In the eleventh grade I was introduced to the following poem:
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
MARGARET, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I remember my feelings after that very first reading in Mr. Hanby’s creative writing class. I could see Margaret standing among the red and gold leaves, crying because winter was on the way. I knew just how she felt. For me, the changing of the leaves meant the end of summer, the beginning of school and rain. At the time, I only vaguely understood the weighty predictions in the poem that someday Margaret would consciously weep over her own mortality.
Later, in graduate school, Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem came back to me. As I learned to be a therapist, to sit with individuals and families whose pain came from horrific events I could scarcely imagine, I sometimes wept. When I heard from children of abuse at the hands of their parents or from spouses trying to recover from their partner’s infidelity, I occasionally experienced a sadness that settled in my chest cavity and ached and ached, even after I had closed the door to my therapy room and gone home.
I hung Hopkins’ poem on my office wall to remind myself that even as I ached for the plight of my clients, the twinge in my chest was really my own. It was my pain, my own mortality, my own sadness that gave it such strength. “Sorrow’s springs are the same,” after all. The events of life are different for each of us, but grief belongs to us all.
Last week this poem came to my mind again. I took a run through the woods near my house and found myself treading through thick fallen leaves. I kicked at them as I jogged along and watched as the wind picked them up and they floated down again. The first lines of the poem came to mind: “Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?” And the question changed. “Cami, are you grieving/Over Bellingham unleaving?”
I was. I am. A change is coming. On the surface, it is the change of the seasons. I’ve spent a glorious, comfortable summer running in my shorts, sweating, breathing and dreaming. I’ve run perhaps hundreds of miles on these trails in the last few months. And every moment I was full of grateful joy for the warmth and the green and the dry. Now it will all be different. Now, I will wear double long sleeves and long pants, and I will have to muffle my face to keep the crown on my left molar from freezing and giving me shooting pains that punch me in the eye. Now I will run many days on the treadmill in my garage watching videos when the rain forbids that I venture out to the trails.
But there is also another change that came home to me as I ran through the leaves last week. I’ve turned a corner. It dawned on me that when I turned forty-one this year, I became older than either of my grandmothers were when I was born. I became the oldest person in my family NOT to have a child or beyond that, a child with a child. This year, I started experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms and I noticed things sagging that never sagged before. My mortality is giving a shout out, asking me to listen. And I hear it, loud and clear.
But there is something else I hear, as well. Freedom. As I am grieving that life is so damned short, I am also more of myself than I have ever been. I may be sagging, but on the other hand, I no longer painstakingly cover my sagging body to protect others from my unsightly skin; I trust them to turn away if they must. I’ve given up watching people’s faces with every word I say to determine if they like me or if they think I’m smart or funny. I already think I’m smart and funny. And although I accidentally offend people from time to time, I apologize more easily than ever because I’m not surprised when I make a mistake. I’ve come a long way since eleventh grade.
As summer turns to fall, this year and in life, I will be crying from time to time for what will be lost. I really do prefer the sunshine and the green on the trees. But this season I’m going to wrap myself up in my running gear and, as often as I can stand it, get out into the wind and the mud and appreciate the grit and groundedness of fall, the sparse trees, the bare, basic trunks, the core without the accoutrements. I hope all of you will do the same.