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SUMMER IS HERE


Summer comes so suddenly into the hills and the little valley towns of Vermont, no one is quite prepared to accept it. It bursts in upon us like a sudden breeze blowing back the curtains, slamming the screen door as we sit up from our morning coffee. The newspaper goes sailing off the couch caught in the swirl of its frenzy and we go stumbling after it, not quite awake, hardly prepared to acknowledge that we are no longer in that nervous, anticipatory tempo of spring. But it's here, as if we had totally forgotten about relatives who were coming to town and now are here -- banging car doors, laughing in the side yard, coming in with suitcases and boxes of food, kids already skinning a knee on the flag stones, mothers shouting and forgetting we were now on the porch with fixed grins. Summer has arrived.

The sun hangs there in late afternoon with no thought of ending the day. The light is thin and champagne-colored behind the trees, and the air is still now, warm and odorous of cut grass and moist soil. The hay in the fields has changed colors from pale grayish green to something much darker and mustier, a sultry shade of lake water that moves mysteriously when the wind presses on it. Summer is this unfamiliar heaviness of warmth moving from room to room and rising up the sides of the house with its slow breath.

In town, everyone is friendly and eager to talk. I can't get from the hardware store to the bakery without stopping every few feet to say hello to neighbors I haven't seen since early winter. We ask about Harry's health, and Margaret's operation, about the kids who graduated from high school and are getting ready to go to college. The usual catching up is done in a few minutes and we go on, only to stop again, phrasing the same questions with different names. Everyone has changed in our absence, and nothing has changed enough to widen our eyes. We are the same folks, slightly bored with the pace of our lives, but fascinated that anyone could look older in the summer light, and to hear that a certain neighbor has moved away, or has divorced and married again. It's how change occurs, on tiny cogs of a vast wheel turning so slowly we hardly notice its progress. But summer is that paradox of eternity and minute alteration that makes us stop to ask our plain, uninspired questions about each other.

Meanwhile, kids are falling in love and swooning over each other. It's time to push against one's limits, to move beyond the first tentative touch and kiss and learn how fragile are the boundaries imposed upon them by school and home life. The urges that make the garden tremble in the morning dew also pulse along the veins of teenagers discovering that handholding is not enough. Summer keeps urging them into unknown territory, whispering temptation and thoughts that leave one breathless. Darkness is another pair of arms around you, and you lie in its comforting assurances in the back seat of the family car, or at the end of the porch, or on the little painted bench in the park. Parties are islands of dark between strings of colored light bulbs illuminating the table in the backyard and the gate leading to the street. You float upon such dark neutrality and your partner is close beside you, obeying the ancient book of summer, the one you never read but could quote from at will.

But unlike summer in the Southwest, where I spent much of my adult life, summer here is compressed, tightly packed into three months of dazzling light, and bursts of nature throbbing on every tree limb and in every corner of the yard. You can't quite believe it is already the end of June, the first week of July, the days peeling away from the calendar to mid-summer and the aching feeling that you haven't quite done enough. Summer is fleeting, and has no afterlife once the cold autumn wind begins to blow. So you eat more melon and enjoy the iced tea, and the nap in the backyard. Your grill is fired up by five o'clock and the smell of roasting corn wakes up memories not thought of since you were ten or twelve.

I've always felt that the celebrations of the 4th of July were tinged with a kind of sadness. It has to do with the celebration of independence from England, with becoming an adult before you are ready to take up its freedoms and responsibilities. July belongs to Caesar, the master of war and conquest, and the soldiers who loyally followed him into the battlefields, often to their death. Summer moves you from the house into the world, from restrictions to experiments, from innocence to the first whiff of perfume from the girl next door, the sudden information that a girl is not just a skinny kid anymore but a creature entering into womanhood. My throat tightened when my neighbor looked at me with a smile I had not seen before. She had perceived something in her own blood that made her different, no longer an abstraction in her family, or a face in a crowded classroom. She walked differently, with the subtlest sway of her hips and the graceful manner in which she moved her hands. She was beginning to glow from some inner light, a kind of quartz that had sloughed off its earth and now turned in a soft, persistent radiance deep in her soul. And I was no longer just a gangly contraption of arms and legs, and an ungovernable energy. I was suddenly shy, withdrawn, with diminished appetite, and longings I could not trace back to any one incident or experience.

All this transformation unfolded in the interiors of a glass globe we call a season. The elders knew all about it and was perhaps the greatest mystery of life -- this metamorphosis from brat to beauty, from pimple-faced idler on a bike to an awkward faun. Everyone's been there, gone through the glass tunnels of summer mornings and the darker, reedier mazes of afternoon, and the jungle that opened into night when the sun set. But the moment was finite, and the further north you go in this country, the denser the light, the harder the garden fought for its immortality in the soil where it was rooted and entrapped. Everything ached to grow and yet, to slow the ascent until one could catch a breath and understand the rush of magic into one's heart.

Every town has a stash of trestle tables stored in some dark corner under a library steps or at the back of the fire station. They're taken out, dusted off, covered in butcher paper and the town's pastry chefs come out with tins of apple pie and mince meat, turnovers and pots of preserves from last year's harvest. The bags of shelled walnuts swell in their little burlap bags. The daughters sit there patiently smiling at customers as they pass by, eyeing all the cinnamon-laden goods. It's the annual summer festival, and everyone comes out for it -- to sample the wares, to buy a slice or a whole pie, and move on with that faint smile of expectation that dessert has been solved for the evening's meal.

If there is a band shell tucked back on a little rise of the village commons, a few musicians might be sitting there fanning themselves before the bandmaster shows up. Someone thought to bring a cooler of beer and some bags of potato chips. The kids are on blankets waiting for the concert to start. Your heart feels a slight pinch at how old and unconscious these rituals are. The mayor has his speech ready, and the aldermen are anxious to say a few words on behalf of the new solar farm coming soon. Vermont is leading the way for the Green Revolution, and one day soon communities will generate their own energy off the central grid. People meander around town without much to do. A few stop to get cones of ice cream and wipe kids' mouths after they have dropped their own on the sidewalk. The pace of summer feels so slow, no one wonders about the corner of the horizon where the first chill will gather its mysterious robes and begin its descent onto the rooftops. Right now, there is hardly a shadow anywhere, just dazzle and laughter and idle talk and moments in which to stand and sway as if something wonderful is about to happen.

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