Sylvia Light and Lené Gary

Lené Gary

Inspiration piece

Getting right with the seasons

By Sylvia Light


Who doesn’t love California’s sunny climate? Hundreds of thousands of people move to California expressly for the weather and soon come to think of its long succession of sunny days as their due.

For me, it was a different story. I moved to California for love—to begin life with a new partner. California’s weather and beautiful landscapes were like bonuses thrown in. Yet until I moved from the East Coast to the San Jose area, where the travel brochures boast of the city’s 300 sunny days a year, I couldn’t have guessed how deeply embedded in me was the annual cycle of the four seasons in the East, with its dramatic swings between heat and cold, growth and dieback.

The first spring I lived in CA seemed familiar enough. Flowering trees unfolded their pink and white blossoms just as in the Mid-Atlantic region; spring blooms flourished in colorful ranks along freeway banks and in gardens.

But instead of April showers, days here continued to dawn clear and sunny, the sky a large blue bell. Some mornings began with a gentle fog, but the sun, deaf to any disagreement, often burned it off by 10.

As June progressed, I began to experience an occasional fleeting feeling that admidst all this sun, something was amiss. The feeling became a low-grade anxiety, and gradually I realized that I was anxious because we had had no rain—not just for weeks on end, but for months. When I mentioned this fact to colleagues, they told me blithely not to expect rain until October at the earliest. October! I imagined that the web of underground irrigation for the Bay Area must be colossal. But what about the un-irrigated acres of wild woodlands and hills, what about the roadside weeds, what about the big redwoods? How do they manage? It was worrisome.

Instead of the reliable cycle of sun and rain I had known since childhood, it seemed I was suspended in an unreal time and place, as if in a bell jar, where the sun and blue sky were clicked on reliably each morning by a timer.

It was hard to explain these feelings to my California friends, who of course take sunny days for granted. Most see the weather here as well nigh perfect and don’t want frost, ice or snow anywhere near their daily lives. Rather, they sign up for it in controlled, limited amounts. A weekend of skiing in Tahoe, a week of sightseeing amid Canada’s snowy peaks. For the rest, they are happy with day after day of sunshine, and grudgingly tolerate the rainy season.

Living here in paradise, as I was often reminded, who could account for my longing for a summer thunder and lightning storm? For the darkening sky with fast-moving clouds and gusting winds, the intoxicating smell of ozone, the hurry to get inside while being chased by the first big raindrops, and then standing by the window in awe of nature’s firey skyshow.

And winter! The season most scorned by Californians and Floridians alike. I knew that I would miss the snow, which I loved long past the time any self-respecting adult would admit. My husband still chuckles to recall us watching a snowy scene in a TV movie, and as the actor walked across the screen, my comment: “Just listen to that snow crunch!” Maybe it was the household I grew up in, where my father’s eyes lit up at the prospect of driving in the snow to meet a relative stranded at the train station. “Who wants to come?” he’d ask with a big grin while quickly reaching for his wool cap and gloves, tickled at the break in the routine and the chance for an adventure. My mother, too, shared with us her abiding wonder at nature. “Girls, girls, come and see!” she would call on winter mornings when there was a beautiful frost. Shivering and barefoot, my sister and I would run down the stairs and marvel at the silver tapestry of leaves, ferns and feathers etched on our kitchen window. What hand could paint with such delicacy? Who could fashion such frozen beauty, then see it melt away at the sun’s first touch? Surely a fairy or some winter sprite.

In those first years in California, I thought it was the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of the four seasons—the show and drama—that I missed. But over time I came to acknowledge a deeper unease. It was as if I had been cut loose from an anchor and lost my bearings.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, it’s just the weather,” the practical side of me argued. “Snap out of it!” Still my feelings of unease persisted.

One February, having returned to New Jersey for my mother’s birthday, I was taking a walk near her house on a cold, overcast day. The air was crisp, the late afternoon sun a distant and pale yellow. It was quiet on the suburban streets, the hour before commuters arrived home. At my feet, the few remaining scatters of brown leaves lay inert and etched with frost. Overhead, oak and maple trees were subtle studies in gray and brown. On either side, flowerbeds were asleep, with an occasional evergreen shrub keeping vigil.

This scene, so common in the northeast, unaccountably flooded me with relief and seemed to gently adjust some internal compass. As I walked, I realized what I had been missing in California: the time-honored signs and the slow turning, not just of the seasons, but of a larger cycle in which our world and universe exist. A cycle as certain as anything we know: that we, in concert with the tiniest one-celled organisms, the largest galaxies and all entities in between, are born, live, die and are transformed. This cycle is programmed into each of us and, whether we resist or honor it, affirms our place in the universe.

That was the gift of the four seasons to me. I was lucky, I now think, to have experienced it for nearly fifty years. And while today I might not live in the climate where the seasons are as definite and dramatic, their lessons are still within me, healthy and thriving.

I returned to California with a lighter heart. With newfound insight and less prejudice, I observed that the Bay Area does indeed have its own more moderate change of seasons. The first rain of October is now as welcome to me as the first snow in the East. November brings the return of the beautiful monarch butterflies to their winter homes in stands of eucalyptus in nearby Santa Cruz. December and January rains transform the hills east of the Santa Clara Valley from dusty gold to vibrant green. And at last I learned the secrets of the coastal redwoods for weathering the dry season, including their ability to drink in the abundant moisture offered by the fog.

I think of the varied climates worldwide and the millions of people who shape their lives by them. I think of the age of our planet and how many times the regenerative pattern of life-death-rebirth has been repeated. I think of how much change this earth has experienced since coming into being, yet always in keeping with this cycle. And I am grateful to have my place within it.


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