It is the last day of Autumn, a cold, thick-oatmeal gray day, and finally: I put on my rubber boots, and I’m raking leaves. It’s the first time since mid-October that the sleeping leaves have been disturbed, and I quickly realize it’s a bigger job than I thought it would be.
I live on a beautiful street in a center-ring suburb, one of my city’s first suburbs, with century homes and century trees—both the houses and the trees are big and sturdy. Maples, oaks, sycamores, beeches, mulberries, pears—their leaves fell all fall, layering up, narrowing the front walk until suddenly it was just a forest footpath. The decaying leaves built up along the edges of the walk, damply clinging and narrowing it like plaque in an old artery.
So I rake, scrape, pile and gather leaves up on an old blue tarp. Pile, lift, carry down the drive way and across the backyard, heave-ho up over the fence, letting the leaves cascade into the ravine. The heaviest clumps of wet leaf mold settle in the folds of the tarp, reforming into a mass with heft, like a body. I know now how it feels to lift and dump a body.
Over and over, I rake and repeat, dumping body after body into the grave of the old stream that used to run through here. All the while, I play a Patty Griffin song in my head. The song is “Making Pies,” but I have reworked it to suit my task.
You could cry or die
Or just rake leaves all day.
I’m raking leaves
This song makes me smile, on this, the nearly darkest day of the year. I can’t carry a tune, but I’m singing aloud because it feels good. (And also because no one else is outdoors! The neighbors all use lawn services, and I’m sure they will be thrilled to see I’ve finally decided to reclaim my yard from the wild woodland drifts.)
It strikes me, on this shadow-less day that is soft-lit and diffused, that there have been brighter days when I’ve been unable to see the very sharp shadows right in front of me. The shadows that are part of me, and of all of us. I was afraid of my own shadows, my long, looming shadow side that I now know is there to help me understand the light.
What joy there is in sharing darkness, in holding it up instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. I tried that—‘thinking positive thoughts’— and while I’m all for gratitude journals and happiness projects, I now see that you can’t dump the shadows like bodies. You need to hold their hands and embrace them and honor their existence. And then be grateful for their lessons.
I am so grateful for every beloved fellow traveler, my dear friends, both new and old, who showed me their shadows, and gently helped me see that mine are just part of me, and nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to run from. I thought pain was something I could or should try to skirt. Your shared darkness brought such bright light.
Darkness is as beautiful in its way as light. It is a sharp thing, brittle and bitter and raw and rough and dark and painful as wet bark scraping your skin when you are running from things and you fall into arms waiting to catch you, and you feel held, and warm.
That’s when you see the light in its brightest form: when you are so cold your teeth are chattering and tears are freezing on your cheeks and you are enfolded in a hug that feels warm, like a blanket straight from the dryer, wrapped around you, and you take a breath, and know you will be okay.
Even when the arms that hold you are your own scraped-up arms, and even on the second-darkest day of the year.