LAYERS OF CLAY
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” ~ George Eliot
Autumn is all about change. Nature dies as we live. In the northeast, the heat of summer is subdued before the onslaught of winter. Football and hockey revisit us like old friends with the promise of good times over the coming months. Schools are back in session, new faces in new places. Houses empty. Dorms fill. Youth is put to the test.
We never really know what twists and turns are going to manipulate us as we enter new phases in our lives. Some people think they’ve got a tight grip on their lives, but the tragedy of well-laid plans is well chronicled. Someone said the future ain’t what it used to be. For students, it’s a vast wilderness of the unknown.
Few things on this planet give me more fulfillment than spending time with students of all ages. They hold the formula for optimism and idealism, passion and vitality. You gotta love them all, from the wide-eyed, deer in the headlights freshman to the cynical, perpetually unamused veteran of 14 different majors, and all the identity crises surviving coeds in between.
I love watching them as they join the human race in trying to figure it all out. Seeing new things occur to them is as exciting as a breakthrough in my own mind. As I chat with sharp seniors I marvel at how near we often are to the beginning even when we feel so close to the end.
About 20 years ago to the moment I write this, I moved into college for the first time. I remember that first day well, a new beginning. It was a Sunday in the fall, late August just like now, when my family made the journey to a little town in Southwestern Pennsylvania and deposited me for the forseeable future.
The first person I met was my roommate. He was friends with the coolest guys in town, athletic, going on 21, and adored by women. Everyone called him Rico. I, on the other hand, was bean pole skinny, four months shy of my 18th birthday, and ignored by girls. I had no nicknames other than dork (my sisters) and sunshine (my mom), neither of which offered any help in putting me on the social map.
I wanted to check out the campus, my new home, but was overwhelmed. The only person I knew was an ex-girlfriend. We had broken up a few months earlier but reconnected as friends the day before to at least guarantee ourselves one ally in that foreign country. I wondered what would happen when she met Rico.
Nerves got the better of me, so I squirmed down the hall to check out my new bathroom. The stalls featured graffiti of years past, images and words faint from attempts to scrub the art away. I scanned the walls for potentially useful advice or mind altering wisdom. As I read the stall walls, I realized something was missing. There was no toilet paper in the dormitory stalls! Not even dispensers. College student fail, and I hadn’t even made it to the lobby yet. I was doomed.
I’ve always thought that private little incident a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to start college, or anything for that matter, without being prepared. Not only did I lack the necessary resources but the foundation wasn’t even in place. My first big lesson was more practical than existential. How often we try to take on the world before we can even take care of ourselves.
At first I couldn’t see anything beyond my fear and anxiety about what others thought of me. When I did get around to thinking, I wanted to solve the problems of the world and mysteries of the universe. In the meantime, I hadn’t taken care of the basics things I would need along the journey. Can you relate?
My little trip to college that day turned into 7 years as a student. It never occurred to me that I had just begun the rest of my life. If we’re honest, I think most of us get stuck in everyday ruts and fail to realize that each tomorrow is the start of the rest of our lives.
As the seasons change, nature resets and we can feel the hope of renewal. Of course, as Pandora learned, hope can be a dangerous thing. New beginnings often carry both promise and pain. Birth isn’t easy. Why should rebirth be any more so?
Some of the most glorious scenes in nature come from dying trees, as the leaves fade and fall. Have you ever noticed how much farther you can see once the branches have all been laid bare? Autumn contains an end that reveals beauty in death while expanding our horizons. Our lives are like that. In times of change we come to an end of who we are. Some parts of us die because they must. The process can be painful but beautiful things will also be revealed, and on the other side we see farther than we ever have as we catch a new vision for the next leg of our quest.
We will never have it all figured out. No one can ever be fully prepared for a new school or job or baby or whatever. At times we’ll be completely unprepared. In the meantime, we can learn to appreciate the journey, especially during “delicious autumn.”
Check out the two part follow up to this post: The Skinny Freshman