August 1, 2006

The Flipped Lid: Outside, looking inward

A week and a half ago around 9:30 p.m., when the air felt like breath — except it didn’t move — I sat on my front porch drinking a bottle of Honey Brown Ale, listening to crickets and the train along Ninth Street Parkway.

Despite the fact that summer nights feel senseless and beautiful, and despite spending many happy years sweating at Cedar Ridge Camp in Jeffersontown as a counselor, nurse, lifeguard and cook, I’d sat outside at night maybe twice since moving in June. That night, I finally relaxed into the wet heat and wondered about my neighbors. Does everyone stay inside obediently, fearful of air alerts? Even at night? Does anyone go outside just to be outside?

I thought more about my camp days, missing the struggle against and eventual surrender to summer, screened cabins and sharing showers with daddy long-legs spiders. I missed wet picnic tables. And the 7 a.m. wake-up bell. And T-shirts that smell like campfires. And bug spray. And three-week romances. And spazzed-out campers. And bug juice. Back rubs. Pope Lick monster stories. Vespers. Cabin 13.

Recalling those times, drinking my sweaty beer (happy, cold, tasty), I noticed the tree in my new yard, old and big and at least eight feet around. I felt lucky and really alive. It felt as if that tree, in the hot darkness, meant to remind me of other times around other trees: camping on Bear Island in South Carolina, backpacking in the Smokey Mountains, sleeping in my car in Cape Anne in Massachusetts. I also remembered being a camp counselor, and being drawn out to the camp’s woods and lake in the early morning. I’d roll out from bunk in sweats, hair like a nest, sort of blank and raw to wilderness; half wild myself from summer stripping me down to a toothbrush, towel, soap and sleeping bag.

Above the lake, from the camp’s lodge, the still morning water made a mirror of the clouds and cedars. The camp seemed like an island, and the lake seemed like the sky. I’d feel present, connected with everything I could and couldn’t see or feel, the same way the big old tree in my yard jarred me out of superficial distraction and into suspended meditation. The world around me floated.

On the night I drank beer on the porch, no one else sat out. No one walked along the sidewalk with her dog. The heat index was nearly 100 that day. I wouldn’t have been outside, either, but I was waiting for Kris and remembered the beer in the fridge. Suddenly, I regretted not sitting outside with a beer all summer. Then I missed everyone else in my new neighborhood, all of them holed up like I had been for days. Hell, I grieved for the holed-up and isolated world at war.

I almost wished air conditioning hadn’t been invented. As I fantasized about folks sitting on their porches almost a century ago, I wanted to know my neighbors, maybe well enough to regularly exchange favors. I mean, I love air conditioning, but when I’ve been camping, I get used to bugs, heat and stink but eventually yearn for people much more than hot showers and a microwave. Then again, I drank another beer. Maybe I am a lightweight who felt a beer love-buzz and that damn tree was the sole present subject upon which to affectionately ruminate. Then again, perhaps both are true. I felt buzzed and also felt (and feel) sorry that most of us have exchanged emotional comforts for physical ones. We’d rather be cool inside than build relationships with our environment and the people around us. And that may end up feeling a lot stickier than the nastiest Ohio Valley humidity.

The weather broke a few days later. Kris and I opened the house. As a fan pulled cool air through our bedroom window, I listened to cicadas, crickets and other outside night things. Around 1 the next morning, Kris woke up to loud party guys in our alley. Neither of us worried about who was outside or who might get in. I hadn’t slept so well in weeks.

Contact the writer at carriemichaelle@gmail.com