September is the Cruelest Month

If you live in California

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Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

I see it in the tweets and Facebook posts from people in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, even Washington: announcements of a tingling chill that enlivens the morning air; the first leaves showing their colors; the reminder that it will shortly be time to pull out the sweaters and boots.

Some of these folks bemoan the advent of autumn. “I’m not ready for summer to be over!” they wail.

No? Come to California, if you dare. Here, where September means an ongoing struggle against oven-like heat and blasting, fire-fanning winds. Here, where summer isn’t subsiding so much as ramping up into a fury, declaring its refusal to relent through brutal heat waves and orange, smoke-besmirched skies.

Don’t come crying to me about the end of summer, my eastern and northern friends. We can’t wait for it to be over.

I am writing this as Labor Day weekend arrives in my mid-Napa Valley town with yet another scorching blast of heat: today, just past noon, it’s 106 degrees, with an expected high of 112. We are effectively sealed in our small house, cooling it as best we can until the peak hours of energy demand when we will shut down the air conditioning because that’s what our utility company implores us to do. And we’re willing to do just about anything to keep the utility happy, not only because we’re responsible energy consumers, but because they might simply cut our power. It’s happened before.

We have battery lanterns and movies downloaded on our iPads just in case.

A blue jay sits listlessly on the fence surrounding our deck, its bill open and its throat pulsing in an attempt to deflect some of the heat. The squirrels do not scamper. Even the leaves on our camphor trees and liquidambers, the needles on the nearby redwoods, look dispirited.

Thank God the enormous fires that raged around us during the past weeks are largely under control, and the smoke has dwindled to a light haze that veils the hills to the west. For now, anyway: high winds are expected in the East Bay hills tonight into tomorrow night, and we Californians all know what that means. It’s not time to unpack the evacuation bags yet.

Where I lived for decades and raised my boys (sorry, kids), September means starting school in the very hottest time of the year, just as the Santa Ana winds begin howling in from the desert, rendering everything — brush, grasses, people’s tempers — tinder-dry and brittle.

I remember the boys dragging home from school in their elementary years, red-faced and sweating, desperate for a dip in the pool even though the sun had heated it past body temperature and it sported a light coating of ash from the latest wildfire raging in the foothills.

In Southern California, people stubbornly cling to the hope of autumn, hanging wreaths of faux fall leaves on their front doors, putting out paper maché pumpkins that won’t collapse from the heat. I’ve yet to visit the antipodes at Christmas, but I imagine it’s something like the faux fir trees and garlands that must appear in Aussie homes despite it being the height of summer.

Like battening down through the pandemic, fending off cabin fever, titrating dosages of the news so we can stay informed without grinding our teeth to nubs, and twitching over the upcoming election, this is a month in which we have to remember that every day we manage to remain healthy, upright and in our own home is a good day.

My husband and I both grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula, on the western edge of the Bay Area where ocean mists creeping over the coastal hills and onshore breezes kept the temperatures mild and where we never, ever, remember seeing or smelling wildfire smoke. But now, September disallows denying the ravages of climate change, as the month’s annual trials — from discomfort to danger — grow direr with each passing year.

Eventually, as the days grow shorter, surely the heat will relent. My sweaters and boots await somewhere in the depths of my closet and dresser. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, I’ll be pulling them out by Hallowe’en.

It could happen.


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Written by

Writer & educator. The Startup, Writing Cooperative, P.S. I Love You, The Ascent, more. Award-winning short fiction. Visit me at

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