On Monday night, I walked my dog along one of our normal routes. It was unseasonably warm and windy. The sunset was the autumnal colors of changing maple leaves. It had been a long day—a day where, from the moment my alarm went off, I felt I should get an award for just getting out of bed and putting on pants.
We all have days like that. Days where we manage, and the managing is good enough. And yet, ten minutes into my walk, Banjo galloping beside me and grinning goofily, the rock in my stomach dissolved, my heart softened, and I turned my face to the sky and the wind. We turned down a lane and my breath caught. It is harvest time in the Midwest, and a field that had become so known to me in the past months as I charted the corn’s growth, was now shorn. In a moment, the known and familiar world looked different and new—vast and flat, earth and sky kissing at the horizon.
Autumn is a time of harvest, transition, and often reflection. Summer is over, although recent temperatures may give us pause on this front, and winter is not far enough off for many. We have to gear up for winter—prepare our homes and ourselves for the long, dark, cold winter months.
Midwestern winters must be endured, and so much of it must be endured in the early dark. So much of life must be endured, and lately my mind and heart has turned toward what we can harvest from the act of enduring.
October is National Depression & Mental Health Screening month. But it isn’t enough to simply be screened. We need to be talking about mental health in the same way we discuss our physical health, and we need to teach our children about the interconnectedness of our mental and physical health. We need to continue to destigmatize mental illness, educate ourselves, our children, and our communities, understanding that, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, “1 in 5 Americans live with mental health conditions.”
We need to support our friends, family members, students and colleagues, and seek support ourselves when we need it. We must push for legislation that supports and funds mental health care. We must be mindful of our mental health care providers and care givers who are often overworked and stretched thin. We need to be able to talk about mental health with kindness and empathy. Out loud.
And we need to be able to listen. We need to be able to admit we don’t know what to say. We might not know what to do. We need to learn as adults, and teach our young ones, to ask for help. Asking for help is so hard, isn’t it?
Nothing is quite as humbling as asking for help. When I think of the moments in which I have despaired, I am lucky enough to recognize the small flames of hope offered to me until I was able to build a lit path: a slice of warm pumpkin bread, my mother’s arms, a friend’s Arkansas lilt leaping through the phone, an unexpected text that read like poetry, the steadfastness of friends willing to be with me in my pain, and in my joy too.
When I think about the lessons I can harvest from suffering, there is one that I hold on to and repeat like a mantra: Be kind. Choose kindness.
On October 1st, over 200 people attended the “Out of Darkness Walk” through the country’s largest prairie labyrinth to remember loved ones who had died and to raise awareness and educate others about suicide and suicide prevention.
I could not attend due to a prior commitment, but last Sunday I walked the labyrinth with my mom and my dog. The wind sang through the grass, and we carried people in our mind and hearts as we walked with a marble in our hand. We sat in the center, together, talking.
Later, after we’d exited, my mom pointed to Monarchs hovering around a butterfly bush in great numbers, their delicate wings opening and closing. Our pain, while it often makes us feel isolated and utterly alone, actually brings us into rich community with others who know, and have been transformed, by the same pain. I try to hold onto this hard lesson too like the marble I palmed as I walked. Labyrinth designer and local artist, Kelley Quinn, said to those gathered at the “Out of Darkness Walk”:
Autumn is a time where we gather the harvest and we celebrate in our bounty. It’s also a time of letting go and releasing what no longer works for us. I invite us to look at that balance, the balance also of light and dark, outside and within us…Celebrate instead of fearing the dark; embrace what happens in the darkness, where change and growth occurs.
As we approach October’s end, I encourage you to take time out for your own mental health. Turn kindness upon yourself. Fill up your own well so you can give freely to others. Drive out to Spring Lake’s Nature Center and take in the autumnal beauty. Walk the labyrinth mindfully, rest in the center, and follow the path out. My hope is that you will feel more rooted, centered, and entirely able to endure and transcend whatever tomorrow brings.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.