In A ‘Season of Contemplation,” How To Overcome The Autumn Blues

Multi-colored autumn leaves sit in a thin pile on wet ground.
Autumn is a season to seek out “some morsel of wonder in each passing day.” (Photo by Mary Jo Adams).

I didn’t need the Harvest Moon or Autumn Equinox to know that fall arrived. The morning nip in the air, the night chill, the earlier sunsets proclaim it. When I was a child, I embraced autumn. I loved being back in school and welcomed the fresh start and new discoveries my classes promised.

This year, though, I feel oddly melancholic about the year’s dwindling. I don’t want to see the last of the clothes pulled from the outdoor lines (bless those who still hang out their clothes to dry!). I don’t want to see the final petals fall from the rose bushes or pick the last of the garden tomatoes.

Summer felt particularly liberating after the pandemic restrictions in place last year. We also seemed to have more visitors than ever from what some friends of mine call the creature “kin-dom,” including thrushes, bluebirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, monarch butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises, groundhogs, chipmunks, a raccoon, rabbits and a family of grasshoppers that took up residence in one of our window boxes.

Most already have begun to disappear.

The harvest time for farmers is also a time of recollection for the rest of us. Fall forces us to confront whether the work we’ve done in the past year will produce a good harvest. By many measures, I should be celebrating my harvest. My new book, How to Be, is scheduled for release on November 1. An online book launch will follow on Sunday November 7, as will other events with my co-author, Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Still, like most over-achievers, I feel two steps behind where I should be. I’m anxious to get on to the next book and wondering why I am not farther along. As the fine Scottish poet Kenneth Steven writes in “Iona,” his new collection of poems, “Some days there is nothing in my pen but my own emptiness.”

Perhaps part of this malaise is the sense that every autumn now brings me closer to what inevitably, one year, will be my final autumn, and I am not ready to let go of this world I love so much.

A praying mantis strolls along the railing of a bridge overlooking a tree-lined creek.
Creatures from the “kin-dom” like this praying mantis have already begun to disappear. (Photo by Judith Valente)

Some friends have been trying to snap me out of this spell by sending positive messages. The poet Lisa Breger lives outside of Boston. She writes that even as she drains her tiny backyard pond and prepares to cover it over for winter, she is already perusing catalogues, ordering the flowers she will plant next spring. The promise of life goes on.

Another friend, David Murray writes that in autumn, “Nothing per se has died. Rather, nature goes into contemplation … and the starkness and nakedness is simply the humility of being alive on this small planet, our sanctuary yet among the stars. As [Benedictine author] Sister Macrina Wiederkehr wrote, it is the time to abide. It is a time to nurture thoughts in solitude as Thomas Merton wrote, and to realize, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, that the earth is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Certainly, that grandeur will be on display soon enough as leaves burst into amber, red and gold. And when they brown and fall, we will be able to see farther and more clearly than before.

Perhaps the secret to appreciating this autumn season lies in seeking out some morsel of wonder in each passing day, whether it is the shape of a fallen leaf, an owl’s call or the rise of an incandescent moon on these longer nights. Perhaps it is all right to slow down as the year winds down. To “go into contemplation” like nature, as David says.

Multi-colored leaves on a vine grow from a crevice in the bark of an old tree.
In autumn, nature “goes into contemplation.” (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly).

“I go through fallow periods and feel no anxiety about it, like the farm fields that need time where nothing seems to happen,” Brother Paul writes in our book, How to Be.

While life on the surface seems to be fading, below ground millions of microbes are at work preparing the soil for spring. Millions of insects are waiting to awaken. We are not so different, Brother Paul points out. “Out of sight, out of mind, the heart works, and imagination ferments.”

Cover of new book “How to Be” pictures a painted row of trees along a path of grass.
“I go through fallow periods and feel no anxiety about it,” Brother Paul Quenon writes in “How to Be,” a new book co-authored with Judith Valente. (Photo by Judith Valente)

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.