In the garden, a rotting pumpkin collided with a massive piece of vertical plywood: thunk. It fell to the ground and the bystanders descended, hacking it apart with hammers and a hoe. Then, the whole mess was piled into a 5-foot-tall compost tote.
The sheer volume of pumpkin guts was too great for the community garden to handle, so they went to the city of New York, destined for one of our park’s salt marshes. It’s the post-Halloween cycle of life: the jack-o-lanterns that greeted the spirits of the dead are themselves returned to the earth.
It’s nasty and chaotic and fun, a squashy game of whack-a-mole. And it’s mostly played by children — tiny human wrecking balls thrilled at being unleashed on the rotting vegetables.
I’ve been thinking a lot about decay. It’s an autumn totem: the leaves fall, the summer crop dies, most of the garden beds get crispy and wither away. It’s not always easy to witness such vivid change. The other day I walked past a small child and his caretaker sitting on the front steps of a brownstone. The child was crying not like he was throwing a fit but like an adult, in deep, heavy sobs that shook his little body and hollowed out his chest. The caretaker was comforting him, petting his hair and snuggling him close to her side. She was talking to him like an adult, explaining the changing of the seasons, at one point telling him, “The leaves will fall and wash away all the sorrows.”
In a TikTok video I saw recently, another little girl is crying to the camera because the leaves — her friends — changed color and dropped before she had the chance to say goodbye.
It is, as my therapist likes to say, a lot. And this year it’s been especially confusing. The pumpkins rotted so quickly in part thanks to a string of 70-degree days… in New York, in October and November. The cycles we’re used to are a little bit broken, jumping the tracks. It’s especially difficult to mourn when the markers of time and the rites of passage we’ve relied on no longer seem to fit where they did before. Instead of moving on we’re forced to double back, to pull the T-shirts out from the under-bed storage, to regress in an uneven staccato.
Fall is also the season that the rest of my friends are moving away. The first two left just after Halloween, off to Seattle and a roomy duplex with a fig tree in the front yard. Five more will depart this month: two to Athens, Georgia, and two to San Francisco and one to Los Angeles. Among other reasons, everyone wants to trade in the golds and browns and eventual snow slush of a New York City winter for green.
Their leaving isn’t about me, but I’ve known all of them for years, and one is my oldest and best friend here. In these last fumbling weeks of parting, I feel like the little kid sitting on the steps crying a deep, grown-up cry about change. There are other wonderful people in my life, but a big part of the safety net of my chosen family is being torn away.
We’re observing our little rites of passage. We have goodbye parties and final hangs and sendoffs. I will book trips to visit, likely before any of them has a fully functioning guest room. Marking change is a very human urge — it settles our nervous systems. It’s an acknowledgement that something has fundamentally shifted, even if we wish it didn’t have to.
Another friend, who is staying in the city — although maybe not forever! — recently told me about a line in a song that has stuck with them. It goes: “Everyone I know will either move away or die.” Theoretically I’ve always known this. But I’m reaching the age when it becomes a glaring reality. The leaves are falling in front of my eyes, and there’s never enough time to say goodbye.
I like to mark the passage of time with injuries. Years ago, I fell and cut my chin open a few days before breaking up with someone. I didn’t get stitches, although maybe I should have. Instead, I cleaned and taped the gash tightly every day. I was still performing this routine at the time of the break-up, which was brutal and shitty. And I told myself that by the time the wound healed I would feel maybe not perfect, but much better. Of course, this was an objective fact: time passes, pain ebbs, things improve. The process isn’t linear, but if enough years go by, it’s pretty reliable.
A few weeks ago, I smashed my middle finger in the door to my apartment. Instantly, my whole body was covered in sweat, and my vision started to blur. I sort of stumble-crawled to my kitchen, grabbed an ice pack, and sunk onto the tile floor. This dramatic behavior was justified when the nail turned a vivid smushed-berry purple tinged with chartreuse. The tip of my finger is still twice the size of its neighbors and a little numb.
Judging by how slowly my nails grow, I’ll see the injury every day for at least the next four months. (Already I’m used to typing without my left middle finger, and I’m worried I’ll never be able to start again. How many repetitions does it take to form a habit? How many to break one?) By the time it’s gone I’ll feel, if not fine, at least a little better.
Incidentally, there’s a point to all the fallen leaves. They break down into a natural mulch that adds nutrients back into the soil. They create habitats for certain animals and insects to overwinter and breed — creatures that will ultimately keep away pests like mosquitoes and mites. As upsetting as it is to watch the trees wither and die, I hold this knowledge close. Something about the cycle of life. Something about change folding back into our own lives, making us resilient.
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