I remember a walk I took at twilight nearly twenty years ago. I was living in Menthon-St.-Bernard, France then, a mountainous region in Haute Savoie on a deep lake. My Best Beloved and I lived in a house a ways up the mountain, perhaps a twenty minute walk up the steep path from Menthon itself (really little more than a crossroads with a church, a couple of restaurants, a post office and a little green grocer). To get from the village to our house, I had to walk through Les Moulins, an ancient hamlet of stone houses near a deep gorge where there had once been a mill. As I trudged up the hill, wearing a thick grey sweater (which I still own), my breath blew foggy in the chill air. I slipped through one of the narrow passages, the chin-high stone walls on either side covered in moss, and beyond them plum trees and apple trees. The passage opened into a tiny square and I passed one of the houses in the hamlet, the honey light spilling from a window. Inside was a little boy, at the wooden kitchen table, curled over what I took to be his homework. His young brown-haired mother, apron on, soup ladle in one hand, bent over him, her hand on his shoulder.
I stopped and watched. The tenderness, the homeyness was like nothing so much as an illustration from a fairytale.
It was one of those moments that, for no reason other than the sheer beauty of it, I recognized would be seared into my memory forever.
It was also a particularly autumnal moment. The quality of the light at that time of day, the silence of the hamlet, the soup on the stove, the boy with his homework, and me in my heavy sweater, looking forward to my own fire and pot of soup waiting for me…these images, and the sense of tranquil rightness, are one of the metaphors I carry inside me for autumn.
My summer-loving friends have long considered me mad. I do not love summer. I do not love the searing heat and wilting humidity that have, largely, been my experience of summer, whether in Montreal, Toronto, Menthon-St.Bernard, Paris, Normandy or, now, Princeton. All summers to me feel like I live in the bayous of Louisiana, and while I can intellectually appreciate their beauty, they just make me want to pack ice-cubes in my underwear and sit in front of a fan until it’s all over.
But autumn… ahhh…. chilly nights and sweaters and a roaring fire and cups of tea and long evenings and hearty stews and the apricot and pumpkin and butter-colored leaves.
This is my writing season. My Best Beloved tells me I become grouchy and irritable during the summer, as much from the heat as from my inability to write. Try as I might, I am not a summer writer. Reader? Sure. I can pound through any number of books in the summer, occasionally while lying in the shaded hammock swatting bugs. But summer feels too loud, too insistent that I get out there and frolic, to be of any use to me as a writer. And let’s be clear, I am not one of nature’s frolickers.
And so, after many years of this sort of cycle, I have come to accept it, which I hope makes me somewhat less grouchy during the summer. Just as it’s a healthy practice to eat in harmony with the seasons, for me it has become healthy to take spiritual nourishment in the same way. Writers are, by nature, dreamers, and winter is the dreaming time. The snow flies (at least in this part of the world), the wind blows, and the earth becomes muffled and quiet. One wants to take naps, to sleep a bit longer in the morning, and go to bed earlier. Dreaming takes up more of our awareness.
Summer may be the time for book tours and public appearances of various kinds, and jotting down ideas I can use later, but I have accepted I am unable to produce much of anything useful from mid-May to the end of September, or perhaps later.
Interestingly, I seem to be able to edit in summer, but I can’t for the life of me produce a first draft of anything. Isabel Allende once said that she starts her books only on one certain day of the year. I can’t remember which one. But on that day she sits down and writes the first sentence, knowing the entire book is insider her somewhere, and goes on until it’s finished. For me that day would have to be the first day of the crisp autumn weather. It’s not a bad idea. To begin a book as the weather changes, with an aim to finishing a draft no later than the following first day of spring/summer weather.
I actually have an idea for a new novel, and the weather, which has been oddly warm this past week, is supposed to dip down to seasonal temperatures for good starting next week. If I don’t answer the phone, you’ll know why….just as the migrating Canadian geese fly overhead, writing has returned.
Do you have seasonal sensitivities?