A Time to Luxuriate in Undoing Things

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 11, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Casco Bay, Maine. -- The summer people are almost all gone now. They left by the boatload, their watches strapped back on their wrists, school calendars lodged in their minds, work reappearing like worry lines under the cosmetic of a summer tan.

As if on cue, the light changed with the month. The soft summer haze lifted its comforting curtain. There is a September clarity now, a crisp, luminous, hard edge to the view from the porch. Even the atmosphere is demanding that we look ahead.

Sometime over Labor Day, the conversation on the roads shifted as well, away from languorous reports about the weather and the state of the bluefish, to one insistent line of inquiry. How much longer are you going to be here? When are you going home?

Around the island, fields that once held lupine are now filled with purple aster. Days that once stretched to 9 p.m. before they closed up, have had their hours cut back to 7 p.m. The maple trees have conspired in this foreboding, their hemlines already turned to fall-fashionable burgundy.

I entered summer late this year, arriving from the world of Astroturf and asphalt. I came from Houston, from the Republican National Convention and, more important, from the work world where time is meted out in news cycles and sound is a matter of bites. A world in which people talk in all seriousness about a political season as if candidates were strawberries -- pick your own.

I spend most of my life in that humanscape, a closed system of megabytes and faxes and cables, with a sense of urgency and immediacy as ominous as the word deadline. My habitat is manufactured. It's built of, by and for people. Nature arrives only as a pet or pest or disaster.

But here for a while, life has been stripped down to a T-shirt simplicity. The books, papers, briefcase that I brought, were stored in a corner of the house and a tiny cubbyhole of my mind, as I spent hours walking the roads, watching the goldfinch, days without purpose or planning.

Now I sit holding onto the final hours of summer the way a tidal pool captures water as the ocean recedes. I am headed home tomorrow to the place where datebooks and pantyhose are considered necessities of life.

My friends will ask, what did you do on your summer vacation? I will tell them that I read the paper a whole day late. I learned the names of half a dozen new wildflowers. I found a special place in the mussel beds where there were almost no barnacles.

I will tell them I skipped stones with children and for a few moments no adult wondered what their Japanese counterparts were doing with their time or whether this would help on their SATs. I will tell them that sometimes what you do on your summer vacation is less important than what you undo.

I have come to believe that undoing is the real luxury in life. As adults, we need some internal permission to disengage from the world for even a few weeks. As children, after all, most of us are taught to stay in drive, perhaps even overdrive, or stall out. We have to relearn what should come naturally: to let go, to shift into neutral.

In rare and delicious moments of undoing, we toss away the list, the unrelenting and unquestioned priorities of the workaday world. In short captured moments, we step outside the very lives we so carefully construct, so laboriously maintain, and question everything from their pace to their purpose. But such times are hard to hold and such feelings don't always travel well.

One day last week, a girl walked down to the water with a jar of periwinkle shells. I watched her empty this collection back onto the beach. She was headed home and her mother said to leave the shells; they would be there for her next summer. But the girl seemed unsure. At the last minute, she reached down and chose a few to put in her pocket.

Tomorrow, I will do something like that. Much of what I have experienced these weeks must remain here, as attached to this place as the rocks. But I too will pocket a few memories for the long months ahead as simple reminders of how much in life remains to be undone.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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