short. sweet. summer.
the plan had been plotted. we were headed to the heart of the land of lincoln to retrace ol’ abe’s footsteps. but then we glanced at the weather map, and pictured our sweaty selves slogging half-heartedly from log cabin to law office, and even abe couldn’t shake us out of our impending stupor. the only action we took was the big bold decision that this was not the string of days in which to descend into the heat pit known as springfield, illinois, a town where the state capitol these days seems to be on lockdown as legislators and a lonely governor duke it out.
we toyed with the notion of hilly western wisconsin, a lovely swath of landscape known as “driftless wisconsin,” as in never steamrolled by glaciers. its topography — deeply-incised valleys gouged into forested hillsides, cold-water streams meandering through limestone bedrock — is as it’s ever been, a lasting relic from the dawn of creation, perhaps. and that, to me, sounds like it’s worth a drive. but my vote is only one of four, and i never gained much traction in this summer vacation debate.
seems the sleek-muscled metropolis to the south, the one a mere 15 miles away, door-to-door, is the one that’s lured us, but only if we can pretend, for 60 short hours, to be visitors from the other side of earth. and visitors, perhaps, with the inside skinny on all that’s worth a look-see. we do have a rarely-played advantage: the tall bespectacled fellow who calls this old house home. he’s our advance team, and he’s been out scouting the city for months and months (his day job), racking up a list of highlights he thinks we all really need to rub up against: maggie daley park; the brilliantly refurbished chicago athletic association (with its rooftop eatery, where our resident architecture critic promises sky views like we’ve never seen); the latest installations of the river walk that course along the backwards chicago river; and, of course, the 606 trail, chicago’s rail-bed rebuttal to new york city’s high line.
which is a fancy, convoluted way of saying: we’re taking a staycation. (which means sleeping in our own lumpy beds, and not paying a dime for the privilege of doing so. oh, and free access to the fridge, currently so over-packed you need a roadmap to find a simple tub of cottage cheese.)
the challenge is this: for the next two-and-half days can we step outside the veil that’s shadowing this summer, can we try to set aside the weight of worries, the questions without answers, the paths whose stepping stones seem lost in soggy weeds? can we wrap ourselves in that essence of what we all pretend summer is meant to be: unfettered simple joys, the kinds we long ago were told to string on summer’s rosary?
the list is short. my heart lightens, though, to skip along, imagining the rare-found weightlessness this season sometimes divulges.
here’s what sounds like summer’s best to me:
* a wicker basket lugged to the beach at sunrise. a tall thermos of coffee, a ceramic bowl spilling with berries, a slab of just-sliced grainy bread, smeared with something sweet. newspapers. lots and lots of newspapers. oh, and don’t forget the blanket.
* blueberry shortcake, especially when it’s ferried to the screened-in porch we call “the summer house,” a realtor’s hyperbolic term that’s stuck for all these years. it’s summer’s prize: an after-dark dessert illuminated by starlight and the blink of fireflies. and the flickering of drippy candles.
* waking up in my old bed, toes tickled by the summer’s breeze blowing in the open windows.
* carrying home take-out from anywhere delicious. this summer so far has been a blur of dirty dishes being rinsed and scrubbed. seems all i do is scour skillets and pots with gritty bits stuck to the bottom.
* curling up in my old wicker chair, the one i once rescued from the alley, with my summer read, “swann’s way,” volume one of marcel proust’s “remembrance of things past,” this one translated brilliantly by lydia davis. i read a poem a few weeks back, one titled, “the summer you read proust,” by philip terman, and before i got to its third or fourth line i decided this would be the summer i read proust (my unending march toward catching up with long overdue titles, ones that should be notched on my lifer’s list, a literary version of the one that birders tabulate every time they stumble upon never-before-encountered feathers, beak or birdsong).
* tiptoeing to my garden bench, the one that’s soggy wet in the aftermath of last night’s all-night rain, to inhale a sweet short swatch of morning prayer, the surest interlude of every day, the one that sets me solid. because the truest truth is — even on staycation — you do not, will not, cast aside the ones for whom you pray and pray mightily. and at my house right now, there are lots and lots of prayers for folks i dearly love who deeply need them.
what’s on your summer’s short list of sweetest interludes you might stitch into your steamy days?