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Drive Time

November Seen in a Different Light


Coming home from San Diego, my husband and I somehow wound up on the 52 east, heading toward San Clemente Canyon. We stayed on the road just a few minutes before we exited and turned around, but it was just long enough for the landscape to fall away from urban sprawl to something approaching rural.

Glancing out the window, I saw a man walking his two dogs through dusty brush beaten into something like a trail. They were heading toward a small copse of trees gone golden, and the scene was so autumnal that I expected to see their breath hanging in the air.

Outsiders say the seasons don't really change in California, but those who live here know that this isn't true. The shifts are subtle and have more to do with light than temperature, especially, I think, in November. For those who grew up in less temperate climes, the silver light of November is a bit of cheat. It makes you look and listen for things that aren't there--wet leaves collaged like tissue paper on the sidewalk, the clattering bare bones of trees, puddles rimmed with ice, the triumphant cry of a crow scanning harvested fields.

In November, the sun seems worn down to gentleness even on fine days. Noon can blaze hot and clear still, but at any other hour the light is more luminous than the scouring sky of summer, and there is often a haze that isn't smog or mist but time. The silver light of November lulls you, holds you, makes it possible to stare out a window with nothing but colors running through your brain.

It conjures scattershot memories of numb-fingered football games and picnics on plaid blankets; of cold-cheeked kisses and woolen fumblings while leaves burned somewhere; of those endless Sunday afternoons when the smell of dinner meat drifted into the woods behind your house and interrupted your games like the sound of your mother's voice.

Did those things really happen? Or were they just wish-thoughts, images from catalogs and sentimental movies? Did we drink hot chocolate and schnapps at the football games, and were we as happy in our Fair Isle sweaters and duck boots as it seems now we were? Were there really days spent in front of the fire with only the dogs and a pile of books? Then why am I here? Why were places and people left behind, if those times were so joyful, so cozy and serene?

The silver light of November can make you nostalgic for a life you didn't quite have.

Here, especially, it's easy for an Easterner to long for those drifting leaves and icy rains that turn every home into a refuge, for the soundless morning of the first snowfall, for the cedar smell of decanted wool and tweed. But memory is a cheat as well, too often, as the poet said, mixed with desire. Because the falling leaves must be dealt with, the icy rains are often long and timed inconveniently, and an early snow means a long hard winter full of damp long johns, too many extra chores and perpetually chilled hands.

Here it's easy to forget the months of only indoor play, the heating bills, the shoes and coat hems ruined by street salt and cinders, the weight of the unchanging gray sky on the heart.

Here, on the coast, in the valleys and desert, we have Thanksgiving dinner in the backyard, wear shorts to go apple picking, walk along the beach in a light jacket on Christmas Eve. And we watch the shifting light of November and find that while the changes autumn brings are not as vivid here, the longing and dreamy hope it wakens are very much the same.


Mary McNamara can be reached at

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