as if life is over. In reality nothing is at an end, it is merely a short pause before the wonders begin again, before we are raised from our languid beds of warm fleeces and coaxed back out into the early morning sun to begin, freshened and revitalised, as if there had been no break, no cold period, no falling of leaves and departure of birds. Autumn is the time to look back with gratitude for what we have experienced, and to look forward with anticipation to the many things we will still do. It is like a central railway station where everything meets, where the travellers mingle and exchange gossip, tales of wonders seen and experienced and then, their train called, hurry to the right platform and a new journey which, we hope, will bring new experiences, create memories for the future and, eventually, guide them back to the metropolis, the train station, to exchange, to transfer, to begin again.
Autumn is the time of planning for new beginnings, and winter the time we spend travelling to arrive, out of breath but filled with anticipation, in the glorious spring. Also the time when we share our memories of the past year, good and bad and, hopefully, inspire others to seek out their next journey, their next experience. I’ve enclosed an illustration I found recently, by a young artist from Japan, which I used partially as my inspiration for this letter and am hoping to use as an inspiration – an image-provoker I call it – for you. Perhaps it will provoke a few memories you wish to share with others, or inspire you to put pen to paper and write, if not to me, an old man steeped in memories of the writing styles of the late Victorians, but to those who would love to be with you but, for whatever reason, cannot but who, as you know, wish to share and help to the best of their abilities. And if you choose to write back to me, I will be honoured, but if not it was a pleasure for me to revisit some of my own memories, my own thoughts coupled with this illustration, and to share them with you, far away, unknown, and wish you all the good things you wish for yourself and those around you.
[*Dear Reader letters are written to people whose names I do not know but who all have one thing in common: they are undergoing some form of intense medical treatment – such a chemotherapy. These letters are included in packages gifted to people through various charities.]