The Fall: An Illusion of Beginning

by Vanessa Smiley | 9/12/18 2:15am

Autumn. Leaves shift from their summer greenness to vibrant shades of red, orange and pink. As they span the color spectrum, aging steadily into a crisp brown dryness, the leaves abandon roots and fall one by one to the ground. For some, this scene merely signifies a climatic shift, a transitory phase between summer and winter. For others, it heralds what we have long called “sweater weather,” prompting them to fill their closets with clothes that are too thick for the heat, but too thin for the cold. In that short span of time between both seasons, even our closets become transient.

But if you’re like me and search for the metaphor in every conversation or a symbol in every corner, then the fall signifies so much more than a change in season or closet; it promises a fresh start. I daresay this is something that we all intuitively know but cannot always recognize or articulate. Humans, after all, are creatures of habit — habits that may take the form of a learned behavior or acquired emotion. In this light, the fall derives its appeal from a construct that originated in our infancy and has followed us ever since.

Since we grow up associating the fall with newness, it evolves into a construct that continues to evoke novelty even as we transition into college or make our way to the workforce.

But perhaps more striking is what the fall does to our sense of time. Time is, in part, a social construct, designed in part to organize past, present and future events into a linear or otherwise logical narrative. As such, we cannot comprehend history without a stable sense of time, itself contingent on a series of personal and social landmarks that signal important temporal shifts. In our own efforts to construct a reliable framework through which to organize and apprehend our environment, we inevitably appropriate the fall as a sort of temporal landmark. If you think about it, everything from the new pen to the new teacher establishes the fall as a transitory point separating the old from the new. So when the fall rolls around, we experience the odd sensation that something new is about to begin and so press the mental reset button in response.

Beginning. This is what the fall seems to promise. However, Dartmouth students not only hail from a wide gamut of backgrounds but often find themselves in different stages of life, so this notion of “beginning” is bound to manifest itself differently for each student.

For freshmen, the fall truly constitutes a watershed moment in their lives, coinciding as it does with what is likely their first long-term departure from home. As intimidating as this transition may be, there is an equally vibrant sense of excitement, because the very first fall as a college student often invokes the possibility of a new self. I’m sure many of you recall coming to Dartmouth with images not merely of your new dorm, but of the persona you hoped to embody. Maybe you wanted to modify certain aspects of your character, or perhaps you wanted to take on an identity that never had the chance to surface in high school. Whatever the case, the novelty that hangs in the autumn air, coupled with the unfamiliarity of the Dartmouth landscape, offers incoming freshmen a new audience and a new stage on which to take on an identity of their own.

For most sophomores and juniors, the fall may merely represent the start of a yet another year in a place that we have already learned to call home. Yet, there is still that sense of beginning. Perhaps we are starting to pare down our friends to focus on the people that matter most. Maybe we have a better sense of our place at Dartmouth, and so find ourselves settling comfortably into the classes most pertinent to our interests and the social settings that suit us best. In any case, though we are likely traversing the same road we began paving our freshman year, the fall is like a stoplight that forces us to pause, turn the corner and continue anew.

For seniors, the fall marks the beginning of their final year at college, which entails a unique set of decisions and priorities. At this point, most have already identified their closest friends and grown attached to specific communities. So many are preoccupied instead with finding a job and mentally preparing themselves for the challenges of full-fledged adult life. All, I daresay, hope to make their final year memorable so that they can graduate college with no regrets. If an air of finality separates senior year from the other three years, the fall initiates this process of unwinding.

The fall, in many respects, is an illusion, no different from the winter or spring terms (except for the weather). But because the latter two have never claimed novelty as their main quality, they appear to us merely as a continuation of what we already began. Even though the fall is also an extension of the past, its illusory capacities make it far more exciting than the winter and spring combined — we can start afresh, change our trajectory, remedy past oversights. An illusion, to be sure, but when has illusion ever paled in the face of fact?

Funnily enough, my friend messaged me as I was writing this article to express just how excited he was to return to Dartmouth and take an economics course with me this fall. In between the excited gestures and countless exclamations marks, he started sharing his goals for the year: he would “be productive,” “stay focused” and follow his schedule with unwavering loyalty. Whether he stays true to his promises is a separate matter altogether, but one thing is for certain: he has succumbed to the illusion of beginning.