This city has become quiet.
Quiet, that is, for one of the largest Metropolitan areas in the country. Seat of American Power, the Swamp, New Rome — this town has many names, but after half a year here I still can’t seem to call it home.
The foliage freefalls from the oaks and maples lining row homes painted cheerfully, blanketing the walkway in peace as they make quiet landfall. After a wicked and sweltering summer, the caramelized leaves humbly remind us — as they do each year — that endings can also be beautiful.
The falling leaf worries not about its future as it floats to meet the ground. It has relenquished control of its purpose: adorning the tree in green and gold for half a year. It has given way to the forces of nature that pull it down from sky to dust. Maybe the leaf knows that in six months’ time, it will find new life as an electric green sprout as the cycle begins again. Maybe not.
We are left to wonder why the Creator took the time to orchestrate this symphony of light and color for us, knowing most would ignore the scene as they rush about the busy lives theyhave created for themselves. I feel a small pang of guilt for all the times I’ve hurried through walkways canopied in golden splendor.
I waste my October Sundays tucked into a nook of town I’ve loved since arriving on a redeye from Portland. There are visible copper pipes running along the ceiling and white subway tiles along the back bar. Bare edison bulbs swing from cables rooted in a low ceiling. These brick walls and rough-hewn wooden tables have bore witness to conversations of great consequence, talks that ultimately altered the course and direction of my existence.
Something about this place reminds me of another corner of the world three thousand miles away, the steel town I was born in: unashamedly industrial, but decidedly cozy. I come here when I miss the place I was raised to dream about the next time I’ll be there.
I spent so long wanting to leave that town that I forgot how deeply its spirit was engrained in my bones, how swiftly it ran through my veins. Looking back from far away now, I see that I was choosing to take note of only my home’s flaws at the end of my time there. I forgot about the innovators and trailblazers who overpowered the vanity and indifference. Much like my guilt for failing to notice the golden leaves, I regret the years I spent taking my home for granted.
I let months of low-hanging clouds erase lifelong memories of pure sunlight breaking on September mornings, of rolling hills blanketed in wildflowers, of glass lakes nestled between evergreen forests. I allowed the toils of a path through a dark valley distract me from the bright mountaintop it would have eventually led to.
I allowed my discouragement to propel me to the other side of the country, as far as I could possibly go without renewing my passport. To my surprise, I found the same problems. Even when I lived in the same city as the president. Even on the streets where history was written. Even when there’s ten times more people in half the space with triple the ambition, there is still loneliness and failure and discontentment and restlessness.
This realization was hard. It took a long time to acknowledge. It forced me to look inwardly to solve problems, rather than blaming them on my environment and the people around me. To be honest, I’m still figuring out what this finding means for me and my direction.
Soon, the leaves will have all fallen to their resting place, where they will remain for a few days. The government will pay to have them swept into neat piles and incinerated. The branches will form haunting silhouettes against a December sky. A few silent weeks will pass by before a glimmer of hope appears. Lights will be hung, unannounced and unlit, on stone structures and facades across town. One freezing night, crowds will gather and the lights will be switched on in a ceremony of unbridled cheer. I will stand there in the crowd, my face illuminated by warm yellow light for the first time since August departed. I will feel the warmth of that hope and it will sustain me through the last stretch of my time here.
A few days later, I will walk the cold streets of this City for the last time. I will say my goodbyes to grand monuments and powerful glass towers. I will board a flight back to the place I spent so long wanting to leave.
Early that December day, I will descend from clouds, step off a jet, and stride across green airport carpet. When I turn the corner onto Eastview Drive, I will see a christmas tree in the living room window of my childhood home, illuminated like a beacon, the lighthouse guiding me all the way back home from rough seas. Two dogs will run circles around my ankles, leave muddy pawprints on my jeans and kisses on my face as I make my way up the driveway. I will smell fresh bread and garlic and cinnamon streaming from the kitchen. The spice of evergreen-laced air will cleanse my lungs, invigorating them free of the District smog. I will hear neighbor kids laughing and a basketball springing against cold pavement a few houses down. I will hear Nat King Cole spilling from the record player and savor the richness of the sound. I will drop my bags to the floor, and sink into the deep recesses of my Father’s leather armchair. I am no longer in motion. Prodigal, stationary, rooted, and at rest — home.
I have hit the ground. Like Washington’s autumn leaves, I have let go and succumbed to nature’s forces pulling me to the earth. The seasons have changed, and I realize that so have I.
That summer crowd I arrived with has migrated back to its study halls and revelry, but many of its members will return for good next summer. The city will bustle with hopes and dreams again, the streets will be alive with the restlessness and excitement of being twenty something and having your first taste of success. They will touch down on a fresh May day. Ship a few boxes of belongings from a college town to a Capital. Exchange forty percent of their newly inked salary for a few square feet in a high rise.
I wish them the best of luck, congratulate their successful ambitions, and breathe relief that I no longer share that dream.
If one of my summer friends were to ask me, I would have no quantifiable explanation for my change of heart, my need to escape this place I used to love.
I do not know what will happen come spring.
I hope that my future holds new life — a sprout of creativity, new adventures. Like the leaves pulled to earth by gravity, every fiber of my being is called back home.
The freefall begins.