“This was the summer that never got off the ground,” a friend said to me recently. At that very moment, it was a sweltering 104 degrees in Albuquerque and had been for weeks. If this wasn’t summer, then I didn’t know what it was.
But I understood what he meant. In spite of the fact that summer never looks like I imagine, every year I entertain a fantasy that the season will be full of lemonade, hammocks and whole afternoons spent reading mysteries. This hasn’t actually since the summer I was nine and read an entire Nancy Drew book every day for three months.
The spring semester screeched to a halt in mid-May. I finished up lessons, held my studio recital, did final choir concerts of the season with Matt. After months of working at 90 mph, for two weeks time didn’t simply move slowly, it stood still. I gardened; I had drinks with friends; I first hauled and then spread an entire ton of rocks (literally! A ton of rocks!) into the courtyard. My website broke and I spent hours (OK, weeks really) in a technological tailspin. In an impulsive moment, I got on-line and reserved 11 books from the library, all of which arrived the very same day. Seeing me stagger through the door with my pile, Matt said, “You trying to win a prize in the library summer reading program?” This is exactly the sort of thing I would have done as a child with my many Nancy Drew books. Matt is nothing if not supportive of my efforts.
For a few days in late May, Matt and I rented a house on the edge of the desert wilderness in Dixon, outside of Taos, and spent entire days reading and staring off into the distance. The house had a sleeping loft, accessible by ladder (very “Little House on the Prairie” I told Matt as he eyed the setup suspiciously) where I insisted we sleep. And sleep we did. After months of not sleeping well, I didn’t simply fall into an immediate sleep after climbing into the loft, I tumbled headfirst into the sort of deep dreamless sleep that is usually induced by drugs or a head injury. I began calling it the Magical Sleeping Loft and starting plotting ways we could build a Magical Sleeping Loft in our 12×12 foot bedroom back at home. This, I became convinced, would solve all our problems.
When not sleeping or staring aimlessly out at the northern New Mexico mountains, I spent hours in the charming little adobe house with a stack of blank paper and a pen plotting my perfect summer. After all, we were still perched on the edge of the season. Anything was possible. I would go on lots of hikes. I would sit outside with a glass of wine in the evenings and listen to Beethoven string quartets. I would eat watermelon every day. I would swim a mile, not just once a week, but several times every week. I would read, and read, and read (page-turning mysteries and books of Zen teachings and biographies about hermits and musicians and….Lions and tigers and bears, Oh My!). I would go to the farmer’s market every Saturday and buy produce that I would then cook. I would grow herbs, make pesto, eat cucumber salads…I would….I would…I would…
June was a blur of piano lessons. I watched the final two seasons of Downton Abbey (did ever a season end with more joy for everyone?) My best friend Lora, who in December moved to Massachusetts, came to visit for a long weekend. Matt and I said goodbye to our dear friends Anne and Dan who moved to Denver (Who has both of their best friends move away within 6 months of each other? Me. Cue the sad violin music, please). The morning after we our tearful goodbye, I went on a hike, thinking that there was solace in nature. Coming down the mountain, I broke my toe. Yep. I could not make these things up. After a delightfully cool spring, the temperature began rising. And rising. Forget a summer of sitting in cocktail corner in the backyard sipping white wine and watching the hummingbirds, I stopped going outside. Instead, I entered a three-week migraine cluster. My productivity and good intentions bottomed out completely. Between the heat and the migraines, I was functioning at about 57%.
July should have brought the welcomed monsoon season. Nope. We did, however, begin a season of constant, non-stop watering thanks to the heat. I watered in the mornings. I watered in the evenings. Every day I moved pots to try to keep them out of the worst of the heat. In spite my efforts, the garden withered and wilted under the relentlessly scorching sun. There were more piano lessons and rehearsals for a couple of concerts in southern New Mexico with my friend and cellist, Joel. My sister Beth and five-year-old nephew Asher came for ten days. Asher is learning to play chess. I last played chess twenty-five years ago. I quickly discovered that playing chess with Asher meant making a move and then having Asher tell me what I did wrong. Chess games with Asher take a long time and are quite humbling. One night, however, I made some now-forgotten play on the board and I heard Asher say under his breath, “Good move.” This happened only once. Once, I tell you.
A few days after Beth and Asher arrived, Joel and I left for a week in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We were there to be a part of an informal amateur chamber music festival and to play two concerts: one in Cloudcroft and one in nearby Ruidoso. Located at 9000 feet, Cloudcroft—I was told more than once—is the town with the highest elevation in New Mexico. While temperatures in Albuquerque stubbornly remained above 100 degrees every day, the temperature in Cloudcroft never got above 70 degrees. Between music-reading sessions and rehearsals, we went hiking. Every morning, we sat on the porch swing outside our cabin located on the edge of the Lincoln National Forest and drank coffee while looking out at White Sands off in the horizon. Every afternoon, we returned to the porch to linger over a glass of wine before dinner and the evening’s music sessions playing Beethoven and Schubert. It was kind of perfect.
It was during one of those many hours on the porch that the subject of summer came up and Joel made the comment about summer never quite getting off the ground. As he spoke, reciting his own grievances about the season, I thought wistfully about that list of intentions I had created at the beginning of the summer. Until Cloudcroft, I hadn’t hiked (thanks broken toe!). I hadn’t sat outside and listened to music (heat, migraine). I hadn’t read a single memorable book (plenty of unmemorable ones though). I hadn’t changed my swimming habits (laziness, migraines). I hadn’t gone to the famer’s market even once. I felt like I had not had a good night of sleep since the Magical Sleeping Loft two months before. Concerns about loved ones had kept me awake at night, worrying over a future that probably wouldn’t come true and that I had no control over even if it did. As I sat on that porch in Cloudcroft overlooking the pine forest below, I remembered that I had three shriveled cucumbers sitting in my refrigerator back home.
When Lora moved in December I inherited all her geraniums and jade plants. The geraniums have spent the summer in the courtyard, oblivious to the heat, blooming like mad. Two weeks ago yet another good friend (how is this even possible?) moved to Houston. Chiao-li asked if I would take several of her husband’s prized succulents, including one cactus that stood some 5-feet tall (Sure, why not?). As I shoved another plant into a crowded corner in the sunroom, I thought, I have no room in my heart or my home for another friend to leave town. Perhaps it is too obvious a metaphor that as I watched my village move away, my consolation was a plant with thorns?
Here’s the narrative I have been telling myself about this summer: the last few months have been sad, stressful and hot as the hinges of hell (or so my friend Marge would say). Poor me. I work so hard. It’s so hot. I didn’t get to enjoy my summer at all. No mysteries, hammocks, or lemonade. (More violins please….) All my friends are moving away. Poor, poor me.
These are the facts, or at least some of them, sure enough. But perhaps the truth of the story is always more complicated and rich then we first admit. This was the season that gave me both a house full of plants and an empty space in my world where those dear friendships used to fill. I had awful migraines, yes, but also some free hours to watch Downton Abbey. There were hot afternoons where the only good option was chess games with a five-year-old. Last night clouds gathered overhead but brought no rain; however, I sat outside with a Campari and soda and a book while Matt grilled dinner.
We tell ourselves these stories about our lives and then act in ways that make them come true. In these last scorching days of July, I’m rewriting my narrative. I find myself in my final days of teaching lessons before the two-week break that officially marks the end of the summer session. The. End. Of. The. Summer. Fall lessons start August 14th. Yes. August. 14. There is no time to waste.
I’m not just looking for the silver lining, I’m trying to see if there might not be a whole cloud made of silver. While it is true that in many respects this summer has been tough, stressful, and hot as the hinges of hell that is hardly the whole story. Nor is that the story I want to live inside. There may be only two real weeks of summer left around here, but that’s two weeks. Fourteen days. So much is possible.
The last night in Cloudcroft I had a dream. I dreamt that when I arrived back to my crowded house and life in Albuquerque all my succulents were covered in huge flowers. They were, I am convinced, welcoming me home.