Every year I'm surprised by how variable the change is. The other night, when it was still Sukkot, we had a pair of friends over, a couple we've known since college and their son. Our son, who is almost four, proudly explained that this -- gesturing to the little skeleton of a house, garlanded with tinsel -- was a sukkah and that his dad had built it and we had decorated it. Then he explained that the leaves on the trees around us are turning orange and yellow because it's fall. The two statements seemed of equal import, coming out of his mouth.
Our friends' son, who is almost five, all but rolled his eyes. (He is practically grown, as far as he is concerned; the revelations of the almost-four set are old hat for him.) But then he really looked around, and exclaimed, "your leaves really are turning yellow! Ours are still green." They live only ten minutes away by car. But to get from there to here, one goes up a long slow hill. We're on a ridge. It's enough to make autumn's colors pop here while they're still lurking beneath the visual spectrum at his house.
Every year at this season I think of John Jerome, may his memory be a blessing. I return to my little green commonplace book, the one I started during my first tour through grad school. Its opening pages are all Doty and Birkerts, Brodsky, Anne Lamott. And then there's this:
Yellow [creeps] up the maple stems outside my window. I look up at the forest on the hill and imagine I can hear, inside all those stems, a zillion little doors clanging shut. Shutters pulled in, shades rattling down. Tree to leaf: you're beautiful, but you're history. You're archives. You just got a promotion: your new job is mulch.
All I wrote down beside that quote was John Jerome's name. But it's got to be from Stone Work.
Of course, the man who wrote that line has moved on to his new job, too, whatever exactly that may be. Six years of rabbinic school, going on three years of my rabbinate, and I still don't pretend to have any certainty about that. Some years I re-read Stone Work in the spring. I love the way it begins with the spring equinox, flakes of falling snow melting on the hot coats of happy and well-exercised dogs. A hint of new life, at a time when the outside world still seems to be dead, or at least sleeping.
John and I corresponded for a few years, back when I was at Bennington. He had been grown up in Texas, as I had, and had moved to the hills of western Massachusetts, as I had, and had made a living and a life for himself as a writer, as I hoped to do. I wrote to him about how his description of childhood swimming in the lazy Guadalupe river had made me nostalgic. About my hopes of living a writerly life. I still have all of the letters he sent me, a sheaf of neatly-typed pages. Every so often I think about reading them again, but I can't bring myself to do it, yet.
Sukkot: the festival when we move out of our homes and into these peculiar temporary little houses. Halakha, Jewish law, stipulates that the roofs be made of organic material and that one be able to see the moon and stars through them. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow once mis-typed the sukkah's "leafy" roof as a "leaky" roof, and then decided to keep the wrong word as well as the right one.
Our bodies, our lives, our certainties are as fragile as these little temporary houses. And when our time is up, we come apart, leaving behind only memories, and maybe an idle strand of tinsel to be found months later when the snow recedes.