Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons From The Great Pumpkin

Today, I passed by our local grocery store, and gasped out loud. One of those there’s-a-car-heading-right-for-us-in-the-oncoming-lane kind of gasps that jars the hell out of everybody in the car. But I couldn’t help it. What I saw was completely gasp-worthy.

Outside the store, sitting on shelves and bins where the plants and flowers used to be, were pumpkins. Pumpkins. In shades of flaming orange and rich ochres. Some sitting upright. Others rolled over on their sides. Some short and fat, others tall and fat. Cinderella’s and Warted ones. All sitting there, looking so pretty and plump and perfect.

Maybe not the kind of selection you get later in the season, but they were the first arrivals of the new season. The ambassadors of Fall 2011.

And for me, the day when the pumpkins finally arrive is one of the best all year.

How I love the pumpkin.

Growing up, I loved carving them. Of course, my enthusiasm for pumpkin carving would usually backfire. I’d pick the hardest pattern, the most difficult design. And most the time, my pumpkins would end up suffering casualties. Dracula would lose his nose. The headless horseman would lose his right arm.

Things never quite worked out the way I planned. But that never stopped me. I loved carving those pumpkins.

But when I hit those teenage years, and then into my college years, I lost my enthusiasm for the craft.

Unlike a lot of other holidays, the definition of Halloween changes when you grow up. When you’re a kid, Halloween is like a really well-made scary movie like The Sixth Sense. When you get to college and beyond, it becomes like a cheap co-ed slasher film. Somewhere in all of it, you kind of forget why the holiday is so great. It just becomes another reason to party, and the concept of scary and fun gets lost somewhere between the skimpy costumes and the plastic red cups full of cheap booze.

I forgot about pumpkin carving during those years.

The fall after college, I came back home, got a part-time job at a cell-phone company call center down the street, and tried to figure out what my next step would be.

One crisp autumn day, I was on my way to the grocery store, when the giant bins of overflowing orange gourds caught my eye.

I picked one out – one with lots of character and charm -- went home, carved it up, and was hooked.

I started out with the basic patterns they give you in those leafy pumpkin carving pattern books, and soon found designs online. Vincent Price and Jack Nicholson. Dracula and The Invisible Man. Boris Karloff and Michael Myers.

I supplemented the cheap, flimsy saws with some wood carving tools I found in the garage. I spent hours carving those pumpkins. Scooping out their innards, roasting seeds that nobody ever ate. Carefully tracing the pattern with precise pin pricks along the pumpkin skin. Sawing out chunks. Scraping away the pumpkin’s flesh. Lighting a candle inside it to see what more work I needed to do.

There was no greater feeling than seeing the finished product. To watch the pumpkin come to life – it always made me feel like I was creating something grand. Somewhere between the sawing and chiseling and scraping – it felt like there was some sort of art.

Looking up at the clock, I’d be shocked that it was 10 p.m., and that I had been lost in my own world of pumpkin gore for hours.

It became so much more than just carving a gourd.

That season, I must of carved about twelve to fifteen pumpkins. All of them, eventually shriveled, grew moldy, lost their shape. Faded away. But that was part of the beauty of those pumpkins. The fact that they were just temporary creations somehow gave them more meaning. Nobody would ever carve a pumpkin just like that one ever again.

Sure, maybe the larger stress of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life caused me to lose my mind and go on a wild pumpkin carving spree. But it was the greatest autumn I’d ever had because the true spirit of Halloween came back to me. And I learned something from it.

That you don’t have to leave behind the things that you loved when you were a kid just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That they can return to you, in bigger and better ways.

When you’re a kid, it always seems like you had clearer ideas about your life. Clearer images of who you wanted to be – what you wanted to do. When you go through all the rest of it – school, work, bills, life… sometimes your ideas about what you want and who you are become murkier and murkier. Clouded with everything else around you.

So when I see the pumpkins return every season, overflowing and billowing from their bins outside the grocery stores, I remember the lesson they taught me.

That sometimes, that little kid full of wonder and enthusiasm and passion is the one you should be listening to.

There really is a great pumpkin.

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