As the Leaves Fall

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.
— Mitchell Burgess, From TV series Northern Exposure, Thanksgiving, 1992.

Mother Earth knows her stuff. She knows we need to take time to consider all the currents of change and chain of events that have gotten us through the previous year. Many religious and cultural ceremonies celebrate fall as a time of reflection, acknowledgement of the past, a time to remember those who have passed on, and a return into oneself. There is the Harvest Moon Festival, which originated in China and usually falls around mid-September, and Dia de los Muertos that falls on November 1, a traditional Mexican holiday that honors those who have passed.

The Jewish religion, of which I am most familiar—having been Bat Mitzvahed at 13 and a member of the synagogue community despite my disconnect with organized religion as a whole—celebrated two important holidays this past September. Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are two holidays that occur 10 days apart. During Rosh Hashana, we celebrate the dawning of a new year and hope for good things to come. During Yom Kippur, we take time to reflect on the year behind us: who we have been, what we have lost or gained, and who we wish to become both as a community, and as individuals.

As a teenager, I was expected to go to services with my family every year, even after my Bat Mitzvah and the subsequent letting go of rituals and religious practices that didn’t include friends, boys and music. But once I went away to college, I was suddenly left with a choice.

At first, no kidding, it was guilt that brought me back. I felt that if I didn’t attend Yom Kippur services and at least attempt to fast from sundown to sundown, that perhaps I would not be inscribed in the Book of Life, as we ask for during our communal services each year. Many religions have their fear-based dogma that attempt to control the behaviors of their people, and I’ll admit to being fooled into believing that something terrible would happen if I didn’t show up. That somehow G-d would know that I didn’t don my ankle-length, black skirt (kept in my closet for only this occasion) and watch the other congregation members whisper about each other in the back rows of the service.

But the experience of attending Yom Kippur services was different away from home. I was living in Michigan at the time and attended a service at the local synagogue which welcomed university students. Going alone made an incredible difference. I didn’t have a religious epiphany, but I certainly found an inner solace that I hadn’t experienced before. The Hebrew chants and melodies, some different than the ones from my hometown, became an undercurrent to the reflection and subsequent meditation that occurred within me. I was enamored with the communal voice, and the energy that filled the room moved me. Going alone meant that I could focus on the moment itself and connect to the people around me on another level. Going alone meant that I had the space in which to really reflect on who I was, how I got there, and where I was going.

So, while fear may have been what initially led me to continue observing the High Holidays into adulthood, it is actually the process of taking the time to reflect—which is often lost in the busy world of work, parenting and general modern-day life — that keeps me coming back. Now, I often go alone by choice for at least part of the service. Or I go with my mother. And she and I cry. Something we both probably do often, but certainly not together. We are close, but not close enough, and each year I think about that as we sit next to one another holding prayer books we barely understand.

This year I have a lot to reflect on as the world as a whole has gone through many changes: a new president whose election was based on change, natural disasters across the globe, and a failing economy that led to the loss of a job I dearly loved and still miss four months later. Additional personal changes—both positive and negative—have also affected me in the last year: the finalization of my divorce, my middle child starting kindergarten, and the start of the songwriting and performing aspect of my life. And as the fall approaches and the cool air and darker nights make me feel more like curling up with a good book on the couch than expanding my social circle, I look forward to retreating into a space that will allow me to take a step back and look at where life has taken me, to mourn the losses and celebrate the gains. To take time to process the changes and watch the dead leaves fall to the ground and nourish the earth for the coming of sprin g.

Renee Zukin is a graduate of the University of Michigan and The University of Iowa. She lives, works and plays in the Iowa City area. She is a mother, a teacher, a freelance writer and a singer/songwriter–among other things–and within and beyond those labels, she is free.