Finally: An Outsider, Again

A book, outside.jpg

A breeze touches my cheek, and I put down my book and listen.

A shrilling up-swells, a screeching of cicada reminiscent of early summer’s seventeen year infestation–but these must be the ordinary garden variety of the insect, not a plague.  From across the street and over the hill comes the WAHwahWAHWAHWAH of a Charlie Brown-grown-up voice. The announcer at the Smiling Goat is bringing on the rock band. Crowd noise tinsels and thrums, and the bass pounds hard in the summer night, back-beating a song I cannot discern.

Cars swish by on still wet streets–it rained once, twice, three times today. Once, the sky converged into darkness and hail preceded pounding rain and the little dog cowered in her corner refuge by the basement door. It was serious weather, frightening.  Sad to leave the trembling dog alone, we switched on lights and turned the TV on to PBS–a constant undercurrent of conversation–when we left for Jim’s appointment in Columbus. But by the time we’d had our pizza and come home, the urgency had resolved, and the rain had pounded away much of the humidity. The dog was glad to see us and happy to run outside.

Now birds call and respond calmly; the pounding rain has left them settled, too.  And the air is cool and pleasant–the first real, natural spot of cool after a week of blistering humidity.

I have vowed, this summer, to spend the end of each day–that thin slice of time after the dinner is cleared away and the dishes done, bills paid, calls returned, outfit for the next day sorted and ironed, the moments the sky sucks in a breath before darkening–outside on the old brick patio behind the house.  I will take my book and I will remember what it is like to rejoice in summer and the chance just to be, outside.

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The last time I remember living without air conditioning was the day we moved into the mobile home that was our haven during Mark’s law school years. We convoyed up to the trailer park in the late afternoon of the hottest day of the summer–97 degrees, high humidity; somehow, among the three of us, we needed to unload a UHaul’s worth of household into that trailer.  Thank God, we said, and it wasn’t just a saying, thank GOD, we’ve got central air.

We unlocked the metal doors of our new home and creaked open the windows to let the mustiness escape, and Mark went in and turned the central air on.  A blast of cold air jittered out, and then the machine’s whirring shuddered to a stop.

It never ran again. We learned, on that interminable, sweat-soaked day, just how hot a rectangular metal building sitting in full sun can grow.  We finally quit lifting, unpacking, organizing, when it grew dark, and we threw blankets on the living room floor, turned on a fan, and slept, exhausted and fitful. And the next morning, we went to Lowe’s and bought four window units that worked for the rest of the hot season, and for the whole of our stay in that mobile home, efficiently chilling those 720 square feet.

The houses we’ve lived in since then have working central air.  The weather gets warm and we set the dial to automatic, and all summer long–parts of spring and fall, too–it chugs into life whenever the house even threatens to get hot.

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But.

There was a time when the warm weather was a friend, and its coming something to be celebrated.  The day–oh, that wonderful day–when the mother pursed her lips and deemed that, yes, you could go outside without a jacket–that was the day the warm weather season began.  The warm weather season was like a big pool of adventure, and I learned to throw myself into it, finally, after years of hearing this:

Get your nose out of that book and play outside!

I DID like to play outside.  I liked the endless games of kickball and wiffleball that wore our backyard grass down to hard dirt, laying bare the batter’s box, the pitcher’s mound, the base paths.  I liked to kick the ball and hit the ball; I was not so good at catching or throwing.  In today’s more specific world, I’d be a designated hitter.  Then, I was both gift and liability.  Someone was always assigned to run over and cover my right field area in the rare event a hit came my way.

That was okay; the standing and watching, throwing in an occasional encouraging yell, and then wandering in, when the three outs had been achieved, to another round of at bats–that oddly welcome vacuum of time was a joy in itself.

There was a seasonal right of passage in those days called ‘taking down the storm windows.’  (It reversed itself each fall, when the ‘putting up’ occurred.) Dad would get out the big extension ladder and circumnavigate the house, unscrewing and lifting off the heavy wood and glass winter windows.  He’d take them down and wash them, and he’d put away in the loft of the old garage.

Then he’d hose down the screens; when they were dry, he’d drag them up the ladder, one by one. It frightened me to watch him, far above, using both hands to fit the screen window into its space.  He was surefooted and unfazed by the height, but I got dizzy just watching and had to retreat–maybe to the cool of the porch and the call of my book.

But when he was done, fresh air began to swirl through the house, and a sense of openness and possibility prevailed.

In summer, friends would come over to play; for a brief period, three of us girls, in a first religious fervor, decided to build a mock altar in the little lot behind the garage.  We gathered glass jars and old plates and stones and leaves and pretended we were Catholic priests saying Mass and distributing communion.  It was the 1960’s; one of our righteous altar-boy brothers quickly impressed upon us how blasphemous we were being–women at the altar, indeed.

We went on to other games, diligently trying to weave grass mats for our Swiss Family Robinson-style hideaway on a dry rise we called The Island behind the seed company. What if, we thought, we washed up on an uncharted island and had to start life from scratch?  We gathered essential gear from throwaways, brought cookies out in paper bags to sustain us, arranged and re-arranged our living quarters, and defended ourselves against vicious fictional animals and real, live, intruding boys.

Night-time was tag-time: freeze tag, or sometimes my absolute favorite, flashlight tag.  My uncle might bring a carload of cousins over, probably shooed off by my exhausted, work-weary aunt. It was such a sweet treat to be allowed out after dark;  the sound of child voices calling was my dotted line to the safe brightness of the protected world of grownups inside.  Hiding behind the rosebushes, up against the rough wooden shingles of the porch on a summer night, the air beginning, abruptly, to cool–oh, there was mystery and promise in that outdoor kind of life.

We had no electric fans.  We slept with windows open, positioning ourselves to catch a breeze. I couldn’t bear to sleep without some kind of covering, kicking off everything but the top sheet, pulling that up to my chin and tossing. Waking in the morning to a tangle of damp fabric and a new, hot day.

Only rare buildings in those days (schools were not among them, up north where I lived) were air-conditioned: some, but by no means all, stores, restaurants, doctor’s and government offices.  Going into that chill air was a treat, but we all somehow felt that living in it would be wrong, effete, an admission of a serious weakness.

Instead, we clamored to go swimming at the big sandy Lake Erie beach in the next city over, and later, at the newly built community pool.  We could stay in the water indefinitely, until our lips were blue and our skin was rough with goose bumps, and we would deny that we were cold or tired or ready to come out.

On swimming days, the cool stayed with me, a sense memory coating my entire skin, and sleeping came easily.  Swimming was the ultimate perk of being able to be outdoors, free, in the warm weather months.

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Not so long ago I visited friends who live near that same lake.  They had no air conditioning.  So I rediscovered the strategic action of positioning a box fan for maximum effect; I recalled the Velcro separation of bare, sweaty skin from wood made sticky by humidity.  I remembered the joy of finding the breeze, for there always is at least a faint one, when sitting or walking outside.  The air feels dense and weighted and oppressive, and then…I become aware of a curling breath that makes it all good, all bearable, all desirable, even.

I remembered how good it was to NOT live in constant air conditioning, to breathe the warm, laden air of summer.

And we went swimming; we went to the community pool in the late afternoon when anyone under the age of 16 was banished for an hour.  Harried mothers packed their swimmers off to home and dinner–many would return after the exile was over,–and the elders converged. Very few people under the age of forty remained, and the rest of us–ladies of a certain age with bathing suits that resembled modest little granny dresses; gentlemen in various guises of swimsuits, some (and we averted our eyes) rocking out their Speedos at age 75 or so–eased ourselves into the water. We swam-walked gently through the crystal water, talking and sharing, arms delineating watery pathways, fingers growing pruney.

It was bliss, childhood joy remembered, and we squeezed every ounce of the special coolness out of that hour, then retreated to the shade and an Adirondack chair’s comfort when the elder hour ended and youth began to seep back in.  Cracking open books, letting the gently settling evening breezes waft over still wet skin–this was the treasure of summer days I’d forgotten all about.

I’d forgotten the outdoor joy of summer, traded it in for the easy–for the ENTITLED, nasty, apt word–life of a chill-house flower living in central air.

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So, I decided, I need to carve out an outdoor space of time, each day. I need to remember that being outside is joy and not burden.  I needed to stop scurrying, at least for a little patch of time each day, from air conditioned work to air conditioned car to air conditioned house.

So I nudge the little dog out after dinner, and we wander up the street and up the hill by the old folks’ home, under the shade of the big trees where the grass, even after a harsh and dry July, is still lush and green. The air feels damp and heavy, but as we walk, we feel the eddies and the swirls; coolness comes to find us.

And then I take the dog home and grab my book and head back out for a thirty minute respite. In the absence of the central air white noise, I notice sounds and see neighbors out to  weed and water, and I hear the chug and thrum of ordinary outdoor life. Rabbits and squirrels and an occasional sleek black mole skitter, hop, and tremble; insects come to explore this new large being. A deer couple often tiptoes into the yard in search of that night’s bed and gives me disapproving, disappointed looks.

I get some reading done, but what I’m really doing is recalibrating, adjusting my body to the realities of the season, finding nature’s comforts and solutions by abandoning, for a little bit, man’s.

Oh, I am no purist.  You know that I will slip back into the house as the darkness obscures the printed page.  I’ll bake cupcakes in a kitchen cooled by central air; I’ll sleep, sheet still pulled up to my chin, under the gentle ruffling of a ceiling fan stirring that air conditioned air around us.

But just for that little window of time, I’ll remember.

This is why we looked forward, so avidly, to summer.

This is how we rewarded ourselves on humid, hard-working days.

This is when our neighbors emerged and we re-connected, our pale, winter selves glorying in the short-sleeved sunny days.

For just a little bit of every busy day, on the patio on fair days, on the little covered porch when it rains, I will link my arms with nature’s and realize its hot weather gifts.  I’ll raise my face from my book and let the small breezes buffet it; I’ll shift to find the cooling space.  I’ll read, and I’ll listen.  For a little pocket of day, I’ll be an outsider again, remembering, finally, just why that feels so good.

Summer Possibles

The door to summer opens, and letters, messages, arrive… Ah, delight: there is company coming.

They survey the guest area–a pull out couch in the living room. The room has three entries; the back two can be shuttered with louvered doors, but the large front arch, the entry by the foyer, is too big for a traditional door.  When people stay overnight, they hang a curtain there from a spring tension rod.  The dog walks underneath it and jumps onto the pulled out bed. People cut through, saying, “Oh, SORRY!” when chastised.

Sometimes the guests sleep there; sometimes they put the guests in the master and sleep there themselves.  The common space shrinks to the family room.  It’s awkward, at best.

She wonders…  They go upstairs and stand in the doorway of her little box room, which is filled with craft items and boxes, photos and gifties, frames and wrapping paper and spools of silky ribbon.  A tiny room.  A room with no door.

Could we, she speculates, hang one of those barn door hardware contraptions? He backs in to the room, looks at the doorway, pulls out a measuring tape.

He searches the internet for the hardware.

“Yarrrgh!” he says, “expensive!”  But then he locates a set for less than a third of what the big box stores charge.  He places the order.

They pack all the crafty stuff into plastic bins and move them to the basement.  The dusty curtains go down the laundry chute.  She pulls out the vacuum and sucks up dust and tiny shreds of paper.  They dismantle a heavy old wooden table and lug it, in pieces, down to join the bins.

She finds a black iron day bed for seventy dollars; he puts it together. It fits snugly into the alcove formed by the dormer window. They search the ads for deals and find a mattress on sale at a discount store.  When they arrive to pick it up, they discover everything’s on sale, and there’s an extra discount with their member card.  They buy a bucket chair, a tiny dresser, a bedside table.

He and the boy go out to the garage and clean.  In the process, they uncover an old wooden door.  They set up a workshop,—sawhorses, electric sander. He sands the door smooth, paints it a soft, shining white.  The hardware arrives and he drags it and the door upstairs, mounts the black brackets, hangs the door.  The door looks perfect.

The new guest room is a tiny, pretty, welcoming gem.

Well, it’s summer, they think.  It feels like anything is possible.

She begins walking again, at night, feeling the stretch in her legs; her IPod cranks out Leonard Cohen and she catches herself marching and singing along. She smiles at passersby–the whippet-thin running woman whose ponytail pounds from shoulder to shoulder, the acrobatic biking boys who stand to charge up a long curved hilly drive. Their payoff is the thrilling return trip, navigating the downhill curves, wind riffling their short, hot-weather hair.  They zoom out onto the sidewalk, grinning, wheel around, pedal up the energy to try it again.

She thinks at first she’s crazy to try, too tired, old, and crazy to pedal up her own energy;  but soon she is walking three miles a night.

On Tuesdays, she brings big bags of fresh, local veggies home from work; they spread them out and scrutinize. Can we eat all this? they wonder. Then they begin to see recipes everywhere they turn.  They chop and blanch and freeze; they  stir together Italian wedding soup with homemade chicken broth, fresh chopped kale, tiny orzo noodles. Instead of of meatballs, they brown Italian sausage, brought back special from western New York. It is tangy and pungent; they crumble it up into the soup, eat big bowls with crusty bread from an Italian baker, and freeze containers to take for lunch.

They grill veggies and saute them; they bake chicken with summer squash and carrots.  They make dips and pesto. New recipes: why not?  They discover new favorites.

They plant basil seeds in egg cartons on the sun porch; the seeds sprout and thrive and then two desperately hot days cook their sad little stems.  She goes out and buys established plants–basil and rosemary.  They put them in the kitchen sink garden outside the kitchen door. Why not, he says, dump that good dirt from the egg cartons into the sink?

Great idea, she agrees, and sprinkles the rich black soil around the herbs.

Within days, he notices little seedlings  sprouting.  Something tells them to let those little plants be, and the seedlings get bigger and stronger.  She spicks a leaf off, rubs it between finger and thumb, sniffs.  Basil!  All the seeds they’d thought were dead come happily back to life in the rich moist dirt, the friendly sun, protected in the ell of the house from wind and storm.

Their spaghetti sauce tastes like the sun, with fresh basil and rosemary, tomatoes picked that morning at the farm down the way. It’s summer, and the time and the possibilities–even healthy plants growing from zapped seeds–seem endless.

Wendy comes to take the guest room for its maiden flight; she deems it a cozy place to sleep and read.  They take her, all three of them, on a lazy ride down the river on the paddlewheeler Lorena.  Fanned on the upper deck by river breezes, they hungrily dig into a light and lovely lettuce salad, and they fork up prime rib that cuts like butter as they chug smoothly north for an hour. They lazily eat chocolate peanut butter pie and drink hot black coffee as the Lorena turns to head home.  Children run along the riverbanks, yelling and following them. Big tough tattooed men lean out of party barges to pump their arms in the ageless signal children send to semi drivers: HONK!  PLease HONK!

The captain, a quiet, white-haired gentleman in a nautical cap, grins and obliges, pulling the long loud honking foghorn over and over.  Women, waving the hands that don’t hold clinking drinks, lounge in canvas chairs carried to the water’s edge. A storm threatens, but, of course, does not materialize. It is summer, and threats subside.

Some days she walks early and late. She loves to walk by a neighbor’s gaudy flowering shrub. Its blossoms are bigger than dessert plates, pleated and pretty with clear true colors, full and grinning in the early morning sun.

At night, the flowers curl in on themselves, as if exhausted by their boisterous, flamboyant display.  They look, he says, like hand-rolled cigars.

They walk through the Gardens around the corner; they marvel at the lily pads with their waxy blooms, exuberant in the pond where the waterfall plashes.

Some Sunday nights, a loosely woven orchestra plays in the bandshell; the group struggles gamely with complicated compositions but comes out strong with John Phillip Sousa. They clap and stamp along with the crowd, a range-y crowd with children zipping in dizzyingly circles, elders whose worn and spotted hands beat time on the metal arms of their folding lawn chairs, a cluster of black clad young people, whose cool is betrayed by feet that can’t help tapping. They people-watch and imagine unconventional matches–the crisp-cut young man, the languid and pretty young Goth.  Why not?  They’d be good for each other, maybe, they agree, and it’s summer, after all–a time for taking chances. It’s a time when it’s possible the chances will bear fruit.

But there is the chance too of the evening phone call: Are you sitting down? says the well-loved voice on the other end,–or, Call me as soon as you get this, urges the message.  These events, too, sneak into summer possibles–the ones that throw them heavily onto the bench, trying hard not to believe the messenger.

But he wasn’t SICK, he says.  He was planning a visit in two weeks.

No, she argues, he was too young.

They sit outside as the sky darkens; the birds get raucous, then grow quiet. All kinds of things, they accept sadly, are possible.

They remember by planting trees that stretch skyward and strengthen; flowers burgeon and tales of life and seasons play out in front of them.  It is a time, for them, of growth and joy, but they know,–they have the sorrowful evidence–that the pedal always turns.

They get ready for a visit from their beautiful young granddaughter, standing on the brink of so many possibilities. Her gentle hands will welcome sassy Max, the neighborhood cat, settle the antsy dog into summer slumbers.  They will go to the Zoo; they will tour the Wilds.  They’ll have wonderful meals and long walks and conversations of re-discovery.

Summer rolls up its hill, hovers for a moment at the peak, and begins to descend.  There is more glamor and flash ahead, but mothers are beginning to dream of children back in school.  The ads come out–tablets for a quarter, folders for a dime.  The first leaves on the spring-flowering tree by the kitchen window turn vividly red and flutter.

On Saturday nights, they fall asleep to the strident voice and the insistent bass of the band that plays at the bar down by the river;  the chorus of young voices rise and eddy.  It is summer yet, summer with its promise and its insistent push–you dare not rest; you must keep moving. The journey is often joyful and sometimes culls forth a wrenching loss.

They will sit outside and light a fire, sipping drinks and talking softly; they will welcome visitors to that pretty little room. They have, now, years enough on the planet to know not to fight time and flail against fate; summer will wane, and autumn will blazen. They will cosset their joys and remember their losses, and even in the midst of hard-earned wisdom, feel that little leap, that firm little flicker.

It is summer; they know what they know. Yet somehow, anyway, in the cool quiet of the night, in the friendly flicker of the fire, they still believe it’s true: anything could be possible.