“October had come again, and that year it was sharp and soon: frost was early, burning the thick green on the mountain sides to massed brilliant hues of blazing colors, painting the air with sharpness, sorrow and delight---and with October. Sometimes, and often, there was warmth by day, an ancient drowsy light, a golden warmth and pollinated haze in the afternoon, but over all the earth there was the premonitory breath of frost, an exultancy for all the men who were returning, a haunting sorrow for the buried men, and for all those who were gone and would not come again…
“Then a chime of frost-cold bells may peal out on the brooding air, and people lying in their beds will listen. They will not speak or stir, silence will gnaw the darkness like a rat, but they will whisper in their hearts:
“’Summer has come and gone, has come and gone. And now---?’ But they will say no more, they will have no more to say: they will wait listening, silent and brooding as the frost, to time, strange ticking time, dark time that haunts us with the briefness of our days. They will think of men long dead, of men now buried in the earth, of frost and silence long ago, of a forgotten face and moment of lost time, and they will think of things they have no words to utter.
“And in the night, in the dark, in the living sleeping silence of the towns, the million streets, they will hear the thunder of the fast express, the whistles of great ships upon the river.
“What will they say then? What will they say?”
So wrote Thomas Wolfe in one of his many passages that may be called, quite rightly, the "October Songs".*
There are so few questions that call for silence.
A moment for connection. A moment for connection with the reality. A moment for connection with those who have passed and with those who grieve.
A moment that turns away from the trite.
Perhaps we can put aside our answers, yours and mine, for he didn’t ask us for our answers.
He asked us to take a moment of silence for their answers.
Perhaps we can put away the ready-made answers, the talking points, the heartfelt sentiments, the meditation briefs and the spin.
As Albany said at the death of King Lear:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”**
Perhaps we can take a moment and reflect.
So many people pass at this time of year.
October marks the beginning of a season of passing.
According to the statistics, there is an uptick of passings among our elders in the fall and early winter.
In my own experience, the fall and early winter have witnessed the passing of my mother, three of my grandparents, cousins, numerous great-aunts, great-uncles and friends.
There will be more passings this season, expected and unexpected.
And so the great question comes to us, a curve ball pitched in 1935, arcing through the years, long past Wolfe's own passing, always bringing us up short.
What will they say?
Grief strikes like hypothermia. There is a deadening of the senses, of feeling and thought. Thought occurs, but spins in sidereal time, according to it’s own schedule. There is a faint humming in the distance. Otherwise, the great silence has descended.
The clock ticks and spins through events. The feet move through the motions. In the great silence, there is so little of consequence, so little that cannot be dispatched by formula. You know the right things to say. Then time stops for a moment, and that’s okay too. When it’s done, you will have the long awaited few moments to yourself. And then some.
I wish he hadn’t asked that question. It suddenly got quiet again.
Many of our traditional salvation formulas tell us that we must be prepared for death, for after death, we will be unable to do anything to gain salvation.
I don’t know if that is true.
But it resonates with my experience of grief.
You go into grief with who you are at that moment. There is no opportunity to turn back, to gain more time, to gain more resources.
You have either prepared for the winter or you have not.
These things must happen before.
Words and thoughts are immensely useful before.
But you go into it from where you are at the moment.
Afterward, no one can give them to you.
High up on the slopes of the mountain, slumped in the final throes of deep cold, you are dimly aware of a voice. There is an approaching figure. It stops and eloquently describes your situation with deadly accuracy. It tells you what you should have done, to the last detail, and then outlines a course of action that would seem prudent and wise. It’s statements are impeccably well-reasoned. Then the figure moves on.
Oh, many of us are well-versed in the store-bought, ready made answers.
It is so much easier to spin away from the curve ball---and just keep spinning.
“Death is a part of life…we have to store up on the Lord for hard times, just like we do in fall for the winter, that’s what those harvest hymns are really about…when the fruit is ripe…it’s all part of a plan…we don’t know why, but we have faith…time will bring healing…be strong in the Lord…”
With enough practice, we become oblivious to any sense of revulsion at this nauseating admixture of truth and saccharine.
At the wrong moment, we feed it to ourselves or to others.
And we will turn away, or they will turn away, desperate to sick up the revolting concoction.
And we, or they, may never turn back.
For in the wild grief of the unexpected death, it is a short step from asking “Why, God?” to asking “Why God?”.
It’s not just that something is missing from our words.
It’s the words.
There is a deadening of the senses, of feeling and thought. Thought occurs, but spins in sidereal time, according to it’s own schedule.
…and they will think of things they have no words to utter.
When I was a child, our community was extensively damaged by an F-5 tornado. Many lives were lost. Shortly afterward, a group of members from a Mennonite community moved into the neighborhood. They immediately set to work, contributing hundreds of hours of manpower to the task of removing debris. They spoke little, preached not at all, and asked for nothing. They came with their own tent and cooked their own food. Then they left. Their witness has born a half-century of fruit.
In my mother’s family, a funeral is usually followed by an extensive gathering of the clan that may continue into the night. So it was well into the evening when I left my aunt’s house to walk my dad to his car.
It was a “crisp, clear night” in early December, as her dad would have said. Looking up, I remarked, absent-mindedly, or so it seemed, “Orion’s rising”, forgetting that my earliest memories of my dad were with him at the telescope, together with my mother and brother, watching the constellations proceed across the sky.
Then we remembered.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
It’s not what we say.
She wakes in the night.
She leaves silently.
A silent figure, moving unnoticed, through…what? City streets? Deserted country roads?
No trumpets here, no fanfare. No heralds of the greatest act of witness in the history of Christianity.
An anonymous figure, passing safely in anonymity…
Walking straight into the cemetery, into the shadow of...
Having said nothing
Leaving behind the fearful
Hoping for nothing supernaturally
Having faith in nothing requiring faith; expecting the natural remains
Such is love.
“What will they say then? What will they say?”
Thomas Wolfe provided a response, a response that baffles some of his readers.
Considering the earthiness of much of his prose, and so his unavailability to many conservative Christian readers, the response may be surprising.
It is a prayer.
I remember it, and pray it, each fall.
It is the concluding stanza of his October Song.
“Come to us, Father, in the watches of the night, come to us as you always came, bringing to us the invincible sustenance of your strength, the limitless treasure of your bounty, the tremendous structure of your life that will shape all lost and broken things on earth again into a golden pattern of exultancy and joy. Come to us, Father, while the winds howl in the darkness, for October has come again bringing with it huge prophecies of death and life and the great cargo of the men who will not return. For we are ruined, lost, and broken if you do not come, and our lives, like rotten chips, are whirled about us onward in darkness to the sea.”
I post new articles twice-monthly in "Author's Corner".
If you live in or near the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and you would be interested in meeting with others for discussion or prayer, please contact me at
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*Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River, Book Three: Telemachus, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.
**Shakespeare, King Lear. Act V Scene 3.
Rob Wright holds advanced degrees in education and performing arts, and he has been a professional teacher for sixteen years. In his home tradition, he has served as a lay minister in liturgical, educational and ecumenical activities. He lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire with his spouse of twenty years and their daughter.