Last week I baked a small orange pumpkin stuffed with breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, and bacon. I cut a jagged hole in the top of the pumpkin and scraped loose the stringy flesh, which I then gathered up in my hands and lifted out onto the counter. As I clawed at the slimy insides I felt clumsy and childish. The pulp slipped through my fingers again and again, and suddenly I was visited by images of my childhood. I thought of my favorite Halloween costume and the similar clumsy feeling it stirred up in me: A bright green caterpillar costume with a series of stuffed arms, each strung to the next with fishing line so they moved all as one. I remember lagging behind while trick-or-treating with my sister, stumbling across lawns and tripping into bushes. Nostalgia and fall are like those connected caterpillar arms to me. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I think of fall. If I think of fall, I feel nostalgic. Lift one arm and up go the rest. But that's problematic sometimes, because when I think of the words “Fall" and "pumpkin” my mind calls up generic images like those from commercials. I don’t want my feeling of fall to be summed up by the little drawings of leaves on the chalkboard at Starbucks. I want the real deal. I want my fall back, not a fallback.
What I’m longing for, I think, is to have a keen awareness of the present moment. I also want to be specific about the past, and I want to observe how my impression of a memory shifts over time. When I was preparing the pumpkin, for example, I realized I could glide along the surface of a general fall feeling. But the alternative was that I could focus on the more particular aspects of the feeling and encourage it to become animated by my imagination, and in doing so allow it to occupy my consciousness for a while. I had to think really hard to let my frustration melt away and into those scenes from childhood. For the first time I felt like cooking was a meditative practice, a medium for a wandering mind.
But maybe it isn't about a wandering mind after all? Maybe it's about a mind being led down a carefully marked path, a path marked by a menu and a task. That pumpkin dinner showed me I could time travel but stay grounded in the moment, too. I was stunned by the fact that I could experience a complete break from the present moment while still operating within it. That split between the past and present, I think, was possible because of the constant thread of physical feeling---that lack of coordination and efficiency which reminded me of the time when I so horribly navigated sidewalks, curbs, and front porch steps in that caterpillar costume. (It was like running in a sleeping bag, really.) A whole string of very specific memories came rushing back to me after that, to the point where I clearly could hear my dad’s voice saying “I’m testing it to make sure it isn’t poisonous” while eating my hard-won candy. I laughed and flailed my many arms in protest. The memories were more honest and clear when I saw them through the lens of my pumpkin and my hands, rather than through the soft focus of my typical "general fall feeling."
I realized that my love of food and my interest in the way memories work don’t have to be colored by nostalgia to be interesting. I found a lot of pleasure in thinking about these memories without yearning for them to return. I felt grounded by my gourd, yet I was still sensing a very specific and vivid memory of a distant fall that I hadn’t thought of in years. That simple rustic dinner became a strange experience in thinking about thoughts. That’s what I like about the play between the seasons, food, and memories: Our perception of each can expand or condense our awareness and our focus on the moment. My dinner, the pumpkin, the Fall---invitations to think back, but also to think on.