The Melancholy Necessity of Autumn

Today I’m feeling a bit off. It’s November, which seems odd, and my body thinks it’s one hour later than my phone says it is due to the ridiculousness that is Daylight Saving. That means this week I’ll be hungry when I shouldn’t be and tired when I ought not be. Well, okay, to be fair I’m pretty much always tired (that’s the lot of an insomniac) so I can’t blame DST. Perhaps it’s more  a general sense of ennui after the busy pace of Halloween week. Too much work on the computer. Not enough reading. Or maybe it’s my cynical self doubting my district will flip, which will dishearten me yet again.

There is something a bit melancholy about this time of year that speaks to my soul. Perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favorite season, why Halloween speaks to me, why I feel most myself this time of year. Spring is beautiful, full of life and promise and hope in a way that is bound to disappoint. Then summer bleaches everything, and I melt in the too-bright sun. Winter where I live is all cold and no snow, little rain, just more cold, windy, sunny days. But Autumn – Autumn is crisp and cinnamon tea-scented, the time to dig fire logs out of the garage and boots out of the closet. It is a reminder that things can become the most beautiful in their last days, that the value of things can increase when we know they are short-lived.

Working with GriefShare this past year, and remembering the many losses of my life, has death on my mind these days. Not in a bad way, but in a “it’s going to happen to us all, to everyone we know and love” way. I am from a culture that does not handle death well. We don’t handle it at all, mostly, which does not work. For us, death is always a surprise, like we expect a different conclusion. We take care of our elderly until we can’t, then place them in homes where someone else handles death as it approaches. We have funerals as soon as possible, then expect the grieving to suck it up and move on quickly and quietly. We have little to no context for lament. We do not know the meaning of the word “keen” and we feel forever awkward with wailing.

Some cultures have assigned periods of time where the family wears all black, ceases work, where mourners weep over the open casket. Others have long parades alternating from joyous celebration of the lost one’s life to loud, communal sobbing. Some allow families to remember the lost ones once a year, every year, with photos, favorite mementos, food, and music. In some places, the entire town will show up at the local pub for the wake, telling stories for hours and hours, crying and laughing and drinking together.

But my culture is very orderly and clinical. People, if it can be helped at all, die in hospitals and care facilities. We have memorial services in churches with no casket present. We go back to work as soon as we are able because we can’t bear the free time, can’t be with our thoughts. There are no arm bands to mark the family so everyone knows. Black clothes are no longer required.

I think this is why I’ve always loved Halloween and have been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos since Ray Bradbury introduced it to me as a child. The thought that death is so close to life was somehow freeing, the idea that there can be days when we look death and darkness in the eyes and come out the other side alive and smiling.

I had a professor at university who taught about the human fascination with monsters that transcends cultures, and the psychology behind it. We must face death and darkness, evil and uncertainty, in stories so we can process these very real, very scary things behind the fictional ones from the safety of a book’s pages, which we can close, or a screen, which we can shut off.

G.K. Chesterton said “fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman puts it this way, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For me, Autumn provides a kind of sacred space for this processing. Halloween pushes us up closer to death and darkness than the rest of the year. The beautiful, yet ephemeral, turning of the leaves from green to yellow and red before they fall, leaving branches bare and skeletal inevitably leads the mind to think on the passing of time and the temporary nature of all living things.

Autumn is a thoughtful season, well-suited for pondering over large cups of tea and quiet conversations by the fire. It is subtle, and if purposefully ignored, easy to pass through untouched. But, if we stop and take it all in, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the melancholy just for a short while, we will come out all the better for it.

Jane Austen highlighted the sensibilities that only this season of Autumn can bring, as she writes about Anne Elliot, our heroine of “Persuasion.” Anne, the single old maid (thought not at all old), has no beau to walk with. Austen tells us, “her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, some lines of feeling.”

So these are my lines of feeling, meant to draw attention to that influence Autumn has “on the mind of taste and tenderness.” These are my lines to encourage you to lean into the melancholy, just a little bit, just enough to be reminded that true beauty is worthy of appreciation, death will come to all, and that Christ is our St. George – he has slain the dragon for us, so we no longer need to fear death.

Selfishness vs. Self-Care for the Single

Because I am single and childless, people often assume I have an endless supply of free time. After all, I don’t go home to the usual husband and kids, so that must mean I’m blessed with a vast expanse of time and space. Time and space just waiting to be filled with ministry opportunities, social expectations, extra work duties, civic engagement and, of course, babysitting.

To be realistic, there have been times in my perpetual single state when I’ve probably had more free time than most married people, especially ones with kids. And even when I’m busy, I do have more time to myself merely by having a room of my own (it’s been awhile since I had a roommate and not just a flat or housemate).

Today, for instance, I’m writing the rough draft for this blog entry while sitting on a bench in the gardens of The Getty Museum, with the sound of the water fountain and the gorgeous gloom of an overcast sky as rays of sunshine  break through here and there. There are hundreds of people here today, but so far I’ve only noticed one or two other people entirely alone. For a second, I’ll notice one, and then their friend/family/date meets them to continue on together.

Throughout my life, I’ve been to many museums across the world completely on my own. There is a luxurious peace to it – no pressure to keep others entertained, no bargaining for which wings to visit, no debate over when museum fatigue hits. It is a special experience, both beautiful and lonely, a bit melancholic, but thoughtful and freeing.

This is not an opportunity I have very often these days. My weekends book up months in advance, and each weeknight seems to be spoken for. And, you know, I have a job (or two, or three) which keep my days solidly full.

Other than the almost four year period in which I lived alone in a crappy studio apartment when I first moved to Los Angeles, I’ve always lived with family or room/flatmates. The jobs I’ve held throughout my life often having me working with hundreds and hundreds of people each week, mostly children. At one point, I saw almost 1200 students every single week. They have been rather performative jobs, very public, requiring me to be “on” for hours on end.

(At this moment, I witness one solo young man strolling through the garden in front of me, peacefully and blissfully alone. He looks happy.)

The idea that singles have it good because we can do whatever we want with our time is both true and false. All humans have limitations, and have to answer to others for much of our time, whether to a boss or store hours, appointments or other’s schedules. Yes, I am often solely responsible for what to do with the rest of my time. And yes, that can be awesome. It’s also incredibly stressful and sometimes confusing. You see, one day I will stand before my creator and answer for how I used this gift of a life. And I will answer alone. If I had a husband and kids, the choice regarding time would indeed be much more limited, but also a bit more delineated. Priorities would be set. Responsibilities more spelled out.

Today, by choosing to spend 24 hours alone, I said “no” to being with family and friends, to that birthday party and that church women’s event, to my side job and being an involved aunt. I said “no” to running errands and helping others. It is easy to spiral into my head and feel guilty – to think I am being selfish.

The church tradition from which I come isn’t so hot on the idea of “self-care” and “rest” and “solitude.” It often translates all of these into “selfishness” and “isolation,” or perhaps just “an unwise use of time.” The thoughts that we need to be “intentional” and “wise,” we must be “productive” and “do all things with excellence,” that we must always be “serving one another” and “selfless” are pervasive. Not necessarily bad thoughts, just impossible ones for the long haul.

I needed today. I needed to say “no” to everything else, drive out of town, and remove myself from my day to day life. I needed to walk outside, smell flowers, stroll slowly and think. I needed to wander through vaulted rooms and narrow corridors filled with insightful depictions of the world, with beauty. I needed to be able to have one long, broken conversation in my head with my Lord.

Days like today help fuel me for all the other days; the endlessly busy days, filled with family and friends, students and their parents, counselees and ministry partners. I am better for days like today.

Lately, I’ve been feeling weighed down, exhausted. My heart has been heavy. The state of the world and the church’s role in it is breaking me, tiny piece by piece. In the same week in which Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I spoke with two separate women regarding their own experiences with sexual assault, both of which happened in Christian spheres. Each week, I sit with 10-20 people in the midst of deep grief over loved ones who have died, some as recently as 2 weeks ago. I help over 350 children navigate learning to read and think well, and I deal with many of their parents on top of that.

I have to stop and remind myself that the busy, ever-filled pace of life so common to the Southern Californian Christian is not a biblically mandated one. There are entire cultures and churches which appreciate stopping. Ruminating. Resting. Being. Slowing down. A Sabbath is good and holy and necessary for all of us. Sometimes, the best rest is with others we love. But for singles who do not have a partner, sometimes time alone can also be helpful. And the example Christ himself set includes many moments of solitude.

This both goes against my nature and releases it at the same time.

So no, I don’t have tons of spare time because I work hard, and I choose to put effort into being part of the local church and my family. And yet, I do have tons of time – often at night when my brain is no longer functioning well and my body is tired.

On days like today, when I have the chance to carve out and protect time, my soul yearns for my beloved city. For refreshment. For time to talk to God one on one as I witness his creation and the creation of those made in his image. For slowing down from my usual quick pace to a stroll.

I’m learning the difference between selfishness and self-care. I’m learning that true self-care is not wrong. And I’m learning that, in order to preempt another physical breakdown and emotional burnout, self-care is not only a requirement, but a beautiful and good use of this one body and mind given me by God.

Paper Cuts, Singleness, and Politics

Since school started up again a few weeks ago, my hands are covered in little paper cuts. As a book-wielding librarian, these little slices are the inevitable collateral damage. In the midst of a busy class, I often don’t even notice when a page I’m turning or a plastic book cover has broken the skin until after the kids file out of the library and I glance down to see yet another angry red slash on my fingers. In that moment, when noticed, the pain finally hits and can take days to heal enough to no longer irritate me.

Similarly, these past couple of years, I feel like I’m walking around with little barely-there slices and dices out of my heart, my soul, myself.

A much beloved former student reposts a meme about how untrustworthy all single people are, how married folks need to avoid us lest we seduce them away from their spouses. Supportive comments follow, mostly by men, all affirming the truth of this ridiculous cliché. And it cuts.

Kavanaugh lies and dissembles before the senate and is defended and even praised by people I know, people who claim to love God and love others. He would never assault a woman because he’s such a “good” guy. And why didn’t she report it? And if he did . . . it was just a youthful indiscretion. And if we start holding all men accountable for the dumb things they do as teenage boys, where would we be? These slices hurt more than you initially think possible, endlessly causing pain and discomfort. Even when I’m not thinking about it directly, the pain lingers.

The mother waiting for her child to finish his AR test after school strikes up small talk by asking me how old my kids are. I flinch, awkwardly not knowing how to respond, confused by this out-of-nowhere assumption. When I reply that I don’t have any kids, she looks at me with confusion, then surprise, then pity. One more slash.

Alums from my graduate school days post unwavering support for a divisive, unnecessary, and incredibly problematic statement made by many modern American evangelical pastors and leaders against social justice. Another furrow gashes my heart.

I know many people who would just call me a Snowflake and tell me to suck it up. They’d look at my sliced up self and scoff, thinking I must be weak and overly sensitive, a SJW who just needs to lighten up. But the minute I question the church’s idolatrous views of marriage, the GOP’s continued support of irrational, abusive, but powerful men, or the shirking of the church’s mandate to love its neighbor, I am faced with people questioning my faith, my character, and my intellect in shocked, offended tones.

What’s so wrong about being sensitive to others? I’m a Christian forgiven and beloved by God, a school librarian who works with little children, and a counselor who helps those in the darkest of times – shouldn’t sensitivity be a requirement in my life? Can’t that sensitivity strengthen my resolve to fight for what is right and good and just? Shouldn’t I be a warrior for all kinds of justice?

I am an educated, middle class, employed, white woman living in a first world country with a supportive family. If I walk through each day like the walking wounded, bracing myself for the next injury, flinching at each attack, I cannot imagine what life must be like right now for those with less privilege.

So each day, I walk through life with tiny open wounds – not enough to kill or cause permanent damage, but enough that even tiny movements are felt, every flex of my fingers may make me wince. Each turn of the page reminds me that my skin is breakable, that I’m at risk. I used to be tougher, better able to ignore all the incisions, but now I’m just tired and sore.

So each day, I apply bandages to these injuries, to protect myself. I fortify myself with prayer and Scripture. I deleted Twitter. I stopped going to small group at church. I give myself permission to block or mute people on social media so they cannot continue to wound me or my readers. I read fewer news articles. I seek out podcasts and sermons that lift my eyes to the Lord. I cling to my family and friends. I check to make sure I’m registered to vote. I co-facilitate GriefShare each week, and grieve deep losses with those who suffer deeper wounds than mine. I listen to music that lifts up my soul. Little things that help me heal. Band-aids and plasters to cover up the cruelty of this world. I know these paper cuts are part of our broken world, inevitable and unstoppable, but I still pray for a day when fewer of them are caused by those of us who claim faith in Christ.

Scattered Thoughts for September

I’ve been feeling a bit scattered, which is normal for the first couple weeks of the school year. That’s my excuse for missing last week’s blog. And for this week’s disjointed list. I’ve been doing a bit too much.

I have been experiencing more joy and less cynicism these past two years since actively adjusting my priorities to this new phase of my life. Philippians 4:8-9 is endlessly helpful in this endeavor. In it, Paul tells the church, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In keeping with this, today’s blog post will be dedicated to a few of the moments of joy experienced by The Awkward Spinster this month, as I pretend autumn is here:

(I actually prefer chai lattes.)

Spending an afternoon at The Original Farmers Market in LA with mum, as we have done my whole life. Eating BBQ pork sandwiches from Bryan’s Pit Barbecue, checking out the toys at Kip’s Toyland, and stocking up on fall things from World Market.

Meeting with 5 other women of God to pray for our broken world, our broken country, over tea and cake. Sick of summer, we turned up the AC slightly, got out scarves for everyone, lit autumnal candles, and switched from iced tea to our favorite hot tea.

Participating in many theological and political discussions with intelligent, godly, and compassionate family and friends as we try to sort through what the heck is going on in modern evangelicalism. Finding comfort in the fact that there are others who are not happy with the latest attack against social justice creating a false dichotomy with the gospel.

Completing a complete inventory of both the elementary and middle school libraries and realizing our migration to the new computer system went more smoothly than we’d hoped.

Swinging by the comic book store on new comic Wednesday to pick up the newest journey into Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe with “The Dreaming.”

Night swimming in a friend of a friend’s pool, all by myself, as I was house-sitting.

Wiping away the tears of a little boy who could not find a book he wanted to read that was at his level, when his friends were mostly in higher ranges. Seeing his face light up with glee as I handed him just the right book for both his range and tastes.

Eating adorable and delicious peach gummy candy shaped like hedgehog paw pads that my sis-in-law brought back from her trip to the Japanese market.

Starting up a new session of GriefShare as co-leader, with some old and new participants who are courageous enough to be vulnerable in the midst of their grief. Seeing God’s word pour out comfort and hope even after just a couple of weeks. Having these dear souls allow me to sit with them in the toughest of times.

Feasting on a delicious dinner with old friends and acquaintances becoming friends in West LA at Farmshop, where one of my besties is the brilliant pastry chef. Going from 103 temperatures to 68 degrees and foggy for the night made it finally feel like fall.

(Oops, wrong Foggy.)

Hearing the joyous cry of “Auntie Fawn!” as my little 5-year-old nephew came to visit me in my library. Helping his mom pick out two incredible children’s books to relish: Frederick by Leo Lionni and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Hankes.

Finally getting a Skype date with one of my Colorado cousins to talk about transitioning back to life stateside one year after her return from L’Abri, and two years after mine.

Twirling, my fall-colored kimono puffed out from the flurry of movement, as my 4-year-old niece danced circles around me in her slightly-too-small pink ballet slippers. My sister, her mother, watching us from the couch, laughing.

Helping my friend in Malawi apply for grad school in the States by toggling back and forth between Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and the school’s website on our respective smartphones across the world from each other. Getting to praise the Lord with him before he headed out to church and I drifted off to sleep.

Receiving photos of my Russian friend’s new baby daughter, also via WhatsApp.

Sleeping in on the weekend to recover from my insomniac self’s lack of sleep now that school has started up again. Looking down to the foot of my bed to see my little westie curled up there, keeping me company.

Teaching myself how to program Google Docs to automatically insert an em dash when I want it to—thank you, Interwebs!

(Respect, from one Dash to another.)

And that’s just September so far.

What moments have brought you joy so far this month?

Assumptions Make an Ass out of . . . Well . . . Me

As I sat down at the table with 4 other women at my new(ish) place of employment, all the socially awkward nerves fluttered in my belly, making my I’m-trying-to-leave-enough-for-everyone-else tiny scoops of salad and apparently-one-more-than-everyone-else tiny pieces of cheese bread no longer seem appetizing. They all seemed to know each other well, and quickly proceeded to dive into a conversation across the table about the various sports in which their children are involved. Neither having children nor interest in sports, I tried to look approachable and pleasant as I sat there with little to contribute. Until the moment one of the women turned to me, recognized my first name from elementary school (Fawn tends to stick in people’s minds), and proceeded to ask one of the more awkward questions I’ve gotten:

“Fawn . . . Fawn . . . hmmm . . . and what was your maiden name again?”

Flustered by a question I’ve literally never been asked before, I sputtered something along the lines of “um, Kemble? I mean, it’s the same. Kemble. I mean I don’t/didn’t have a maiden name?” And I may have vaguely pointed to the prominent work nametag I had on my shirt proudly proclaiming “Miss Kemble” in a room full of Mrs.

Returning to work at a school I attended as a child, in a city I’ve been away from for over a decade has been an interesting experience. And while I’ve been met with nothing but kindness, an adorable library to make my own, and excited students, I’ve also been met with an endless pit of awkward questions.

I get it. I’m vaguely recognizable to many people here. My mom taught here for a bit. My dad was beloved in one of the local churches, and a couple local businesses. And I attended church and school there until, well, until I didn’t. So the assumptions make sense. In this world where our city likes to pretend it’s a small town, and this protective local white evangelical bubble many never left, assumptions hold a certain logic.

“And what grade are your kids in?” Most of the people who work for this school have or once had children (plural, almost always plural) who go or went to this school. Makes sense. You get a discount if you’re on staff. So my “oh, I don’t have kids” often leads to looks of surprise and even confusion.

“What year did you graduate from here, again?” leads to my awkward grimace and the “um . . . well . . . I didn’t graduate from here. I graduated from one of the local public schools. I left here in the middle of my freshman year.” This one either entirely shuts down the conversation, or requires further explanation on my part which I usually answer partially, relying on my family’s poverty and inability to pay for private education once my mother no longer worked there. I don’t go into the rest of it, as I just met these people (or re-met them after 15+ year) and am pretty sure they wouldn’t like my full answer.

There are also the well-meaning yet slightly painful references to my parents, and how much they were loved back in the day, and by the way, how are they? Which requires my stuttered reply along the lines of, “ah, well, yes, um, my dad died? When I was 24? It’ll be 16 years ago this month. But mom’s good, she’s retired and loving being a grandma . . . “

There’s the “and what does your husband do?” question. And the surprised “you look a lot younger than you are!” when my reply to their “don’t worry, there’s still time to get married and have kids” is “I’m 40 and pretty sure it’s not going to happen, and am pretty content with that.”

And, since I’m now a librarian instead of a teacher, there’s the inevitable teacher-splaining from other educators who expect all non-teaching staff to be less educated/experienced and are therefore shocked when I say “when I was a classroom teacher for 8 years . . . “ or “when I was getting my Master’s degree . . . “ or “actually, the latest research in early childhood education says . . . “ And I know I shouldn’t do that, that I’ve got nothing to prove or whatever. But I kind of do have something to prove, don’t I? Prove that I’m worthy of the job I’ve been given. That I know what I’m talking about when it comes to their kids. Prove that there is thought and research and experience behind my decisions in the library.

That’s the thing about assumptions. When they’re made about me because I am in a conservative Christian environment in a “small” (not small at all) “town” (actually a city), I end up having to awkwardly defend myself for not aligning with them. I didn’t adore each and every moment as a student here, graduate from the high school, go on to Christian college, get married young, have babies, slap an NRA sticker on the back of my SUV or truck, vote republican, buy a MAGA hat, remodel my house from Hobby Lobby in the style of Chip and Joanna Gaines, and invest in a month’s supply of capri pants.

Okay, so I guess I have some assumptions about others to break through myself.

I guess we all have to deal with assumptions made about us by others. Married, or single, parents or childless, old or young, liberal or conservative, men or women, we are all viewed through other people’s expectations. I’m working on trying to remove the cultural lens through which I view people, and replace with the love and grace of Christ. For each person is Christ’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The only assumption I should make is that every person I come across is the beloved child of my heavenly father. Cheesy, yes, but wouldn’t that be an amazing way to see the world?

What are some of the assumptions you’ve had made about you, and how did you respond?