It was late fall, and the trees still clung to their last leaves, now transformed to gold and yellow, copper and ruby. I drove home down neighborhood streets, listening to music and watching the color float down from high limbs, as if a slow papery rain.
It was getting colder each day. Soon winter would be at hand. And I felt myself settling into an old pattern of reflection, as the baring trees invited a melancholy both familiar and welcome. Each year, it’s this stripping away that brings on the mood—this winnowing of nature imposing its way upon the soul, urging a question: What must fall so that green life will once again come?
It used to be that as fall became winter, the transition wrought an encroaching slowness, a quieting of the world, as the cold crept across the hills and valleys, into towns and out through farming country. Back then, the earth decided for us when we would cease, for a time, at least some of our toil. But today fewer people around the world are working the land. Most of us now live in cities or their suburbs, where light continues shining long after the sun departs. It’s now possible to work around the clock, from anywhere, in the blue-hued glow of a screen. Many folks do this while also attempting to lead a fulfilling and, if we’re honest, impressive personal life. We are increasingly bad at slowing down for anything.
I’ve noted it’s this constant striving that tends to break apart our lives, often right under our noses. We give ourselves to doing and becoming, trying to match our existence to the version we picture in our heads, and wake up one day feeling empty and alone.
Here’s the thing: You can attempt to do anything or be anyone. You can show the utmost determination and discipline, even sacrificing good for what appears to be greater. But in the end, when the winter of your life is at hand, and the last colorful leaves are falling, unless you did it for love, it will be for nought.
“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,” wrote the apostle Paul, “and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3 ESV).
I drove the neighborhoods, listening to an old recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes, as I reflected on the previous weeks and months. I felt astounded at how full they’d been with every kind of thing, both profitable and not. I thought of the hours spent running errands, chasing after children, working the job, and yes, sadly, scrolling through photos and articles on my smartphone. But had I really loved?
All of this got me to thinking about “Piano” by Patrick Phillips, one of my favorite poems. Central to the poem is the image of a broken musical instrument, busted apart on the street. As the speaker recounts the discovery to an unnamed loved one, he points to the scene as a way of explaining his life. “I am like / that grand piano,” he says, “And you might think by this I mean I’m broken . . . truth is, I don’t / know exactly what I am, any more / than the wreckage in the alley knows / it’s a piano, filling with trash and yellow leaves.”
There are so many ways to wreck a life, and not least among them is a striving that causes us to forget the people God has given us to love and be loved by. He brings them so that, even within the wreckage of what we’ve become, we might find a sign of hope, a memory of who we really are. As Phillips captures beautifully in the closing lines of the poem, our decisions and pursuits may render us like broken instruments that crashed to the ground. But the people we love “are the good / breeze blowing across its rusted strings.”
We may not always know exactly who we are, or where we ought to go. But giving ourselves in relationship, remaining present in the love to which we are called, we might hear from the wreckage something like music start to rise. We might find ourselves able to ask with the poet, “What would you call that feeling when the wood, / even with its cracked harp, starts to sing?”