Fall

All through my childhood, fall meant the end of summer. The end of T-shirts and shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. The end of running through sprinklers and swimming in ponds or pools. The end of long days, short nights.

Fall meant the beginning of school, which put me among too many noisy people. Ask me to concentrate in the classroom battlefield environment? Forget it. Ask me to do schoolwork at home in my free time? Torture. Who didn’t prefer being outside with friends or inside, reading books, playing with Matchbook cars, or watching TV? I attended three different elementary schools, one in North Carolina, Ohio, and Taiwan. They were all the same. Well, Taiwan differed in one way: the absence of fall. I didn’t miss it.

In Ohio, preferring spring and summer, bikes and bare feet, to fall and winter, classrooms and snow boots.

In Denver, I attended one of the most experimental junior high schools in the country. Students were treated as agents in their studies. In most of the classes, the learning material came in plastic tubs. Laminated sheets filled each tub. Each sheet; a lesson in history, English, or algebra. Finish a lesson, and move on to the next. Complete as many as you could in fifty minutes. If you had questions, ran into trouble, or fell behind, the teacher or an assistant would help you. No teacher stood at the front of the room, barking at us. Students worked quietly. And in this peaceful environment, I could immerse myself in my lessons. Self-management came easier to me than taking orders. And if a heating pipe pinged or a fluorescent light crackled, I didn’t notice.

In other classes, we sat in circles, the teacher joining us like King Arthur at the Round Table. Discussions replaced listen-and-repeat teaching methods. Our thoughts, experiences, and curiosity about subjects were welcome. We felt invested in subject matters—we felt as if we mattered.

I thrived in the Denver school. Unfortunately, we moved at the end of one year. Oregon returned me to that familiar and untenable structure of hierarchy and bullying. My grades fell back to their pre-Denver, you’re-not-touching-me levels. My sister begged to be allowed to attend community college and sit the GED exams. A great idea—I wanted to be included. Dad shook his head. “And miss the best fun of your lives?” he said.

The best fun of my life followed high school graduation. My entry into college felt like a return to the Denver school where I could manage myself. At first, I failed. I’d forgotten how. But I figured it out.

It’s taken me decades to recover from the sinking, end-of-summer feeling that fall always gave me. First, I learned to smile at the joy it brought so many people. Then I allowed myself to appreciate some of its charms: the morning sun shining through golden tree crowns, the wind blowing a murmuration of leaves across a trail, and the glitter of an early frost at sunrise.

Small changes to my life have finally endeared fall to me. The installation of a tiled stove, a Kachelofen, in our main living space is one. When temperatures drop below 13°, I build morning fires. The heat is absorbed by the stove’s tiles, which in turn radiate it. Touch the Kachelofen hours after the coals have burned to ash, and it’s as warm as a cat. For the love of flickering flames and radiant heat, I now look forward to the colder seasons.

The fire’s lit. The coffee’s brewing.

Another change came with the pandemic forcing Markus and me to work from home. We began taking 15–minute walks. Being outside so often, we experienced the sun’s movements—not just the length of day changing through the seasons, but the tracking of the sunrises and sunsets along the horizon and back again. We experienced temperature fluctuations and weather changes: daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. As we made our walks, trees leafed out, flowers blossomed, fruits and crops ripened. Seed-carrying fluff drifted on breezes. On the neighboring farm, cows calved, and ducklings hatched. Swifts returned, paired, and raised their young. Now, starlings chatter in the treetops, preparing to migrate.

October has slipped into November. The forested hills around us broke out in reds, yellows, and browns. Deciduous trees shed their nuts and leaves. At the local farm store, pumpkins and bottles of apple cider appeared on the shelves. In all of this, I’m learning to appreciate that fall has its place. It makes sense.

A burrow under the hazelnut tree.

This morning, I lit a fire to warm the Kachelofen. The flames flickered. I worked at my desk, and the day broke. Outside my window, yellow and brown hazelnut leaves carpet the lawn. A very fat mouse slips in and out of its burrow beneath the tree’s ivy-covered bole—which looks more like a cluster of saplings rising from an ivy plinth. The mouse skips over rocks and leaf litter. It returns with its foraging finds. Frosts are on their way. Soon, while I work, cozied by my winter fire, the fat mouse will be hibernating. I’ll keep watch on the world, working at my desk and padding barefoot around our warm house until Markus and I lace up for our walk, off to see the world safely through to winter and then spring.