The Light of Autumn

The light has changed;
middle C is tuned darker now.
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed.

This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: You will not be spared.

Louise Glück, “October

Several weeks ago, exploring Minneapolis’s Lakewood Cemetery on a hunt for war memorials, I stumbled across the grave of a 5-year-old girl.

Her name was Ella Louise, and she lived from 1883 to 1888. Her grave is a sculpture of a serious little child, the sort of thing that catches the eye from a distance. Perhaps for because it is so eye-catching, it had a number of little offerings: a stone, some coins tucked between her feet. Then again, it might have just been that graves of children seem to have that effect on people. Two weeks later in a Polish cemetery in Niles, Illinois, my father and I found a grave of a boy who lived not long after Ella Louise and died just as soon. It was decorated with a little red toy racecar. It is not a phenomenon exclusive to cemeteries: many Shabbats in years past, I walked by a small memorial dedicated to another young girl in New York’s Riverside Park, which often was decorated with stuffed animals.

In the bleakest way imaginable, I find these sites somewhat comforting. Such offerings show us that when faced with the reality of a dead child, one of the world’s deepest sorrows, people will stop to grieve, even for just a moment. In the harshness of the modern world, in an age that can barely look death in the face, let alone make space for grief, this is no mean feat.

Lakewood Cemetery is also where Daunte Wright is buried, another child taken from his family too soon. But Lakewood Cemetery is worlds away from Brooklyn Center, worlds away even from George Floyd Square, though they are close on the map. It is a quiet place, green, well-landscaped. It is a space for contemplation, not for activism. One wonders what afternoon wanderers might think when they stop by Wright’s grave, and if they stop at all. Sometimes it is easier to be arrested by an image than by our own memories.

Would they stop to mourn Wright? Would they remember him? After all, the Minneapolis of 2022 is not the Minneapolis of 2020, at least, not on the surface. The boarded-up windows are mostly gone; stores have reopened or are reopening; new buildings are rising. The sickeningly tense atmosphere of 2020 and 2021 is slowly lifting, at least in some parts of town. Gone, too, are the murals on all of those boards (they are now being stored in a makeshift archive for future historians and art historians to engage with), the handmade signs of solidarity in every window. The city might have torn itself apart in grief only two years ago, but those wounds are slowly healing, or at least being hidden away. There are still traces of this history everywhere, but you have to know where to look. More importantly, you have to want to see them.

Minneapolis, it turns out, is pretty good at not seeing. In fact, aversion is built into its very architecture. The whole of downtown Minneapolis is connected via an above-ground passageway called the Skyway, a structure that performs the very admirable and necessary work of keeping people from having to go outside in the winter. But behind this practical purpose lurks something more sinister, which I did not realize until I began to explore it last spring. That is this: the downtown Minneapolis of the Skyway and the downtown Minneapolis of the streets are two entirely different places. Inside the Skyway, one finds all the trendiest shops, the businessmen, the new and exciting architecture, the modern working spaces. Outside, one sees a Midwestern city past its prime, devoid of businesspeople and populated instead with those who have nowhere else to go. The cruel genius of the Skyway is that the people who occupy one of those spaces never have to encounter the people who occupy the other.

This blind eye is not unique to here, of course, nor is it exclusive to those populations. Every week students file into my classes with hardly a mask in sight, despite the fact that each week, some of their classmates are still home sick with COVID. Other teachers have told me they’re experiencing a similar problem: students might be out in droves, but we hardly speak of it, as if it were almost taboo to acknowledge. Every week, I look around and I wonder, that dreaded “new normal”: is this it? What, if anything, have we learned?

I confess that part of me sees real hope in this refusal to bow to our current circumstances, this careful rebuilding, piecemeal though it is. It is a kind of resilience, after all, this determination to adapt only so far to the reality on the ground. I hope it means that my students will stay healthy and that they will have a chance to be joyous and reckless and all the things they have been robbed of these past few years. I hope it means that they can move past some of the terror, the pain, the heartache.

But my research, the work I came to Minnesota to do, does not lead me to those who can move on. It is fixed on the people who are left behind: the grieving families, the veterans, the dead, and those who take up the mantle to speak for them. Not everyone survives history. Not everyone gets to forget.

Fall is a season of memory for me, a season of beginnings: the start of school, the High Holidays, Election Day. And Minnesota does a beautiful fall, more gold than red, set against the blue of the lakes and the deeper blue of an October sky. I sometimes think that had I moved here a few years earlier or later, a few miles to the east or the west, I might have loved this place unreservedly and felt no desire to look deeper. The thought frightens me.

This week is Sukkot, the neglected harvest holiday that has the misfortune of falling just 5 days after Yom Kippur, its much more famous elder sibling. The Days of Awe are a hard act to follow, and Sukkot is not helped by the fact that it has retained more pagan elements than most of the other holidays. Those Jews with backyards spend much of the week in a carefully erected, deliberately impermanent hut, one which lacks both a full number of walls and a proper roof. When we go to synagogue, we bring with us a collection of different leaves and a citron that we wave around us during the service, joining Jews across the world in a prayer for rain that can feel wholly out of place when not in a desert climate. Of the major holidays on our calendar, it has always been the one that I have struggled the most to connect with. One of Sukkot’s Hebrew monikers is zman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing, but when I explain the holiday to others, it’s hard to say what we’re supposed to be celebrating, exactly. The harvest and the coming of winter? The great outdoors? The impermanence of our possessions?

At least one of the stated purposes of Sukkot is certainly that we note the last of these: we are told very explicitly in Leviticus that these little huts (sukkot in the plural, hence the name of the holiday) are meant to remind us of the impermanent dwellings we used when we were brought out of slavery in Egypt, when we had nothing but the clothes on our backs. On the Shabbat of Sukkot (this coming Saturday), we also read the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), which is all about impermanence: there is nothing new under the sun, we read, so what gain is there in anything we might accomplish? There is no remembrance for earlier things, so there will be none for what comes after – there will be no remembrance for things that occur at the end.

It is human nature to grieve, perhaps, but Ecclesiastes also reminds us that it is also human nature to forget. Children have always died. People have always gotten sick. Cities have always torn themselves apart and rebuilt themselves anew. There is nothing new under the sun. Why do we persist in feeling these griefs, in giving ourselves over to these sorrows? Why should we look deeper, rather than averting our gaze?

Perhaps the answer lies in another question: why, during zman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing, are we reading such a brutally depressing book, anyway? Jews are good at working sad moments into happy occasions, as anyone who’s ever watched a glass being broken at a wedding or dipped drops of wine onto their plate to honor the Ten Plagues at Passover knows. But this is perhaps more than that.

Sukkot is an equalizing holiday. On Yom Kippur we stand alone and equal before God, but on Sukkot we stand equal among our community. We relinquish our possessions, the very walls of our homes, and we enter the wider world. We are commanded to welcome in guests – even guests who are in mourning, guests who have nothing to offer us except their sorrows and their worries. And we are asked to offer those guests our joy. All of this has happened before, in the grand course of human history. All of this will continue to happen. But we cannot comfort the mourner by reminding them that tragedy has happened before. Instead we remind them that there is still joy in the world. We bring even Ecclesiastes into this space, we let him rage and we let him mourn, and we answer him with joy.

We also acknowledge his point, however, and take from his despair that our joy must be clear-sighted, one that does not turn away from the brutal realities of the world of the past or the world still in front of us. This year the first day of Sukkot fell on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day which local activists used to teach all of us about impermanence and grief. Outside the Minneapolis City Hall, they set up an encampment to protest the recent sweeps and clear-outs of tent encampments across the city: NO EVICTIONS ON STOLEN LAND. The housing crisis is yet another terrible result of the last two years, one that is sweeping cities across the country. Like many of the other crises facing Minneapolis, it is one that many prefer not to see. But this week we are all unhoused. How could we not see each other?

The world is open to us, if we are willing to look at it, and in spite of everything, it is blue and gold, and it is still beautiful. It is one thing to acknowledge, as Leviticus and Ecclesiastes ask us to do, that nothing of ours is ever really ours forever, that our possessions and our lives are not permanent. But to really reckon with the implications of these statements, we must be willing to see beyond our usual borders. Removing ourselves from our homes and dwelling in the sukkah for a week is meant to help us do that. We will need to joy to rebuild this particular iteration of the world’s shattering. But we need to see the world as it is in order to begin to pick up the pieces.

Title and opening quote taken from Louise Glück’s inimitable and ever-relevant “October.”

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