Margaret Isn’t Grieving. Should She Be?

Look, I know springtime is the appropriate time to seek adventure; to strike out into the unknown with a bag on your back and a song on your lips, but for me it’s the crisp bite of fall air that, as it floods your lungs, unleashes the kind of longing that Odysseus must have once felt: a desire to seek your home, but never to find it; to suspend yourself in a kind of infinite longing— searching passionately for permanence, but secretly basking in the presence of your paramour: the love of dissatisfaction and longing.

Rejection of responsibility and the pursuit of the unknown- those might be a jumping off point for understanding the kind of fall longing I’m talking about, but those phrases seem cliche and scholastic compared to the real thing. What is the real thing? Well, if I knew I’d just tell you and have done with it. I’m not entirely sure what the longing is, but here are some images that might begin to explain:

You wake up in a tent in the Wind River Mountain Range at 5:30 A.M. It’s still dark, and despite being warm in your sleeping bag, your exposed face is very cold. Nonetheless, without hesitation (if you hesitate for a moment, all is lost) you unzip your sleeping bag and thrust your feet into your freezing boots that have lain next to you all night. They’re cold, and the cold bleeds through your wool socks to leech heat from your feet, but no matter. In a few minutes, you’ll be all warmed up again. 5:45: you’re all packed up. A breakfast of dried apricots, and you’re ready to move in the predawn light. As you move down the trail, you become vaguely aware, not just intellectually, but with a thrill of excitement, that you’re about to witness a great daily performance. Though in some ways you’re on the center stage, you feel more like an observer tucked into the balcony: a child allowed to attend a great orchestral performance (the composers of which are long dead and incomprehensibly foreign) but when you get there, there are no adults, and you’re the only one in the huge amphitheater. With a great swelling of strings, the sun finally hints, crescendos, and hurdles over the high ridges. The valley is blasted with sunlight, and warmer wind begins to whip playfully around you. You pull your toboggan hat off. The curtain never lowers, but raises higher and higher still: the groves of quaking aspen are a brilliant flaming red and gold. You’ve caught them in those divine two weeks before they shed their royal cloaks. White bark appears whiter against such color; aspens stand in stark contrast to the evergreen backdrop. While the pines and firs lack the flashiness and exuberance of aspens, they promise a kind of permanence that doesn’t waver with the changes in weather.

The trail switchbacks and you climb out of the valley. Here, the icy wind whips constantly, and it’s cold. The sweat you worked up on your climb quickly chills you and your arms turn blue. Better keep moving! You become acutely aware of and thankful for the beaming sun’s heat. It’s alpine territory up here. No trees, just scrub and clear gray lakes. The granite peaks tower further still around you. All of a sudden, the fierce upswell of fall feeling bubbles over. You want to turn in circles and scream a scream of triumph or joy. It thunders through you like the blood pulsing headily through your whole body. Here it is- the fall feeling. As quickly as it comes, it goes. Like the aspen leaves, it falls away in glorious flame, leaving barren yet anticipating branches. Now, I am ready for snow… but the glory was in the instant of change, of feeling.

So, as best as I can explain, that’s fall. It’s an overpowering joy that thunders through you momentarily, but then leaves. I think it’s also tainted, too, with extreme longing. That’s what I’m talking about at the beginning of this article. I want to feel it. And it makes me want to shuck permanence off like leaves and stand exposed to the elements. And yes, I think it’s a kind of addictive longing for longing that is fulfilled in brief flashes, but then fades. I think it’s what kept Odysseus on his journey. I wish I knew more about it. What do you think it is?

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