Thursday, October 25, 2007

Innocence and a Box of Crayola Crayons

As the swift snap of fall shakes us from our swimsuits into our sweaters and long pants in what seems like a matter of just a few days, I get that old familiar back-to-school feeling—a remnant of a tradition most of us have come to take for granted until we reach our early twenties and realize certain things do not, in fact, remain. Still, even after four fall seasons out of academia, I still can’t escape that sense of anticipation and anxiety that always preceded the looming first day of the new school year. Fall still holds for me an expectation of new beginnings—a chance to reinvent my life from this day forward. I’ve had a whole summer to grow up, and now the air is electrified with the possibilities and promise of the next twelve months.

From the day we begin kindergarten, we are conditioned for the next seventeen years of our lives to expect this do-over type of opportunity with the onset of fall… until that cruel day disguised as college graduation when we’re flung into the real world to fend for ourselves. Of course, at that time summer is just starting to peek around the clouds, and we’re so excited to break out of the gloom of the spring that we don’t realize our impending doom. We were all so optimistic in the haze of that first summer out of college, but once fall approaches and the academic nag starts, we realize the old routine that comes with the turning of the leaves has suddenly been disrupted. It’s freeing and jarring to not have to make the annual pilgrimage from the cabana back to the classroom, as is the loss of June as a milestone marker of our yearly accomplishments. Gone are the days where summer was just a filler time before fall brings us back to the grind. Our hearts still sink as we say goodbye to lazy days and balmy nights, but there is so much beauty in the approach of the fall season.

Fall, for me, starts as a color; it’s that green-to-orange you see on the trees, even before the temperature drops below 68. Not long after the trees make their quiet announcement, fall continues as a temperature: sudden and brisk, but subtle enough that first day to let you forget your coat. I know when fall has fully arrived by the smell: the faint hint in the breeze of a fire in someone’s fireplace, the fresh scent of cool moisture hanging in the air, and the earthy perfume of decaying leaves. Fall tastes like nutmeg and maple and apple cider; it’s the sound of rain on the roof; it’s that comfort of huddling over a steaming cup on a gray day.

This year, when the nag began, I did something I hadn’t done in three years; I went to school. I bought a long wool jacket, a portfolio case and drawing materials, and paid my tuition. Every Monday and Wednesday night I stand among other intent students, learning the right way to put marks on paper. It may not be the same level of academic rigor as my very prestigious yet seemingly impractical art history degree, but this small toe-dip back into the waters of academia has somehow managed to center me in a way hadn’t realized I needed.

So in this cycle of seasons, I have also come back to the beginning; I have begun charging forth, fresh and enthusiastic with the vigor of a new student, on an academic path; it has all the trimmings of what I already know and love about school, but a different set of terms: practical and personal enrichment. With this new direction, I have stumbled upon a striking combination: a feeling of comfort in an old routine, and a sense of deep satisfaction in the small things I had almost come to take for granted. Perhaps I’ll never truly escape the hold that academia seems to have on me; I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing.

I have come a long way in the last twenty years, though there is one piece of nostalgia I can’t let go of: the waxy, papery smell of the inside of a box of Crayola crayons; it is the age-old symbol of innocence, creativity, and tradition… and two out of three I’ve been able to maintain in some way or another. I think I’ll go out this evening and buy myself a box of crayons and perhaps, if I look deep enough into the box, I’ll find where I left my innocence. In the meantime, pass me a mug of something sweet and delicious.