Every year around this time, I lose my steam. It's not just that the days are shorter and colder and the wind more cutting, although these things are surely factors in any sense of diminished purpose; it's not just that so many of the plans packed into the early days of the autumn semester, with freshly sharpened pencils, and as-yet unread books--yes, we will get through it all!-- have somehow been undone by circumstance and scaled-back ambitions--let's just make it to the end of term in one piece, without too many tears; it's not just the stacks of papers mounting, the endless marking, the fatigue of one-too-many committee meetings, or the necessity of getting the snow tires on, although these things do take their toll. It's not even the lists of things undone from the end of the summer, the unprocessed photos and sound and video files (some not even yet downloaded!) from our latest summer sailing, the fact that the floor of my home office is covered in stacks of papers I don't have time to file, and that there are still gaping holes in the wall where two years ago the carpenter banged out chunks so that we could observe whether the window frames were leaking water inside the walls; it's not the cupboard full of partially completed manuscripts, or the printer I need to fix so that we can print photos at home again; it's not even the six cords of wood recently dumped by the wood racks that we must get up off of the ground this week, despite the fact that I wrenched my back last Friday while stacking wood, and for much of this week, could hardly bend down to tie my shoes, or the fact that our beloved boat blew down this autumn and is wrecked beyond repair. These are in the end, just things, annoyances, labours to be completed (albeit sometimes Herculean), rendered more difficult by the fact that all I seem to want to do is to huddle by the fire or hibernate, and that for half the week at least, while I am in town at work, I do not live at home.
In the end, what gnaws at me and wakes me in the night is something other than all of these things.
At first, of course, the source of my insomnia masquerades as one or another item on my infernal lists--all with a sticky sort of power, so that one item gets enchained to another in an endless midnight series. I lie in bed and unfold the list, accordion pleat by accordion pleat, not forgetting to add old sins or invent new ones--it is as if I am, now and forever, reciting the terms of the Lutheran confession that framed my childhood days:
Most holy and merciful God,
we confess to you and to one another,
and before the whole company of heaven,
that we have sinned by our fault,
by our own fault,
by our own most grievous fault,
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
As I child, I had thought it terribly unjust that "things undone" (something of which I am forever guilty) somehow weighed as much as things wrongly done. My wakeful night time adult self however understands utterly the scale of my own worthlessness as measured in things "left undone." We never can come to account; life is lived in arrears these days--financial, temporal, social, familial: the holes are everywhere. Darkness comes and you tumble into it, with all of the lists of your dead.
For this is the crisis, in the end, not the wrestling with earthly tasks, but letting go of the dead, (autumn seems to bring so many). Finding joy and purpose without them. Lists of chores aren't enough to bring on a full-blown existential crisis (although throwing your back out and then adding to the lists of things to do might assist); what creeps around the edges of the duvet on these cold nights are the winds of mortality.
There are so many I miss, gone, like the winking out of starlight; and the longer I live, the more people and creatures there are to miss. Why are we built thus, "so that," as Rilke writes in his Eighth Duino Elegy,
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the furthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers---,
so we live here, forever taking leave.
In these middle of the night agonies, I am, perhaps, despite my own feelings of worthlessness, doing the poet's bidding, even perhaps, hearing my own calling...
In the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke writes,
Be ahead of all parting as though it already were
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.
Impossible task. And yet, which other one could I choose?
After all, most of those things that I do and don't do on my to do lists don't add up to much: they are but preoccupations--not exactly what one must do for life to have had meaning, for it to have been enough.
Here's the odd thing: we wake and churn and turn about inside, but what feels like enough is never much and never within. It is the white flash of gulls' wings in the sun, or the far flung spangle of the milky way. It is a ray of sun on my cheek or the cat's purr; it is a friend's laughter, a lover's breath, the aching arc of a melodic line, the first frost etching patterns on the pond. It is the boom of a wave and the smell of sea spray, the burst of red juice from a ripe pomegranate or the flicker--now you see them, now you don't--of surviving deer slipping into the woods.