Even for those whose roots sink most deeply into the salty seacoast soil and whose lives blossom under the heat of a coastal sun, it is a truth tinged with bitter irony. Despite being so eagerly anticipated throughout the dark night of dormancy, despite being so deeply desired, so coveted for its beauty, the longed-for season of summer inevitably ends as a season of imprisonment.
When implacable heat and humidity begin to rise, the pleasures of earlier and more temperate summer days begin their slow devolution into a world of languid passivity. A monotony of cicadas melds with the metallic hum of air conditioners. Unrelenting tendrils of lassitude twist and entwine their way into the heart’s smallest crevice, choking off energy and joy.
As the long days pass without relief, windows close. Neighbors disappear. Birds grow silent. The stray, limping dog with the friendly demeanor and the scar encircling his foreleg no longer prowls the fenceline at night, and the indolent cats seem not to breathe. Seeing one on the stoop, under the car or – there! behind the trash bin! -gives pause. “Look at that,” says the casual observer. “Is that thing alive?”
Out in the country, where customs are slower to change, beds are pulled onto sleeping porches, or pulled out even farther to rest under shadowy, star-stopping oaks. For the fortunate there are summer kitchens and expansive galleries that allow porch-sitters to flutter west to east, south to north, seeking the breeze.
For others, there is only the soft susurration of fans, muffled by draperies drawn over draperies, layers of imagined protection against the heat. Swathed in their burqas the houses sit, impassive. If sun-wearied inhabitants dare a cautious glance through the narrowed window slits, they glimpse a world remarkable only for its brilliant, glinting light and the harsh glitter of summer’s oppressive truth. “No. There will be no change. Not now. Not yet…”
In coastal cities and towns, the stolid endurance of the country is matched by an exquisite ennui, a torpor so complete police chiefs wipe sweat from their brows and explain suddenly peaceful nights by saying, “It’s too hot for crime.” In a world of concrete and crowded neighborhoods, there is no rising evening breeze, no summer kitchen, no pulsing, star-studded night. There is only the waiting: waiting for August to be done, waiting for September to end and then waiting again, for the coming of October with its prairie-fresh wind and brilliant skies.
Should October come and go, as it occasionally does, with none of the expected rains, no refreshment and no release of heat, it brings a particular kind of despair – the anguished waiting for release of summer’s prisoners. Yet even as they wait the Aeolian whisper breathes its promise. “There will come a day when the door to autumn will open. There will come a rush of sudden leaves like the rattling of keys, footsteps in the corridors of time, a voice as crisp as wind-seared corn and fresh as tumbled-up cirrus.”
“It will be over,” whispers the wind. “Your time will have been served. The season of your impatience and longing will end.”
When that day comes, it arrives first as a scent, a subtle and barely-perceptible drift of air redolent of snow still hidden in the clouds, or of wind frothing the open ocean. A scent that isn’t a scent, it clears the palate to taste every coming hint of autumn carried on the wind – faint whiffs of woodsmoke from the north, the bouquet of cane and rice clearing to the east, an acrid aftertaste of burning prairie.
Crossing streets or lounging about on street corners, wandering parking lots or working in yards, people stop, and begin to look around. Briefly at one with their earliest ancestors, they sniff the air with the focus and intensity of startled animals, beginning to smile as they sense a lifting of summer’s oppressive weight.
Tentative at first and then emboldened, quickening breezes slide along walls and round crumbling corners, stirring the dusty detritus as they go. Blown free of moisture’s milky veils, the sky reclaims cerulean and topaz, deepening and darkening as the cirrus stream away, mares’ tails racing on the wind.
While mares’ tails fly, windows fly open. A complaining squeak of wood here, a rasp and twang of aluminum there and curtains are set free to imitate clouds. Opened windows lead to opening doors, and as the neighbors emerge, communities come alive. Reopened windows bring a reclaiming of life – the quarreling couple, the chattering children, the undisciplined dog, the too-loud drunk, the skateboarding teenagers – all begin to crowd into one another’s lives through the grace of these simple windows.
I sit these days and nights with my own windows opened, summer eased but not entirely finished, dependent on rain and cold from the North to bring the beginning of true autumn and our only hope for autumn color. Some favorite summer sounds still linger – the metallic clack of palm leaves, an irritated squawk from the heron startled from his perch, the faux-rain rippling of tens of thousands of glass minnows.
Against the familiar background, sounds of a new season begin to resonate. The coots have returned, dignified and elegant in their black bodies and white bills but completely undignified in their actions, given to a cacophony of silly calls and riots of mad, splashy paddling as they try to break free of the water.
As for the newly-arrived contingent of mallards, they seem a little cranky. Bored or argumentative, their insistent quacking can continue for hours. A recent, especially boisterous evening resulted in a sudden voice ringing out into the night: “Damn it! SHUT UP!” Apparently I have one neighbor with a fondness for open windows but a low tolerance for ducks.
Amused by the exchange, listening to the night-noises with a new attentiveness, I heard something else. The soft thrum of air conditioners, ubiquitous in summer, nearly has ceased. Yet somewhere close at hand, the sound nearly concealed by the full-throated ducks, one machine continued its low, insistent whine. It seemed astonishing. On one of the most beautiful of evenings, with the door to autumn swinging open, one person had chosen imprisonment. One person freely chose to keep the windows shut, to close off the night, to ignore the touch of the breeze, the chatter of the creatures and the tender, resonant silence that emanates from the very heart of reality.
As with windows, I think, so with life. There are times when conditions require a shuttering off from life’s storms, a retreat from extremes of heated anger or cold, emotional distance that leave us anguished or exhausted. Clearly there are times to shade our eyes and drape our spirits with layers of protection until the turning of life’s season brings relief.
But just as we throw open our windows to catch the scent and sounds of a new and refreshing season, there is a time to open ourselves to life, to leave the prisons of our own making and our own choice. The way of passivity, lassitude and stolid endurance is one way of life, but it is not the only way. Certainly it is not the best way, as the poet Rumi so eloquently expressed.
Your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color
do it now