Autumn – Another Beauty

Today I had one of those salutary moments, when something simple makes you pause. For the first time in several month, with a slight chill in the early morning air, I put on a winter coat. As I reached into a pocket I pulled out a face mask. In an instant I was reminded just how long the pandemic is enduring and how, half a year later, we are once again looking at a curve that is rising at a vertiginous rate.

Most of the cost of this protracted crisis will not emerge until after a point of solution or stabilisation is reached. We are now living through what a friend describes as a ‘chronic emergency’, which will no doubt have more and less acute phases. A recent two week holiday in the UK had occasional moments when it felt as though I was on furlough from the front-line. Still hearing the reports of struggle and danger but removed from its immediate impact.

Spending time in the depths of rural mid-Wales had much of the benefit of being on retreat. The weather was an unexpected gift of warm days and comfortable nights. Across a landscape of hills, woodland and waterways, the turn of the year was coming into view as foliage showed the first signs of autumn. Sitting by the River Wye just above Rhayader I was reminded of a reflection which took place much further downstream. At Tintern Abbey, more than two hundred years ago, Wordsworth’s contemplation of a bucolic scene led to thoughts about the changes brought to us by the passage of time:

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years.

Wordsworth, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798
The Wye River above Rhayader

In current circumstances we may all be drawing on ‘life and food’ laid down in past years to help us navigate turbulent waters. A Western tendency for several decades has been to assume a degree of certainty about the future. Only when viewed at a distance can we see how this is an aberration in terms of both human history and the reality of life in other parts of the world. If a pay cheque doesn’t come at the end of the month it is an outrage which leads to prompt correction and a shamefaced apology. Yet in the 1980s, while spending a year in South America, it was an accepted reality that sometimes pay might be delayed for one or more months – especially in the public sector. We need to be circumspect about what we take for granted. Will 2020 be viewed as a scary year that departed momentarily from story of economic growth and prosperity, or will we look back on it as the beginning of the decade of Covid? We don’t know – and we shouldn’t assume.

Emerging autumn colours

In uncertain times we can all benefit from contact with things that convey a sense of continuity. The seasons arrive with reassuring regularity, and each one with its own riches. Autumn has often been a metaphor for later life, and it is a reminder that even change which may not always be welcome comes with its own beauty. We may mourn the loss of summer’s rich canopies and expansive days of warmth, but in the transformation of the season there is a spectacular display of colour. Its fleeting nature, combined with the change in climate, can intensify the pleasure we take in a beauty made all the richer by our knowledge of its brevity.

We enter autumn with questions about the future which are unusual for many of us – but not for all. Living wisely with uncertainty can be a tall order, and finding reserves of reflection matter all the more when our footing feels less sure. Pausing to recognise the beauty of today, or recalling those past moments that have grounded and fed our spirit, will perhaps be more valuable now than we imagine.

Things of Mourning

Often bereavement leads to a major task of sorting. Deciding what to do with the stuff of long lives – items acquired over decades – can take a lot of time. Not only because of the volume of items, but also because each can stir a memory. In some cases there may be little that remains, as the work of sorting has been integral to moves from family home to smaller house, to a flat and maybe, finally, a single room. Yet this can also mean that the little which remains is the most moving.

It is tempting to become pious on this topic and tut at a materialism which many in the West take for granted. Yet tangible things have a potency when they are linked to lives we have known and loved. A simple item can be a connection across generations and remind us of an enjoyment they inspired in someone no longer here. The photo above is of my grandfather’s fountain pen – which I’m guessing was a gift for his twenty-first birthday in 1922. There’s no one still alive to ask, but its gold band bears his initials and it’s a lovely keepsake.

These reflection on the ‘Things of Mourning’ were prompted by a few words from Acts chapter 9. Following the death of Dorcas we hear that Peter went with the mourners to visit the deceased. On arrival the women were ‘weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made’. There is a sense that in showing these items of creativity and skill the personality of Dorcas is evoked and honoured. ‘Things’ can aid our grieving as they bear the imprint of someone’s personality.

Painting by Stan Swift

My father was a prolific watercolour hobbyist. Retirement didn’t halt his enthusiasm and he continued to paint into his 80s. He was midway through a new picture when illness overtook him and his life came to an end. I still have this uncompleted work. After he died we found paintings everywhere. Some on the walls, others in boxes and some in bags. There were even unframed paintings behind the sofa. Every time we went to look for something we found more! So, at his funeral, a room adjacent to the church became a temporary exhibition where friends and family could help themselves to something for both memory and enjoyment.

For all these reasons it is easy to understand how people become so distressed when a burglary results in the loss of something with little financial value. The anguish has nothing to do with price, but everything to do with value. As Thomas A Kempis wrote many centuries ago:

A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver.

Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Gifts and the things we inherit have a power to token a love which continues to be lodged in our memory after someone has died. The things of mourning matter for the connections they enable. What they may be made of matters very little: what they mean can touch the depths of our soul.