I learned to love the fall, to really love it, at the foothills of the French Alps, in October, two months after my friend drowned in Lake Michigan.
Autumn had always been bright orange and covered in cold winds. It had been gaudy Halloween decorations and trying to guess when the first Michigan snowstorms would hit my school. Ghouls and goblins and dying leaves. Rain.
Autumn came differently that year. Mysterious, somber, hazy. October became a series of images that had the power to touch me emotionally. Apples and pumpkins growing plump and the skies swelling with moisture. Clouds sliding down mountain faces and fog sidling up to the university buildings. French students with cigarettes at all of the entrances, smoke curling in front of walls covered in reddening ivy and the damp of the morning’s rain. I can’t explain it, but even the pavement was beautiful to me.
The same year that I met my friend, less than two years before her death, we went for a walk in the nature preserve at our school in the zenith of Michigan’s fall. The ground was blanketed in color and the trees were still thick with orange and yellow and red. My friend wore a bright red pea coat and her curls danced in the wind. I snapped a picture of her there, her eyes closed as if she were listening to something that only she could hear. When she died, I printed out the photo to prop up on my desk, and it came with me to France when I started school in the fall.
I was mourning, and I found myself easily in tears. Sometimes they came because I was deeply sad and angry for what had happened. But they came also when I found something particularly beautiful or meaningful. Life was rich because it wasn’t forever. That fall, I passed late night tram rides rereading and responding to letters from friends back home. I spent a weekend in the mountains with a friend and her family and we baked apples in the fireplace, foraged for chestnuts in the forest, drove through misty little mountain towns and spoke to a group of hunters searching for sangliers—wild boar. This was the fall that I was truly homesick for maybe the first time in my life. It was the fall that I first felt at home in a country that was not my own.
Autumn had always been about death, and that didn’t change. But instead of being skeletons and cracking leaves, October became for me a swan song, a great exhale of life. Autumn meant not that the land was dying, but that it was pushing out the last of its growth. While summer is often languid and lazy, autumn is characterized by a certain voracity of life, a capitalization of the time that is left. It’s not the fear of the winter that necessitates this urgency, but the understanding of what can be done as long as life remains.
It is October, and I am in France again. I’m a bit on my own this time. I packed two bags with a few things I needed and lots of things I didn’t, and I moved across the Atlantic to work as an English assistant for the middle and high school of a town of 7,000.
The first days of my stay here, of October, were notably less magical than what I remember of my last French autumn. Dreary skies and unpleasant rains made for bleak days in an isolated area. I gave myself the permission to be teary-eyed when I needed it, and I wondered what in the world I was doing here. Loss comes in many different sizes and shapes.
On my third day here, one of my teachers and her husband took me to the town of Larressingle, a tout petit town not far from my own. On the drive there, through the rolling fields and past old stone houses, they told me about the crops that had just been harvested, how it was a shame I had not been there to see the sunflowers. Walking into the old fortified village—a fortress really, complete with a moat, small windows for the archers, and a platform for those who would turn over the vats of flaming oil—we passed a group of men with camouflaged pants and bright orange hats. Hunters, Emilie told me, off to hunt the sangliers.
We walked through the town. It barely took ten minutes because of its size. The stone chapel at the center was dark and simple, a hushed and holy place. In France, my teacher told me, when you go into a church for the first time, you make a wish. I didn’t have a wish ready to make, and I’ve never put much stock in wishes anyway. I prefer resolutions, and so this is mine: I want always to live in the season of harvest and celebration and loss and preparation. I want to pass every day as if I were in the final flourishing of life.
As we walked back to the car, we heard from the nearby woods the popping of several rifles, and I watched a curtain of blackbirds lift into the sky like shadows sliding up a wall.