Notes on Autumn

There’s something about a rainy autumn day, cold toes trapped in boots, and Ben Howard playing in my ears that make me feel like my best self.

There’s a window in my room at Oxford, directly in front of my desk, eye-level with anyone who sits down and looks straight ahead. It’s about 2 feet long and 6 inches high, like an exaggerated mail slot. Through this rectangular portal, I see the cobblestones of Margaery Quadrangle, the faculty bicycles, the stairs leading down to the Saskatchewan Lecture Hall, and rain—freezing, cold rain.

This is the time of year where my toes are enduringly cold and always a bit damp. I’m cold to my bones and can never seem to get warm, but even in the bite of cold, something glows. I’m more aware of warmth and safety than ever before.

In England, the months between summer and winter are called autumn. Not fall—autumn. I love this. Because fall sounds like the crunch of brown, dry leaves; it smells like forsaken piles of burning pine straw; it feels like brittle needles poking the skin inside my sleeves like a scarecrow. But autumn. Autumn is bright yellow leaves, glistening and damp from a drizzle standing in humble contrast to a cloudy sky. Autumn is old men wearing tweed coasts, carrying newspapers, pausing on a bench to read or smoke or maybe do nothing at all. Autumn is blond-headed toddlers in shiny red wellies and bright yellow raincoats; it’s their plain and lovely mothers, with chapped and nurturing faces, steering them out of the puddles and shouting to wait at the edge of the sidewalk.  

The Covered Market is a delight, especially in autumn. I haven’t actually experienced it in any other season, but I expect autumn to be its prime. In the Covered Market, you can escape the elements without committing to just one restaurant, shop, or cafe. You can stay dry and decently warm, all while smelling coffee, cookies, Indian cuisine, and those savory British pies. There’s a produce stand, a cake decorator with peek-able windows, a flower shop, and dozens of boutiques supplying hats, gloves, scarves, coats, and all manner of cozy things. You may or may not buy anything, but your scarf won’t get any wetter, you’ll begin to regain the feeling in your toes, and you won’t have to brace yourself against cold wind knocking the breath out of you.

Let’s talk about hats for a moment. In theory, they solve all our problems: they’re fashionable, warm, cover up greasy hair, and give an excuse to not comb your hair at all. But in reality, at least in my reality, hats only work when my hair is just so underneath. Without careful preparation, hats make me look bald (unless the visible ends of my hair are curled which completely negates the theory that hats are an excuse to not do your hair). In photos, hats are adorable and autumnal, but in reality, they make me sweaty and itchy and tangly. But do I still wear them? Yes. Yes I do. I am wearing one now.

Yes, autumn is leaves and old men in tweed and British kids in their wellies, but let’s not forget the uncomfortable necessities of autumn: raincoat hoods that rob you of peripheral vision, scarves that are perpetually damp, knuckles that are numb when palms are warm. There’s no avoiding the sting of cold ears, exposed hands, and the ceaseless hurry to get indoors. There’s the delight and discomfort of not shaving anything, and the unpleasant bits of school and work that still need to get done.

Seasonal depression is real. For many people, autumn inaugurates a long, suffocating winter. The short days, the little sunlight, and the unforgiving temperatures are like a basement or tunnel that’s six months long.

For some reason, I have never experienced this (yet). My seasonal depression lasts from March-August, when the swelter of summer is just as oppressive as the short days of winter. For me, autumn is the ordination of refreshment. I breathe easiest here. Every time I open a door, I delight in the cold burst of air that greets me. I light candles and make tea and wiggle numb toes. I look forward to family gatherings at Thanksgiving, music at Christmas, stepping indoors, rosy and snug, after fighting through cold to get where I’m going. Cold temperatures push me inward, drive me to shelter, and remind me of the pleasure and relief of being taken care of.

Just a few weeks ago, I walked through a field in the Cotswolds, green and alive, breathing the crisp but not quite cold air. The sun warmed anything temporarily chilled by a breeze. I breathed out, releasing six months of harbored tension and anxiety. The summer is over. Good-bye (for now) to heavy and hot. Hello (for now) to sharp air and drizzly mornings and toddlers in wellies jumping in puddles. My toes are numb but my spirit is at peace.

Ashton Ray