by Brian Clarey

She gets up before sunrise, which comes a bit later each passing day now, rubs her eyes, shuffles to the bathroom. She’s up, my little 6-year-old sweetheart, which means we are too, making the kinds of noises and gestures grown folks do when duty calls in the early, early morning.

Coffee helps. After a meal and a discussion about the day’s hairstyle and wardrobe, my little girl shoulders her  backpack and heads to the bus stop alone, as the morning’s first light bleeds over the horizon, as the early-morning crows screech and caw their nefarious plans for the day.

Last year her brothers waited with her, but now they are off on different busses, to different schools. So she stands by herself out there, about a half a block down, swinging from side to side and sometimes waving to me as I watch her from the driveway. When the bus comes she hops aboard, all business, and doesn’t give me a second glance.

She has no idea how brave she is. But I do — barely a yard tall with a mouth full of baby teeth, and she’s fully prepared to handle whatever the world throws her way, on the bus, at school and everywhere else. She is good to go.

Spring is the time of renewal. Summer is when we reconnect with our families and friends and the planet we share. But fall is about getting back to work, about facing new challenges, creating new patterns and relationships, trying to make some progress as we shore up for another winter.

The 9-year-old is having a tough go this time around. After excelling in grammar school, he got bumped up into an accelerated program and this year, for the first time in his academic life, he’s fallen behind the curve, even though we’re just a couple weeks into the semester. It’s a serious blow to his ego.

It hurts me to see him at the homework table, crinkling his brow over an imposing vocabulary list or a particularly daunting set of math facts. When he does this, I can see how he’ll look as an adult, after the world has worn out some of the wonder in his eyes.

It is my hope, this fall, that the cooling weather and elongation of the light will affect some change in him, steel him for the first strenuous uphill climb he’ll ever face. I wish I could do it for him. I know I can’t.

My first-born son finds himself this September on the precipice of a whole new world: a massive middle school out in the county, straight out of a John Hughes film. Harder classes, to be sure, and more sophisticated subject matter — but there is a social structure there he’s never before had to navigate, an unspoken set of rules with which he is still unfamiliar.

He’s coming into his own this year, a young man on his way, his confidence bolstered by his growing knowledge of self even as he moves quickly toward the man he will eventually be. He’s introduced music into his life, adding a layer of culture that I know will enrich his mind. He’s playing the same horn I did when I was his age, a battered but shiny trumpet that somehow managed to survive the years in the back of my closet. And when I think about it long enough I go all misty.

I associate fall with smells: fresh pencil shavings and gently rotting leaves, the flat, metallic scent of autumn rain, the whisper of woodsmoke in the air on cool October nights.

I think about layered clothing and the turning of the foliage, about big tureens of homemade soup and that first chilly morning when I can see my own breath steaming out of me while my little girl waits for the bus all by herself.

I think about football, how every team has a shot right now and how we won’t know until after Christmas how it will all play out.

And I think about politics, the business of putting our best people up to tackle the pressing problems of the day before the election in November.

That’s how autumn goes. As the leaves fall and the pumpkins start to decompose, we are reminded that winter is coming, that the wheel turns for us all, that time — for us, anyway — is finite, and that if we want to make something of our term in this time and place, then we better get moving, put our plans in place, get back on the grind.

It’s in the air this morning, that cool hardness creeping into the atmosphere, the strange shadows cast by a sun in retreat, the inner tension occasioned by the knowledge of a weighty workload and the certainty that a deadline looms.