Under a Summer Spell

Maisie initially felt just a bit put off by the thought of being in the thick of a crowd, even her relatives. Maybe especially her relatives, who were more full of commotion than a whole major city. She hid out on the second stone step; all six led to a narrow path alongside the house, the front yard and potential freedom. She considered the path, then turned back. Between yellow rose bushes and the willow branches she could make out various people. They gravitated to the barbecue or settled into chairs, murmuring over potato and bean salads, comparing the wiles of chicken breasts to burgers.  Maisie was trying to be vegetarian. Her mother said she was misinformed and in an experimental mode, so gave her a side of meat, regardless. So far she hadn’t hunted her down with bleeding steak in hand, but Maisie was getting hungry.

The head count was sixteen so far. They were moving, talking splashes of color.  She could see her cousins, Ricky and his brother Artie, and when they spotted her they whispered to each other, guffawing as though they could barely stand how funny they were. Next to them were their loud (her mom said theatrical) parents, leaning toward Maisie’s dad as he turned the hot dogs. His tall, lanky body was mostly covered by a big red and white checked apron mom had made for him.

Twos and threes clumped together at the long table with the umbrella, heads bent over plates and frosty glasses. Some were in circled chairs. They were gossiping but tastefully and in code, the way her family did most things. Every now and then someone would call out her name and Maisie would wave. They knew she would come around eventually. It was her way to sit back awhile. Or, as she favorite cousin Cammy said, “You take your time when everyone else is throwing it away.” Cammy had been in Europe with her band and was supposed to be in Canada  now. That had made Maisie want to skip the whole barbecue but, in fact, she wouldn’t miss it for anything. Cammy had missed two, now.

It was the actual beginning of summer to Maisie,  the fourth of July, and her mom and dad held this gathering every year to celebrate. School had been out for a week and temperatures were finally running higher, accented by the brilliant blue skies they had all longed for during the rain-soaked months. Maisie took a long, fresh breath and let the smells reach into her. She read a poem once where smells were colors and sounds were tastes and she almost felt that way today, like everything was bursting and she was about to do the same.  But she didn’t let on. She watched and sucked on a piece of long grass plucked from the shadows near the lilies of the valley. She could taste the tiny bell flowers, strong and sweet.

Uncle Jon was showing everyone his new girlfriend, somebody with a name Maisie couldn’t recall or pronounce and a head of hair that blinded her, it was so red. She might be interesting to listen to later. And there was Aunt Nina coming down the other stairs with a big bowl of her best fruit salad. As she danced her way to Maisie’s mother, long skirt swaying, bowl held high, she sang out, “Here’s the best fruit salad in the Northwest, the whole beautiful Northwest!” She really sang, like it was a pop song, her rich voice carrying out over the  neighborhood. But it was true. It had won some award last year at a cook-off. Uncle Frederik, trusty straw hat tilted back on his head, was right behind her with cake and mega-camera. He spotted Maisie right away and shouted at her, pointing to the cake. Maisie almost got up for that, to see whether it was german chocolate or a velvet cake or maybe, like last year’s, a yellow and white icing cake with a bunch of tiny flags that made up a large flag on top. That was a sight. He baked good cakes.

“Maisie! Get more iced tea!” her mother yelled, so she got up and went in the side door, through the dining room, and into the kitchen. There were two big glass pitchers in the ‘fridg and she reached for one when Ricky bounced in from the living room.

“I’ll carry one.” He took a big jug into both hands and gingerly followed her outdoors. “I’m playing soccer all summer if I can help it. Just started soccer camp. What about you?”

Maisie held open the door for him. “I don’t know yet. Maybe a trip to the Pyrenees.”

“Huh?” he asked, frowning up at her. “You don’t make any sense.”

“Either that or a long visit to Capri with my best friend, Marie. But you can’t come along.”

“Capri? Isn’t that in France? Is that where Cammy went?” He slowly walked down the stairs. “Artie’s learning how to build derby cars this summer.”

Maisie sighed. This was the problem with her male cousins. They were younger and less well-read, and they had a different sort of imagination. “No, she’s in Canada now.”

“Well, she’s lucky. So what are you doing this summer?”

“I’m laying in the sun and reading as many mediocre paperbacks as I can get my hands on. I’m going on thirteen and have to get started on my worldly education.”

He laughed. “You’re just nutso!”

She ruffled his hair and he loudly protested.

The afternoon unspooled, sun merrily beating down, then shadows coolly lengthening, the family still talking, milling about and complaining of summery heat and work  tomorrow and how could they manage to get together a couple more times, at least, this summer? The white raspberry-filled cake–blueberries and raspberries on top in a sort of flag–was accompanied by dripping ice cream.

Uncle Frederick brought Maisie a desert plate. “No flags. But we do have to shoot off a few fireworks later.”

“You got them in Washington as usual?”

“Have to do it. Without all the noise and pomp it wouldn’t be fourth of July, would it? It is Independence Day, right? ” He pumped his fist in the air like the goofy, good-hearted uncle he was.

Maisie took her cake and sat at the wooden table near Miss Flame Hair. The big green umbrella that spread over them gave relief from the last of the sun’s radiance.

“Hi, kid,” she smiled. She was putting on fresh lipstick, a sparkly pink gloss. “Who do you belong to?”

“The chef and chief bottle washer and his gracious wife.” She licked ice cream off her lower lip. “I’m Maisie.”

“Oh, this is your house! Well, I’m Antoinette. You can call me Toni if you like.”

“I like Antoinette.”

The woman held out her hand, silvery long nails adorned with little fake diamonds on the tips. Maisie shook it and wondered how she could put on eye cream without poking one out. The woman wasn’t as young as she’d thought. She seemed sweet but faintly dangerous, if those two could work together. Maisie liked her just because of that. Uncle Jon winked at Maisie from under his bushy blond brows and kept talking about the politics of performance art with her parents and aunts. This could go on all night, she wanted to warn Antoinette.

Maisie took a sip of iced tea.”How do you like my family so far? All these relatives crammed together?”

Antoinette smiled, head tilted to one side. “They’re pretty nice. They really like to talk about deep things, all about the arts and things like that. Smart people, right? I hear everyone is musical or something. You?”

Maisie considered what she was asking her. Did she like to talk? Sometimes, like now. Did one agree one was smart if that was true? What did she mean by “something”? Maisie thought Antoinette was something with those nails and hair, and that could be considered sort of artistic, too, she wanted to tell her.

“Well, I like to sing and play violin. It’s definitely true we all like the arts. I mean, I could go around the circle and tell you a couple of creative things each person does. It’s in the blood, mom says, for better or worse. Dad says it can be a curse, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He plays bass, jazz.” She shrugged. “It’s just how we are, that’s all.”

“I think that’s great.” Antoinette sounded wistful. “My family…not too many of them left. Ranchers in Idaho, mostly.”

“You can borrow some of mine from time to time. But ranching sounds pretty exotic. And I like your jeweled fingernails.”

Antoinette laughed heartily and Maisie like the way she did, head thrown back and her earrings jingling. She was glad Uncle Jon had brought her; she liked rough edges.

Twilight was getting ready to creep up on them as the instruments were brought out. Chairs were pushed back or folded up. The food was taken inside. Then the deck became a stage as everyone roused from their after-dinner drowsiness. There were three guitars, a banjo, a clarinet, flute and trumpet. There was a giant African drum and maracas, a tambourine and harmonica. A viola and keyboard. Nearly everyone had something in their hands; they started to tune up.

“Gotta go, Antoinette. Nice meeting you.”

Maisie slipped into the back of the group and got out a violin, then tuned it up along with all the others amid a cacophony of sound. After some mild arguing, they all agreed on the first tune.

The sun was setting and above the treeline Maisie could see the tender rose and apricot in a sky illuminated from deep within, the stars heralding night. The little lanterns were turned on and candles on the table were lit. They raised their instruments to play.

“Hey, please wait for me!”

And there was Cammy running down the stone steps, her crazy curly hair flying, her band mates trailing behind her. Maisie put down her violin and raced across the deck and into her cousin’s arms.

“Hey, small stuff,” she said as she pulled her close. “Let’s make music.”

It was a concert like no other, so the neighbors said as they drifted toward the house and stepped into the back yard. But, really, it was just a family get together, it was summertime, and Maisie was stepping out of the shadows. She put aside the violin and wormed her way up front. This time she sang out, and Cammy harmonized beside her, and all those notes wove their beauty into one wild crescendo of love.

The Fantasy and Facts of a Life: Seeing the Truth

First off, you should know I have very poor vision when uncorrected. As a kid it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see in the dark when I got up at night. I had long ago learned how to  maneuver and survive despite being unable to identify whether things were animal, mineral or vegetable when farther than a couple feet away. My first glasses in second grade brought everything into such vivid focus that it was like living two different lives. One was softly blurred, a lovely impressionistic view, less than practical or safe perhaps, but it was what I knew. The other was clear, sharp, crammed with faces, objects and movement that at times seemed glorious, at times harsh.

So when I got my new glasses today, I wasn’t expecting much news, and no miracles. These are the ones I put on when I am finally ensconced in bed with a great book and have taken my contact lenses out. I have worn hard lenses successfully for over forty years, but my eyes blink with relief as I place my night-time “eyes” on.

At the vision clinic, I tried the plain but expensive new trifocals on. The technician’s assurance included a guarantee that all would be made visible in a new way. My near, middle and far distance vision would be dramatically clarified. They were, after all, progressive lenses. I wondered if that actually referred to the aging process. I made a good-natured but skeptical noise, a light grunt, and tried them on.

The technician, Tom, was right. I saw differently. If I swung my head too quickly it felt a bit like I was on a boat. If I followed his instructions, I could see, incrementally, quite well by shifting my eyes from top, middle, bottom of the lenses rather than moving my whole head. It would take getting used to, but I was using them in limited doses.

It brought to mind the other major vision wear change in my life. I was fourteen when I finally persuaded my parents to buy me contacts. What a difference to not have my trusty glasses on! I could see everything without worrying about glasses falling off, getting scratched, or drawing attention to myself. Seemed a bit full circle to seek real glasses again.

We chatted a bit as he made minor adjustments. Tom was a friendly guy, interested in what I did for a living. I explained I spend a lot of time with people but also at computers, both for my paid work and my unpaid work as a writer. That lit him up. He told me a story about working in Alaska.

According to Tom, an ordinary-looking man came in for new glasses. He stated he was rather poor and wanted only the most basic eyewear. The patient was a writer and was doing research on his own dime while in the state. They talked a bit more; the man left. Tom looked at the order information more closely. Last name, Michener, first name, James. When Michener picked up the glasses, Tom admitted he knew who he was. Well, Michener shared, he was working on a new book and he was swamped getting the facts for his fiction. It was much easier being anonymous. He was pleasant and left swiftly. A couple of years later Tom got a package from James Michener. It was the new book, Alaska, and inside was an inscription just for Tom.

“So, in case you publish your novel, remember me. I’d like to read it and say I met you.”

I laughed and turned to go when he stopped me.

“You know, I write about fifteen minutes a day, too. I like to get my thoughts down, my ideas out. Sometimes I write a poem. It makes difference to me; I understand things better.”

I thought about the exchange on my way home, how Michener, Tom and I had something in common. We all needed to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. The human population has a long history of writing down their thoughts, in private journals or for public view. An author of celebrated books needed to quietly investigate and record information for his book before sharing it with the world. He integrated his desire to illuminate reality with a need to embellish it. There are always stories within stories that carry a writer forward. Even, perhaps, Tom with his daily fifteen minutes of scribbling away.

I can relate to this process. It has been a part of my whole life. For most of my youth I kept diaries. Since writing snagged me as soon as I could form words with crayon or pencil, it was not just a fun aside. It became a ritual. I had a key that unlocked the leather mini-books in which I put down what was most important. It might be nothing more than stating the daffodils came up. It most assuredly contained the details of my first love. But it felt good to take note of things. Give form to feeling. Make more real what was unspoken.

As I got older, it wasn’t much different. In between research papers, poems, plays and short stories, I kept thick journals. My mother told me, “Write all you want, but be careful what you write about.” That was what keys or good hiding places were for, I figured. It was my intention to write the truth as I saw it–that is, when I wasn’t writing fiction and even then… how else was I going to get the whole picture, solve problems, give breath to new ideas? Writing everything down gave me unfettered freedom.

For about thirty-five years I kept complicated narratives of my life and the times in journals. They didn’t, for the most part, have locks and I rarely hid them. But they started to feel like clutter. Like extra weight. I had dedicated myself to near-daily examining of life’s workings, recording my highs and lows, memorializing people I met even in passing. I was writing other things but maybe not enough. It had been useful to journal, once. I now felt exhausted by all those self-centered thoughts.

One day at around forty I looked at the many boxes of journals accumulated over the years and moved from place to place and thought: to the dump. That was where they belonged. What was I saving them for? My life was being lived. Stories and poems, not journals, were important to me. I needed to record inspirations, clues and data about a work in progress, no matter how humble.

And that was it. They were simply gone. It felt divine. I have no written record of my life. At least not in any journals. Because although I understand Tom’s desire to write down his thoughts each day, something else still calls me. It is the passion to turn the details of fascinating lives that are lived within my view, as well as the hidden parts of my own reality, into a larger, crystallized whole. Something broader and deeper. More truthful. Writing is entering vast and hallowed grounds for me, even as I claw through murk and zig-zag under threatening skies on my way to finding one good line. It is one of the times in my life when I know exactly who and where I am. And it sheds light on what could be–either in fantasy or fact.

So, thanks, Tom, for the good glasses and talk. My vision matters a great deal to me, both internal and external. I am seeing better again already.

Music, Starlight and Bug Bites: Living the Dream at Camp

The cabin was cocooned in darkness, save for the wan daybreak light that found its way between the cotton curtains. I lay still and listened to the sighs, coughs, and peaceful exhaling of sixteen adolescent girls and a much older (or so it seemed to me) counselor. There were other creatures rustling around in the night, beyond the sturdy cabin door. I longed to see them. Maybe it was a sleek fox or a fat, confident racoon. It was possible there was a bear trundling through the pines to the lake or a rabbit burowing deeper. Earlier in the day I’d spotted a shy skunk sniffing the winsome summer breeze. I’d been very still, noting it luxuriant fur, its darting eyes and tiny paws. Happily, it had vanished without leaving me a calling card.

The girl in the bunk beside me stretched in her sleep, then all was silent excepting a mosquito or two that had refused to turn in for the night. I swatted, this time successfully. A light wind slipped through a screened window and swept across my face. It carried its own perfume, cool and redolent of all things wild and wonderful. Sleep overcame the night for another hour.

Before long, morning was punctured by the voices of my cabin mates. There was the promise of sunshine and blue sky. After eggs and toast at the Mess Hall, I lugged my cello to the small fieldstone building in a cluster of pines and birches. It had two, four-paned windows that opened from side hinges, and was big enough for perhaps two people, a music stand and instruments. I positioned myself in the chair, cello held steady between my knees, then tightened the rosined horse hair on the bow. Tuned the strings. Placed the foldable metal music stand just so, the concerto opened and ready. Leaned into it, its glowing wood against my already-damp shirt: hands, fingers, play. Sing for me.

If I wanted to keep first chair in the youth orchestra I would have to work much harder. Gazing out the window at sunlight rich as honey, I attacked a rigorous passage. I played by heart and the multitudinous notes beckoned and taunted me. A large black beetle opened its wings, flew and landed by my foot. Bees buzzed. I closed my eyes. My calloused (but sometimes still tender) fingertips slid along the strings. My cello unleashed the sounds I sweated over, coaxed. This time, at least.

And so it went. The day filled up with orchestra rehearsal, then modern dance class at the large stone dance building where dozens of windows opened to the lake below. Later, a quick lunch, and then to a creative writing class held by a stoney beach. What did we really see, our pencils poised above notebooks? Our eyes observed white sails of a Sunfish, green canoes and rowboats sturdy and slow. There were old docks and kids splashing each other during free time, which awaited me after this class. I took it all in, and what I saw was a small heaven on earth: all the arts unfolding, nature sharing its secrets, everyone creating to their hearts’ content.

I was at Interlochen’s National Music Camp again, 1964.

Evening was mysterious and comforting at once. There were several performances to choose from if we weren’t playing, ourselves. This included plays , musicals or operettas and dance concerts, most offered on open air stages. Leaning back on a green bench, I would scan the sky for Orion or Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dipper. Venus, ever imperious, danced in place. The lush swells and complicated puzzles of music came and went, the old masters’ works awakened once more in the hands and voices of children and young adults. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed, attacked and moved on. The slap-slapping of lake water was the welcoming sound of something like home. My friends and I whispered among ourselves about the campfire later, the potential for clandestine meetings with boys.

It could seem a hard place to be, Interlochen. It meant tough discipline and long hours of study and practice, sweaty days and nights without much privacy or many physical comforts. There was no other music but the music we made, no television to while away the time. But it was here that I found the privledge of time and many means to fan my passion to create. It was here that I got to step a bit away from family roles and school year pressures or worries. Here I could attend to what I truly loved.

Besides the arts, I had acres of land filled with lakes, rocks and fascinating insects to study; throngs of lovely trees that had lived longer than I ever would. An encounter with leeches that left me aghast and smarter. Firelight and starlight that held tentaive overtures of romance. A green-blue lake with a murky bottom that offered unbridled play. And right beside me, were youth from all around the world who cared about the same things. I was part of something very good, something much bigger than each of us alone.

All this comes to me after reading an article recently that summer camps in the U.S are still going strong. The magazine was glossy and the camps likely formidably expensive. Still, it heartened me. There are camps for children of nearly any means and ways to get money to attend. They are sought after for many reasons, and the diverse skills gained and friendships made endure and bring back the kids and, later their kids. But they clearly come back for the fun of it. There is being away from parents, getting introduced to the real outdoors, finding something new and surprising in the course of a day, and sinking into a gentle sleep at the end of day. There is learning a lesson or two, such as discovering that what may seem too challenging–from backwoods tenting to learning a sonata, from hitting a target with a swift arrow to executing a pas de deux–can be well met and enjoyed.

There were other music and church camps, as well as a great day camp in my hometown that I looked forward to each summer in my elementary school years. But the  Interlochen experience informed my whole life. It so imbued me with wonder, resilience and a desire to reach high no matter what I choose to do, that I have talked about it for over forty years. I am finally completing a novel that shares an essence of those times. Not surprisingly for me, it is partly about the healing that is sparked by the potent combination of nature and human creativity.

Tonight, I can easily recall those signature strains from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic” that we all played–the last concert of camp. The resonant strings,  lithe harp, those glorious french horns. Anyone who has heard it as a camper knows what I mean. It still stirs me, and cheers me onward.

Send your child to a great camp this year. It will be a dreamy summer of a lifetime.