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Christopher Radko

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The Wonders of Summer

Posted: 07/15/10 04:38 PM ET

"Then followed that beautiful season ... Summer ... 
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape 
lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.
"
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


For kids everywhere, summertime means freedom! School's out and books are left behind. Shedding heavy clothes, it's time to spend days outdoors running barefoot on the warm ground, climbing apple trees and splashing in water. While I was growing up, nothing said summer more than our family's first trip of the season to the beach. What a welcomed escape from the overheated Bronx, a cement furnace where even the fire hydrant fountain sprays sizzled on the sidewalk. While my parents packed the striped towels, Coppertone lotion, transistor radio, chicken drumsticks and coleslaw, I ransacked my jumbled closet to find tin pails for the best sandcastles ever, and of course I couldn't forget my favorite oft-patched inflatable rubber dinosaur.

We'd trail up the New England Turnpike in our apple red V-8 '64 Pontiac Bonneville to Sherwood Island on the Connecticut shore. As we got closer, the marshy scent of salt water filled my nose. I couldn't wait to get out of the car, dashing for the splash and rumble of the waves. Maybe I'd catch a starfish! And then we'd go to the concession stand for some crispy fries and gooey saltwater taffy.

Those were days when signs were still posted at the beach advising ladies in high-healed Audrey Hepburn shoes to kindly not walk the sun softened tar and asphalt boardwalk. My mom wore smart flat sandals. I also recall the extravagant rubber bathing caps women wore at the beach up till the early 1970's. It seems strange today, but they didn't like to get their hair wet, since they went to the beauty parlor just once a week for a "rinse and set." But oh, those skull tight caps, topped with fantasy flowers, butterflies and frills in day-glo colors -- waterproof bouquets fit to impress Neptune himself!

Over the years, my summers have brought crackling fireworks and proud parades, ice cream floats, sweet peach cobbler and strawberry rhubarb pie at cookouts, a fair share of misadventures in camping and family road trip vacations that are stories by themselves. Happily, for kids today being outdoors still means play time, and lots of it; as ever packing all the joys of summer into baseball games, swimming, skate boarding, kite flying and more. Like many others, I've enjoyed these glorious days of reverie, like days lyrically described in Dandelion Wine, the autobiographical fantasy recounting a memorable mystery-filled summer of author Ray Bradbury's childhood. It remains a perfect summer read.

But now, I am no longer entirely a kid, and like most people, I don't expect to be able to take two or three months off to play in the middle of the year. At the height of my corporate life, someone asked me "Aren't you just too busy to live?" Me, too busy to live? It was hard to face the truth. But I was busy springing forth, dynamically active in the corporate world, acquiring, building and dutifully being a good consumer, to the point where life, when I bothered to notice, was starting to feel like a runaway treadmill. It was, perhaps, the season for those things.

So what then is summer to me these days? What can it be for all of us who still have a bit of the kid still in us? I may be turning 50, but I am in the prime of my life, with so much more good to come. Why not take our cues from nature? Summer smooths the restless heart and the sun's rays are a balm for the battered spirit. The days are luxuriously long now, with as much as 15 or 16 hours of daylight. I too have taken to rising earlier, so as to be outside for a good morning walk, my border collie Kyla in tow, before the heat starts to climb. I can still get some exercise in, answer work emails, and shower and eat, before 9 a.m. I balance my work schedule with time for hobbies like gardening, reading and play, and yes, even time for love.

If it is a weekend, I may write for about 5 hours, until my eyes cross and typos tell me it's time to stop. Then, it's time for a lazy afternoon. But I know I am not lazy, so much as I am resting, and deeply recharging. As Henry James said, "Summer afternoon, summer afternoon, for me the two most beautiful words of the English language."

I've heard that on summer solstice, you can balance an egg on its point, and tradition says that in the summer, you can measure the temperature by counting the times cicadas buzz every 15 seconds. Though I'm grown up now, I'm still enchanted by dragonflies. I imagine them to be celestial emissaries between dimensions, intricate air streamed jewels from an art nouveau atelier. Recently a spry turquoise dragonfly let me stoke his lacy wings. I held my breath in wonder.

In summer, I find nature at her peak, resting for a moment after the vigorous growth of spring. From this high place, my view is full and wide. The trees and valleys are richly green, and the sun glistening water welcoming and warm. I'm enjoying meals with produce grown seasonally and locally. I make iced tea with my own lavender and organic fresh mint. All around me, I notice gardens bursting with bright pink colors of crepe myrtles, orange day lilies, lilac and burgundy rose of Sharon, and sweet scented phlox. In my own yard, cabbage sized Victorian hydrangeas are a living memento from my grandparent's day.

The heat of the day draws me under a shady tree. I watch fat white clouds drift across the sky, and the shadows of sycamores lengthen on the lawn. Drowsy bees stumble over buttercups. The days are full and the heat warms my skin. Even in this seeming stillness of an afternoon siesta, with Aaron Copland's music of the heartland playing gently, I feel excitement about life.

Summer afternoons invite me into the fullness of feeling present. I just have to slow down and look around me, and truly take some time to live. Cicadas and bullfrogs join in concert under a starlit sky, and playful fireflies guide me home to a place of wonder. It is in this moment that I am flooded with the sudden awareness of my aliveness. Yes, I am alive, ALIVE! So are you, and knowing it plum tingles! I just have to take the time to listen to the song. I pause and breathe deeply in. There is so much beauty in the world.

Summer's ecstatic and unexpected pleasures counterbalance the occasional bitterness of life. No quiet simple moment is too small. Even the ephemeral beauty of an all too short-lived summer season can be held on to in our hearts. It can fill us, nourish us with strength to produce a joy-filled harvest as we dress for the next season of our lives. And despite what winds or winter frost that may yet come, we will remain inspired and warmed by summer's glow.