Roving thoughts and provocations

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Summertime

Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Nuevo Ideal, Durango, Mexico, 1996

What kind of birdie are you? Whistling outside my window as if a pretty girl was passing by?

A wind so mild this afternoon it touches our faces as we lie in the shade like little children going to sleep.

This must be a very important fly that has just flown into my room. It’s bigger than others, has a loud buzz as if accustomed to having its wishes obeyed. Instead of pastries and other dainties, all it finds on my table and floor are closed and open books, whose titles it inspects on the run and unimpressed flies out of the window.

Are rocking chairs in this country, I’m asking myself, being rocked on summer evenings as much as they once were? Or do they stand abandoned and motionless on dark porches across the land, now that their elderly owners tend to relieve their boredom by sitting in front of their computers?

“If God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess that He would think His Paradise superfluous,” writes Emily Dickinson in a letter from 1856. I wish we could brag in similar fashion about our summer this year, but there has been too much rain.

To my great regret, I no longer know how to be lazy, and summer is no fun without sloth. Indolence requires patience—to lie in the sun, for instance, day after day—and I have none left. When I could, it was bliss. I lived liked the old Greeks, who knew nothing of hours, minutes, and seconds. No wonder they did so much thinking back then. When Socrates staggered home late after a day of philosophizing with Plato, his bad-tempered wife Xantippe could not point to a clock on the wall as she started chewing him out.

In my youth, I had a reputation of being extraordinarily lazy. My fame extended beyond our neighborhood. When my name was mentioned, my teachers in school used to roll their eyes and cross themselves. My mother could not agree more. She’d tell about the day I started for school wearing just one shoe, and when I realized my mistake, instead of going back home to get the other, I stayed where I was in the street watching a piano being lifted to several stories up to some apartment, till I was late for school.

“He’s a dreamy child,” one of my aunts used to say in my defense. I didn’t like to hear her say that, but today I’m ready to admit that daydreaming used to be my favorite occupation, especially in summer. As soon as the weather got hot, I looked for a shady place to lie down. When I got bored with daydreaming, I took a nap. One time I dozed off on the Oak Street Beach in Chicago and didn’t wake till it was almost evening, surprised to see the empty beach, the tall buildings along the lake already in shadow, and feel my back hurting from the sun and my head not knowing for a moment how I got there. After getting up and stretching, yawning, and scratching for a while, I sat down once again and thought to myself, How wonderful all this is.

Two dogs, one jumping from the dock into the lake to retrieve the sticks his owner keeps throwing, and the other one looking on in disgust.

“A spiritual nymphomaniac,” I overheard someone say on the beach while I lay in the sun covered with newspapers. A woman, I assume, ready to jump into bed with a saint.

Emerson’s journals, 1844–1845: “As we read the newspapers, and we see the effrontery with which money & power carry their ends, and ride over honesty & good-meaning, morals & religion seem to become mere shrieking & impotence.” It could have been written today.

And so could this, from 1847: “It seems to be settled that no act of honor or benevolence or justice is to be expected from the American Government, but only this. That they will be as wicked as they dare.”

“Can’t you hear the rattling noise these snakes make as they crawl up the steps of the Capitol?” asked a homeless old woman squatting in a doorway in downtown Washington after I handed her a dollar.

Adulation of our imaginary virtues, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continues to be one of the oddest things about this county.

The weeks of rain have sabotaged my favorite summer pastime: having long lunches and dinners with friends in the garden. No sight pleases me more than a table loaded with good food and wine and a company of happy faces. And if there is a dog or two to bark at us from time to time for forgetting to throw them scraps, and some birds twittering in the trees over our heads as the conversation begins to die down after so much eating and drinking and our eyes begin to close, so much the better.

There’s something familial, deeply comforting in the sound of a pig oinking in the peace and slumber of a summer afternoon.

For the sweet old couple working side by side in the garden, being ignorant of what goes on in the world has been the secret of their lifelong happiness.

I remember a fellow standing on a sea cliff one summer, swaying and waving his arms as if defending the sunset before some high court hidden among the evening clouds against the charge of imitating bad art.

O ballparks of long ago with thousands of straw hats tossed high in the air when someone hit a homerun in the ninth! You went the way of the walking stick, the cuspidor, the barbershop quartet singing “Sweet Adeline,” and old men collecting cigarette butts at the entrance to the subway long after the game was over and everyone had gone home.

In the country, night lets itself into our homes and makes itself quickly comfortable, acting like it owns the place.

I read somewhere that Napoleon, who feared neither the sword nor the bullet, was afraid of a dark room.

“An old fashioned gentleman,” people used to say about my father. Like me, I imagine, he waited for the leaves outside his window to fall asleep first before he himself did.

Tonight, it looks like they are celebrating someone’s golden wedding anniversary in one of the constellations in the sky. I can tell because the ladies up there are wearing a lot of expensive jewelry.

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