Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.
– Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”
Say what you will about New Jersey: beauty abounds.
It has taken me nearly three years to see it, but now that I have eyes, I see it everywhere. Part of it, of course, is the seduction of an east coast autumn, that mythical season I grew up learning about from my mother, a California girl who spent four falls staring up at the treetops, wide-eyed, as she walked to and from classes at Vassar (followed by four winters blow-drying her waist-length hair so it wouldn’t freeze whenever she stepped outside).
New Jersey, of course, is not New York. New Jersey, in fact, is the very opposite of New York, as any New Yorker will be the first to tell you.
Still, whenever fall descends each year, it graces New Jersey with a rare and unexpected glamor that manages to surprise me every time. The leaves on the trees transform so rapidly, fierce and brazen in their new and changing colors, that, for a brief time each year, it looks as if the world this side of the Hudson will burst into flame at any moment.
The days take on an oddly apocalyptic feel and, as if in response, my heart takes on a new and sudden greed.
I want the autumnal world to stay like this forever, eternally suspended in its state of ever-changing-ness. I want the dying leaves to change colors perpetually, taking on ever more spectacular slants of light, keener and more vibrant hues. I want to feast on the sight of the natural world as if it were a performance meant for me and me alone, as if I myself have willed it into being simply by witnessing it.
I want permanence and possibility both; I want things, impossibly, to stay the same and never stay the same again.
This is the state of my own deeply conflicted heart. I want, I suppose, time itself, that most obvious and cliché hunger of the human heart. I try to quiet it on my daily commute, the solitude of the drive and the transient beauty of the fall lulling me into a rare state of contentment that dissipates the moment I park the car and open the door, set my foot on solid ground again.
Sometimes, on the long drive home from work each day, I find myself staring dumbly out the car window, marveling at the changing colors of the leaves, the muted light of lowering autumnal skies. It is dangerous, this dual vocation of leaf-peeping and commuting, but I cannot help it. (At least if I die in some horrific traffic accident on the back roads of New Jersey, I’ll have died distracted by beauty and not, say, my cellphone.)
Other drivers honk at me occasionally, or tailgate me until they see I will not be moved, then speed angrily around me. I don’t mind. I give them a friendly, unapologetic wave in the rearview mirror. I am an unabashedly west-coast driver.
Even on the Turnpike, that infamous stretch of road uniting city-dwellers and suburbanites alike as we trudge along on our daily commutes, I feel a naïve and irrational love for my fellow drivers, all of us joined as one in our lonely, slow-moving sedans or SUVs, listening to the floating voices of beloved audiobook narrators and NPR commentators, the glow of our brake lights igniting one after the other like so many altar candles, our curses and complaints rising to the heavens with each tap of the foot, as if driving were its own prayer and not just the desperate thing we do to get from one place to another.
But at last, three years into this little life of mine here in New Jersey, I have vision: I am finally wide-eyed and greedy for the blazing world around me.