pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: summer

summer’s clubhouse

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when i was little, summer commenced when martha hackney and i would take to the woods. or the cardboard box cupboard. a boggy wood stretched between our two houses, complete with babbling brook, and stepping stones, and a pond we named “green,” because it was carpeted in teeny-tiny french knots of muck. if we’d inspected with magnifying spectacle, we’d likely have noticed they were lilliputian lily pads, perches for froglets the size of half your pinkie. once in a while, we’d stretch out on a log and inspect. and try not to plop in (for that would certainly lead to tuberculosis. or worse. so we feared in our nine-year-old minds).

i can’t remember a summer in which martha and i did not devote every waking hour to the construction of one of our clubhouses. the woodsy variety. or the ones where we spent hours upon hours with scissors and glue and snippets of fabric, and leftover rolls of wallpaper, too. and boxes. boxes by the boxload. we upholstered. we carpeted. we strung make-believe lights. we made resplendent rooms for our miniature dolls. we daydreamed the day away, hands smudged with glue.

perhaps those are the roots of my summer-y inclination to tuck away in a spot that’s away from it all. under a willow tree might be ideal. but i’ve no babbling brook near this old shingled house where, more often than not, i’m the one in charge of flipping grilled cheese and stoking the fridge. so the clubhouse i call my own is the one at the end of a short winding walk, a brick walk that leads from the house through the garden to the slapping screen door. there, just inside, is a steep-ceilinged room, one with a fan that undulates the summer’s breeze. and old wicker chairs, ones i once scooped from the alley (yes, i did; rescuing the flock from unseemly demise), tucked to one side, while an old wobbly door, perched on four legs, now makes for a wobbly table.

IMG_7681we call it the summer house, for that’s what the real estate lady once called it. it’s a name with far more pizazz than really it musters. if you don’t mind a rip in your screens, if flaky paint from the chairs doesn’t bother you, if a teetering dinner plate doesn’t ruffle your feathers, well, then, we have a room for you.

IMG_7682this week, in a week that might be labeled “intensive care” (for the task of the week was intensively caring for one un-done heart), it’s the place to which i skittered away. i carried my load of summer reading. i settled my bum in the old wicker seats. and before i could turn a single page, i was wholly absorbed in the magic of that odd little place. a mama wren flitted in and out of the birdhouse (she was tending her thimble-sized brood, delivering wren-sized delectables on a quarter-hourly basis). a cardinal paid me no mind, heralding the dawn, and later, the twilight.

a place to escape is a critical place. a place that, perhaps, no other season so offers. but summer, after all, demands it. promises it. it’s the one time of year when you can stretch out your legs, cross your ankles, and know you’re doing your duty: you’re summering. however you define it.

for me, summering is a verb with pages to turn. it’s sipping slowly from tall sweaty vessels of lemony water. it’s slapping away mosquitoes, and keeping watch for the firefly. it’s taking time out and not feeling guilty. it’s feeling like friday afternoon stretches for days. it’s relishing: a balsa wood baskets of berries; fat spears of asparagus charred from the grill; a book i don’t want to end; daybreak with a hot mug of coffee; mama wren enchanting with her motherly duties; nightfall with a flute of prosecco.

it’s the one time of year that begs us to savor the succulence. to consider the high art of nonchalance and lull without purpose. it’s the deep down knowing that if you’re turning a page, staring into the distance, or keeping watch on a wren, you are more than doing your job. you’re inhaling the whole of the blessing, the one that now is upon us: welcome to summer.

how do you define summering? and what’s your tucked-away spot?

summer starts here lemonade

short. sweet. summer.

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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?

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that moment when…(and this summer more than ever…)

summer feets

all week i’ve been feeling it. that moment that best can be likened to the glorious fraction of time when you’ve been out in tippity teetering heels all night, when your toes have been practically yelping in protest and the bones in your feets have been threatening to cut you off at the ankles, when every ounce of you wanted to wriggle out of this unnatural state of constraint, but you had to make like a grownup and prance around in footwear that does its best to topple you, and sometimes makes you chew on your cheek besides. but then, finally, the night and the torture come to an end, and there in the dark, and practically running, you round the bend, you lurch toward the door and you begin the release for which you’ve been throbbing: you scrape the toe of one pointy shoe against the penned-in heel of the other, and you kick the darn foot-clamps clear across the kitchen.

you stand there, for a minute or two, just drinking in the feel of your bones falling back to their pre-ordained order. you listen to the flow of the blood trickling back to the tips of your squeezed-colorless tootsies.

you savor the long-awaited rush of relief. the busting-out-of-whatever-bound-you.

which, pretty much, is how it feels around here. more so than in a very long time. because summer in this old house has arrived with a groundswell of holy hallelujah. boy one is finished with college. boy one is hanging around. boy two just finished with grade school. ergo, this is a summer that comes with a full ladle of finish. and, perhaps, an extra-deep dollop of purest enchantment.

this is, more than any summer that i can recall, one of those moments when the hours make like salvador dali had at them. they warp into stretched-out proportions. they expand, not contract. they breathe. and sometimes, like sunday afternoon when my firstborn and i plopped into old wicker chairs and stayed there for the better part of three hours, they stand perfectly utterly still.

i am, in this seasonal opening act, indulging in time. i am whirling, deep down inside, in the rarest of joy, the feeling that somehow i’ve cupped my hands, sunk them deep in a font of holiest waters, and come up spilling; splattering drop after delectable drop.

i’m not worrying, for heaven’s sake, about what’s for dinner, i’m not looking at clocks. (though i am watching ice boxes magically empty, and i am setting world records for laundry.) i’m feeling the lumpety-thump of my heart when the sound of the footsteps comes down the stairs at times when i’m usually alone and the house is usually silent. like a kid on christmas morning, i’m peeking through cracks in the door at two sleeping boys with no need for hurry.

maybe i love it all the more because i know it won’t last. and not only because i’ve been around the block enough times to know that, soon enough, the days will be so hot and so sticky we’ll all be wishing for igloos. and popsicles will seem a sensible breakfast.

maybe it’s all the sweeter because i never imagined we’d all have one more summer together. i hadn’t pictured four cereal bowls plopped on the table, each one blanketed in warm-from-the-field farmer berries. i hadn’t imagined the windows rolled down in the old station wagon, and me and my boys blaring the radio, wending our way to no particular anywhere. i hadn’t considered boy upon boy curled up on the couch, arms and shoulders entwined, words of brotherly wisdom being imparted in whispers.

for now, it’s one fleeting drink-it-all-in suspension of time.

we’re back to the place, and the moment, when the letting loose rubs you all over. like a terry cloth towel before it’s worn thin. it’s that magical interlude when the season is new, when we’re just on the cusp, and everything is raw and deep and our pores are wide open and we’re guzzling it down. right in here, in this opening act of summer’s production, the season of so few cares, we’re hard at work simply savoring.

and this particular summer it comes with a brand of relish that i’ll never ever forget.

this just might be the summer whose frames i’ll play and replay till the last gasp i breathe on this earth.

well, goodness gracious, i got a wee bit sidetracked — make that a lot sidetracked — here this morning when my ferocious jungle cat (he who seems to be showing off in recent days, proving to any and all that he might be old but he ain’t over yet) carried into the house — into the very middle of the family room’s old persian rug, mind you — a still-wriggling, but-not-for-long critter, clutched in the sharp-toothed grip of said hunter cat. i let out a yelp, as is my usual inclination, and hip-hopped in circles till i got the duo to skitter back through the rip of the old screen door. it set me to quaking for a few minutes there, and then i needed to settle back in to the rhythms above. and, oh goodness, the wonders of summer took on whole new dimensions. 

and in further keeping with this slow-time summer, i’ve just spent the last hour plopped on the post-college kid’s new navajo rug, chatting about his early morning adventures procuring yet another job. normally i fidget till i hit the friday-morning-publish button, but not today. today i know that all’s in due time. and if it unfolds slowly, it’s all the more glorious….

finally, before i go, a most blessed birthday i wish for my beloved friend cecilia and her forever love, gary, who serendipitously and marvelously share the same birthday. this is a big one for ceci, a day of more than usual import. i send love and prayers in double dose.

so before i sign off: what do you savor most at the start of this laid-back season……

welcome to summer

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

summer starts here

summer starts here lemonade

across town, the bell will clang one last time. little hearts will cartwheel inside ribcages that hold it all in — too tight — for most of the year. school buses will rumble down the cobbled streets, well before lunchtime. at every corner, kids will bound off, as if a new lease on life.

it’s that rarest of mornings when the exhale is deep and long and the launch pad for unbroken weeks — or at least a few hours — of hassle-free summer.

for the curly-haired wonder in this old house, it means the stacks of seventh-grade homework will finally dwindle. it means no more 6:30 alarms. no more school buses to be missed. it means, any minute now, the front door will burst open and in will tromp a herd of not-so-little feets. big plans have been hatched for stacks of syrupy pancakes at the diner down the lane, where the screen door slaps and the flat-top sizzles, egg after egg after egg scrambled or fried or flipped over easy.

even for the mama, it’s joy undiluted. that moment when summer begins remains enshrined, tucked high on a shelf, safe in a plexiglass cube. it’s the closest thing to carefree i can conjure. all these years later, i remember rushing into my own growing-up kitchen, end-of-year report card in hand. i remember the certain sparkle in the air. i remember my mama, putting down the day’s errands and chores, just long enough to pile us all in the wagon, and take us out for a drive. out for lunch at a formica-topped counter. not unlike the one my own little fellow will wander off to today.

there aren’t so many carefree moments left anymore. so this one, this one that’s caught in the crosshairs of all the counting down, it’s one worth deep-breathing. it’s a moment to savor. it’s a place to begin the fine art of slowing time. sucking each droplet of wonder and joy out of this one sweet morning that spills into afternoon’s adagio. and might even last till tomorrow.

slowing time, the essence of summer.

here’s a short list of ways i might dip my toe in that most essential seasonal wonder:

take off my shoes. tickle my toes in the grass.

sign up for summer reading at the library. or, pick one fat book that’s long overdue on my i-need-to-read-this list and pledge to turn page after page till i get to the end.

keep close watch on the old rambling roses, on the brink of bloom any hour now.

tuck myself in the old screen porch, and drink in the soundtrack of summer — the baby birds out for their first fledgling flights, the wren who calls out her glories from high in the pines, the roar of the lawn mowers that never go quiet.

pile a saucer with juiciest berries. pop into mouth, one sweet succulent shlurp at a time.

unfurl a beach towel across the grass that is my make-believe beach. slather on sunscreen — mostly because it smells the way summer is meant to smell — and bake there till i can’t stand the heat. that oughta last 10 minutes or less.

consider long tall glasses of glistening waters, aswim with plucked-from-the-garden mint and slices of lemon.

pile the grill with farmer’s market bounty.

ferry dinner out to the summer porch. light candles as the sun goes down. sit there, watching, till the firefly show begins. be sure to invite the neighbors, the ones who turn the simplest joys into most cherished hours.

weigh the virtues of sleeping outside. remember the neighborhood skunk. reconsider.

once, just once, head to the beach with a thermos of coffee, a fat sunday paper, and the promise to practice relaxing.

do not promise to slip into a bathing suit and promenade at the village pool.

when summer rains slide into the forecast, prepare to make the best of it: inhale the raindrops’ pit-a-pat from inside the screened porch, or better yet, slip on rubber galoshes and plop around the puddles, making like you’re seven again.

eat so many fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes you’re bound to sprout a canker sore or two. negligible price for summer’s juiciest trophy.

what will you scribble onto your summertime wonder list? and what’s on your summer reading list?

welcome to summer

a place to curl in summer

summer seat cushion

it goes back, way back to the summers when i’d find a log — a particular log — in the woods across the lane, or nestled along the green pond, so named for the otherworldly martian-colored skin that magically unfurled across the surface overnight when summers turned hot, turned midwest humid. and the overspill pond went from patched with lily pads to bank-to-bank neon green.

i must have discovered early on the gift of making like a toad, and shrinking way down low, inside the swaying fronds of weeping willow, beneath the rustling of the oak-tree giants as they’d shake arthritic, creaky limbs. i might have taken to a particular rock, another favorite perch, down at the woodsy corner where the stream, after thrashing summer storms, practically roared, as rushing water body-blocked against the boulders that dared to interrupt the get-away.

or maybe it was inside the play house, deep in the grove at the back of our yard, where i made believe i was a pioneer, ala laura ingalls wilder, and it was my little house in the big woods. there, i’d arrange and re-arrange the table and two chairs, the upturned coffee can i pretended was a cookstove. i’d sit and look out the paned windows, i’d tuck wildflowers in jars, set the table for my imaginary children, who’d come for victuals when i clanged the dinner bell.

it might be any one of those wonders — or even my cincinnati grandma’s upper porch, an ivy-screened brick-and-limestone veranda overlooking the sloping woods, and the cattails in the distance, where the woods turned boggy. might have been there that i learned to love the nightcall of the wood frog’s love song, or the late summer buzz-saw of cicada.

whatever the source, it’s never gone away, my inclination to hide behind a scrim of leafy green. make like i’m just another butterfly, or lady bug, landed on a broad green pad. and keep watch on the world that doesn’t know i’m watching.

it’s why i lug my books and pens — and pitchers of lemony water, and plates spilling with whatever’s served up in the summer kitchen — out to what we call the summer house, only really that’s the name bequeathed to us when we bought this place, this old shingled house and the gardens that pay no mind to where they’re told to grow. it’s the screened-in porch, tacked onto the garage, for heaven’s sake. but it’s just about my favorite place to sit and watch the summer, frame by frame.

i’ve been calling it “the office,” and it’s been open for business for weeks now. when anyone comes calling, comes to pay a visit, sit a spell, it’s where i take them for a healthy dose of conversation. for a chance to brush up against the magic of a ceiling fan that whirs, and mama wren chastising the cat, or the rare butterfly fluttering by.

it’s a fine thing to have a summer’s perch, a place from which to watch the sun arc across the sky, to spy the wispy bits float across a sunbeam, to catch the glint of the spider’s web in a flash of early morning. to watch the summer theatre unfold unnoticed, according to heaven’s script, without human interjection.

it’s one of the gifts of this old house that i’ve been relishing this week, as i noted on my calendar that a year ago wednesday, i’d felt my heart all but yanked from my chest, as i boarded a plane for boston and left behind this garden in august, this house when autumn’s light was just around the corner.

because i can’t write with all the relish that i like, here on this friday morning when a deadline is staring me in the face, i thought i’d keep up my end of the bargain, by inviting you into the virtual summer house, and sharing a short stack of good reads (plus one “watch”).

here are a few fine things i’ve stumbled upon this week…rifle through the stack, and see if any float your boat…

holland carter’s magnificent essay in the new york times on how a love of poetry led to a love of art…

a little-known letter from e.b. white on why he wrote charlotte’s web (found in slate)…

watch this: one dream, the trailer for a new documentary telling the behind-the-scenes story of martin luther king’s “i have a dream speech,” a new endeavor from red border films, a project from time magazine..

and finally, from close to home, my dear friend and lifemate, blair kamin, launched his e-book on the gates of harvard yard this week, and you can get a peek here (the book itself can only be viewed on iPad, which i don’t have…..) or, even better, a wonderful Q & A here….

that oughta keep you busy, wherever it is you squat in summer…..

what’s your favorite summer perch, now or long-ago???

tucking away the season past

i didn’t stir at 4:04 this morning, when summer tiptoed through the dark, took to the wings, as her sister autumn crept in, spread herself about the stage. rearranged the scene, scattered burnt-edge colors–amber, molasses, persimmon, pomegranate. the words themselves make me swoon, make my knees near buckle. i am a child of the autumn. always have been. always will be.

the itch of woolen sweaters up against my dry irish skin. the crunch of leaves beneath my soles, should i be so blessed to be in the woods. the delight of pumpkins tucked in coves around the house, and in the garden, too, as it begins to nod off, as its long winter’s nap is not too far away.

but this year, as i bid goodbye to the summer that’s just left, i need to bend my knee, to open wide my heart once more, to whisper deepest thank you.

they write songs about summer. but i have never lived one of those before. while the rest of the world rode in topless cars, along sandy beaches, strung together in bikinis, i was likely home. working at a hospital. swimming laps in a sensible black stretchy suit. thinking hard about things.

carefree never came my way. the stanzas of the songs did not belong to me.

until this summer past.

oh, fear not. there were no bikinis at my house. no topless cars.

only an old clunky station wagon, one with a passenger side door that barely closes. and a hatch in back that will not budge. and odd parts under the dash that seem to keep raining down on my driving feet.

but the summer just past was the most delicious i have ever known. if it was a tub of 200-percent butterfat gelato, i would have tucked it in the deep freeze, so i could take it out and lick it now and then. i’d make it last nearly as long as i’ve saved the slice of frozen wedding cake, now 20 years and counting.

yes, this summer past was rare, was choice, was morsel. and i knew it from the start. i knew it through and through.

it was the summer of no demands. no schedules. no camp tuition fees (save for three days here and there for a boy who lives to dribble).

i didn’t pack a lunch. didn’t drive in carpools.

i just perched, like mama hen, upon my roost, and watched my chicks nibble the day away. i swear i heard the sound of clucking, that contented purr that comes from feathered places.

indeed, and surely, it was the last summer my firstborn called this old house home. and my little one, who’s going nowhere soon, flowed right along, savoring the days that started when they chose to, ended just the same.

we did well, the boys and i, with no real decisions for the day. we partook of summer’s lazy streak. we ate late, by candlelight, in the old screen porch. we set out for strolls as lights in houses down the block turned off one by one.
we were on summer time. we were on high-volume savor.

i knew, deep inside and forever, that something rare was in my hand. something i would never have again.

i had my boys nearby. and along the way, somewhere in the thick of mothering, i had discovered my deepest purest bliss in the heart of that equation.

when you are holding something that you’ve wished for forever, when you are cupping it, sacred, in your palms, you know it through and through.

it’s no accident. and it won’t last forever.

so you hold it, and you marvel. you memorize the way the light slants through. you commit the taste to braincells deep inside.

you are, if you’re paying attention, watching the cement dry, all around the joyful string of days, the blessing of this time entwined.

i have learned, through years, to live on two tracks. i know the trick of slipping over my own shoulder, keeping watch on scenes, as they play out in real time.

it is, perhaps, the odd gift my papa once noticed, once spoke of, oddly. “you have a real sense of history,” he told me long ago. and i have come to know that my papa knew the essence.

i do live with one eye on the action, another on the meaning of it all.

and this summer past, i knew that all that mattered had been bundled into one glorious string of days and joys and conversations that did not end till eyes began to flutter.

i lived for the sound of the front door creaking open, knowing that in rushed another round of late-night stories. i brimmed when i heard the morning’s first footsteps over head, realizing i was about to be greeted by a curly-headed, sleepy-eyed boy, begging for another round of flapjacks off the griddle.

it was a holy blast of summer. it offered up all that the season of sun and sweetness has to give.

we licked our plates, and drained the glass.

it’s slipped away now. but not before i’ve bent my knee, and whispered thank you to the heavens.

i now know the taste of summer at its dreamy best. and i’ll not forget the glory.

what summer would you pick as the one you’ll not forget? and are you ready for the glories of the autumn?

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?

a sigh like no other

i feel it from deep down inside my lungs. from the bottom of my rapid-beating heart. from the tips of all my limbs. i think i even feel it from my bum.

the sigh of not just summer’s launch, but a sigh that’s never been.

here we are, the clock ticking toward the holy hour when the school bell will last clang, when my fourth grader will leave his little school, the high schooler already no longer a high schooler.

these are the first few hours of pure summer oxygen. when all the cares, at last, are gone. when the summer lies ahead, no need to rush from bed in mornings, no need to turn out lights at 9 or even 10 at night. no need, gosh darn it, to stir and cook and put square meals on plates. we can choose, if we want, to slice a watermelon and call it dinner.

summer is the season of so many choices.

and this summer, this holy blessed summer, is the summer in which i can chart–as if a meteorologist tracking storms or humidity–the pressure lifting like a swiftly-rising puffy cloud, the pressure evaporated, gone.

no college essays due. no dabbling with the SAT study guide. no memorizing state capitals and abbreviations. (it’s darn-near comic, often here, having two boys with feet so far apart, one in elementary world and the other all the way to college.)

and this holy blessed summer, i don’t even have to worry about the bus for camp racing by before we’re ready. camp at our house this summer consists of a company of two: one’s the counselor, one’s the camper.

my college-bound boy will spend the summer days, or at least my work days, on adventures with his little bro. they’ve picked a town-and-country theme (or at least the older one picked it, the little one isn’t big on any theme that’s absent a ball and ballfield). the big boy will teach the little one all the things a boy should know: how to bait a fish hook, how to use a compass, how to travel on the “el” train. he’ll teach him how to cook a hot dog on a stick. and, perhaps, how to bench press, oh, 30 pounds.

i had no forms to fill out for this summer. no tetanus shots come due.

i might as well toss all alarm clocks. and wrist watches while we’re at it.

we are running without rigors of where to be when.

we are, for the first and perhaps the last time, this summer exploring what it means to be without a long list of must-get-dones.

we are letting brothers be brothers. we are letting boys be boys.

we are, so help me, going barefoot. making ice cream. picking berries. watching clouds go passing by.

we’ve earned this respite from the madness. and i am claiming every ounce of it.

so many saturday mornings we’ve been jarred awake by alarms telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we must be dressed, be out the door.

i’ve whispered, sighed, moaned, “this is crazy, this is no way to live.” as i’ve watched myself mad-dash from here to there to everywhere.

and this is the summer when the billboard in my head reads one simple word: SAVOR.

savor slumped shoulders, the load finally slid off, the back-tightening worries, gone.

savor screen door slapping. savor breeze blowing through the porch. savor fireflies. savor whispers on the front stoop till the moon is high above.

savor being together with both boys, the heartbeats of my life, my loves.

savor oars swooshing through the water. savor sand between the toes. savor tomatoes sliced and salted. savor peach juice dripping down my chin.

savor all it took to get us here. savor that we’ve made it. savor two boys who both consider it a blessing to spend the summer bumming ‘round together.

savor nights without homework, and mornings without racing, rushing, panting, shrieking.

savor every blessed drop.

it’s time to sigh the deepest sigh. it won’t last forever.

and just how do you plan to spend your summer’s vacation? what’s on your wish list of summer joys?

my little one (up above) asked last night if he got “special breakfast” since it was the last day of school. why, of course. out came the red “you are special today” plate, and the turkey bacon and the pancakes with sliced peaches and maple syrup. that little guy is playing in the little league world series this weekend. game one’s tonight, unless the rains don’t stop. games two and three come saturday and sunday, all three played out in an idyllic little ballpark here in town, a place that’s a throwback in time, with dugouts and a flagpole and a snack shack where hot dogs are $1.25, and rice krispie treats are just a quarter, and brownies too, all made by a woman with her hair twisted in a bun atop her head, a woman named bonnie who hovers over the place as if a mother hen. it’s a place with an old-time scoreboard just like the one at wrigley field, with tin numbered squares, carted out beyond the cyclone fence by little kids pulling a red radio flyer wagon, who try inning after inning to keep track of all the runs. not a bad way to start the summer, playing it like a scene from some old-fashioned movie, kids on a playlot, slugging, sliding, pitching, catching for the world series trophy. we got lucky this year, and my little slugger found himself on a team with true all-stars, the kinda kids whose names will be whispered around town for years to come. we are going along for the ride. and some ride it is…..some start to summer, indeed.

thumb-on-the-hose therapy

likely, it’s linked back to some prehistoric inclination toward splashing under the waterfall. certainly it’s among the earliest playthings of any young babe afloat in the sink. i’ve seen many a toddler get lost in the gee-whizardry of making a fountain out of a faucet, the plain old kitchen-sink kind, the kind that when blocked with a thumb sends water arcing every which way, drenching the whole darn countertop and half the floor besides.

so it is with human thumbs and narrow spouts for water: they’re inseparable. you can’t keep from playing.
and so it was that i found myself out not-stopping this morn.

i’d only meant to crank the spigot, drop down the snake of a hose, let the wide-open O dribble and drool for awhile, fill up the gullet of all those poor thirsty things in my over-parched garden.

but then, well, the whoosh of the water wooed me, pulled me in, wouldn’t let me go, held me in a waterlogged trance.

it was just after dawn, and the day ahead promised to pull me every which way (much like the geysers of water), and to tell the truth, i had no sensible reason to be cooling my thumbs playing with the hose.

but there i was: unable to stop.

i was putting about, offering a quick dribble here, a long drink there, making like some sort of bar maid pulling back on the spout of the keg, filling the mouths of my in-need-of-a-tall-one stool-spanning patrons.

and that’s when i felt it: the whole gritty grime of the long jumbled week, just rinsing away.

the more i played with the hose, the lighter i felt.

there is nothing, i’d like to suggest, more soothing for a parched tattered soul than to while away the morning, at play with the hose. thumb on the spout, preferred.

oh, it had been a week all right. let’s see where shall we start: how bout tuesday? the day my tall fellow’s back went kerpluey (or splat; i can’t say as i heard the precise mechanical breakdown, all i heard was the odd cry of my name, the beckoning from above, shortly after dawn, just as i was about to scurry out the door to the worktrain, and, after some searching about, i discovered the long, lanky fellow quite flat on the floor).

egad. but that’s merely the start.

later that very day, just as dusk set in on a faraway riverbank, the young rower of mine called to say he’d been pickpocketed, a most unfortunate phone call that shattered the already-not-so-calm evening.

egad. just warming up here.

by next day, a fine locksmith was making our acquaintance, as he went about the business of changing eight locks to keep the tomfoolers away. (the pickpockets snatched the housekey along with the few dollar bills.)

oh, and then did i mention a house filled with houseguests? why, yes. a fine old gradeschool friend of said flat-on-his-back fellow arrived with his flock just after the locksmith let himself out. (might i add that a full seven of us shared one wee bath with a spritzy ol’ shower, for two nights and three days. rub-a-dub-dub. hmm, perhaps i should have hauled in the hose….or insisted on showers out back by the spigot…why in the world wasn’t i thinking?)

oh, it was a week all right. a week that had me driving hither and yon, once with a back patient supine in the flat back of the wagon. another time, rescuing the freshly wallet-less rower not far from the scene of the crime.

and then there was the unexpected jaunt to the airport to pick up what was left of said wallet; found not long after pickpocketing, it turned out, tossed aside on a runaway el train, one that pulled to a stop at the airport, where the wallet was scooped up and locked in a safe, there at the end of the line, till i could drive out to claim it.

which brings us, at last, to the hose, and the dawn of another hot sauna day, and the chilled spilling waters that lulled me away to a faraway place, the land of the tranquil, the fiefdom of the wholly un-frazzled.

it’s a knack i believe i picked up via pure DNA. my mama, she wields quite a hose, is armed with a thumb that’s a heck of a squirter; broad and flat, it gets right down to business.

fact is, i’m third-generation thumber. i needn’t even close my eyelids to see my grandma lucille in her fine summer frock, and her heels, out thumbing the hose all over her beds.

i’ve heard it said that the thumb and the hose are the tightest pair a gardener might ever employ.

beats any spigot or sprinkler. wallops a watering can.

why, with your thumb you can aim this way or that. you can spray. you can spritz.

you can get up close to the delicate fronds of the fern, or pour forth on the trunk of a maple.

you can steer clear of the bee, play chase with the robins.

you can get lost in all the water games. forget that you’d wandered into the garden loaded down with a week’s worth of worry and grit.

it’s what happened to me just hours ago, when i set forth with my hose and my thumbs, the two of ‘em.

and now, at the close of a long hot string of worrisome. wearisome days, my garden is humming, and so are me and those thumbs.

i barely had three seconds to write today, and likely it shows. oh well. so much for those fine-laid plans. tis summer. barely a minute to breathe.
anyone else live to splash in the water???