07Nov November brings a sense of things ending and dying

Even though the weather, as life, seems to become stranger every year, with its twists and its turns, Nature has a way of re-asserting the turn of the seasons. Even though last May it looked as if we were in for a terrible year, suddenly the sun appeared bringing us a memorable summer and an equally memorable autumn, Nature insists again that November inevitably brings a sense of things ending and dying.

Nature has worked its way through the promise of Spring, the high-point of summer, the gathering of Autumn and has now packed its bags for the deadening feel of Winter. The leaves scattered under our feet are a sad anthem for the decline of another year. It’s no coincidence that November is the time of the year when we especially remember our dead.

Because November is a time for remembering. Memory sweeps up the scattered leaves of time and we forage through them to pick and choose the memories that satisfy us or trouble us: the places, the events and especially the people who have shaped and formed us and who drift into our consciousness at this time of the year.

Of course, memory can deceive. Retrospect can camouflage the reality. For memory is a sieve that can refuse to allow some bits of reality to come through. The truth, someone said, is fabled by the daughters of memory and the words with which we sometimes describe the past can disguise the truth. We remember and when memory fails sometimes we imagine too.

But no matter how we camouflage the past, it sometimes insists on forcing itself into our consciousness. Walking along a road or driving a car or pottering around the house and suddenly the leaves of yesteryear blow into a heap in front of us and memory takes over.

It’s natural to remember and it’s part of that nature to remember the dead because they are part of what we are. They have shaped us and formed us in ways it takes a lifetime to explore. We are what we are because of what they have been and memory forces us to pay attention.

As a child I remember the visits to the Church on All Souls day ‘for the souls in purgatory.’ We notched the indulgences up as a kind of ransom and we passed each other out, running into and out of the church, to free as many souls as we reasonably could. We visited the graveyard for the same purpose, and were continually reprimanded for the pace of our reluctant piety and the emphasis we placed on the score we were effortlessly keeping.

Now in calmer, more tranquil November days we facilitate the past as we turn over the events of yesteryear in our minds. November is that time of year, a time for remembering those who have gone, searching for a face in the mind’s ye, re-telling an almost forgotten story, dredging the memory to keep the focus on times and people fading into the distance. Our thoughts turn inevitably to our own departed loved ones and the discomforting approach of our own deaths. And we do this not just to echo the message that nature sends to us with the coming of Winter. We do it to put a shape on life: to remember, lest we forget.

Part of that remembering is prayer: Masses for the Holy Souls, prayers hallowed with time, recollecting in the presence of God the thoughts that accompany our remembering of the dead. And visiting the cemetery. There’s something about a cemetery in November. It’s not just that the fullness of Summer’s life has gone ragged or that the graves are easier to tidy. It’s something to do with the dampness and the cold and the atmosphere of a cemetery in November.

Walking through the graves, reading the headstones, allowing the memories to surface somehow we feel reassured about who we are and what we believe. Nowhere are we closer to our own roots than walking in our own graveyard. To avoid the experience is to avoid our memories. To forget them is to lose tract of ourselves. Winter, the celebrated writer Garrison Keillor wrote, is what we were meant for.

Part of the traditional religious experience of November is collecting ‘the November Envelope’ from the Church and writing down the names of our dead. It’s both a reassuring and discomforting task. The very act of writing down the names of our beloved dead reminds us both of the finality of it all and the promise it holds. Where they have gone, one day we will follow. Some day someone will stand at our graves; someday someone will write our names in their list of the November dead.

John O’Donohue, the priest-writer-philosopher who died last January, wrote shortly before his death about the need for us to ‘befriend death.’ It seems a strange, almost morbid thought but for O’Donohue it was a natural extension of living. From the moment we are born, he wrote, death walks beside us and we need to befriend it so that ‘you will have no need to fear when your time comes to leave’. His point was that an awareness of the presence of death calls our life, as it were, to attention and helps us to ‘live the life you would love to look back on from your deathbed’.

So in November we remember our dead. For all of us this November, the leaves of time will be swept by memory into the small and great heaps that give birth to our remembering. Let us remember, lest we forget.

 

6 Responses

  1. Maire

    Thank you Brendan for this thoughtful and peaceful reflection on November. It is both comforting and reassuring.

  2. Paddy Ferry

    Thank you, Brendan, for that lovely, thoughtful piece and I hope you are feeling well again soon.
    Paddy.

  3. maureen mulvaney

    Brendan, it is good to see you are back. As always your November reflection is very thoughtful and very appropriate at this time. When I was driving yesterday and listening to John Murray’s radio programme, Michael Harding’s interview had similar reflections during his experiences for November. Hope you are feeling well and back to good health.
    Maureen

  4. Martin Murray

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection. During the month of August this year I holidayed in my little camper van in Mayo. In between some excellent hill walking on and around Achill and watching the French land again at Killala and discovering the Titanic memorial Park in Lahardane, I though I would take a short pilgrimage through the parish of Moygownagh to see the countryside that has inspired so much beautiful writing by Brendan Hoban. I called into the church and had a short prayer and friendly word or two with some ladies from the parish who were in cleaning. The church was surrounded by scaffolding at the time. Now I don’t know if that meant the good people of Moygownagh, under the influence of their inspirational PP were hearing afresh the call to rebuild the church, but it did seem at least they were getting as far as replastering it. Anyway, I hope your feeling better Brendan and I just wanted to say it’s great to have you back writing again.

  5. Eilish cullen

    Thank you Brendan for the beautiful November reflection. I love this time of the year. The array of yellow, gold and burnt orange leaves which carpet the grassy verges in my neighborhood delight my soul.
    Yes I remember times past at this time of the year. I have A particular memory which floods back each November.

    The year was 1945. I was age six. Accompanied by my mother and grandmother I am walking up the long avenue which leads to Leopardstown hospital. We are on our weekly visit to see grand-dad who is in the hospital. The grounds are covered with leaves. I skip and dance,and run in gay abandon through the piles of crisp dry leaves, delighting in the crackling sound they make under my feet, stopping only to scoop up arm fulls, throwing them up in the air,and feeling their beauty as they cascade around me. The bare trees silhouetted against the fading night seemed to delight in my joy, as if to say,’Our deadness gives life to the little one’

    Grandad died that evening.
    He is still alive to me in the beauty of the leafless November tree silhouetted against the grey winter sky outside my house . I hear him in the crackle of dry leaves under my feet. I see him in the beauty of the landscape carpeted in leaves of rust, gold and yellow. ‘Tis death is dead, not he’

  6. Eilish cullen

    Thank you Brendan for the beautiful November reflection. I love this time of the year. The array of yellow, gold and burnt orange leaves which carpet the grassy verges in my neighborhood delight my soul.
    Yes i remember times past at this time of the year. In particular a memory which floods back each November. The year was 1945. I was age six. Accompanied by my mother and grandmother I am walking up the long avenue which leads to Leopardstown hospital. We are on our weekly visit to see grand-dad who is in the hospital. The grounds were covered with leaves. I skip and dance,and run in gay abandon through the piles of crisp dry leaves, delighting in the crackling sound they make under my feet, stopping only to scoop up arm fulls, throwing them up in the air,and feeling their beauty as they cascade around me. The bare trees silhouetted against the fading night seemed to delight in my joy, as if to say,’Our deadness gives life to the little one’
    Grandad died that evening.
    He is still alive to me in the beauty of the leafless November tree silhouetted against the grey winter sky outside my house . I hear him in the crackle of dry leaves under my feet. I see him in the beauty of the landscape carpeted in leaves of rust, gold and yellow. ‘Tis death is dead, not he’


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