Columns

Gimme Shelter: Telling time in November

Passing a green field of turf gleaming in a gray day, I saw hundreds of sea gulls standing, beaks to the wind. One raised its head to let out raucous screams and barks. Mostly ignored by its comrades, it pompously ruffled its feathers and joined in the silence again.

It’s a marker of November, when gales at sea inspire the clever birds to take a break from off-shore fishing and hunker down on dry land until the high winds blow through. And with Election Week now come and gone, we can relate to the gulls seeking some shelter from storms.

Herman Melville typically set an opposite course from most people (or sea gulls for that matter), writing: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

November, the ninth month in the Roman calendar (the Latin word for nine is novem) is something of an unwanted guest in the year’s list, when flamboyant October packs up quickly and steals away, leaving some colorful reminders of its visit, and is replaced by the dour newcomer.

But November brings a unique light to the season, often complimenting the beauty of morning mists and ground fogs that linger in patches before being chased by a brightening day.

Bookended by All Saint’s Day and Thanksgiving, November often forces people to get in touch with their stranger side. Take King Canute, who once presided over what was called the North Sea Empire, comprising Denmark, England and Norway (but you knew that).

It seems Canute, to let people know he was a man of the people and as human as everyone else, took his throne to the seaside on November 12, 1035 and commanded the waves to stop rolling in. Would the waves listen? Not a chance. See, he then told the gathering of curious onlookers and suspicious sea gulls, I can’t do everything.

It’s not known how many of his subjects left that cold northern beach peeking at their neighbors and mouthing, “WTF?”

Speaking of how November has an affinity for the odd, you can book travel plans now for Richmond, Va, where this month the convention center there is hosting something called the “Oddities & Curiosities Expo.”

According to the P.R. department of the convention center, the event will showcase “all things weird. You’ll find items such as taxidermy, preserved specimens, original artwork … handcrafted oddities, quack medical devices, clothing, jewelry, skulls/bones, funeral collectibles and much more.”

I’ve decided to pass — I don’t want to know what funeral collectibles are. To say nothing of “much more.”

Along with its sister, March, November has institutionalized a national oddity, the daylight savings time edict of “gaining” or “losing” hours. For those inclined toward conspiracy, this looks like an effort to create circadian rhythm disorder for millions of Americans.

The fancy medical term refers to the body’s inner clock, which first went haywire when the wide use of clocks came into fashion.

In the 17th century, when railroads were widely introduced, they had to run on schedules, so people and goods knew reliable times to get on board, and people needed personal time pieces. Before that, most folks lived by getting up with the sun, eating when they were hungry and hitting the sack not long after the sun went down.

Daylight Savings doesn’t seem to bother my rhythms, circadian or otherwise, except I do forget to change the clock in my car and have moments of slipping my moorings, looking at the clock and realizing I’m way late, or way early.

The phone, laptop and the TV, of course, all change on their own, unseen in the depths of the night, and all at the same time!

Like funeral collectibles, I can’t dwell on this without getting righteously spooked.

November escorts us from autumn to winter, when one long night of wind and rain brings us to the destination, and leafless trees and frost, rather than ground fog and fiery leaves, become the order of the day.

In autumn, it’s always a pleasure to be on the way home through blazing scenery. But how much better is it to be traveling home on a wild winter day of rushing winds, the mercury dying in the thermometer, the day hurrying toward night, knowing soon you’ll be at the place where the heart is found.

Time, no matter how you define it, whether living by the rhythm of the sun or the digital clock, or month to month, is always a bit baffling. Physicist Stephen Hawking had a saying when he came to a crossroads of a problem that brings some comfort: “Only time — whatever that may be — will tell.”