Category Archives: travel

Quilted Dreams

Quilted Dreams    —by Jinny Batterson

There’ve been times, since I outgrew visions of sugarplums,
When I’ve dreaded the coming of winter. Short days, short tempers, cold,
Damp, sniffles, indoor confinement. Winter’s had little to recommend it.

This year’s cold weather was late arriving. Days shortened, but it was
Nearly Thanksgiving before there was frost on the pumpkins. Our schedules
Got disrupted: when to test the furnace, bring houseplants indoors?

Finally, the evening arrived when a blanket was insufficient warmth.
The quilt could be brought out from the linen closet, shaken vigorously,
Then inserted between a fresh sheet and the all-season bedspread.

As my life has grown less hectic, I’ve come to relish the longer
Darkness of late autumn: a chance to sip cocoa before snuggling down
Early, perhaps to drift into episodes of remembered dreams.

I cannot guarantee that the quilt is the cause, but cold weather
Seems to bring more comforting visions: brilliant landscapes visited
Earlier in person or in imagination, peopled with friends and warm welcomes. 

Often I visit cities new to me, revel in explorations and travel that
Can be more pleasant in dreams than in reality–no crowded
Rail cars, no plugged toilets, no mewling youngsters in the seat behind.

The details no longer matter as much. It’s the comfort that counts.
Even when my mind and body are saddest, my waking
Anxieties will sometimes give way to quilted dreams.

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Mr. Whirligig

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, NC

Mister Whirligig     —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, on my way to a weekend conference along North Carolina’s coast, I made a slight detour to stop in the former tobacco auction center of Wilson, North Carolina.  It was my third visit to this once-thriving, then derelict bastion of the tobacco industry, struggling to be reborn in a post-industrial, post-tobacco-auction age. 

Brick mansions with Greek-revival columns testify to Wilson’s former wealth. Vacant warehouses and storefronts bear witness to its doldrums. The town is about fifty miles east of Raleigh, at the far edge of commuting distance, but near major interstates. Its status as the county seat of a county by the same name brings some enduring activity—court cases, law offices, merchants of bail bonds. Population has stabilized at about 50,000 people, by far the largest town in this county named for a childless military man whose 1840’s exploits in a war with Mexico were ended by a fatal bout of yellow fever.

    What I came to see was a new park near the center of Wilson’s downtown: the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. Mr. Simpson, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, had for much of his life made fanciful sculptures out of scrap metal and pieces left over from the heavy equipment repair business that he ran from a small shop a few miles out of Wilson. After he closed his repair business, he turned his attention more fully to the sculptures he began to call windmills. Although his efforts sometimes drew the derision of his neighbors, Simpson continued to fashion larger and larger windmills with more and more moving parts, installing many of them around a small lake on his family’s property.

I first became aware of them when an acquaintance with ties to Wilson led a small group of us to view Simpson’s pond and the windmills planted along its edges. Mr. Simpson, then in his late 80’s, was working in his open-air shop at the far side of the pond. We saw him in profile at a distance, but an abundance of no trespassing signs made it clear that he did not welcome casual visitors.

Over time, Simpson’s “whirligigs” became a local, then regional tourist attraction. His variety of folk art drew the attention of art collectors and museums. A Whirligig graces the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Others have been purchased by museums and private collectors in many parts of the U.S.

Before Mr. Simpson died, local movers and shakers approached him about making his sculptures into an outdoor exhibition. According to Simpson’s obituary in the New York Times, Simpson relished the thought that some of his artworks would be preserved. He helped consult on the beginnings of removal and refurbishment of the pieces that eventually became the park. Vollis Simpson died before the park became a reality. Vagaries of weather, funding, and politics delayed the park’s opening for several years. The 2017 autumn day when I got to visit was gloriously clear and crisp, with just enough breeze to set most of the whirligigs to whirling.  Though I’d missed the park’s grand opening by a day, the vision I got of Mr. Simpson’s legacy brightened my outlook. It also lit up the faces of other visitors of all ages who viewed the park in person or via modern internet links.

It’s much too easy these days to get caught up in the political crises and name-calling of the moment. I like to think that Vollis Simpson’s spirit would be gratified at the way his creations beckon us toward less bluster and more whimsy. Thank you, Mr. Whirligig!    

About Squat Toilets…

About Squat Toilets…       —by Jinny Batterson

The first time I remember encountering a squat toilet was in rural Europe, during an early 1970’s trip with my husband. We were taking a deferred honeymoon about a year into our marriage. To prolong our travels given limited funds, we had chosen budget-conscious transportation and lodging. I don’t recall our location, but remember that I was bicycling along a minor road in beautiful but very open countryside when I felt the need to pee. For a good while, there didn’t seem to be anywhere I could discretely relieve myself. Finally, I came upon a small roadside shack, a bit like the outhouses I’d gotten used to on some earlier American camping trips. If nothing else, I thought, I could at least duck behind this shack to get out of sight of the road. Curious, though, I at first tried the door to this single-story roofed wooden enclosure that was maybe four feet to a side. It opened easily, with an inside latch so I could close it behind me. A slatted opening high up along one wall let in enough light so that once my eyes adjusted, I could see outlines of two shoe prints painted onto a graveled floor. In between them was a dark hole.  I was grateful for the privacy, if not quite sure how to assume an appropriate position. My experimental posture worked well enough so I soon emerged with lighter heart and lighter bladder, ready to pedal onward.       

Most of the squat toilets I’ve encountered since then have been in Hong Kong or mainland China, starting with a 1980 tourist trip. Over time, I came to realize that average Chinese were more likely to use squat than sit toilets. Almost immediately, I realized that my leg and back muscles were not accustomed to squatting for long periods; they were especially unaccustomed to getting up unassisted from a squatting position. In subsequent travels and stays in China, I got exposed to a wide variety of squat facilities. Except in the most impoverished rural areas, squat toilets came with individual stalls, sometimes in single-person outhouse-like buildings, at other times in larger restrooms with multiple stalls.

In most apartments, schools, restaurants, and shopping areas, squat toilet stalls had tile floors, with the toilet area raised about eight to twelve inches above the base of the floor. In the middle of the raised area was a saucer-sized hole or bowl. Within easy reach to one side there was often, though not always, a toilet paper roll or dispenser. (Carrying a small packet of tissues can be useful in a variety of ways in overseas travel.) Also along one side of the enclosure was a receptacle for gently used toilet paper, so less refuse went down the toilet hole, avoiding potential clogs.

Over time, more and more facilities came with flush buttons or pedals. Where there was not a mechanized flush, a water-bearing attendant made regular rounds to ensure that facilities stayed clean. On trains, squat toilets were metal, with foot pads to either side of a bowl-shaped receptacle that also flushed. When I most recently took Chinese trains earlier in 2017, most squat facilities had a grab bar at about waist height, enhancing stability as train cars swayed back and forth, and making it easier to get back up. Still, no matter how much I try to stay flexible, some aspects of using a Chinese squat toilet remain difficult for this Westerner with aging leg muscles unaccustomed to lengthy squats.

On a recent walk on one of the less-used trails in the area of the U.S. where I now live, I was reminded of some of my Chinese adventures. Early on a sunny autumn morning, I met up with a group for one of our weekly rambles. When everyone had gathered and it was time to set out, the restrooms at the trailhead were still locked up tight. Even though I’d made sure to use the bathroom at home to pee just before I left, my morning coffee began demanding further release as we followed the path into the woods. I scanned the area for a possible side trail with a port-a-potty, or even an offshoot that might lead to a street-side set of shops not too far off the trail. No luck. After a while, I spied a thicket that could provide enough cover for a privacy stop. As the rest of the group went further ahead, I contemplated the wisdom of learning to squat.  

Pizzlies and Grolars–Climate-Mediated Combinations?

Pizzlies and Grolars—Climate-Mediated Combinations?   –by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2017, I vacationed for two weeks in parts of Alaska. One of the naturalists who guided a bus tour I took in Denali National Park in central Alaska mentioned some new “hybrid” bears that are starting to show up in the far north of Alaska and Canada. As Arctic polar sea ice shrinks, the traditional ice floe habitat of polar bears is shrinking along with it. As temperatures in interior Alaska warm, some grizzlies are moving further north. One result is that the two sub-species of bears, who rarely encountered each other in the past, now have more overlap in their ranges. Sometimes they fight; at other times they interact in different ways. Offspring of polar-grizzly matings are called pizzly or grolar bears. Pizzlies and grolars typically have the coloring of polar bears, with the large head that is more characteristic of a grizzly. A picture of a pizzly that had been killed by a hunter was posted on a National Geographic site (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/) in 2010.  Only a few of the hybrid bears have been encountered so far, but biologists expect that more matings will likely occur as climate change accelerates. Perhaps, as our planet continues to warm, there may someday be pizzlies and grolars as far south as Denali park. 

My direct knowledge of Alaska’s longer-term weather is nil. However, a friend in Fairbanks who has spent most of his adult life in the now-less-frozen north, told me that the previous year’s winter was exceptionally mild—with overall temperatures about 6 degrees Fahrenheit about average. His back yard developed a lawn-chair sized sinkhole when part of its permafrost melted. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. governmental weather agency, bear out that the entire year 2016 was of record-breaking warmth in all reporting stations of our northernmost state (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/2016-shatters-record-alaskas-warmest-year). Climate change in Alaska has been more rapid than in the lower forty-eight states. 

About three years ago, I participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. For me, part of the event’s inspiration came from seeing so many people of so many different backgrounds engaged in demonstrating for the good of our planet. Even more inspiring to me was the interfaith service held the evening after the march at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Many of the speakers at the service came from areas already experiencing disruptions due to climate change— more intense downpours, longer droughts, stronger typhoons and hurricanes, sea level rise.

The indigenous elders who participated in the service were alarmed and dismayed at the damage we are doing to our planet (the environment that sustains the lives of all species, including humans), but they were not without hope. At the conclusion of an interfaith conference that ran concurrently with the march and its preparations, they issued a call to action:     

“Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

The year 2017 has had its share of weather extremes in U.S. states and territories: inhabitants of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and northern California have now experienced firsthand some of the effects of human-induced climate change. We will all need to adapt. The interbreeding option available to polar bears and grizzlies is not in our future—we have become too differentiated from other animals for that. What can be in our future, if we choose, is increasing cooperation across cultures and religions to reduce our damage to our Earth, and to start to help heal her and ourselves.

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico     —by Jinny Batterson

Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents. 

The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.

Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.

At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed.  Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.     

Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.

Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.    

Cycling Toward Resilience

Cycling Toward Resilience    —by Jinny Batterson

bicycling for fun–Jinny fords a small stream in New Zealand

September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.

Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.

Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by  several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges.  A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. 

So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines. 

Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)   

Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.

As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.

Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea

Final Great Wall tower juts into the Bohai Gulf

Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea  —by Jinny Batterson

Earlier this summer, I had a chance to check off a minor item on my “bucket list,” finally visiting an eastern terminus of China’s Great Wall. I’d first seen a section of the wall near Beijing nearly forty years ago. Much later, I’d visited the wall’s western terminus near Jaiyuguan along a portion of the Silk Road in Gansu Province. Now I wanted to see where this 5,500 mile plus engineering marvel met the sea. One balmy, pleasantly breezy mid-June morning, I got my chance.

This Great Wall excursion was part of a much longer China trip, first reconnecting with old friends, then checking out areas of northeastern China that were new to me. Internet access in China had improved tremendously. My husband, our family’s computer nerd, was able to find enough English-language variants of Chinese travel apps to help craft an unaccompanied land tour in China’s northeast. We benefited from great advances in China’s transportation and public transit infrastructures, including high-speed rail service between most major cities. As a retiree, traveling with my retired husband, I could create an itinerary that was more flexible and slower paced than a package tour. My Mandarin skills had advanced to the point where I could carry on very basic conversations: asking directions, purchasing train tickets, ordering in restaurants, swapping basic biographical information with people in more remote areas who were curious about two “big nose” visitors.

For the Great Wall portion of our adventure, we booked several nights’ stay at a luxury hotel in the nearby city of Qinhuangdao, along China’s fashionable “gold coast.” When we arrived, the area was basking in an interval of June weather when the skies were clear and temperatures were comfortable.  Our second morning, after a sumptuous breakfast buffet featuring both Chinese and Western dishes, we ordered a taxi and headed the dozen or so miles toward the coast to visit where the wall jutted into the sea, at “Old Dragon’s Head” (Laolongtou) along the Bohai Gulf, in northern Hebei province.

Substantial parks surrounded several sections of restored wall. For centuries, walls had been built in this area in attempts to keep marauding northern tribes from attacking Chinese settlements further south. The seaside sections of the wall had been reinforced and greatly expanded during the 16th century, near the end of the Ming dynasty. Close to the wall’s descent to the sea, a few Ming dynasty stones had been left bare to show layers of the original wall’s structure. Along most other accessible portions of the wall, modern stones had been added during restoration efforts in the 1980’s and 1990’s to provide a more uniform surface.

We spent parts of two days exploring several portions of the wall, getting to and from town sometimes by taxi, at others by inexpensive public bus.  The area was blanketed with signs in Chinese, Russian, and English. A major toll road, the Jingshen Expressway, runs from Beijing over 400 miles northeast to the city of Shenyang via Tianjin, Qinhuangdao and Beidaihe, a summer hangout for senior Chinese officials. As we skirted parts of the expressway, we saw familiar green and brown highway signs, signaling exits (green)  and sights of interest (brown), the same color scheme used along many U.S. interstate highways. Tourist services were abundantly available, including a KFC where we shared a chicken nuggets lunch, surrounded by conversations in Mandarin, Italian, French, and Russian.

Looking right from the final seaside tower at Laolongtou, I could see a wide sandy beach. A little further in the other direction was a major modern container port.  I was impressed with the scope and strength of the wall itself, but flummoxed by the notion that the wall could keep out anyone out who desperately, passionately wanted to get past it—a simple small boat under cover of night might suffice. Actually, forces of China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing, had come from north of the wall and marched south through it at a strategic pass after the Ming Dynasty disintegrated due to corruption and infighting.

If, among its other craziness, our current national administration persists in plans to build a wall along the U.S.’s border, American officials might benefit from a visit to Old Dragon’s Head as a cautionary reminder. 

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   

Summer!

Summer!      —by Jinny Batterson

Our calendar and our weather sometimes seem out of sync these days. Spring-like days occur during what is officially labeled “winter.” Winter resurges sometimes during officially calendared “spring.” Inklings of summer can pop up at almost any time of year.  Regardless, to me there seems something slightly magical about the official start to summer—the summer solstice, which this year falls in the northern hemisphere on Wednesday, June 21. Where I now live in central North Carolina, the sunrise-to-sunset interval today is over 14 1/2 hours, with an additional several hours of pre-sunrise and post-sunset reflected light. 

When I was a child, summer included my longest vacation from school. School summer vacation overlapped with part of solar-calendar-designated summer, the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox around September 21.  Childhood summers were mostly carefree times then. They were times for going barefoot, toughening the soles of my feet so that after a few weeks I could show off for my friends by walking across all but the hottest, roughest surfaces without flinching. I could catch fireflies in jars and marvel at the way they blinked on and off. I found hideouts in the deepest glades of nearby woods and held picnics—sometimes with fake food and imaginary friends, at other times with filched cookies and Kool-aid plus real friends. Once, when I was invited to a friend’s country house for a sleepover, we took off our shoes and socks and spent part of an afternoon wading in a cool shallow stream, stirring up the bottom mud, then standing very still until the water cleared and small fish started nibbling at our toes. 

On hot, sultry August days, I could stretch out on a straw rug in front of a circulating floor fan in my grandmother’s slightly dimmed, cool living room and lose myself in a good book. At dusk, our family would gather on the front stoop, waiting for the ice cream truck to come down our street. I’d rush to be the first to reach the Good Humor man, holding out my dime for a creamsicle. Of course, there were challenges, too—I was very slow learning most outdoor skills, from riding a bicycle to swimming without panic in deeper water. In those days before chemical sunscreens, my fair skin would blister and peel if left exposed, so on beach excursions I was faced with the unpleasant choice of either covering up from head to foot or getting a painful sunburn. However, summer’s discomforts were vastly outweighed by the glories of its time-bending freedoms. 

Later, when as an adult I had a full-time job and was helping raise our children, summer vacations were never long enough. We’d still somehow manage to escape to our rustic cabin in the woods beside a Vermont lake for at least a couple of weeks. The cabin had running water, gravity fed from a tank up the hill. It had several wall-mounted kerosene lamps, a gas refrigerator and gas stove with an oven, but no phone and no electricity. If we timed our arrival right, we’d catch the height of wild blueberry season. Even us summer people knew of favorite, out-of-the-way spots where the bushes grew thick and the berries grew sweet. On other warm afternoons, I’d venture out onto the lake in an inflatable dinghy while the rest of the crew swam. One morning,  a wizened neighbor took me fishing. He helped me bait hooks, then gutted enough of our sunfish catch to make a good lunch. I don’t think we bothered with a clock at the cabin—times were fluid, punctuated by meals, excursions, and darkness.

Changes in technology and changes in society have greatly diminished the freedom I used to associate with summer. Lengthy stretches of free time are rare, either for our over-scheduled children, for working-age adults with little or no paid vacation, or even for many retirees who’ve succumbed to the blandishments of over-scheduled, over-priced organized tours and activities. Have we traded up to a supposedly richer existence, only to be impoverished by never having or taking time to laze, to just hang out, to enjoy our natural surroundings, to dream? 

I’m among a lucky few who who have the option to indulge in unscheduled time fairly often and who recognize its importance. As I post this, I’m partway through this year’s loosely timed adventures. If you do not have the same opportunities, please try to figure out a way to create a time window for yourself, however short, when no tasks or obligations intrude.  Take a short walk on an area greenway or trail; breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air. Summer can become a magical time again, if we let it.