An Adagio for Strings

September 23, 1994|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

In such a season, golden, spacious, but already whispering of the end, there will often come to a man a certain solemn mood, a vein of not unpleasing melancholy, and for a little while he will see all life moving to a grave measure, an adagio for strings.

-- J.B. Priestley

All About Ourselves and Other Essays

As I left the house this morning, a wedge of honking geese could be seen and heard making their way north. They were more like a boomerang of geese, really, for I know that after wintering in Canada most of them will return. In the fall, the sun once again begins its turning away from us. In a few weeks, the blush of leaves will be gone, as we settle in for what may prove to be a long winter. But the sun, too, eventually will return. It will make its wide arc, turning far, then near, until there is spring.

As a child at the beach on summer vacation, I used to think about the earth as a large hourglass. I thought God simply turned over the glass at the end of summer. The last grains of sand slipped through the narrow aperture, and we were sent back to school. The sand ran out again around Christmas time. Then, again at Easter vacation. There was always enough time, then. When we ran out, God turned over the glass, making more time.

I married when I was 39 years old. At our wedding my wife remarked about how many of my closest friends were people in the autumn of their lives. At the time I thought of her comment as little more than an off-hand observation. Since that time, many of these friends have suffered through serious illnesses; some have died. I now realize my wife watched her father go through a similar process of slowly losing older and wiser colleagues, so her wedding remark was born of tenderness and concern about what was to come. She knew I was already captivated by a senseless hope.

So now it is my turn. I watch so many of my closest friends retire from active teaching or writing. I watch their joints become stiff and painful, even though their minds are just as capable of earlier acrobatic feats. I wonder where the things they know will go? I wonder who will remember them after I am gone.

I no longer think of the world as an hourglass. If it is, all the sand seems to run one way. There is a poignancy and a melancholy about the autumn. It is not just the unspoken sharpness in the air. It is that the sharpness reminds me of departure, departure of these friends.

I sit at the keyboard composing lecture notes. I think if I immerse myself in the work, the fall, and a yearning for others' immortality, will go away. I look up for an instant and one drifting yellow leaf comes to a rest on the windowsill. It is as pungent and melancholy as any hillside in New England. In the fall, days are not simply bright, but radiant, full of glory.

The fall -- Keats' ''season of mist and mellow fruitfulness'' -- plays such cruel tricks on the human mind. It is as if autumn were the real creator, much more vibrant and spontaneous than spring. The colors are better, truer, more overwhelming. My older friends are so often the same way. It is as if it takes a good six or seven decades to get used to life, and then you begin to do some good work on the big questions. In one of his best letters D.H. Lawrence suggests that one has to be 70 before one can get a firm grasp on the concept of courage. This, of course, is why so many of my friends are in their 70s and 80s. It takes a certain kind of courage to be old -- a variety more complicated than the momentary heroics of the battlefield.

I try to return to my lecture notes, but soon I look up again to find the leaf has vanished. If I had not seen it earlier, the leaf's existence, and now its disappearance, both would have gone unmarked. I wish the world were like an hourglass. Every year on the first day of fall, I carefully would turn it over one more time.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame

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