Savoring summer’s gifts

“I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” – from Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

As summer begins to fade, a plaintive refrain of regret can be heard in places where the season of sun and fun never seems long enough. “It’s gone so fast,” we say. “Can you believe summer is almost over?”IMG_1550

The season we love to anticipate does fly by for those of us who live in northern climates and only get a few months of warmth each year. Once we shed our winter layers for shorts, tees, and flip-flops, it is easy to settle in and forget that fall and winter eventually will return. Then somewhere around July 4, we start saying, “Summer is half over. Where did it go?”

Although I am sensing with everyone else the passing of this season of ease, I am greeting this juncture with less regret, thanks to a teacher friend who introduced me to Frederick the field mouse in the children’s story cited above.

Instead of gathering “corn and nuts and wheat and straw” like the other mice, Frederick sits and collects “sun rays for the cold dark winter days.” He stares at a meadow, storing up the colors of flowers, wheat, and leaves. And when he seems to be half asleep and dreaming, he explains, “Oh no, I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many and we’ll run out of things to say.”

The story ends happily when Frederick comes to the rescue just as his family of mice is out of food and stories. He is ready with his rays of sun and colors that everyone can see “as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds,” and finally, uses his storehouse of words to create an entertaining poem, delighting his fellow mice, who applaud him and proclaim him a poet.

My friend, who would read Frederick to her second-graders, first shared this story with me some years ago during our annual late-summer “beach day.” As we sat on the sand, she suggested that, like Frederick, we could store up sunshine, warm breezes, and a blue sky reflected in the waters of the lake before she would be consigned to a classroom for another school year. It was always a delicious day, one that seemed to prepare us for the onslaught of the winter we knew would follow even the most beautiful fall.

So now, insteIMG_1504ad of gathering regret at the end of each summer, I try to follow Frederick’s lead by savoring and stashing away the best of the season. This year, that has meant spending many an evening on the front porch listening to the birds as they settle in for the night, and then casting my eyes skyward to watch the bats flying sorties at dusk. It has meant taking time to look over my less-than-perfect garden and appreciate its gifts: the Purple Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans that were and are so stunning this year, the bunches of elderberries on branches that grew from what was a small plant just a few years ago, and the new foliage and blooms that emerged from the bottoms of the dead frames of two beloved bushes I had thought were forever lost.

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I have paused to fix in my memory the sun rising over a bean field as I take my morning walk and the swaths of swamp rose mallows lining the causeway at a nearby wildlife area. I have smiled when startled by the Northern Cardinal’s early-morning wake-up call while it is still dark and been soothed by the whistle of the Eastern Wood-Peewee off in the woods. I have tucked away the treasure of wren chatter and peeping hummingbirds, of Eastern Screech-Owls calling back and forth at nightfall and dawn, of a Great Crested Flycatcher visiting my garden, of a newly fledged Red-Headed Woodpecker at the suet feeder with its parent, and of a splendid Cooper’s Hawk on the edge of our garden pond.

If you have slipped into a kind of sadness at the passing of summer, it’s not too late to do as Frederick did. Soak up some sun, and look, listen, and savor the treasures of this season. They will warm, feed, and delight you – and perhaps those around you – as the days grow shorter. Not only that, but they will drive out regret and remind you that summer is indeed endless when you store up and recall its beauty.

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Pockets of peace

Like finding the perfect home, the quest for quiet would seem to be about location. But in our noise-driven world, the peace we try to carve out of the chaos around us often is disturbed by all manner of sound. IMG_1454

Neighborhoods touted by realtors as “quiet” can easily erupt into auditory mayhem, especially on weekends when power tools and lawn equipment emerge from garages. Or, when a new family arrives on the block with two barking dogs and installs an outdoor sound system.  Even rural dwellers learn that not all people move out of the city for the same reason when they discover their neighbor’s idea of country living is having a place to race ATVs, or a winter night’s stillness is broken by the whine of snowmobiles.

So what to do if you are a quiet-seeker dwelling among people who are fond of two-cycle engines and loud music?

Having lived in urban and small-town neighborhoods as well as the country, my husband and I have found that talking with persistent noisemakers does not typically bring about a lasting peace.  First of all, one person’s noise is another’s delightful distraction or good clean fun. For example, a family member who lives near an airport and railroad tracks tells us he loves hearing large planes fly over his house and the rumble of a train in the not-so-far distance.

Because those who create what seems like excessive noise to some of us do not often take kindly to suggestions that they lower the volume, lovers of quiet sometimes have no choice but to leave a noisy place, either permanently, which is not always practical, or temporarily.

Although I live in what, for the moment at least, is a mostly peaceful setting, I’ve always had quiet escapes. When I was a suburban dweller, my favorite getaway spots inIMG_1353cluded a park with wooded trails, one of which had a stand of pines with an inviting opening that seemed to breathe calm. Another of my escapes was cycling out to an area where I could sit on the sand and listen to the water lapping against the shore. When I worked in a windowless cubicle in a newspaper office, I would sometimes use my breaks to take walks or sit by a fountain in a downtown park. In less pleasant weather, the public library was a ready refuge. Even now, if I am in the midst of a busy schedule of errands and appointments, stopping at an art gallery, a museum, or  a bookstore offers some respite from the rush.

These pockets of peace, I have found, make it possible to endure the noise, whether it’s in a neighborhood, a work environment, or my own mind. If I can slip into one for 15 minutes or an hour, I can return to the madness refreshed and renewed.

This is obviously an imperfect solution, especially for those of us who have created some quiet space in our homes and feel as if we are being driven from it by others’ predilection for noise. Gail, a reader of my recent post on “Engaging Silence” said after long, stressful days at work, she craves the quiet of home and yard, listening to water from a fountain and bird song. Sometimes, however,  she can’t even hear those sounds because of “everything from blowers to mowers to motorcycles and blaring music.”

In such cases, when you can’t flee, I’d like to think it’s possible to minimize the audio-annoyances around us by cultivating and calling upon some interior peace. The friend who serves as a guide for this blog did this recently when, as she said, she was “anticipating noise” from new neighbors who moved in and parked several vehicles in their driveway. As she thought about what this might mean, she was able to make peace with the prospect of more noise, much as she does when the neighbor children and their friends play all summer long in the common space outside her sun porches.

I saw evidence of this a few weeks ago when I noticed two nuns from a local monastery at one of those enormous warehouse stores that specialize in bulk everything. Unlike the other shoppers I encountered that day, these two had an air of serenity as they pushed their cart through the cavernous, sometimes overwhelming store.  They were identifiable by their religious garb, but almost more by the gentleness that they exuded. I felt more calm and able to deal with the dizzying display of merchandise just by having encountered them.IMG_1350

Although their days are filled with many of the mundane tasks the rest of us perform — preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning, gardening, and in this case, shopping – they do most of their work in silence, interspersing it with periods of prayer.

We can draw something from their way of life, I think, without moving to the cloister. The women I met that day were not rattled, rushed, or rude when I approached them to ask if they were indeed from the nearby monastery. They were welcoming, open, and unhurried, as if we had met in the cloister.

In her memoir, Redeemed, writer Heather King says, “I am pretty sure that if everyone did a few simple things – observed an hour of silence, prayed for an hour, looked, really looked, for an hour each day – the world would be transformed.”

We can’t all be contemplative nuns, but we can do some of what they do by taking an hour a day to be quiet and to look, really look, and — just maybe — be transformed and bring the quiet we cherish to our noisy world.