This week, I’ve been thinking a good deal about truth; not absolute, capital-T Truth, but the smaller truth of felt experience. I’ve been noticing how often we lie; that is, how often we neglect to tell the truth about what we’re feeling and what we value. We say we’re fine when we’re not. We say we like the book (or movie or restaurant or meeting time) that everyone else prefers, when our actual preference is very different. We tell white lies to make life ‘easier’, but the truth is that these little lies eat away at us.

And by we, clearly, I mean I.

Yet this isn’t just a question of telling the truth to others. In fact, change (in the form of honesty) can’t start there. Change has to start with telling the truth about ourselves, to ourselves. Change has to start with seeing the boxes that we put ourselves into, how we avoid certain truths for the sake of our public personas.

For example, I consider myself a diligent, responsible person. My behavior often reflects diligence and responsibility. But I am also a playful person. I love to laugh and dance and sing into my hairbrush. Yet I fear revealing this part of myself. I tend to suppress my fun-loving side, except with my family and close friends.

I fear being seen as inconsistent, yet it’s this same fear that limits me. This fear keeps me from being whole.

This idea of wholeness was on my mind when I sat down at the supper table at L’Arche this past Thursday. The prayer-time question that night was, “What is your favorite smell of fall?” As we passed around a candle, each of us shared what we liked best.

Me & Leo*, living it up at a wedding reception.

The question invited us to savor simplicity and remember small delights, and it was also a truth-telling practice. Being honest in a safe and supportive environment like L’Arche builds up my strength. It helps me learn how to be (lovingly) honest in more difficult situations.

When the candle came to me, I said, “It’s a toss-up between the cinnamon smell from a fresh-baked apple pie and the smell of a wood-burning fireplace.”

After I shared, my husband Jonathan glared at me, playfully. “You’re supposed to choose one,” he said. The reason for his comment became clear when he shared his favorite scent:  the smell of wood burning. “You stole mine!” he whispered. I smiled.

Jonathan passed the candle to Leo*, and I anticipated Leo’s answer:  something about food. Others had shared scents like “Pumpkin pie” and “Turkey”, and that’s what I expected from him.

Instead, what Leo said was, “I like the smell of the leaves as they fall from the trees.”

Just when I think I know what to expect from Leo, he says something like that, and it knocks out my preconceived expectations. In fact, Leo has been surprising me and changing my life since day one.

When Leo sheds his historian persona by speaking poetically, I feel empowered to break my own molds. In such moments, Leo makes me feel like it’s okay to be a series of seemingly contradictory things…as though being in contradiction is an essential part of being human, being alive.


As I walk through our neighborhood this autumn, I keep an eye out for Leo. I often see him walking home from McDonald’s, where he gets coffee every day. He walks very slowly, so he’s easy to spot.

When I see him shuffling along, I’ll feel what I always feel:  gladness, protective tenderness, and the feeling of a prayer rising within me. Whenever I see him, I pray that he be well and that his life be full of good things.

And I’ll know that, as he walks, he’s breathing in the smell of the leaves as they fall from the trees. I’ll know that he’s seeing beauty in this time of decay, and that dying doesn’t scare him. I’ll watch this one man making his way home, and the sight will break me open as it always does.

Even as I leave my role as program director to become a full-time writer, I know that, in a very real sense, I’m living the mission of L’Arche in a way I never have before. By stepping forward as a writer, I’m telling the truth about who I am and what I love.

That is to say, I’m becoming who I’ve always been. 


What’s your favorite scent of fall? &/or…

What small-but-significant truth do you need to tell today?

Tell me in the comments!

*Names have been changed.

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  1. Rache October 31, 2011 at 1:09 AM - Reply

    very beautiful caroline. thanks for sharing 🙂 my favorite smell of fall is apple cider.

    • Caroline McGraw October 31, 2011 at 1:27 AM - Reply

      Anytime, my dear. Thank YOU again for sharing that amazing video with me; as you’d imagine, it elicited a very positive response from other AWCC readers 😉
      & apple cider…yum!

  2. Brooke (Books Distilled) October 31, 2011 at 1:15 PM - Reply

    Mine is pumpkin … everything. 🙂 Pumpkin lattes, pumpkin beer, pumpkin soup, and carving raw pumpkin (which we’ll do tonight) and roasting the pumpkin seeds. YUM!

  3. Mary October 31, 2011 at 1:41 PM - Reply

    Believe it or not, I would have said that my favorite smell of fall is the smell of leaves on a crisp morning like this morning, too! I’m surprised, also, by the way our friend notices nature. It’s a quality that I sometimes forget we share. One time he handed me a poem about daffodils by Wordsworth (I think) and said, “I saved this for you because I thought you’d like it.” And he was right!!!

    • Caroline McGraw October 31, 2011 at 2:21 PM - Reply

      Wow, that’s amazing! I’d forgotten that…hadn’t he received the book from his day program? I remember being amazed at his sensitivity & awareness of how nature made(makes!) you happy. 🙂

  4. susan shannon October 31, 2011 at 3:37 PM - Reply

    I loved this post and the visual imagery you wrote with being in molds and breaking open. Discovering self is a surprising and ongoing process. I’ve always embraced my inner “dork” (my 17 year-old son’s reference) and my mom always said I was the original WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). I laugh out loud at funny cards in the store, skip on my walks at the park, sing at the top of my lungs in the car even at the stoplights; that’s who I am–goofy.

    Fall in the Bay Area of California is subtle (we’re having Indian Summer still). But growing up in Virginia (I’m from Fairfax, Caroline) has always made me appreciate the Fall season in CA with the scent of sweet decay of the fallen leaves and woodsmoke (except on a spare the air days).

    • Caroline McGraw October 31, 2011 at 4:35 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Susan! I’m glad you could connect with the post, & that you could share from your own ‘breaking open’. I can relate; my mom & I used to love going to our local Stop & Shop to laugh at the cards…not sure if the Stop & Shoppers liked it as much as we did! 😉 Sometimes it helps to have someone to be silly with.

      I go to trainings in Fairfax all the time! It is, indeed, a beautiful time of year around here. Blessings to you in this season, Susan!

  5. Mary November 1, 2011 at 4:22 PM - Reply

    My favorite fall scent fills the house when the furnace is turned on for the first time of the season. The contradiction is that I’m not all that fond of frigid temperatures, and the furnace-awakening-from-summer-slumber smell means cold Iowa winter days – and lots of them – loom.

    • Caroline McGraw November 1, 2011 at 9:14 PM - Reply

      I’d never thought of it with such specificity, but I love that scent as well, Mary! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Harriet Cabelly November 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM - Reply

    My favorite scent of all seasons is the fresh smell after a rainfall – hmmmm. I just love breathing that in that smell.
    Love your writing, as always – simply beautiful.

    • Caroline McGraw November 1, 2011 at 9:15 PM - Reply

      And what a refreshing one at that. 🙂 Thank you, Harriet ~ I always look forward to your comments!

  7. Tara November 1, 2011 at 8:19 PM - Reply

    These two lines are at the heart of what speaks to me in this post:
    Being honest in a safe and supportive environment… builds up my strength. It helps me learn how to be (lovingly) honest in more difficult situations.
    I love the smell of the air on the very first days of fall, the days that look like summer but have a crisp, dry, slightly cooler scent that carries in on the breeze. And freshly grated nutmeg. Always a treat.

    • Caroline McGraw November 1, 2011 at 9:18 PM - Reply

      As featured ‘poet’, Leo’s sure getting a run for his money- what a lovely comment 🙂 Thank you, Tara.

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  9. Allison November 2, 2011 at 8:51 PM - Reply

    Oh, Caroline. This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked!! (And you know I mean that-remember the leaf as big as my face??) Hmm…I think my favorite scent is the air you smell when you’re walking outside (leaves crunching underneath your feet), that’s some kind of incredible mix of baking pumpkin bread coming from a nearby home, smoke from a fireplace, and the surprisingly sweet scent of dead leaves. Can that be put into a candle? Thanks for your beautiful writing, and the reminder to see beauty in times of decay and change.

    • Caroline McGraw November 2, 2011 at 9:00 PM - Reply

      I DO remember that leaf! It was tremendous! 🙂 And yum, the scent you described has my mouth watering.
      You are most welcome, my dear. Congrats again on finishing your 31-day challenge! It was a delight to read.

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