Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.
It’s my holy season, the fall. PSL season, Christian Girl Autumn, Decorative Gourd Season, Sweater Weather: The time from September 22 to December 21 goes by many names and many guises. It also seems to draw out a fair degree of derision from people who think autumn is ersatz and cliché — haters, in other words. I ignore them, for the most part.
Some people say they hate the fall for some of the same reasons I love it: because it’s cold and it gets dark too soon. Or they hate all the dumb drinks at Starbucks. The same cable-knit sweater everyone owns in écru. And I get that. I too miss the days when the fall didn’t feel quite so vested with capitalist intervention.
As a kid, I loved fall entirely differently from the way I love it now. The end of September was when they started putting up the fair in the field across from the junior high, and I’d press my face to the bus window every morning and afternoon, watching the shapes of the rides emerge from the ground. My favorite part was when they inflated the large yellow slide because it took two days. It went up and up, lifting itself until it could withstand the force of its own weight and stand on its own. Then, as the days got shorter, and the bus picked up the middle schoolers in gray dusk, the lights of the rides would wink and spin.
Every autumn, I think of the fair, and the time my brother and cousins got me lost in a hall of mirrors. I think about the static cling of going down the big yellow slide, the way everything I touched afterward crackled blue in the evening. I think about how my mom and aunt bought my cousin and me matching coats, purple, huge, those Starter letterman coats. I think about letting my coat hang off my arms and following my cousin through the fair, getting lost, laughing, finding a different aunt who had come with her boyfriend. I think about the cotton candy. The sound of the music from the rides and the blues playing from the grown-ups’ cars in the parking lots. I think about the red soda I dropped one time. In my memory of the fair, all the different versions of myself are there at the same time, as though the fair were always happening. Like I was born there and grew up there and would die there. I haven’t been to the fair in so long, but I can still hear the ads on TV that played through September and October in Alabama. I can hear my dad frying chicken or making pork chops. I can smell the fizzy bright scent of the kudzu in the gully by our house. I can see how dark it was getting and how early.
When I think about fall, really think about fall, that’s what I think about. The fair, my dad, the frying chicken, his chore coat, his light wash denim, his white shoes, the hard candy he kept in his pockets, the soup he made, helping him stack the wood outback for the fire. We had a wood-burning stove then. And whenever I smell woodsmoke, I think of home, of autumns past.
Still, sometimes I don’t even know if my present love of fall can be believed. Is it sincere or is it an elaborate social posture? Can I even trust my own enthusiasm for the season or has it been engineered via a series of nudges and suggestions, like when you finally buy that expensive beanie or ridiculous shirt from All Saints because you’ve been hounded into submission via Instagram ads.
I do fear that autumn has become all idiom, all reference, all empty allusion. There are selfie stations at apple picking farms now. There are curated ways to encounter and embrace the natural world. When I put on my chore coat and my boots and I traipse to the river here in Iowa City, I am doing something I enjoy doing, yes, but am I doing it for the sake of that boy who watched the fair go up in the field across from the middle school? Or am I performing a character I have created for myself?
I guess this tension is maybe my own baggage. The first time I went apple picking, I felt so relieved to be back among trees and on a farm that I said in front of my friends, “This reminds me of home. I’ve missed grass. I’ve missed fields.” And my friends said, “What do you mean?” I turned to them, blinking. And they said, “You grew up in a city.” And I said, “No. I grew up on a farm.” They stared at me, and I stared at them, and I realized that the life I was living didn’t sync up with its antecedent, my actual lived history. I didn’t think I was misremembering my past, nothing like that. But I wondered, in that moment, why it had seemed necessary to express my nostalgia. Maybe I project all of this business about fall being a manufactured nostalgia, people laying claim to a past not their own, because that’s how I feel. Like it’s not so spontaneous and real and true. That it’s all gesture.
Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy the leaves. Because the fact is I never feel more myself than in the fall. I love the long night. The cold evening. The sunset in fall is incomparably beautiful, all that metallic blue and burnished orange. The way your cardigans still smell like people you love but who are no longer with you. Ultimately, that’s why the season’s nostalgia works on us. Because inside of whatever corporate signaling or social posturing is something real, something or someone we used to have or know or be. Some place we used to live. Maybe autumn as a season is like the fair we never leave. Its lights are still spinning.