Driving home the other day, I wanted to pull over by the side of the road, on every curve, to take photographs. The sun shone through yellow leaves hanging down from an old tree, like a bright splash of melted yellow crayons suspended in air. One small bush glowed red amidst -dots of green. Two enormous trees flanking either side of an old country farmhouse glowed so orange that they hurt my eyes a little.
Autumn has heartbreak in it. That’s why it’s so beautiful. We know it’s going away soon. Soon, it will all be bare. In autumn, I look more intently at everything, memorizing.
Memorizing was all I could do. I had forgotten to put the camera in the car with me. Lu kicked against her car seat, hungry and impatient to be home. All I could do was take a little photograph in my mind and keep driving.
I probably remember those images better for not having taken photographs of them than if they were sitting in my camera right now.
For years, I thought I couldn’t do art. Now there’s a loaded term: “…do art.” I have friend, who was once my student, and in his angsty teenage period he would pace impatiently up and down the journalism room, waiting for the other writers to finish their pieces so he could put the paper to bed. Snacks sat in the corner, the computers had internet access, most of the kids in the class were his friends. There was plenty to do. When I asked him what the rush was, he said: “I want to go home now. I need at least two hours a day to do my art.”
That young man is turning 33 next week (hi, Clown!) and he doesn’t talk like that anymore. He makes movies. He writes songs. He sketches out ideas for paintings in big black sketchbooks. He doesn’t “…do art” anymore. He acts on what his hands need to do.
My hands needed to carve a pumpkin a few days ago. Lu and I were in the house on a rainy day, all day. The night before we had walked the streets of our little town for Halloween. She was still talking about her amazement. However, she has reached this stage — a stage I am trying to remember will pass — where she NEEDS to open every drawer in the house, examine everything in it, then dump each piece on the floor. The silverware drawer is calling her name at all hours of the day. We’ve locked up the drawer with the sharp knives but everything else is still there. We don’t want to live in lock-down mode. We tried putting duct tape on some of the drawers, but she learned within the day how to peel it off. She needs to explore. She’s insatiable.
She’s learning how to drum on the dishwaher with great enthusiasm. At least she has rhythm.
So I was stuck in the house all day with a toddler in the rain. We ran and kicked and read and cooked and drew and baked and did the dishes and watched the Wiggles and it was still hours before bed. My brain felt like it was pacing the rooms, like Gabe did so many years ago in that journalism room.
“Hey Lu!” I said to her. “Do you want to carve a pumpkin?”
Now I have to tell you that, for years, I have held this strange anxiety about carving pumpkins. I know how to wield the knife. That’s not the problem. It’s that you see pumpkins with Dr. Seuss crawling out of the top or Edward Munch’s scream slithering from the side and I feel intimidated. It’s sort of the way I feel about Halloween itself. There’s such pressure to have a GREAT costume and I get stage fright. People expect me to be creative and funny. Most years, at the last moment, I generally threw on a hippie skirt and some thrift store wig and called myself a gypsy.
I let it all get to me.
However, with Lu around, I have let go of that. She asks to paint. “Sit mama, please? Paint?” And I settle in next to her on the floor, drawing spirals or triangles. For awhile, I drew and tried to teach her as I did it. She looked at me and kept going. Quickly, I learned that I don’t care anymore if the drawings I do are good. When I draw that grade-school flower with the simple green leaves jutting off the stalk, Lu’s eyes grow wide. “Flower, Mama! Flower.” She’s happy we are there, doing this with our hands.
I can’t convey how much I love sitting at the table with crayons now, letting the color wash over the white wherever my hand wants to go. It’s the best meditation.
So, when the day grew more and more frustrating with the rain closing us in, I grabbed a pumpkin, some newspaper, and a knife. Lu already knows how to respect the knife; she stayed away. I cut out triangles. Nothing elaborate. Not intended to be good. Just there.
“Eyes, Mama! Eyes!” Lu shouted as her eyes grew wide again. She told me to make slits for eyebrows, a line for a nose, two small half circles for ears, and a big jaggedy shape for the smile. “Face!”
After I had cleaned out the insides, I put in a tea candle and we turned off the light. She immediately kneeled down in front of the table and looked inside the smile. “Light. Light.” She stayed there transfixed for several minutes.
It was the best pumpkin I had ever carved.
And because I finally let go of my weird artist anxiety and the need to be good for a two-year-old, I had pumpkin seeds to roast this year. I threw them in some salted boiling water, drained them dry, lined a baking sheet with parchment paper and a little pool of olive oil, and lay the seeds down. Instinctively, I choose the flavors for their colors. Smoked paprika for that orange on the trees that glowed so bright it hurt. Ginger for the yellow. Black pepper for the dirt. Salt for the snow that might be coming this winter.
In they went, into the oven. I pulled them out and let them cool, then fed them to Lu with my fingers. “Mmmmm,” she said. “Pumpkin seeds.”
The next morning, I took photographs of the leftovers, all those colors of the trees and soft light and the memory of my hands carving a pumpkin for the first time for my daughter and the letting go, all of it in there somehow.
I could taste the heartbreak too, the heartbreak of all this ending soon — the sitting beside each other drawing, the immediate enthusiasms, the way she cuddles into me when she’s tired. And yes, even the silverware dumping. I’ll miss it all someday.
I might as well be here for it now.
ROASTED PUMPKIN SEED SPREAD
Have you ever roasted pumpkin seeds and been astonished at how many times you toss on salt and still can’t enough? I learned why this week. You have to soak the seeds in salted water overnight or boil them in salted water to help the seeds absorb the salt. I love salty pumpkin seeds.
The technique for roasting the pumpkin seeds comes from the always-helpful Elise at Simply Recipes. It’s simple. I’ll never do it another way again.
After Lu and I snacked on pumpkin seeds with smoked paprika and ginger, we put them aside. I already had a new idea. I adore hummus. I couldn’t live without it. However, there’s something summery about hummus with tahini — light and lemony. For the darker days of autumn, I wanted a darker taste.
Pumpkin seed chickpea spread. Oh my, yes.
2 cups raw pumpkin seeds you have scooped out of your pumpkin
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger powder
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400*. Fill a large pot with 8 cups of water. Add the pumpkin seeds and salt. Set the pot to boil over high heat. Bring the water to a rolling boil and allow it to boil for a moment. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let the pumpkin seeds simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the water from the seeds.
Put a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Pour the olive oil on the parchment paper and spread it out with your hands. Put the seeds on Might oiled parchment. Sprinkle them with the smoked paprika, ginger, and pepper. Slide them into the oven and cook until the seeds have browned to your liking, about 10 to 20 minutes. (I roasted them for 12 minutes.)
Take them out of the oven, let them cool, and eat.
for the spread (these are approximate measurements. use your best judgment)
2 cups toasted pumpkin seeds
about 1/4 cup olive oil
juice of 1 large lemon
3 cloves garlic, peeled
16 ounces chickpeas (they taste best if you cook them yourself, but canned works too)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Put the pumpkin seeds into the bowl of a food processor. Turn on the processor and start to break up the pumpkin seeds. As the processor is running, pour in the olive oil, slowly, until you have a thick paste. (The seeds will still be a bit noticeable, rather than entirely smooth. That’s okay.) Turn off the food processor.
After you have formed the paste, squeeze in the lemon juice. Throw in the garlic and the chickpeas. Turn on the processor and whirl it all up until you have the thick consistency of hummus. You might need to add more olive oil, as the processor is running, depending on the texture you like.
When you have the consistency you want, sprinkle in the smoked paprika and run the processor until the paprika is fully incorporated. Take the spread out of the food processor and let it sit in the refrigerator for 2 hours to allow the flavors to develop fully.
Eat with crackers or vegetables or whatever you want.
And remember — these are only approximations on the measurements. You might want more lemon or less. More garlic or a lot less. If you roast the pumpkin seeds with other spices, use those here instead of the smoked paprika. You can make up your own.
Your hands will know what to do.