About three hours west of here, close to the sources of the great Potomac which these days saunters lazily by our apartment, a small community in the Appalachians is convening a five-day festival called Autumn Glory. I’m pretty sure scores and hundreds of towns up and down this eastern spine of the United States throw similar parties. Words, phrases, place-names communicate abundantly: Autumn Color, Fall Festival, Harvest Home, New Hampshire or Vermont, Western Massachusetts or upstate New York, the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia: all evoke picture post-card perfect vistas of vibrant colors, impossibly beautiful seas of leaves, golden, red, yellow, orange, tan, brown, and a thousand gradients in-between.
This is surely and truly fall, but only the fall of vacations and three-day weekends, a week in October or a Sunday afternoon drive to marvel at the show. These are the Great Autumns, the Autumns of memory to be toasted with chilled cider or mulled wine and orchards of apples and orange piles of pumpkins, but they are not the Autumns of Everyday. The workaday Fall is a wholly different event, a magical, captivating striptease, an infuriatingly slow and deliberate revealing of the beautiful and, alas, the stark.
Fall begins at a particular point, September 21 or 22 or23, at some altitudes and climates with nothing more than the announcement, “Welcome to the Show, boys, it’s the First Day of Fall. Here we are, me and my sisters, ready to reveal our delights.” And so the first few days or weeks there is nothing but the waiting, the watching, the wanting. It’s like you paid for the show and are sitting at the bar sipping your beer, wondering, “What’s wrong? When does it start?” And then, all of a sudden yet still gradually, you notice, at last, a patch of perfect golden leaves: the subtle slip of a strap off the shoulder, the top button undone. The tease has begun.
Even with the performance beginning, this stripper is hesitant, slow, deliberate and, you wonder, maybe a little shy even. She knows she has plenty of time and a completely captive audience. Day after day, you watch these alluring trees, watch as they gradually slip off another strap, unfasten another hook, slyly giving you a peek at what comes next, the raw beauty you’re waiting to see.
Sometimes in the season, a lone tree will have finally turned completely golden or red. How daring of this brazen lady to show you her charms a little ahead of the others. You are taken by these few bold souls, smitten by their color, their attitude. Soon, though never soon enough, their sisters join them and finally, after they have slipped off their green, all is revealed. But not quite. We wish this was the end of the show, but it’s not. Autumn is like a striptease where you go only to see the lovely lingerie, brilliant, sexy, bright underwear. “I’m ready to leave now,” you say to yourself, satisfied with this sensual treat, but alas, you live here too. These sweet ladies, the fall trees surround your home, the roads you take, the places you work and shop. And so, like it or not, the show continues. “You wanted to see it all?” they say. “Fine. Get ready for the full frontal, because Sugar, it ain’t gonna be very pretty from here on.”
And so, day by agonizing day, the show does goes on, clasps further unhooked, skimpy things slipped lower, lower, lower, ’till at last one day, maybe after a ferocious storm has helped finish the job, the poor trees stand fully revealed, naked to your and my embarrassed eyes, naked to the heavens, before God himself. You try to appreciate, try to remember the trees’ beauty, cruelly echoed now only in stark outline. You gaze at the now nude trees and realize our common barrenness, the bare-ness we all hide under bright frippery, colorful togs, witty words. This dis-clothes-ure has become a full disclosure. You bow your head in sorrow, in shame, in humility, praying for garments fitted for every living thing from trees to you and me and all creation in-between, clothes that will neither brighten nor dim, neither mask nor fall away, true clothing that suits, for now and always.