I still long to be out in the depth of a clear October sky. Held captive in classrooms my entire school career, I’d steal glimpses out the window, watching the autumn sky dome above brilliant orange oak trees. A breeze gently shaking leaves loose so they helicoptered to the ground. I longed to go sit underneath that tree and let the cool, crisp air wrap around me like a cloak. I wanted to hear the crunch of the leaves and smell the earthy, smoky scent of decomposing leaves. I wanted to sit in the slanting, golden light and soak in every single sensory and dimensional splendor of an October afternoon. Recess was never long enough. The sun set too soon after school to really let the deep blue sky, the golden light, the riot of colors imprint themselves on my body-memory the way I craved. Instead, I’d heave a sigh and refocus my eyes from seeing far with longing, to seeing close with resignation.
The work set before me, I remember, in snatches. Dull social studies worksheets that took 3-dimensional cultures and people and tried to smush them into 2-dimensional, memorizable abstractions. Later, calculus problems I struggled to understand, the integrals and differentials describing the movements of a curving, undulating world in letters and numbers and graphs that mystified me. I groped for understanding, the uncomfortable beginner. I twisted in my seat, to see out the window, to watch the leaves spiraling down toward the earth under the persistent pull of gravity. What’s the equation for that movement, I wondered.
These October days, the children grab the patchwork quilt, bags of school books, I make tea for all of us, and we sit in the backyard for hours, doing school. We read book after book. They ask question after question. We drill math facts, diagram sentences, push toward understanding. Every thirty minutes, one of them interrupts me, demanding I see the changing nature around us: a great blue heron has taken flight from the pond; the red-shouldered hawk is soaring on a thermal, making it’s familiar shrill cry; a barn spider and it’s lead-line of silk are flying on the wind, about to form the first line of a web; there are seeds floating on the wind, they make our forest look alive in the golden light.
“Mama, what are they? They look like fairies!”
I reach for the phone, “milkweed,” I say, after a moment’s search. “You know, the flowers that feed Monarch Butterfly caterpillars. I didn’t even know we had those around us.”
“They have to be all around us, Mama, look at all these seeds.”
“We should plant more.”
They float away on the wind like parasols. We relax our eyes and focus them, so we can follow the seeds on their entire journey through the yellow-green forest toward Mr. Peters’s field, where we picked wild blackberries and daisies in the summer. We all do this before stretching our attention back to the work at hand. We heave a collective, contented sigh. It is a delight, to love and know the world around us so well.
The philosopher-child is struggling to learn how to read. Over the summer, he went through test after test, in a bid for us to understand his mind. The psychologist noted in her report, among his persistence and gentleness, that, across the 4 hour testing session, “he appeared to ‘zone out’ occasionally before getting back to work."
Is this the zoning out she noted? The kind that watches the milkweed seeds on their journey across the forest? The kind that longs to be outside in October? Sometimes, this child sits quietly in the woods and observes the changing afternoon light for an hour. He holds birdseed in his hands and waits for the birds to come. He’ll look out the window for 30 minutes, just staring at the way morning light sparkles off a dew drop while “remembering to myself everything I possibly can about my childhood.” When he was four, he held my face in both his hands, his gaze intent on mine, and asked, “What do the flowers mean, Mama, by blooming?” He wouldn’t let me go until he was satisfied with my answer.
This is still how he talks to me, if he can get me alone. He won’t let me go until he understands. Or until he understands that I understand him.
This is how I talk to God sometimes too.
On an October afternoon, I read him a Wendell Berry poem. I like how the words taste in my mouth, rounded and sure.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
“That one says it just right, Mom, read it again.”
The work set before me now, outside in October, is raising these children. Teaching them to read, think, and do good in this world. It’s a big job I’m not entirely sure I’m doing well or right. But lesson one, I know by heart. This is the only one I’m truly confident in. First I’ll teach them to sit still, to see the activity in the silence, and the glory in creation—I’ll get lost with them in their reveries. I’ll zone out with them. I think this is what it means to pray, sometimes, to have our focus so reverently and readily tuned to the presence of God in our midst, we can’t help but be perpetually swept away in wonder, buoyed by a sense of expectancy, just like a child outside in the woods in October.