my hands were made of silver,
delicate, refined, needing to be polished
daily, glinting on sun-heavy days
until I made my way into the woods
listened for long while, ear pressed to soft earth
thirsty for the song I heard
among roots and moss, rumors
that spring was coming, could even hear
the magnolia bud rumbling.
I stayed that way for years, prone,
breathing in scent of fur and feather
until everything silver fell away
until flesh rose back up my arms
pink covered me like the promise
of that song I heard, now I’m eager
for callouses and blisters,
to mottle my fingers with ink,
to touch the world as if for the first time.
—Christine Valters Paintner, The Wisdom of Wild Grace
Dearest monks and artists,
The poem above is inspired by the fairy tale “The Handless Maiden,” one of my favorites to work with as an archetype of the inner journey. It is a story on one level about how we allow artificial things to become substitutes for natural connection and how we all need to follow our call into the wild to become flesh and tenderness again.
(You can pre-order my book The Wisdom of Wild Grace at this link or through any bookstore.)
The autumn equinox falls officially on Tuesday in the northern hemisphere (click here if you are in the southern hemisphere welcoming spring)—a time when the sun rests above the equator, and day and night are divided equally. It heralds a season filled with change, celebrates the harvest, and ushers in the brilliant beauty of death. Autumn is a season of transition, of continual movement.
At the heart of autumn’s gifts are these twin energies of relinquishing and harvesting. It is a season of paradox that invites us to consider what we are called to release and surrender, and at the same time it invites us to gather in the harvest, to name and celebrate the fruits of the seeds we planted months ago. In holding these two in tension we are reminded that in our letting go we also find abundance.
In the seas of the Northwest U.S. where I used to live, the salmon are responding to an ancient and ancestral call. They are returning from the oceans and making the hard and often battering journey up the rivers, to return to their birthplaces to lay eggs offering the gift of new life. This journey always ends in their own death. It is an amazing mystery as I imagine this deep longing for home the salmon must feel and the ultimate surrender they welcome while also offering a harvest of blessing for the next generation of salmon.
I love the beauty of autumn leaves releasing their hold. I have walked close to death many times in my life now, journeying with my own mother the last few days of her life in the ICU after a massive infection ravaged her body, then with John’s mother who let go after a very long journey with Alzheimer’s and the great unravelling it causes. Fall thrusts us into the messiness of life and challenges us not to turn away. The season of autumn calls me to honor the full spectrum of human experience, to not push away the sorrow and grief, to not fill the waiting with distractions. I rest into the unknown, I stay present to the great sadness I sometimes feel.
As I walk each day, fall offers solace with her unbearable beauty. But some days, the wind gusts through and the trees are stripped bare. I weep at the ache I feel when I consider how everything I love in this world will one day die. The season calls me to let go of false assumptions, wrests my too-small images of God from me as I enter the Mystery of dying and rising. Autumn demands that I release what I think is important to do and returns me to the only thing which matters that I remember—to love and to allow love to sculpt me, even as it breaks my heart.
But equally, this season calls us to the harvest. Seeds planted long ago create a bounty and fullness in our lives. Autumn invites me to remember the places in my life where I had a dream that once felt tiny and has now grown and ripened into fullness. I savor these places where my life feels abundant. I relish the experience of being nourished by dreams into my own growing wholeness.
The poet Rilke writes of autumn: “Command the last fruits to be full; / give them just two more southern days, / urge them on to completion and chase / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.” We move toward our own ripening and in that journey we let go of what no longer serves us. Fall urges us on to our own completion and sweetness.
We live in times when it often feels like everything is coming undone. This season reminds us that the journey of relinquishing all we hold dear is also the journey of harvesting. Somehow these two come together year after year. We are invited to rest into its mystery.
In the poetry video, the woman must let go of what she carries with her to embrace the newness promised to her. We all must embark on this journey.
What are you releasing that no longer energizes you?
What dreams do you want to harvest this season?
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Image credit: Poetry Video by Morgan Creative