Raking Leaves

“There’s a reason you can learn from everything: you have basic wisdom, basic intelligence, and basic goodness.”

Pema Chodron

Spider Webs

Autumn arrived. Outside, the maple trees turned from green to crimson and gold. Their coat of leaves drifted with the wind and tumbled to earth. Undressed, the bare branches revealed damage from last winter’s ice storm: broken boughs, asymmetrical growth, and scabbed bark. Nature, with its flair for serendipity, transformed the skeletal imperfections. Now, the trees act as scaffolds to support the silk castings of fall spiders. Backlit by the morning sun, these shine like spun silver.

My appreciation for the beauty of the natural world is tempered by my health. I have a blood cancer, multiple myeloma. The disease environment in which I now live comes with complications. In the last five years I received treatments aimed at reducing the damage caused by this incurable malignancy. The cancer markers remain stable following extraordinary chemotherapy and an autologous stem cell transplant. I continue to take low dose oral chemo and steroids. I am healthy… after a fashion.

Autumn Colors 10-25-2012

At this point in the disease milieu, my concern is fatigue. Since diagnosis in 2007, I have endured a low-grade anemia. The cancer is the biggest culprit for this condition due to imbalances between red, white, and platelet blood cells. However, the drugs, for different reasons, also contribute to my inconsistent stamina. And then, of course, there’s my age, sixty-six.

Accordingly, I pace myself with autumn chores. Tilling, pruning, and raking come with the season. Some days, my energy slumps. Other days, due to steroids, my endurance soars. In such circumstances, it’s easy to over exert myself. In fact, I have done so on more than one occasion, leading to a strained back. Therefore, it is incumbent on me to manage the fatigue. Restraint and timing are my friends.

Autumn Colors 11-06-2012

Still, the multitude of leaves must be addressed. I gather them on a large tarp and drag the collection to the gardens for mulch. I limit myself to an hour’s worth of effort. This work is a gift disguised as tedium. The scuttle of a metal rake on the desiccated leaf litter mesmerizes me. The crisp autumn air, pungent with decaying leaves, is intoxicating. I am drunk with solitude and the seamless progression of one season to the next.

I accept my illness as part of the overall order. It is not an anomaly, a mistake, or a bad break. It is here to stay. I must live life with dignity similar to that exuded by the damaged trees persevering on my land. Nature transformed their calamity into renewal. Why, I ask, can’t I do the same?

Giving The Rake A Rest

Do I consider my cancer to be a gift? Hmm… I don’t know. I have acquaintances whose illness follows a path full of fear and pain. They might wrinkle their nose at such an assertion. Harsh lessons do not guarantee a positive metamorphosis. Nonetheless, I understand the sentiment when others express it, for my illness is not devoid of rewards.

One thing is certain; cancer puts me in contact with an emotional core that focuses my attention on what is important. I am more forgiving of others and myself. If that helps me mitigate some of cancer’s ugliness, then maybe I’ve learned something, not to mention that raking leaves is a lot more interesting.

7 thoughts on “Raking Leaves

  1. Such beautiful writing here John – I was alongside you collecting the Autumn leaves in spirit at least. I am amazed at how well you do! Turning 65 myself on Saturday I am in fairly good health, yet I can only manage an hour or so of raking leaves and then it’s too much for me and time for a rest, you do so very well. Your descriptions and written words are wonderful and I believe when one is carrying another burden that you see life, your surroundings, with a complete clarity than ever before. Peace and many blessing John.


  2. As I am older than both of you, I marvel at the raking tasks… I purposefully moved to a place where – when the leaves do fall – I don’t have to worry about them being moved. But I find myself paying close attention now to things that earlier in my life I would have rushed past; savoring the smells, the colors, the temperatures of each day. Thank you, John, for another exquisite slice of your life in both words and pictures!


  3. Beautiful again, John. My favorite observations: gift described as tedium; not an anomaly, mistake or bad break. And it is hard to imagine that I would have the strength for more than an hour of raking.


  4. Oh John, I couldn’t agree more. You describe so beautifully the lessons we can take from the natural world. Since my own illness, I have also taken that view, and a greater willingness to tolerate and forgive.
    Hugs to you.


  5. john, just reading your beautifully written words is so soothing. to have the gift of overwhelming appreciation for nature, and to see ourselves as part of the natural landscape is such a gift. some are born with it, some grow into it, and some are as lucky as i was to have a mother who noticed everything around her, took great joy from it all, and did all she could to pass on her love of every detail of the life around us. when i was a little girl, i badly wanted at set of water color paints. there was no extra money for such a luxury, but my mother didn’t say that: she said i should come out to our flower beds with her. she helped me pick the brightest hued of the few flowers she had, and arranged them in a muffin tin. we sat at the picnic table my father had made that summer, with a few pages of advertising, nicely blank on the back sides, and my mom took a scarlet petal, layed it on the paper, and pressed the petal with her finger. i can still recall the wonder of seeing that gorgeous color appear on the paper. soon we were sampling all the different colored petals – the yellow of the brown-eyed susans, the bright pink of beach roses, the orange of the salvia, the blue of delphiniums. and of course, many various shades of green from the leaves of the flowers and just plain old grass. at 5 yrs. old, i became enchanted with color, and went on to be even more enchanted with my beautiful mother. she wove wonderful stories about the moon to teach me about it’s phases, we counted stars on hot summer nights, and she encouraged me not just to step around a rock, but to gently turn it over to see what was living beneath it! ants, centipedes, earthworms – they were all so fascinating to me! my mother was only 19 yrs. old when i was born, she, the middle of 9 children, during the depression was often left out of the activities of the much older and much younger of her siblings. she often lived in her own world, discovering the magic of the nature around her, and so had a wonderful love of getting lost in imagination, creating things to amuse herself that banished her lonliness. now, much of what she taught me about flora and fauna, in all it’s colors and textures, about imagination and the creativity it fosters, about wondrous secrets that can be discovered all around us, and about story telling has come full circle. i am a writer, a story teller, and a painter. our children, now grown, with babies of their own, are passing on their love of nature to their little ones. it isn’t unusual if they are visiting and there is a particularly gorgeous moon out, for the whole family to step outside, even on cold, wintery nights, to direct tiny eyes way up into the sky and see the wonder shining on their little faces. each spring our son takes his little son and daughter to the nursery to pick out their own vegetables and flowers to grow, and each autumn there are eager tugs for “mimi” and “papa” to come see what has grown to fruition. the children draw and color and paint with pencils, crayons, and real children’s paint, but i, on occassion have shown them the magic of pretty flower petals pressed upon paper and reveled in recalling that same wonder when i was a little girl, now reflected in them.

    in the last 4 years both my husband and i have both had cancer – hugh, MM and me, breast cancer. we have found much inspiration and solace, joy and gratitude, contentedness and healing by being able to feel embraced by the living world around us – to see the shades of light at twilight time, the stark beauty of bare limbed trees against a stunningly blue sky, to watch the birds frolic and swoop at feeding time, to hear the crunch of leaves on the paths we walk our dog, sadie on, then catch the delicate and smoky fragrance of those trod upon leaves as it wafts up to our noses in a soft breeze.

    it was unbearably heartwrenching to have to tell our children that both their parents had cancer, both deemed incurable (mine is stage IV metastactic, but after completing treatment i am now N.E.D – no evidence of disease – but not deemed “cured”), but a tremendous comfort to know that much sorrow, pain, anxiety, and looking over one’s shoulder can be assuaged by looking outside of ourselves. that’s what an awareness and love of nature can do. it fills our hearts with the lovely light that comes from feeling grateful. and we, the lucky ones, have a chance to share that light with others we encounter. our kids have taken their cues from us, and it’s amazing and touches our hearts to see and hear them discover and take on those same values that we know will not only comfort them, but also allow them to feel joy, even in darker hours.

    thank you for this most exquisite post.


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