Essays > Born Again Every Autumn, Regardless

I feel sorry for people who don’t get to experience a fresh start every September.
It is one of the gifts of the academic calendar.

I love the way classes start just after Labor Day, after a summer of absences and re-invigoration. I love the new shoes, new notebooks, new haircuts, new students, the fresh paint, new carpet and even a new professor or two.

I love the new surface of it, like the way wood smells when it’s just been sanded.

This fresh start in fall just feels so right. It corresponds with primal human rhythms, after all. As the days shorten and temperatures drop, ancient survival adrenaline grips us. There’s a pinch of fear behind it, if you ask me, the energy of staving off mortality. Winter lurks: not all of us will get through it alive.

But that’s a dark take. I’m here to celebrate second chances, the promise more relevant in September than in May. When autumn hits, galvanized by the pungent air, we clean up and re-assess, having harvested whatever we could from our urban gardens, our trips to battlegrounds and beaches, our nights with lightning bugs and barbecues.

Really, how can Midwesterners not be smitten by the notion of fresh starts? How could we do other than expect them, with our seasonal turmoils and cycles of renewal?

So after summer’s wrap up we mutter, “No regret,” knowing that we’re full of it. But we can’t lollygag, with the prospect of “wintry mix” and black ice coming on. We just take it for granted: we will get ahold of ourselves and start again.

The concept is bred into my Protestant bones. Mine is the tradition of the Resurrection, after all, when our Jesus rose right up from the dead, calling up Oscar-worthy special effects.

And I grew up with that persistent and nowadays banally politicized phrase “born again.” What an idea! We could be “born again” in the spirit, our sinful selves cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb.
How audacious: as if the trail of chaos caused by all those lapses of judgment, all that gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, pride and envy, all that serial killing and arson, all the human foibles we collectively call evil, could be wiped away.

I “went forward” to altar calls as a kid: the last time I was about 13, when a hail-fellow-well-met traveling evangelist named Arnold Willis engineered a convincing Elmer Gantry drama in a little church in my father’s parish in Nellie, Ohio.

After Willis delivered a rip-roaring and terrifying jeremiad about the imminent end of the world, I rushed down the hardwood aisle to the waxy kneeling rail and confessed my sins. I was, I knew, meant to be Born Again.

Of course, it was already too late. Arnold Willis showed up just before puberty – and my simmering skepticism – mushroomed into power like an A-Bomb.

I think I was already a doubter, but I lost myself in the persuasive melodrama. It was irresistible to be so moved, to be a player. It couldn’t have hurt Willis’s portfolio to say that he’d “saved” the preacher’s apple-cheeked kid.

So I did my part. “Going forward,” and then accepting the promise of starting again, among other acts of Protestant compliance, was a way of saying bravo, encore, way to go. I didn’t have much to confess at that dolorous rail, except for having kissed Larry Thatcher on the back porch way after dark as the neighborhood stray cats wound around our ankles. But the shot at starting over was addictive.

Forgive me. I didn’t set out to be cynical. I meant to be fond and affectionate, to celebrate the undying, unfailing optimism of my Midwestern upbringing. We believed people were rotten to the core, born into original sin, of course. But we also believed people could change. We believed our God would give us second chances.

Along the way, I learned that second chances often were part of a larger, grander drama. You had to be ready for it; you had to know when to jump out of that pew and dash toward the hallelujahs and outstretched arms waiting at the altar.

If you missed the moment, the kind and welcoming parishioners would be long gone, the bell rope tied up to its hook in the foyer, the evangelists with their yee-hah holiness well down the road to the next clapboard church and clutch of needy sinners.

And though I know it’s a myth, this “starting over” business, I’ve never really lost my taste for it. This fall I myself am experiencing a fresh start, a new job of significance for me. And I am pleased. For many reasons, it is a rare moment of beginning again.

These days I prefer to think of life as One Continuous Mistake, a Zen phrase writer Gail Sher celebrates as the title of her book about writing. She asserts, “We tie ourselves in knots to sabotage the energy that might be unleashed if we move resolutely ahead. The risks of making changes are great, especially great changes.”

But, she concludes,” actually, the risks of not making change are great. We risk missing our lives.”
I know that the past haunts and follows us, heavy on our shoulders like a clumsy backpack. But the complications and consequences of that experience – including the mistakes – are what enrich these ochre days of autumn.