From Pumpkin Spice Latte to Pitaya Juice: An Autumnal Journey

As a folklorist, I often feel that marketing messes with holidays. I don’t want to think about Halloween the day after the fourth of July, but the drugstore and the “seasonal” aisle of the supermarket and the forests worth of catalogs that arrive at my door want me to, because there’s really no big ticket holiday between Independence Day and Halloween. I firmly believe that a person’s fancy should turn to Halloween on October 1st, and that the beginning of the Christmas season should be no sooner than Thanksgiving; specifically, the moment  when the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade comes to its triumphant end and Santa Claus rides in on a float.

And there you have it, the hypocrisy lurking beneath my self-righteousness. Because what’s the Macy’s day parade, or even Santa Claus, if not a big fat marketing ploy? The bottom line is, I’m as susceptible to manufactured nostalgia and holiday cheer as the next person. We’re all delighted and moved by the seasonal signals that speak to us; trying to decipher which are authentic or not is so useless as to border on arbitrary.

Which brings me to a manufactured seasonal marketing ploy that has me almost in tears each year; the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks. I gained so much when I moved to Miami Beach to marry my husband…an adorable daughter, a decent base tan and a wealth of pan-Latin-American superstitions among them (I can no longer rest my purse on the floor ever since a Colombian woman in my prenatal yoga class warned me if I put my bag on the ground, that’s where my money will end up too, undoubtedly saving me from fiscal ruin). But I gave up a lot, too. Namely: Fall.

I love Fall passionately, beyond all reason, as only a girl who grew up in New England can. Making matters worse, my birthday is October 8th, the height of foliage season, so it always seems like a cosmic birthday present when the leaves turn red and orange. Each fall, first in Massachusetts, and later, as an adult in New York, I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz to find that world is now Technicolor.

But Fall in Miami is pretty much August in Massachusetts, only more humid. (Yes, the weather cools down and Miami becomes heaven on earth in November, just as New England is getting as harsh and stark as an angry Pilgrim, but that’s hard to keep in mind as I’m sweating down Lincoln Road recalling my former commute through an almost embarrassingly vibrant, autumnal Central Park.)

Now that I’m no longer taking classes nor teaching, I don’t get the thrill of Fall either, since I’m not overtly tied to back-to-school rhythms. (Although I suspect that, until I die, I will feel the need to reinvent myself each September the way the birds are compelled to fly South, crossing right above Lincoln Roadl). It’s enough to make me weep into my Pumpkin Spice Latte.

My hometown in Fall; photo by Joan Paulson Gage

The truth is, I always get a little sad come fall, even if I am surrounded by scarlet trees and wooly letterman sweaters. As beautiful as the season is, there’s always a layer of melancholy underneath all the splendor; after the leaves do their thing, they’ll fall, the same way flames die down into ash. Fall always feels like the end of something.

I was feeling this autumnal sorrow more than ever this year, as we returned to Miami from Greece on September 3d. The summer trip I had spent so long planning had ended and there are places and people I love that I now won’t see for another year. Normally that summer’s-over sadness is balanced by the pleasure of being home, of settling back into your routine. But that wasn’t going to happen this year as I knew that on September 17th, after just two weeks at home, we’d be flying to Nicaragua, where we’ll live, for the most part, for the next four to six months while my husband completes a work project and I work on my next novel.

So I felt I was losing Miami, too, along with Greece. Making matters worse, just after the Pumpkin Spice Latte arrived, the Starbucks at the end of our block closed for renovations, and remained so for the duration of our time in the city. I’m embarrassed to admit that the closing of a Starbucks can disorient me, but that particular branch of the global behemoth is where Amalía and I go every morning to get my iced coffee with lots of skim milk from my dreadlocked, unfailingly cheery Starbucks Husband. In a city that still feels relatively new, people like him seem like friends.

Our move to Nicaragua, like the closing of our Starbucks, is temporary. But since we’re renovating our own apartment while we’re gone, and we had to pack up our life there, it felt rather final. A chapter has come to an end, and it was a good one; the Miami apartment, with its rotting floorboards and plywood kitchen cabinets is where Emilio and I returned after our wedding in Greece, where we lived during my pregnancy, where we brought Amalía after she was born. Our first few years, when we created our family, are over. And while we’ll return to the apartment, it won’t be the same, and neither will we.

The hope is that we’ll all be renovated, better than before. But I loved us as we were, too, and am sad to leave that place behind.

I was teary all weekend prior to our move. But I found comfort in two things, one ancient, one quite new. First, it just so happened that we flew to Nicaragua on Rosh Hashanah, commonly known as Jewish New Year. But what I’ve learned is that it’s not exactly, or not just, the new year that’s being celebrated, but the birthday of the world. It’s a time of saying goodbye to the year that passed, but also of opening one’s self up to the world of possibilities to come. I find it reassuring that our big change is taking place at a time of cosmic transition: Rosh Hashanah, back-to-school, fall. The other thing that makes me feel that this new year is, as rabbi describes it, “pregnant with possibilities” is  one-year-old Amalía, who has been toddling around the Nicaragua apartment all morning repeating her words: “Papou” (her grandpa who is back in Massachusetts), “Yia-Yia” (her maternal grandmother, who is with Papou), Abuu (her paternal grandmother who was waiting for her yesterday when she got off the plane), and other sounds whose meaning I have yet to discover. I think she is trying to suggest, gently, that we should walk around adding up all that we have, not pondering what we have lost. So despite the birds of paradise growing outside our front door, and the Oz-like purple of the pitaya juice I’m drinking, here in Granada, Niacaragua, life feels very much like Fall at the moment: nostalgic and hopeful and delicious as Pumpkin Spice Latte.



  1. It may be a bit kitsch but today I put a little scarecrow and a couple of fake pumpkins on top of a book shelf. — This post was beautifully written. Your daughter is fortunate to have so many rich traditions to grow up with and a family that helps her explore them.

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