A few days before the seasons changed, Jupiter appeared on the horizon, quite visible to the naked eye, closer to Earth than it had been in 30 years. Over the course of several days, it passed beneath a beautiful Super Harvest Moon (a full moon within 24 hours of the equinox), the first since 1991. It was a profound cosmological moment, the kind of confluence of elements that could reasonably inspire wonder and awe.
A few evenings before that, I skipped a show in order to catch up with a friend who was visiting from out of town. We sat in chairs on the sidewalk of a cross street, just a few feet from Bardstown Road. The last weekend night of the summer was well populated with pedestrians in their bar-hopping finery, young people dressed to mix it up, drawing attention to themselves, presenting their best first impressions, pretty little dresses, clean white shirts.
Meanwhile, my friend shared some frightening, sad news about a terminal condition he has chosen not to treat. A life defined by extremes of misadventure had led him to this; a lack of health insurance made it easier for him to deny medical treatment. He won’t be a charity case.
Among the topics we discussed that night was a story he shared about two talented men he had met, somewhat ironically, on the same day. One had experienced success as a youngster, primarily due to the cagey work of talented managers. Free of their assistance and desiring to follow his own muse, he was subsequently unable to achieve former glory, and, although he recorded significantly greater artistic successes thereafter, he became bitter. The other had also garnered notorious respect for his artistry, but had never managed the kind of commercial success that seemed his due, yet he was always cheerful, friendly and compassionate to the people he met.
It was clear that the contrasting personalities had made an impression on my friend, and that his point in telling the story was that we may choose our attitudes, to an extent, regardless of our experience. Meanwhile, it is obvious that humans are naturally drawn to people who are pleasant and open-hearted and that, unless we wish to pass through life alone, we may need to embrace certain social skills, displaying compassion for our fellow travelers, the ability to draw out their unstated concerns and respond to our circumstances with an open heart, with joy, even if our vision is blurred with the ugliness of unrealized dreams.
There is a scene in the new movie “Get Low” in which Robert Duvall, playing a mysterious, cantankerous hermit, describes a basic mystery of life. He suggests that when we see a dog kicking its legs while sleeping, we can speculate that it is dreaming about chasing a rabbit, but we don’t know for sure. By extension, he suggests we can make assumptions about a man’s behavior, but we can’t know what motivates him, even if he tells us. Ultimately, he says, nobody knows anybody. Not really.
Still, it seems obvious that it is only by being kind that we can appropriately respond to the universal otherness we find around us in the all-too-brief time we have together.
Autumn is the season of dying. It is merely part of the cycle of life, but there is a harvest underway. It is not ironic that our coming holidays — Halloween, All Saints Day and Thanksgiving — commemorate the dead and prepare our hearts for the bitterness of winter with the adoption of a spirit of audacious vitality and an appreciation for the bounty that we, living, continue to enjoy.
One early morning, years ago, after an all-night party at the house on Hepburn, I stood on the porch and watched the sky lighten up. The moment is fixed in my memory like a photograph. I remember I saw a leaf floating down from a nearby tree, and I swear, when it hit the ground, it made a sound as loud as thunder.
For further study: You may be tired of hearing me recommend Joe Henry’s album Civilians, but its power simply doesn’t let up. Meanwhile, Joni Mitchell’s Blue is a good one for the cooler temperatures.