Fall Favorites

For the last couple of years, I’ve thrown a Fall Fest at my apartment. Friends would meet up to carve pumpkins, eat donuts, and drink cider. It was a low-key event, centered around a love of the changing seasons and all the tasty, tasty food that goes with it. This year, now that I’m in my new, smaller apartment, I won’t be able to host Fall Fest, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up my celebratory traditions. There is a pumpkin-shaped candy dish, the rum and cider recipe is as good as ever, and caramel is waiting to be melted onto freshly picked apples. (The centrality of food is no mistake here — autumn is harvest time, after all.)

pumpkin carving

pumpking carving at Fall Fest '08

Then there’s the whole non-food element to the season, that melancholy air that swirls in with those first few crisp days. Fall can bring you down if you’re not careful, as everything around you literally dies and turns away for six months. But if you’re in the right mood, that melancholy is poignant and comforting, a reminder to breathe in the air more deeply and fold your loved ones into you more closely as the cold cuts closer. I know so many people who name autumn as their favorite season, and aside from the relief from sweltering summer, the main reason seems to be that sense of change in the air, the knowledge that everything around us is burrowing under while we start a school year, or start a new project, or rekindle a friendship. Autumn is the perfect encapsulation of the cyclical nature of, well, nature, and also of we humans — everything is changing, decomposing, layering, rebuilding, renewing. The days grow darker and the skies cloud over, but that’s a (deliciously burnt leaves) smokescreen — fall smells crisper and tastes sharper because we are most aware of who we are in these shortening days, and we are alive.

yellow and red leaves on an autumn day

one of my fall favorites

With all that in mind, what are your favorite parts of the season? What longstanding traditions do you cherish? What do you dislike about it? See you in the comments!

UPDATE: I didn’t even realize it as I wrote this, but I wrote like this exact post last November. Oh well, it’s still true.

Urge for Going

“I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in”

— “Urge for Going” by Joni Mitchell

Autumn in northern Michigan

Is anyone else feeling the pull of wanderlust this week? I never consciously think of fall as a season for travel; I associate summer with travel because of summer vacations past. But every time I hear Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” I am overcome with a need to shuffle out of town with the rustling leaves. Joni captures so perfectly the melancholy of autumn. She strains to break free of it by up and leaving, physically moving away from lost loves, lost seasons, lost moments, but she also revels in it the way a small child jumps into a pile of leaves, knowing the damp rot is a necessary accompaniment to the sweet smell and ticklish embrace of the swept-up pieces of red and brown.

Autumn is my favorite season, and this year more than any other I’ve heard a lot of people saying the same thing. I think part of that has to do with this particular year for weather, since we had such an abbreviated summer that any sunny and mildly warm day in the fall is greeted with great enthusiasm. But there’s also the excitement of change, the sense that whatever pattern we lulled ourselves into in the heavy heat of summer can now be broken free of. Fall is when school starts up again, which of course was set to coincide with the harvest schedule on farms, so the growing season ends as the learning season starts. I like that we still follow this schedule, even though so many of us are completely removed from the seasonal rhythms of farms, because it recognizes the cyclical nature of the year–one thing ends, another begins, and both are cause for celebration. Even as we’re breaking free of some comfortable summer pattern, it’s not that that pattern was wrong or undesirable. It’s just that its time has come and gone, and now it’s time for another pattern or set of activities.

Ask anyone in my family and they’ll tell you what a hard time I have with change, especially with traditions. One year, my British grandparents were in town for Christmas, and the flurry of activity surrounding their visit somehow didn’t include decorating the tree. No one else was bothered, but the idea of having a Christmas without this part being the same as it was every other year made me want to cry. Finally, it was Christmas Eve, and I was about ready to bury myself in the snow rather than look at that unadorned tree any longer, so between the two church services, we pulled up the heavy wooden box from the basement and hung ornaments until that tree shone. I still get teased for that one.

The Findley Family Christmas Tree, circa 2005

Which is to say that accepting change as a natural and beautiful part of life has not been easy for me. I like making lists, I like things in order, I like knowing where I stand at all times. But autumn is a great reminder that this simply isn’t sustainable. Trees that just days before were full of green life are now thinned with yellow, and soon enough they’ll be waving their bare branches at the sky. If I spend all my time mourning those green leaves, I’ll miss the joy of the yellow ones, and even the stark beauty of the spindly brown branches. Metaphors aside, it’s true in my life as well; I was heartbroken to not marry T, but I became a more interesting person who I’m happy to spend time with because of it. I thought my first job was necessary for my career and didn’t want to leave for the opportunities I thought I’d miss if I did, but when I left I moved to the city and found a good group of friends and a sane job that were more important than succeeding in a dying industry.

I’m not saying everything happens for a reason. I can’t believe that and look at the daily tragedies so many people have to endure. And Zeus strike me down if I sound like a self-help book. But I do think that many changes that I used to fear–probably even the ones I still fear–can yield surprising results. They’re not always even better results, but just as my shadow grows longer with the lengthening of the nights, they are different; change of some sort is as inevitable as summer turning into fall. This is why autumn is my favorite season. I’m reminded every year that the world is in a state of constant flux, and there’s beauty to be found in all those changes.

Of course, those changes do awaken my wanderlust, previously lying sleepy in the long, sunny days of summer. As I walk around Humboldt Park on a crisp afternoon or mix up a cup of cocoa in the evening, part of me is appreciating the sights and sounds of Chicago this time of year, and part of me is wondering what it feels like in Morocco right now. Here’s a change my teenage self would never have believed possible: I can be perfectly content where I am and still long impossibly to be a thousand miles away. For now, like Joni, I “get the urge for going, but I never seem to go,” but you and I both know that soon enough, that too will change.