All of a Sudden: Mid-August

Leaves in the grass

I wake to the rattle of the spare room door. The wind, blowing in through the screened window, is shaking it. And a hard rain is driving down: the outdoor world a cacophony of discordant sounds—pelting and blowing and shaking.

I stumble over to prop the spare room’s door open. Then I crawl back into bed, pull the sheet up to my chin, and drift back off to sleep, oddly lulled by the dissonance.

In the morning, I slip my old shoes on and go outside. The grass is beaded with silver dew, and the little tree, the one by the kitchen window, has lost many of its leaves, pounded off by that insistent rain. They lay curled on the ground; they are golden and brown. They are harbingers of autumn.

It is August, the eighth month—the august month of portent and change.

*************

The library calls; the book I’ve requested is waiting for me. So Jim and I take an afternoon swing over, and, while he pores through the DVD’s, I take Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to a table. This is an old, old book, with a third copyright date of 1968. There’s still a pocket in the front to hold a library card, and stamped dates march up and down the page. The oldest reads “FEB 79,” and it was taken out many times after that, too.

I flip to the first page of text and read, “It was a quiet morning…You had only to lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.” And I get to know Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, whose summer vacation is just beginning.

The novel takes place in 1928, but it describes a universal whoosh of “Welcome, Summer!” I felt it, this year, the first time I sat with my coffee at the wobbly patio table—maybe late in May—and realized the summer was opening up before me. There was so much I wanted to do, so many people to connect with. There were places to visit, meals to cook, and chronicles to write.

I gave myself up to that feeling of endless summer, and I  plunged: I did many of the things and saw many of the people. I visited some of the places, and I chronicled a tale or two.

And then, slick and sly, the pedestal whipped into a sudden turn, whirled me around a bend, and I looked straight into the eyes of August. Mid-August: that corner season.

August stared me down.

“Things are changing,” it said to me, and it turned its back and marched on.

Endless summer, I knew in that moment, had ended.

******************

August is rain. I open the weather app on my phone. Three of the next six days have thundercloud icons; two show suns peeking behind puffy cumulous-nimbuses. Only one day promises a clear sky and a pleasant temp.

It has rained almost every day this week; the crab grass which suddenly appeared this summer is tall and taunting.

I need to mow.

I need to spray a new coat of blacking on the metal patio chairs.

I need to hunker down and dig up the grass that is inching inward, overtaking the disappearing pavers that lead to the alley out back.

I plan to do all that in that one sunny day, and bowing to the season, start prepping the dining room to paint. August means working inside.

A memory pops up: my mother, keening at the window as rain streaks down the screen.

“It always rains on your vacation,” she says to my father.

My father manages my brothers’ little league team. Their season goes from May until July—longer if they make the play-offs, and they often do. There is no point, my father says, in taking time off until baseball season is over.

So August is vacation time, and we talk about trips to the lake and marathon backyard wiffle ball games. My father plans to paint the trim and change the oil and fix a couple of electrical things, outside.

But, my mother is right: it is August, and it always rains. My father sighs, and shrugs, and lights a cigarette. He turns a page of the newspaper in the quiet house.

And the rain pounds down.

***************

The newspaper is full of county fair news. The fair starts on Sunday, and, for 4-H kids throughout the county, a long year’s work is coming to its culmination. Fair week is competition week—kids will show their chickens and sheep, their goats and hogs and cows. They will shampoo and comb and coax; they will lead and prompt and try not to stumble. Solemn judges will watch and inspect and hand out ribbons and “master showman” honors.

People will bid on the livestock. Our butcher shop may have a sign: We purchased the best-of-show steer from Joey Shlagelholdt!

The winning kids’ hearts will leap—joy and pride, and sorrow, too, as they groom and stroke that winning creature one last time—preparing for the hand-off, knowing what it means.

In the buildings, other judges study handmade goods. They gently finger soft, knitted blankets, kneel down to peer at hand-painted pictures. They examine fragile antiques and vast collections. Some lucky judges slice into tall cakes on milk glass pedestals, cut into sugar crusted pies that ooze blueberry syrup.  Ribbons appear—yellow, red, and the royal blue ones. Ribbons that say, “Best of Show.”

The air is rich with steamy, fragrant, scents—Italian sausage, peppers and onions. Yeasty, cinnamon-y, fried dough.

The fair is the midway, too—the clash and grind of the rides, the whirling and spinning and laughter and screams. The people who travel with the fair seem rootless, disconnected; they open a curtain to let us look quickly into a different world, a mobile, ever-changing one. They carry a scent of the exotic, a little glint of danger. Middle school kids crowd the rides, in love with the mystery and their own daring.

August is the blatting of the loud-speaker, the harmonies of Montgomery Gentry and Jo Dee Messina, the free stickers at the political parties’ booths.  August is the county fair.

**********************

I need, I decide, a cooking day. One late morning, I buy two huge packages of ground chuck at the little supermarket—such a great deal, and so many things we can do with it! After lunch I dig out recipes—“Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs,” “Best Ever Meat Loaf,”—and I pull the big blue polka dot pasta bowl down from atop the cupboard. I make bread crumbs in the food processor: I measure milk and grated cheese and I crack eggs. I slide my wedding ring off and put it on the window sill, and I splay my fingers. I plunge my hands, wincing, into the cold, wet, eggy mess.

There is no other way to mix the meatballs.

I shape a tray full of big, bold meatballs for spaghetti. I make a tin of tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

While they roast in the oven, I pat meatloaf into pans, shape fat, hearty burgers, and stuff the remaining two pounds of meat into Tupperware. I carry a wobbling tower of packages to the chest freezer and pack them in.

When the meatballs are done, I pack them up and let them cool, and I think it’s a shame to waste an already heated oven.

I pull out dark brown sugar and dark and milk chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and butter, vanilla, and baking powder. I mix up a batch of cookies, drop lumpy balls onto cookie sheets, read a friendly novel while they bake.

I spatula golden, brown-edged cookies onto the broad old metal pizza pan, and when they are cooled, I stack them in my two plaid cookie jars.

It is August, and something deep within calls me to fill the larder, to preserve the fruits—to prepare for the darker days ahead.

*************************

I sit next to a solemn young Boy Scout at a board meeting; he must attend, for a badge, a public forum where differing opinions may be heard. He must write up a detailed report. He opens his notebook, writes, “Notes” at the top of the page, and neatly numbers down the margin.

“When does school start?” I ask him, not thinking, and his face darkens.

“Some day next WEEK,” he mutters, and I see that the joy of his endless summer has begun to leech away.

It always seems early, the mid-August back to school here in Ohio. It dazzled me, when we first moved here, to hear people say, on July Fourth, “Ah, summer’s almost over already!”

“What do you MEAN?” I wanted to chivvy them. “Summer’s not over until Labor Day.”

But, calendar be damned, summer ends when teachers report back for Preparation Days, when the football teams trot out onto the field and sully their pristine leggings with grass-stains, when the cross-country runners span out over the edge of the highway—fleet to fledgling,–and when the kids go back to school.

So summer ends, here, in August. Summer, as I thoughtlessly reminded my young colleague at the meeting, ends next week.

******************

I come home from another meeting to find packages on the front steps—new black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a floaty black top. Back to school clothes, for me, for the first time in several years. This Fall, before the end of August, I will be back in the classroom, teaching at two different colleges, trying to rub the love of words into a hot incense between my palms…and then, opening my hands, I will puff, trying to diffuse at least a little, tentative breath of that heady brew into my students’ beings.

I know I won’t always be successful, but sometimes—oh, sometimes—those tendrils reach out and find a welcome.

And I am caught in the excitement of preparation, in what some of my colleagues over the years have called Syllabus Hell, a time of sitting with the calendar and looking at the assignments, ticking off the holidays and fitting the semester’s expectations into a neatly plotted chart. A time to craft and tweak assignments to elicit, if not outright excitement, then thought and reaction and a spill of words onto a page. Or many pages.

My inner child geek still lives on, loving the smell of new loose-leaf paper and the first bloopy scrawl from a virgin ballpoint pen, and the fun of planning the term.

And this year, post-retirement, I am reporting to a smart young professional, at one of my schools, who used to work with me—who has graduated from adjunct to full-time faculty, to program coordinator, and now to the overseer of adjunct faculty at a different college entirely. Creative, compassionate, energetic, she embraces the role, and I sit across the desk from her and sign the forms she passes my way and accept the textbooks she hands me.

I am retired and teaching because I want to. I am retired, and I get to exult in the trajectory of people I’ve mentored who go on to do wonderfully unexpected things.

August is a time of year, but I realize it is a time of life, too.

**************

I read my Bradbury and mourn for that endless summer feeling, but a little fizz of excitement bubbles, too: new students, cooler nights, celebrations. I will go out and buy new pens and spiral notebooks; I will get a pair of sensibly stylish black shoes. I’ll goad the boyos into an autumn wardrobe contemplation, and we’ll think about, maybe, an October adventure.

There are things to be done and things to be planned, and the last, tastiest dregs of summer to be shaken from the bottle, mixed up with clear, cold water, and enjoyed.

It is August, with that clear-cut sense of what is ending, and the mysterious promise of what might be about to begin.

 

 

 

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Between Times

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Mark fills a huge coffee mug with kitty kibble, and he pours filtered water into a big glass, and, just as dusk sets in, he walks across the street for the feeding of the cats. These are the cats we’d thought were taken care of; but, after the dust settled, and after their people finally, irrevocably, moved away, it became clear that the cats were living under the front slab at the empty house.

Mark, who would tell you he’s not a cat person,–who might even tell you he hates the damned things,–feeds the cats every night. There are three of them: a big gray-striped cat, a small gray-striped cat, and a black cat with a Roman collar. When they see Mark they gather on the cement block stoop, and they sing to him. The little one runs across the street to meet him, dances between his legs.

The clerical cat has bulging sides; we think it may be a mommy-to-be.

A ‘For Sale’ sign went up in front of the house after the former neighbors were well and truly gone. There was a brisk flow of people in, looking; we got to know the realtor’s car. But early this week, the realtor met some people in front of the house. There was a great flurry of hand shaking, and the realtor took the ‘For Sale’ sign with her when she left.

Now the same two cars have been at the house each day. There is a lean and grizzled-looking older man who drives the smaller car; there are two woman, both plump and blonde and pretty, maybe a mom and daughter, who arrive in the other.

“What about the cats?” Mark and I ask each other, worried. I take the dog for a walk, and the women pull up. I hear one of them saying, “Come here! Come here, buddy!” and making clicking noises, inviting noises, with her tongue. Maybe they’ll adopt those critters.

But when they leave at the end of the day, the cats are there and hungry. Mark slips across the street under cover of darkness and fills the bowls that still sit on the slab.

Will the new owners take the cats on as pets? Will they appreciate the fact that we—the whole neighborhood ‘we’–have nurtured those cats through a difficult winter, making sure they are fed and warm, or will they wish we’d found a different solution?

What will happen to the cats?

There is no way, right now, to know. When the people are well and truly in, we can wander across, make their acquaintance, find out their feelings about those feline residents. Right now, we simmer, and surreptitiously ferry cat food across the street.

It’s a between-time; there is nothing we can do but wait and see.

***********

In the mornings, there is bird song, bright and sharp and clear; single notes break the silence as the ebony sky grays, and, swiftly, more join in. There’s a cacophony, a full-throated chorus.

Spring is here, we think, and it’s a joyous thought after a rugged winter.

The weather warms, and Mark and Jim break out the cargo shorts. Shy crocuses shiver up between clumps of grass. The daffodils push up in the front yard; buds appear, nodding like sleepy heads.

And then the temperature plunges and robins hop through snowy yards. We huddle by the fireplace with our books at night, reconciled to the return of the frigid air. It’s not really winter, but it’s not yet spring either. It’s a between time. Anything can happen, weather-wise, and we can’t move forward with spring things until this interim is over.

**********

After Christmas, Jim takes a deep breath and makes a decision. He is going back to school, pursuing his bachelor’s degree, designing a program that will help him work at a library. He emails his college of choice, makes an appointment, meets with an advisor. The advisor sends him home with a list of things to do, and Jim sets to work, requesting transcripts, filling in forms. He gets everything done and he waits.

Then, last week, good news arrives: he is accepted into a specialized studies program. He can begin taking courses this summer. We cheer; we high-five. Jim starts planning.

Then he realizes he has three months to wait.

It’s a between time. Jim has lots to look forward to, but he can’t start for a while yet. Right now, it’s a waiting game.

***************

I’m with Goethe—whatever it is, I think, begin it. I am blunt and direct, and I don’t like waiting.

So when a problem sprouts, I want to take a sledge hammer and pound it into oblivion. What is the point of letting it sit there; why on earth should we tippy-toe around it? Slam that thing back down to earth.

But sometimes God or nature or the universe, or whatever power one invokes, puts the brakes on. Right now, she whispers, right now, you need to wait.

Wait! Wait! I don’t want to wait. I want to get it out in the open, survey it under the bright sun, figure it out.

I do not like between times.

And so maybe I need to embrace them, relax into them, figure out the wisdom of this time that sits like an airlock between one decisive period and another. Maybe I can stock up on the oxygen I’ll need for the next challenge. Maybe I need to look around and make sure my resources are gathered, that I have the tools I need to do the work ahead.

Maybe I need to take a deep breath and just relax and accept the interlude.

Maybe I need to realize I am not always in control of what happens next.

*****************

This morning, James and I took a road trip to a favorite library, 50 miles away. The snow had mostly melted—just ragged little tufts left in the onion grass sprouting on the lawn. They looked like scraps of cotton. The sun was out; a few clouds (they looked like ragged cotton wisps, too) scudded across a blue, blue sky.

We drove down Route 146. The lake was full on one side; we could see it through the bare-branched trees. It will be hidden in a month or two when the trees are fully leafed. I drove and looked at the trees, thinking it felt as though they were holding their collective breath. There’s a haze of buds on all the branches, a shimmer of almost-there green or redness. But the branches are like knobby fingers, tightly extended. Not yet, not yet, they’re saying.

We drove past meadows that are sere and brown and seemingly lifeless. Not winter, not spring; almost, I thought, a time devoid.

“Look at the vultures,” I said to Jim,–conjuring images of lifeless prey–and we both peered up through the windshield. The big birds swooped and soared, black wings arced.

“Wait,” said Jim. “Look at that one. It’s got a white head.”

There was nothing behind us. I pulled the car over, and we craned our necks, tracking the white head, close enough to see the cruel curved beak, watching the eagle curve and loop on the wind.  Maybe, I think, a sight we wouldn’t have seen when the trees were green and little wildlife were running through hidden fields, enticed by the feeling of invisibility among the tall grasses, seduced by the warmth of a springtime sun.

Strong and sure and joyful, the eagle soared away. I pulled the car back out onto the highway, and we resumed our road trip.

But—an eagle, I thought. An eagle in the between time. There’s a message there, for sure.

Like finding the wisdom of between times, I just have to figure out what the message is.