One day last week, one of the ones that was forecast to be hotter than Maine should be allowed to be, I decided to mow the lawn while it was still “cool” out before I started work for the morning.
That meant mowing the lawn around 6:30. (Don’t worry I have a human-powered lawn mower, no pesky waking up neighbors.)
It was a beautiful morning — quiet, the sun shining off the dew, muggy, but almost a little cool. It had a familiar feeling I couldn’t place. As I pushed the mower around I tried to pin down what felt familiar, and it finally bubbled up. A memory of being 7 or 8 at swimming lessons at our neighborhood pool in Ohio early morning in early summer. The same cool mugginess, the same stillness.
A vivid part of the memory is how flat the water was, with a light mist rising up. So different when hundreds of kids were splashing around under the sun. The smell was cool summer morning — grass and leaves — not the hot cocoanut suntan lotion and concrete smell of later in the day.
How quiet things were, except for the morning birdsong and the instructor lecturing us as we stood on the edge, dreading the moment we’d have to jump into the cold water.
It’s funny how something as intangible as the feel of an early summer morning can bring up such a vivid 50-year-old memory, and how much of that memory is sense and feeling, not specific faces, objects and facts.
The memory brought up mixed feelings. Not only was I dreading the moment of jumping into the water, going from relative comfort to a cold wet wakeup, I also strongly felt ambivalence in general. I liked the pool, but not swimming lessons. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but it was an early manifestation of my lifelong disinterest in doing something that I enjoy, but where someone else was calling the shots.
But there was also a pleasant feeling of anticipation — summer had started, and after this obligation, the day was wide open. My mom had six kids under 10 to deal with and this was the late 1960s — no schedules and programmed activities for us kids back then, just running around, the pool, the park, riding bikes and chasing the ice cream truck and fireflies.
As writers, I think we sometimes don’t take the time to investigate the feeling around the scene. The smell, the atmostphere, the connected emotions can get lost. Writing is a lot of focus on what words to use, how to use them, plot points and character development. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to stop and explore the feeling and senses part.
I could have shrugged off that moment of familiar feeling, but I was mowing the lawn and needed to think about something. Exploring it was more entertaining than thinking about the busy workday ahead.
I’m glad I took the time.
Aside from the reminder of how enriching exploring a feeling associated with a smell or moment can be, it helped what I’m working on now. The book I’m writing takes place in modern-day Maine brutally cold February, yet somehow some of the feelings and senses associated with that moment also jave informed my current writing.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be my first post of summer if I didn’t share my favorite Maine summer quote, from E.B. White (I know! Every year the same quote!). White manages to capture the feeling of a Maine summer like no one else, and it’s about so much more than the elements:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end…
White wrote that in 1941 in his essay “Once More to the Lake,” which is about my town. But it could be any time and anywhere that summer bursts out so beautifully after the long lifeless winter. It’s comforting that the summer he felt here nearly 80 years ago is the same summer we have now.
Despite the “benefits” of climate change, this seems like it’s been the longest winter ever, am I right?
Try to feel the summer.