The temperature will soon be dropping to propel the trees into their best show of the year, as their transitioning leaves invite us to pause and look up. The iced beverages that have been providing us relief from the summer heat will be replaced with steaming coffee, cider, and hot chocolate, whose warmth will once again provide the comfort of a familiar embrace. Scarves, beanies, flannels, and warm socks will be scavenged from the depths of closets, adorning us with the reminder that it’s ok to slow down our pace and soak up the present.
The first time I savored this magic of autumn was on a weekend trip to Ireland during a semester of studying in Rome. As a Southern California native, I spent two decades craving the only thing that sunny San Diego doesn’t offer: colorful leaves falling through crisp autumn air. As if anticipating my arrival, a few of Dublin’s most vibrant trees shed their leaves into enticing piles on the damp grass, beckoning me to realize a childhood dream. My two companions giggled at my delight as I flung myself with abandon into a heaping pile of crunchy leaves, and my soul greeted its own missing piece in nature’s radiant, colorful grasp.
Back in San Diego five years later, I am once again craving the brilliance of fall, though with a slightly more profound longing. For the better part of my twenties, an overdose of unexpected change has stripped me bare and given me a mantra: “I just don’t feel like myself anymore.” When I vocalize this to close friends, the typical response (for good reason) is a slightly cocked head and a gentle nod, seasoned with awkward silence. But in my recent work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, I am discovering a similar theme in their stories, hearing a chorus of me too’s for the first time. For many of the women I work with, the journey of becoming a survivor is launched out of long, painful seasons that share the sentiment: “I didn’t even recognize myself anymore.”
And yet, amidst circumstances that tried to snuff out their light, the stunning women I work with continued to fight for dignity with steady determination. They slowly put one foot in front of the other, in moments of great courage and deep despair, until the abuse and oppression was behind them. Until their own story was one of wholeness, empowerment, and overcoming.
These powerful voices of survivors are declaring that, like the astonishing vibrance of a forest in autumn, the traumatic experiences of our lives are being transformed into breathtaking tapestries of triumph as we continue to press on. The season of autumn is an invitation to look up and realize with wonder that our stories of redemption and beauty have been underway the entire time. As the fall colors ignite around us, they beckon us to release our clenched fists and, like leaves blowing in the wind, learn to slowly let go.
For the women I celebrate on a daily basis, the letting go oftentimes means the tangible: an abusive marriage, the house they’ve turned into a home, their hometown altogether. For all of us, the letting go encapsulates the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual: unmet expectations, broken trust, self-doubt, feelings of shame, unanswered questions, ongoing grief. And while learning to release this weight is a necessary step in our healing, it is not void of loss. The letting go can feel like shedding a piece of who we are, or at the very least dropping a blanket of comfort we’ve been carrying to protect us from the dark.
In my own journey, the unexpected challenges have weaseled their way into my identity, adding complicated layers to my understanding of who I am. The unwelcome layers include being a twenty-something who can’t relate to her peers, a young professional who mutes her own voice to avoid the risk of emotional train-wreck, and a christian who questions God and faith on a daily basis. The nudge to let go evokes fear of who I will be without these acquired layers of self-preservation. Yet even still, trauma has threatened to swallow me whole long enough, and my soul’s desire to be free is finally birthing the courage to lean into vulnerability and learn to let go.
The words of a fellow creative have also been nudging me forward, affirming that our willingness to let go paves the way for what is yet to come:
“Every autumn is another turned page, another chapter completed, a bit more perspective on the full story of our lives: the rising and falling, the discovery and loss, the sacrifice and surprise. And isn’t this the story of all of life, of ends that follow beginnings and make room for new beginnings? Without this rhythm, this eternal cycle, how could we ever be whole?”
~ Austin Sailsbury, “Into the Golden Hour” ~
For my 26th birthday this November, I am returning to a place that enveloped me in the whimsy of autumn and housed me during my first big face plant (the nose in the dirt, tears streaming down cheeks, broken ribs, kind of face plant). Through a collective miracle of (lots of) time, therapy, and good humans, I’ve only just recently been feeling the shift towards the less inhibited, more adventurous self I once knew, and it is so wonderful. But there is still so much healing and letting go to be done. As I hop on a plane next month to once again chase the autumn that doesn’t exist in San Diego, I will be anticipating the oranges, reds, and yellows with deep gratitude. I’ve been longing for the tree’s seasonal promise that our lives are being transformed into something radiant, even before we can see it. And I’m optimistic that another adult leap into a pile of fallen leaves can be the needed assurance that it’s ok, even necessary, to learn how to let go.