Yesterday marked the first official day of fall, according to my calendar. It is by far and away my favorite season of the year: a season marked by the rich flavors of pumpkins, squash, potatoes and gravy, the smells and sounds of crisp leaves underfoot, and wistful memories of brisk, windy walks to Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown, Minneapolis while I was studying at the University of Minnesota.
But the fallen leaves and cool mornings are a reminder what is to come. In Alaska, the impending freeze is even more visible as snow falls on the mountaintops and eagerly creeps down into the valley where I lived. Alaskans call it the “termination dust”.
Even as we approach Thanksgiving—a time to express our gratitude and give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest and for our relationships with each other—death and lethargy begin to sink in. By the time winter transforms Minnesota– “Land of the Sky Blue Water”– into the Great White North, I sometimes find myself yearning for the summer, the heat, and the way things were before.
I read something today that inspired some reflection about this season of decay, and of my own experiences of love and of loss to death or distance. It comes from a collection of writings called “Letters from Prison”, which were written by Pastor, theologian, dissident anti-Nazi and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This particular excerpt is from a piece entitled, “Separation From Those We Love”:
“The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hand ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special times, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.”
I think of my great-grandpa Walt, who I would love the opportunity to talk to now, as an adult. I think of Laurie, who I wish I could have spoken with frankly before she took her life, and of Joe, who I had only recently befriended when he was stabbed and killed just moments after we hugged and said “goodbye” for the night. I’d love to sit for coffee with my step-grandmother Debbie, who passed away 6 months after I moved away from Minnesota, and I reflect on the experience of those moves to and from Alaska, which both caused me to mourn the loss of constant, day-to-day relationships. The list goes on from there.
See how tempting it is to flounder about in a puddle of these memories? It would be so easy to try to fill the empty void left by those losses, but I really love what Bonhoeffer suggests here: that instead of attempting to mask our pain with distractions and fill that emptiness, we can give new life to the past by going to that empty space to meet the people we have lost to death or distance.
“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”
Dwelling in that space is a form of resurrection; of new life!
For me lately, life has been doing this thing where everything from books to songs to conversations to Tweets have been tying together, so as I’ve been thinking about this concept from Bonhoeffer today, a related idea came to mind. I’m in the middle of reading Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new memoir, “Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint”. If you haven’t purchased and read it yet, I highly suggest you do—and truly, it doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a Christian or agnostic or a secular humanist or a “none” or… whatever. It’s just really that good. And it was written for an audience that thinks critically about faith and religion rather than the more vapid “if you’re not with us, you’re hell-bound” types. Here is the passage that came to mind for me, from her opening chapter, previewing what the whole text is about:
“[It’s] the story of how I have experienced this Jesus thing to be true. How the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”
And isn’t that just the thing? New seasons, new ways of thinking, and the people that have been put in our lives and we choose to surround ourselves with impact us in profound and simple ways. Our lives are always being made new.
With these thoughts in mind, I confess that the constant cycle of death and resurrection is a defining and reforming force in my life. A sense of gratitude for the gift of Grace truly has changed pangs of memories into a deep appreciation and a tranquil joy in my life. I am so thankful for this season of change, which gives pause to reflection, quiet, peace, and the opportunity to visit those empty, sacred spaces once again.
Stay safe, and be good to other humans.