A friend recently wrote that he asked someone what was his favorite season, and the reply was autumn. Why? Because of the light. My friend was struck by the response, as light isn't what people usually think of when they talk about seasons. Rather, they talk about temperature, or colors, or holidays. But for those of us who seem to be very sensitive to light, autumn is a peculiarly potent time. The light begins to change in August, and by October it slants in sideways, and is rich and golden and velvety, making up with intensity what it lacks in duration. The days are getting shorter, and this lends the light a sharp poignancy. I think of a poem by Donald Justice, one of my favorites of his brilliant poems, published shortly after he died, I believe. When it appeared, I ripped it out of the magazine and pinned it to the wall by my tub, so I could read it daily. The clip curled and yellowed over the years...
"There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross."
Justice goes on to write about Orpheus and Eurydice; that last glance back, during their ascent from the bowels of the Earth, of how Orpheus could not resist the temptation to make sure Eurydice was with him. He did not have faith, in the power of his music, or the promise of the gods? or he cared too much?
"Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong."
The light is going; the elderly must feel this way as their eyesight fails. Do they look hard at everything they can see, and stay awake as long as possible, knowing they have to store up the memories while they can? Are all near-sighted people secretly afraid of going blind? I practice for it, late at night, by walking around my house in the dark. I think, too, that if all there were to prolong was sorrow, I would hold fast to sorrow. The light now reminds me of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. "The light is very dusty, Uncle. Let us work. One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good...And all that we suffered through having existed shall be forgotten as though it had never existed."
Autumnal thoughts, dying days; we prepare for the cold, short days of winter. Part of me dreads those blunted days, they frighten me. But there is no small part of me that yearns for the hibernation. In Rhode Island, the air is blustery and the clouds scuttle bravely across the skies, as though determined not to break up. When the winds quiet, we will have those unquenchable cerulean skies that come only in autumn. I think perhaps it is the light that is my favorite part of every season.