This summer, I will:
1. Make more tie-dyes. If you want one, let me know.
2. Sit in the backyard, in the sunshine, listening to the Dead. Neighbors beware that 8/27/72 will be set to repeat.
3. Swim in the pond. If you want to join me, let me know.
4. Go to the beach. Target sells spray-on mineral sunscreen now. Thank me later.
5. Spend some down time with the wife and kids on an island off the coast of Maine, where there’s no internet unless you visit the library, no cell service, no television, and a lot less problems.
6. See family and friends near and far, both here and there.
7. Take photographs. Maybe paint and write.
8. Ignore the scoffers and the internet shamers.
9. Avoid commerce.
10. Not listen to the experts.
11. Drink my berry/kale/chia smoothies and do my barefoot running and yoga.
12. Create my own life. Do good not by politics but by being myself.
Tonight, I slid into the pond and threw my swim trunks up onto the rocks for the last time this summer. Not many people would go skinny-dipping at dusk when the mosquitos are still biting and the air temperature is sixty-three degrees. No one, in fact. I was alone.
As we hurtle once more around the sun and wonder where summer went, let us take a moment to honor those places that sustain our soul. For me, it’s this pond, this scared body of water that only becomes more special and more sacred the older I get. I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty years and I’ve seen and experienced many amazing sights. But I always come back this place. So close, a ten-minute drive from my house. Over a bridge and yet light-years away from my workaday existence.
Here, I can be who I really am. I can shake off the dust of the world, and for about the time it takes a pot of pasta water to come to a boil, immerse myself in a silky, clean, clear slice of eternity. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, I take a bath not just in water but in spirit. The green moss of the forest floor is my bath mat, the breeze rippling through the branches my opera. I saw a loon, heard its call. I saw a heron swoop down from the sky and land on a log a few yards away from me. I held a frog in my hands. I adopted a forgotten Swiss Army knife. I never found the mythical snapping turtle, the one that’s rumored to be as big as a Volkswagen. Thankfully, he never found me either.
To those of you who shared these special evenings with me, I thank you. To those who didn’t or couldn’t, perhaps I will see you here next summer?
We live in Maine, so we know what happens next. The leaves fall, the snow falls, the roads freeze, the snow piles up, we clear a path for the oil guy, we huddle together in living rooms and YMCAs and cafes and saunas, staying warm, living life close to the bone until the sun, instead of just blinding us, warms us again and allows us to find our special places once more.
Tonight, I drove home from the pond past dark, my wet towel drying on the back of my passenger seat. Music played softly on the radio. I saw the lights of the iron works as I crossed the bridge. I came home, made dinner, raised a toast to my special place, thought of the water on my skin, how it held me up, carried me through this summer, buoyed me. I gave thanks.
Tomorrow I’ll look for my fleece jacket, my wool socks. Tonight, I’m going to bed with the pond water in my ears and the bug spray still on my skin.
In surfing, one of the first things you learn is to never turn your back on the ocean. All might be calm on the horizon, but the moment you turn your head to see if the seagulls are stealing your Funyuns, a watery fist swings up from nowhere, flips you sideways, cracks your board into your skull, and pins you underwater. You rise, gasping, with ringing ears and angry tears in your eyes, salt mixed with more salt, looking around wildly for the culprit, only to see calm ocean everywhere, the thief of both your balance and your dignity hiding around a liquid corner. Until next time.
Same with your life. Or in my case, my life. I rise every morning like the good citizen I am. I make coffee, shower, put on clothes, drive to work and back, staring into a computer monitor and moving a little piece of plastic with a button on it around and around in tiny circles on my desk. I make decisions that may or may not help people, may or may not bring people happiness, relief, or at the very least, a modicum of satisfaction. Some days I pretend to care. Some days I really do care; about all the young faces before me, all their hopes and dreams, their tan, athletic legs, their sun-kissed locks of hair that would look right at home atop the heads of Thor or Freyja.
I eat when I’m hungry. I eat when I’m not hungry. I talk to myself in my head, make plans for my future. As in, how will I get through the boredom and frustration of the next work hour, day, week? When will I get an office aboveground, with a window, running water, a bathroom, and maybe air conditioning? What will I have for dinner? When will I need to go grocery shopping? Buy more toilet paper? Will I have enough money to buy toilet paper? Will I have to return bottles for gas or steal money from my children to buy gas like last time? Have the hemp seeds I bought a month ago gone rancid, or can I add them to tomorrow morning’s smoothie?
No matter how hard I work, not matter how hard my wife works, we never have enough money. Writing about it or not writing about it has the same effect, which is no effect. I try not to mention I’m poor in polite company anymore, unless I’m making a joke about it. Everyone has troubles of their own, thank you very much, and besides, it must be something I’ve done wrong. I shouldn’t have gone out for sushi. I need to get on a budget. I should have paid off my student loans by now. Why did I rent that beach house twenty years ago? How could I have been so irresponsible? Put back those cookies.
Social media mocks me. Things that are trending mock me. Audi SUVs mock me. Vacation photos mock me. Boats whizzing by on the river with Golden Retrievers barking on the bow while I’m pulling boulders out of the ground on a Saturday morning mock me. Honest work is all I can do, and it’s not enough. I know I have a bad attitude some days. Yes, I should breathe. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Meditate like the Zen masters taught me. Sit under a tree and read my book and let little green caterpillars from the branches high above fall and then tumble down my neck and into the back of my shirt. Yes, yes, yes. I should do all these things.
I’m a man which means I should suffer in silence. Or not suffer in silence and let my feelings out, in which case I’m a crybaby. Shut up, already! No one wants to hear it! Didn’t I tell you in the paragraph above that everyone has troubles and yours aren’t any more special or depressing than mine?
We can only live one life at a time, and as a friend said, the longer we do something, the harder it is to do anything else. For example, I’d like to learn how to be a pot farmer. But obviously that will never happen. So, I could write a story or a book about being a pot farmer. Purge all my wonder. Have all my questions asked and answered that way. Yet, when I write, I would rather be painting. When I’m painting, I’d rather be taking photographs, and when I’m taking photographs, writing. I suppose this is a good thing, although most days it doesn’t feel that way. It’s an invisible circle in my head that no one sees.
All of this is true, some of it is true, maybe none of it is true. What’s really important, and what I started out wanting to say before I digressed into a pity party, is that it’s really, really important to heed the surfing instructor’s instructions: never take your eyes off the horizon. Don’t turn your back on the ocean. Keep your eyes open. Front.
About a week ago, my wife, bless her soul because she tolerates these missives, came up with a genius idea while we were driving. She reminded me of a metal box I bought her for her birthday one year. The box was decorated like a vintage lunchbox and was meant to hold art supplies. What if, she asked, instead of art supplies, we write down our dreams, things that we want and hope for, on little slips of paper, and put them in the box? Then, as we accomplish the things we want to do, we take the slips out of the box. I joked that we’d need a bigger box because it would soon be filled with hundreds of unfulfilled dreams and desires. But I was just being sarcastic. It is a great idea, and we are going to do it. We talk about buying a bus or camper when our kids are in college, outfitting it with solar panels, and driving cross-country, taking our time and following the sun. Maybe that will be the first slip that goes into the box.
If we keep our eyes on the horizon long enough, coming up for air every time the ocean of our lives tries to hold us under the waves, I know we’ll get there.
I woke up and stared at the bedroom ceiling, filled with worry about the never-ending stress of my job. The stress that never ends, even when I’m on vacation. I vowed to myself that this would be the year I would make a change, get a new job, finally do something that stirred my soul and made me excited to get up every morning. Maybe work outside. Get a job on a farm or learn to build houses. I went downstairs, made my first of many cups of coffee. I fed the fish, checked out my new haircut in the mirror, opened the front door and sat on my steps as the sky lightened. I looked left, up the hill, and could see the sunlight I knew was just then rising above the river, the blue-orange light that meant another day hurtling around the sun. I looked at the cracked, uneven boards of my porch, drank the delicious brown nectar of that first cup, smelled fall in the air. Oh, yes. It was coming, if it wasn’t here already. The same smell I knew I would smell three months from now when I stood at the window of the concession stand up at the high school football field as I waited for a booster to set my steaming styrofoam cup of coffee on the sill of the stand’s window. I looked down and examined the cut on my right heel that just wouldn’t heal, the victim of a shoeless summer spent in and out of ponds, climbing on rocks, setting piles of brush on fire, and pulling boulders out of the stingy earth. I thought about this one life that we all share, and how we really have no idea what happens after we die and how anyone who says they know what happens after we die is lying or scared or both. I wondered why I was always trying to get people to go skinny-dipping with me, why I was always telling people about the books I was reading or the great new band I discovered. How I always try, in my own little way, to get people to maybe step outside of their ordinary lives, to turn off their electronic reading devices and maybe join me in something that might at first be uncomfortable but that could, in time, become something new and wonderful in their lives. I also thought about how much I’m up against, with almost everyone I know already in their forties and pretty happy, or if not happy then at least somewhat content with the way things are, and besides, why should they change now? I want to encourage people to try new things, but get knocked back a little when I realize that their lives are just fine without my suggestions. What do I really know, anyway? Do words matter? Do these hundreds of pieces of writing I’ve accumulated over the past eight years mean anything? Will they be lost in the ether like so many of my other words, and my work. In one hundred years, who will remember me? Will the joy I felt swimming in a pond at dusk ripple out into the universe and maybe give someone else the courage to jump in? Or is everyone else just fine, thank you very much? The sky gets lighter, the buzzing of the insects (cicadas? crickets?) quiets down. My stomach cramps from hunger and too much coffee. Should I have blueberry pie for breakfast? Yes. Yes, I should.
In Humboldt County, one of the places you can cool off in summer is the Eel River. I know this because I’ve been reading books about, among other things, the medical cannabis industry in California. Books like Too High To Fail, Pot Farm, and Humboldt. The stories in these books depict a lush, green, dangerous world light-years removed from my own. Although I had a pretty idyllic childhood by 1970’s suburban America standards, my biggest adventures at that time consisted of riding my bike (by myself!) to the P&C in Geddes Plaza, buying a Coke (in a glass bottle) and then maybe stopping in to Dom’s Coffee Shop to play a few games of Asteroids before I got kicked out for not being a paying customer.
By contrast, one of the characters, Emma, in Humboldt, used to hike with her friends down a muddy road in the woods to cool off by skinny-dipping in the Eel River after it had been swollen by the spring rains and was deep enough to swim in. Not to mention that Emma’s mom and the parents of most of her friends were pot farmers.
This is not to say that I wish my childhood was any different from what it was, even if the closest I ever got to Emma’s experience was riding through a mud puddle on my way to the Solvay Pool. I’m only thinking about this now because of my own capacity for being altered by small details. A few words in a book, a minute observation, can send me down my own muddy road of what-ifs. Like Nabokov’s pesky sandwiches, I can’t help thinking about other people, other places, other possible lives. Even though I know the only one I can possibly live is my own.
It’s probably because, as much as I don’t want to admit it, summer is almost over (the breeze that blows through my window as I write this is a decidedly fall breeze) and even though it was a special one (as they all are, really), I can’t help thinking about all the adventures not taken. Of all the things I might have done. Of just one more day on the island. Of one more night with family and friends. Of one more dip in the pond. Of even one more hour, or minute, at the beach. I know we can only lead one life at a time, and to inhabit it fully, without regrets. Still, I can’t stop looking for that muddy road in the redwoods that leads to the eternally perfect swimming hole. And then diving in.
My friends have seen me around town sporting spotty, gray-flecked facial hair, wearing a bandana, blasting a fresh copy of “Winterland 6/7/77” from my car speakers. I’m this close to dabbing patchouli oil behind my ears. As I’ve written elsewhere, this for me is the Summer of the Dead. I’m listening to their music all over again for the first time, reveling in fond memories of shows spent with family and friends. Thinking about how happy and safe I felt there, and how Dead shows proved that, as Henry said, “surely joy is the condition of life.”
The band’s name and iconography, the skeletons and roses reminiscent of a funeral, remind us that this life is fleeting. That any day, as happened to me thirty-some years ago, a car can come speeding at you in the night going the wrong way on an interstate on-ramp. We are constantly dancing the dance between impermanence and karma. Between “nothing matters because it’ll all be over, anyway” and “everything matters for exactly the same reason.” Getting smooshed by a wrong-way driver is always a possibility. So is finding new love, opening a door you didn’t know existed yesterday or even this morning, going back in time to rediscover something you thought you had boxed and put up in the attic long ago.
Yes, my summer flings are back, and I’m letting my freak flag fly. Because if not now, when? Every summer is one summer closer to the grave. That’s not depressing; that’s a fact. Just feel lucky that we have our whole lives to correct our mistakes. That we have this time together to do the things we really want to do, and not the things we think we have to do. So much of life is the “ought.” Summer is a chance to kick all the “oughts” to the curb and start fresh, with maybe just some sunscreen and a towel, or some music, or laughing with friends, or a nap in the backyard. Silence the chirping of your phone. Step outside in the morning to hear the real thing.
Or buy one of these…
…and make a hot tub in your backyard. Run naked from your back door to the tub, not caring what the neighbors say. They’ve seen boobs and balls before, I hope. Find a hidden swimming hole, strip down, damn the bears and the bugs, and jump in. Take Henry’s advice from a few summers ago, and pack light, try new things. Have you really decided upon everything by your mid-forties? Have you spent the first half of your life solidifying your beliefs, only to spend the next half of your life living in their prison? I hope not.
Not sure if you sent a postcard to Brother Esau, he’d respond. But it’s summer. What the hell. Chance it.
I’m rambling. And so should you.
Summer has come to Maine which means, as discussed earlier, about twelve weekends worth of fun. Since the Internet loves lists, here are three of Henry’s suggestions for the warm pleasures to come.
1. Cover yourself. You’ll probably be at least half-naked a lot this summer, so pick a good sunscreen. One that contains minerals and not chemicals. Zinc and/or titanium is all you need. Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases a study that analyzes hundreds of commercially available sunscreens and picks the best brands based on current scientific research, not advertising. Stay away from brands that contain retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, and other chemicals. Treat your sunscreen like your food: if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you probably don’t want it in or on your body. Or, make your own here.
2. Cultivate your biome. Fun facts: microbial cells in and on our bodies outnumber our human cells by a ten-to-one ratio. If you could extract all the microbes from our bodies and weigh them, they would measure about three pounds; the same weight as our brains. Microbes have a completely different genetic code from human DNA, making our bodies super-organisms. Without our microbes, our ancestors never would have survived, and we would die. As you are reading this, millions of microbes are swimming in your eyeballs. Millions and trillions more are in your mouth, on your skin, in your gut. No matter how much you wash, wipe, and scrub, you’ll never be able to get rid of them all, not even a fraction of them. And you wouldn’t want to. Despite the fear that’s been instilled in us by the chemical corporations and the antibacterial gels and wipes they peddle, we need our germs. It’s OK to be a little dirty. Actually, a lot dirty. Rinse off in the pond, if you must. Read the label on the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap if you get bored.
3. Change your mind. As a corollary to #2 above, you didn’t wake up this morning the same person you were yesterday. On every level (emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and molecular) you are a brand-new being compared to yesterday’s model. Thank the universe for that. The longer I live, the more people I meet who seem to have made their minds up about pretty much everything. That’s too bad. Attaching to thoughts can be a cause of great suffering. One of the ways I keep myself young in body and mind is to cultivate a sense of wonder about everything in my life. I wake up every morning excited that I might discover something new. New music, new books, new art, new swimming holes, new foods, new beliefs. Summer is the time to try stuff on and take it off if it doesn’t fit.