Late Summer

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“August rain:  the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born.  The odd uneven time.” (Sylvia Plath).

I’ve been reading a novel this summer that starts out, “It was the beginning of the ending”.  We’d had weeks of heat and hot summer nights as ceiling fans spun at full-speed ahead over our beds.  It was endless summer of swimming and sailing and croquet, books read in the hammock, and a tranquil motorboat ride one sunset evening when the water was still, the air humid, and it felt like things would never end, never change.  Then, in the final days of the California family’s visit, a fierce storm came up the lake and nearly blew the kids off the dock as they raced to the porch for cover from the lightning and rain and crashing tree limbs.  The power was off and on for 24 hours, our road was blocked by a fallen tree, and enormous logs littered the beach, twisting the metal ladder on the dock into a pretzel, and pushing the motorboat askew on its wooden ramp.   When it was over, it left behind temperatures 10-20 degrees below normal with rainy skies, and I can sense that summer is beginning to dust off her “closed for the season” sign.   It feels unsettling to see trees so lush and full of  green, and know that very soon, fall will begin to fold over the remains of the season.

I am nearly alone now, after weeks and weeks of a full house.  The Billings family arrived on Wednesday, just four hours after the California family said goodbye.  Joy and Rich left their two remaining teenagers behind to stay with us, as they drove Fletcher to Bellingham for orientation at Western Washington.  I’ve been getting photos of his dorm, a quintessential college building of brick and ivy.  As Joy wrote on Facebook, “It’s beginning to feel real!”  Yet, it’s everything surreal for me, to have my first grandchild going off to college, out there on the northern coast of Washington–” a beginning of the ending” of all that came before, starting in his little blue nursery, a breeze blowing the white lace curtains, as I rocked him in the wicker chair.  It’s a new exciting beginning for him, of course, and the promise of adventure and discovery.  But, with the hint of autumn in our chilly damp air, this grandmother knows there’s also an ending.

A warming trend is predicted for the first part of next week, before temperatures return to a more normal late August.   The house will be empty then, and I look forward to bits of summer hanging on for a while longer.  I need that time to sit in the sunshine and stare out at the water, and just think about it all, sorting memories and savoring a summer that has already come and gone.  Fall is my favorite season, and, in time, I’ll look forward to its arrival, but I’m not yet ready to leave the ending of summer.

But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you.” 
― Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot

High point in summer

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There is always a point in early August when it feels like we are stopped at the top of a Ferris wheel, stalled out for a while, before we begin the ride down.  It’s often around this particular day–Sarah’s birthday.  Forty-one years ago, the two of us were glued together by sweat, near an open window in a corner of the ward, at Boston Lying-In Hospital.  I was so grateful for the occasional breeze which wafted over us and ruffled the floral curtain pulled around my bed.  I remember knowing how in a few days I would bring this little bundle home in time to have Joy’s six-year old birthday party, and school would be starting and I’d be frantic to get both her and Valerie ready while tending to a newborn, and the summer would come to an end.  During those sweltering days in the hospital, time just stood still.

Wow, we’ve been busy since I wrote that I was waiting for summer to begin.  At one point, over four consecutive days, there were 43 people here at the lake house, swimming, boating, eating, drinking.  All the beds were taken by my immediate family, but the relatives from Colorado and Hawaii stayed nearby, and who could resist gorgeous sunny days here on the water.  Several paddles were lost at sea, but no injuries or visible wounds were incurred.  At the moment, we’re down to Val and the three kids, with their Dad arriving this week from California.  New family members will touch down to join us next Saturday, but we’ll largely be a family of seven for the duration of their stay until mid-month.

An announcement was made last night that we are going to put an end to the midnight bedtimes, and kids rolling out of bed near noon, and just go do some stuff.  We’ve been trying, but the sunsets stretch out in pink gold light, or the baseball game from California goes long, or the International Space Station is due to fly by overhead, or the new fingernail moon rising in the West can’t be missed, and the peak of the Perseid shower is but a week away.  So, with hot sunny days that are quintessential summer, we just shelter in place as layabouts–floating in the water, reading novels on the shady porch, or napping in the hammock.  We’re going to break out the croquet game today for a bit of exercise, but, we are pleasantly stalled out at the top of the Ferris wheel.

August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a matchflame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.―  Elizabeth Maua Taylor

Sailing along through summer

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“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.” – Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows

It’s fun to look out at the lake on any given afternoon, see that there’s a good wind, and decide to take a little sail before dinner.  The good wind always dies at some point, or totally changes direction, but, such is the nature of the adventure.  As a sailing team, we are slowly improving.  Don seldom shouts out to me, “No, I mean the other starboard side!” and I don’t yell out so often, “I’m really scared.”  I was just beginning to think I should bring cocktails aboard, which we would sip whilst we enjoyed the scenery, and wile away a pleasant afternoon, far away from the bad news of the world, when Don said to me on our last voyage, “Now, if I were to fall overboard, all you have to do is steer directly into the wind and the sails will luff and you can just stay there until I swim to the boat.”  Later I said to him, “But, what if you hit your head and are unconscious?”  He told me that wouldn’t happen.  But, I decided it was not yet time for cocktails.

Nevertheless, if I don’t think about that contingency, there is a relaxing idleness when you just skim through the water, the clear wind in your face, and take in the lovely view, far away from the bad news of the world.  Even when the wind dies, and you adjust the sails to capture whatever whiff of breeze might materialize, it’s quite pleasant to just bob in place.  You feel like you should bring out a deck of cards and play gin–along with those cocktails.  I like how you’re not headed anywhere and you basically are “always busy, and you never do anything in particular.”  But, eventually you have to come back home to port, tacking and jibing, and concentrating hard on remembering what you’re supposed to do, in a language that has not created a groove of any sort into your neural pathways.  At last, the boat is secured to the mooring ball, all buttoned up and tied down, and you can sit in the red wicker chair at the dock, with a well-deserved cold beer.

We are in the throes of too much wind for sailing right now, as a cold pressure system moves into place.  There are high wind warnings on the lakes for several days, and even a hint that light snow could dust the peaks of Glacier Park.  Past the mid-point of July, it has been one of those summers that used to be here–cool and rainy.  It seems so strange that most of the country is under a “heat dome” with record-breaking high temperatures and miserably high humidity.  I wouldn’t want to admit it to anybody, but I find myself a tad bit nostalgic for summer days like that.  Growing up in northeastern Ohio, these were the summers of my childhood, as well as early adulthood when I lived in St. Louis, and, in Boston, where my daughters lived their earliest years.  We never had air conditioning and I remember just listlessly sitting outdoors in the shade while they played in the sprinkler, waiting, waiting for dusk, and maybe a cool breeze, so I could get them into bed.  I dusted them with talcum powder so their cotton nightgowns wouldn’t stick to their sweaty bodies and turned on the window fan.   I’ve talked here before about being soothed to sleep by the rhythmic sound of a parchment window shade slapping against the window; but, I am quite sure that at the time, it drove me nuts.  Summer memories are all about nostalgia for what may or may not have ever been, and that is their charm.

Just in time for the family’s arrival next week, finally, at last, long-delayed, NOAA is calling for “the first serious heat wave of the summer,” with temperatures in the 90’s.  Next week is a bit outside statistical reliability, but they say all the models are consistent.  If true, what great timing to warm up the glacial lake water for swimming and paddle boarding, and kayaking.  And, there’s always sailing…

“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground. One never left port and the other was an atrocious liar.” – Don Bamford

Summer naps

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“I count it as an absolute certainty that in paradise, everyone naps. A nap is a perfect pleasure and it’s useful, too. It splits the day into two halves, making each half more manageable and enjoyable. How much easier it is to work in the morning if we know we have a nap to look forward to after lunch; and how much more pleasant the late afternoon and evening become after a little sleep. If you know there is a nap to come later in the day, then you can banish forever that terrible sense of doom one feels at 9 A.M. with eight hours of straight toil ahead. Not only that, but a nap can offer a glimpse into a twilight nether world where gods play and dreams happen.”
Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle

I’ve always been good at napping.  Back in the day, when I was raising my family and working, and life was high-energy and jam-packed, I’d get a quick nap in while sitting in the orthodontist’s waiting room when one of the girls got their braces tightened.  When it was me in the dentist’s chair, I can remember dozing off with my head tilted back and eyes closed, while my teeth were being cleaned.  And, I could fall asleep standing up in a slow elevator with my head rested against the wall, on the climb up to my office.  Those naps, in retrospect, were just signs of exhaustion.  Now that I’ve learned to be idle in retirement, I take proper naps, and there is nothing so lovely as a nap in summer.  A proper nap is not when you lie down on the sofa with your book, or on the lounge chair in dappled sunshine, or even in the hammock softly swaying under the tree branches.  Rather, it’s best done when sunlight is streaming across the pillows on your bed, and through the open window you feel a cool breeze, and maybe hear the distant sound of a lawnmower or boat on the lake.  Chirping robins are an added lullaby.  Moments after you snuggle down into the pillows and feel your legs melt into the mattress, you find that you have somehow levitated above your body and are hovering there–“into a twilight nether world where gods play and dreams happen.”  There are always sweet dreams, never bad ones, and then suddenly–maybe ten minutes later–you come back down into your body and realize you are awake, refreshed, and ready to pop back into the day.  Winter naps are different.  They are longer, deeper, and you need a nice cup of tea when you get up, to ease back into the remainder of the day.  They are nice, of course, in their own way, but they are out of season right now.

In between the daily showers and thunderstorms, there have been perfect napping conditions filled with sunshine and birdsong.  There are days now that truly feel like summer–at least for a good portion of the day.  Those are the evenings when I watch the sunset from the porch, quiet and still, and I think back to the morning, and often can’t remember if it was this morning, or was that yesterday morning.  These are the days in which it feels like all of summer has happened in one day, so full, of so much time.

Soon, the speed of time around here will greatly accelerate, as all my family arrive at once for weeks together at the lake.  It is so fun, so high energy, so exhilarating, with grandkids at play, and non-stop adult chatter, and late night drinking.  In our lives now, this is what makes summer, Summer.   I remember twenty plus years ago, when we were designing the lake house, Don cautioned me that we must build it for ourselves–not for visions of visiting children, or for the grandkids we might have in the future.  With all the girls scattered around the country, we must prepare for being alone here.   As it has turned out, there’s a dormitory room upstairs, lined with beds, and photos on the walls of grandchildren over eighteen summers, when grandkids have filled the house and spilled into the lake in summer fun.  And, a fair number of Thanksgivings and Christmases as well, documented by ice skating and sledding photos.   It has all turned out just grand, just grand.

Soon, my summer naps will leave the realm of poetry and turn into survival reality!   We are storing up our energy, and counting down the days, to what is always the very best part of summer at the lake.

The time has come,” the Walrus said,
   “To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
   Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
   And whether pigs have wings.”  —Lewis Carroll

Summer expectations

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I had a friend, many years ago, who loved to annoy us by pointing out that come the 4th of July, the year was now more than half over.  Consequently, it has always felt quite reasonable to expect to be in full summer mode on the 4th of July;  though, when it’s not, we all talk about how it never used to be summer weather this early in many places we remember from our past.  While we did sail, kayak, picnic, campfire, and swim (the twenty-somethings), it was cool and rainy here at the lake over the 4th, and the furnace kicked on every morning in the house.  For the past two nights, we’ve had nocturnal thunderstorms, which truly can feel like being kicked in the pants when we try to sleep.   The meteorologists appear to have forsaken all optimism in their forecasts.  This morning, they write:

Area Forecast Discussion National Weather Service Missoula MT 332 AM MDT Sun Jul 7 2019 .DISCUSSION…Nocturnal thunderstorms last night have continued into this morning across northwest Montana and parts of west central Montana. There may be a brief period today where the Northern Rockies do not have storms, but that window of time will be brief. More thunderstorms are anticipated to form through the day across both north central Idaho and western Montana, and will be sporadic and quick to form and strengthen. Like yesterday, hail and heavy rain will be the greatest threats from storms. Gusty winds and lightning are also likely as well. If you have any type of outdoor plans today, please keep an eye to the sky and stay abreast of the latest storm development. Storms will once again persist into the overnight hours, lasting through Monday as well.

As the old sailing quote goes, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”  I go through all these states of mind in a single day.  Whatever the weather, however, the days of summer are long on daylight, and when I watch that golden ball of sun slide down beneath the rain clouds and slip into the lake, it feels like the morning was so long ago, and when I think back to how the day has gone, I remember all the ways it was summer–the morning walk as singing robins flicked water from the sweet-scented leaves; a two hour sun break when I hung sheets on the line; reading a book on the covered porch while it lightly rained.  I guess that’s adjusting my sails, but, perhaps, like Philip Larkin’s mother, I am holding up each summer day and shaking it out suspiciously….

Mother, Summer, I (Philip Larkin)
My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost, And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Slow start to summer

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Except for passing thunderstorms each day, which roll up the lake to create havoc north of us, it’s been cool and quiet most of the week.  With unsettled weather, our sailboat has not yet left its mooring ball, but twirls gently around in the currents and riffles of breezes across the water.  Don’s been cleaning up logs which washed up on the beach after the big storm–what’s left of the beach.  The lake took back about half of the rocks, which had created a nice big landing spot for kayaks and beach chairs.  As soon as the wood dries out, we need to get campfires going down at water’s edge, and reduce the big pile accumulating by the little cabin.  They’re suggesting that this low pressure system may still be in place over the 4th of July holiday.  And, to think, we’re already losing a minute a day of sunlight.  It’s one of those years in which summer is hesitating at the starting gate.

I haven’t minded the pause, as I’ve nursed a crummy cold and been a lay-about on the sofa with a book, and a wool blanket pulled up to my chin.  Yesterday, in a sun shower between the rains, I tended to all the geranium pots across the property–a task I complain about come busy August.  It involves dropping the big plastic bucket, with a rope attached, over the end of the dock, and watching it fill with water as you look up at the clouds, feel the cool breeze, and listen to boats far out in the lake.  Then, you walk to each pot, pour out the bucket of cold water, then repeat, seven times.  There’s been reading down by the water–surely, one of life’s most pleasant pastimes–and the other evening, just before bedtime, we sat on the porch with our whiskey, and watched the rain come up the lake, filling the air with that distinctive mineral smell as water splashed off the aspen leaves.

I remembered that time several years ago, when ten-year old Norah had flown alone from California, for a week by herself at the lake.  One evening, she and I sat on the porch, holding hands, and watched an enormous thunderstorm roll up the lake.  The wind and lightning were fierce, with booming thunder, and we giggled every time it startled us with its power.  How things will change around here, when everybody arrives in a few weeks, moving into their spaces in the dormitory room, and beds tucked under the eaves.  The year Norah came before everyone else, she made a drawing of the various beds and dressers, identifying where each of the cousins would sleep and store their clothes.  I’ve saved it in a drawer someplace.  Joy’s family touched down here Wednesday, on their return home from California, and they talked about how much they enjoyed seeing their cousins, and can’t wait to be together at the lake house soon.  I hope they will someday talk about the memories they are making here with one another…they are the sweetest of blessings in the life of their 72 year old grandmother.

The Miller family will be here for the 4th, which will be grand–like us, they will think the low pressure system is just fine.  John and Don will surely bring up the summer they worked for the Forest Service near Spotted Bear, 41 years ago, when it rained every day in June, whilst they planted spruce saplings.  But, there have been years in which fireworks weren’t permitted here because of fire threat,  and I have photos of all of us swimming one August day, many years ago, in which the smoke was so thick we could barely see each other out in the lake.  But, as July begins to unfold, I confess, I am very much looking forward to “delightful weather”.  For, after all, what would summer memories be without that.

“All in all, it was a never to be forgotten summer — one of those summers which come seldom into any life, but leave a rich heritage of beautiful memories in their going — one of those summers which, in a fortunate combination of delightful weather, delightful friends and delightful doing, come as near to perfection as anything can come in this world.”

—L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams



A change in the weather

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The forecasters told us there would be a “major weather pattern change.”  I’ll say.  New snow is on the mountains around the lake, with rain and 50 degrees in the valleys, for days to come.  And, here we are, at the Summer Solstice.  We had relaxed into a summer mind already– now this.  The forecast for at least the next week is for colder than normal summer temperatures.  Joy wrote from Billings yesterday, “Ugh.  When will it be truly summer!”  I didn’t tell her that there was that one summer–maybe 25 years ago–when Don and I came up for an August wedding of a friend of his, before we had decided to move to Montana, and it rained every single day, except for five days, that entire summer.  Despite recent history, the old timers have always said that summer does not start until the 4th of July, and June was always the rainiest month.  But, I think we are afraid it might just not happen this year.  There are heavy clouds of anxiety hovering over our world right now– climate change, dangerous dictators, denial of science, suffocation by plastic, and entire continents of people on the move for their very survival.  An imminent threat of war with Iran hangs over us at this very moment.  We’ve felt like we could trust, could count on summer to return, that the sun will come out tomorrow, even as half the bee colonies in the world are now extinct.  It’s easy to lose hope when the skies are blackened by rain and hail, the lake roars all night long, and tree limbs litter the lawn in the morning.

I overheard a friend describing my blog to someone the other day, and she said, “It’s about the weather.”  I’ve been thinking about that, aware that I always start each day with “what are the skies like this morning?”  It’s an adaptive strategy, to be sure, looking outside my own window as soon as I start the day.   In despair over the world, it would be easy to lose this one wild and precious day.   Better for me to pay attention to the wind and rain, sun and snow, clouds and moonshine, and know that this is how I can stay tethered to here and now, the only moment I can really count on anyway.

Even though the furnace is running this morning, it’s windy and cold and more rain is building  across the lake, what would the Summer Solstice be without Mary Oliver’s A Summer Day.  Happy Solstice to us all!

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?