Autumn isn’t really autumn in L.A. Sure, temperatures may drift downward into the 70s and (if we’re lucky) 60s rather than the 80s and 90s. And sure, the evenings cool off quicker and some types of deciduous trees (if you can find them) shed their leaves. Sure, Starbucks has their pumpkin spice lattes and caramel apple ciders. One can even find a local pumpkin patch after enough Googling.
But for a Midwestern boy like me, it will never feel quite right. I have too many ingrained memories of the sights, smells, and sensations of autumn in Oklahoma and Kansas. The smell of burning leaves, the first chimney smoke of the season. The browning of grass, the blooming of mums and the site of my mom covering flowers with buckets on the night of the first frost. The adolescent energy of Fridays at school on game days, and the sounds of the drumline, cheerleaders and press box announcers on those crisp dark nights illuminated by Friday night lights.
So beloved are those golden days of the autumns of my youth: the “back to school” nights, Homecomings, bonfires, Oktoberfests, Tulsa State fairs; the smells of smokey barbecue, roasted cinnamon nuts, caramel-dipped apples; the joys of scalping tickets to college football games with dad, raking the leaves for mom, taking weekend trips to places like Coffeyville, Eureka Springs, and Branson. And also the church harvest festivals, hayrides and fall revivals; the craft fairs with their smells of cedar chipping, holiday candles, glue-guns and Hobby Lobby.
With every passing year removed from a true Midwestern autumn, such things glow only brighter and seem more idyllic in my mind’s eye. Though I wonder now how much of my autumnal nostalgia is for particular experiences of my past as much as the idea of autumn as collected over the year from movies, books, television, poetry. One of the reasons I so loved the TV series, Friday Night Lights, is because it evoked so clearly my own experiences of the Midwestern fall (i.e. football) season. And yet now FNL is itself a part of that nostalgia. I like to break out the DVDs around this time of year to live autumn vicariously through them.
I also find myself saying yes to travel invitations every fall, if it means I can go somewhere for a few days where the air is crisp, the leaves are changing and faint sounds of marching bands or tailgating can be heard. Last weekend I went to Spokane for a conference; last fall I went to Ohio and Tennessee; the fall before that, Wheaton. Some years a simple drive up to the more autumnal regions of Central California will do the trick.
Perhaps it’s time I learn to love autumn in Southern California. I don’t know. Maybe autumn is actually more beautiful an experience for me when it is such a longing of my heart, when it is a memory, a smell, a smoky horizon just beyond the reach of my senses. I may never live in the Midwest again, to fully experience the bright blue October skies over the rolling hills of harvested grains. But maybe that’s a good thing. I believe joy exists most forcefully in the unsatisfied longings and nostalgic echoes swirling around each of our hearts, hungry for a return to the land of promise and infinite skies, whatever that place was, is, or (most likely) will one day be.