Summer House: Ch. 1

one

The first of June, and I’m back at the summer house on Woodrow Island. I guess I’ve spent around 35 of my 58 summers here. It’s our family home, passed from grandparents to my parents and now to me. I bought out the cousins’ shares a decade ago, when they were looking to raise tuition for college and music lessons for their kids, and now, both halves of the duplex are mine. Each summer, I rent out one side to vacationing families, while the other provides me with sanctuary.

I turn in my grades, close up my apartment, catch the ferry, and for three months, I am sheltered from the busyness, stress, and politics of being a lit professor at City College. Usually, I sign next year’s faculty contract before leaving. This year, I didn’t. I have until the end of the month. Of course I will, I’m sure. I just can’t think about it now. I couldn’t bring myself to click the “Accept” button on the digital form.

It was a tough year. A close friend, another faculty member, was accused of sexual harassment by one of my favorite students. I wasn’t surprised. It was a matter of time. I told Denny a few years ago, after he put his hand on my thigh during a committee meeting, that he had to change his ways.

“You can’t get away with that anymore, Denny! It’s not the 70’s.”

He kept it up, not with me, but with others.

“Denny,” I said to him early in the second semester, “You been following this #MeToo thing? These are different times. The culture has shifted, Denny.”

He laughed.

So I wasn’t surprised when, during office hours, Sasha came in to disclose what had happened. If it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else.

“I know you’re friends with Professor Carrington,” she said. “This is hard for me. I respect you, I really do. But Professor Carrington–I’m sure you’re going to hear from someone. You might was well hear from me. I had to report him to the dean.”

I listened. Inappropriate touching. Inappropriate comments. Intrusion of personal space.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m embarrassed,” Sasha said. “And I feel guilty. Did I do the wrong thing? But I told him to stop. He didn’t, like, hurt me. And… I don’t even know if it was sexual. But it wasn’t wanted. It felt wrong.”

“You did the right thing, Sasha. You have the right to have your space, your boundaries, respected.”

“Nobody knows but you and the dean,” she said.

It stayed confidential. Even Denny never found out who’d lodged the complaint. He was put on administrative leave for the next two semesters, and he had to complete a series of trainings before returning to teach.

“I’m being ‘reprogrammed,'” he said.

“It’s a good thing,” I told him. “If you can’t change yourself, then you might as well participate in something that can help you change.”

He grumbled. “I like the freedom of being able to express how I feel.”

I remained friends with him–we went way back, and we’d shared more conversations about Thoreau and Fuller, Hawthorne and Melville, than conflict could erode. But it felt strange to be friends with someone blind to the ways words and touch, from a person in a position of authority, could feel like a transgression.

I’d been a teen in the 70’s. I remembered too clearly what it was like to be groped by the boys in the halls of high school, to have teachers, coaches, principals and fathers of the kids you babysat lean in too close, make crude jokes, leer and slap you on the rear when you walked by. That wasn’t “expressing how they felt.” That was abuse. And I was glad the culture was shifting. I was glad they didn’t have a free pass to do that anymore.

Sasha stopped coming to office hours. She switched majors to biology. She was friendly and respectful. But I could understand how she might expect me to turn from Denny after what he did. I could have shunned him. But I didn’t. I felt that it was important to give him support while he changed. Learning new behavior is hard work–examining one’s thoughts and attitudes is even harder. Denny’s not defined by this. It’s part of him, and a part he needs to change. But it’s not all of him. I wasn’t going to stop being his friend. But that didn’t keep me from feeling awkward, either.

I guess all of that colored this past year. There were a few cases of plagiarism, too, in some of my comp classes. Those are never fun to deal with. And it felt like we were fighting the perpetual battles of curriculum. I could make nearly any selection of readings work–but learning happened best when the readings were relevant to students, personally, culturally, historically. I was tired of the battle of getting our selections approved by the curriculum committee. It all felt old, and I was tired of it. I was weary.

All of that contributed to my procrastination in signing my contract.  And all of that was left behind when I stepped on the ferry.

It’s the start of summer, and just for a few weeks, I want to live under the illusion that I am totally free.

Next >>

Shift 23: Summer

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Summer came. I had to do a lot of persuading, but I talked Aadhya into supporting my spending the summer with Ted. I would have gone, anyway, even if it meant losing my place at YOTO, so maybe that’s why she eventually caved.

“But we prefer for the youth to spend the summer here,” she said, over and over. “It works better. You can get a job or take AP classes or even take yoga-teacher-training.”

I told her I had a promise to keep. To me and to Ted.

“But we find that when the kids leave, they sometimes don’t return,” she said at last. “It really doesn’t promote success.”

“I’ll be back,” I told her. “If you let me go, I’ll be back, if you’ll have me. If you don’t let me go, I’ll leave anyway, and not come back.”

We fought. And the funny thing was that I really enjoyed fighting! I mean, this is what teens are supposed to do, right? Fight with grown-ups! And for the past few years, all the grown-ups in my life treated me with kid gloves, like I’m gonna break and like they have to “support me in all I do” so it actually really felt awesome to throw around my weight.

Eventually, Deon called and talked her down. Then she was like, “Jazz, we trust you. If you feel this is best for you, go. We’ll see you back before Labor Day.”

And so here I am! Deon drove me and we camped for a few days in the park, and then I hiked up here to Ted’s cabin, and Deon drove back home for the summer. He’ll pick me up in a few months.

It felt great to smell the vanilla scent of the pines, to hear the wind in the branches, and to see Ted again.

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“You look like a hermit,” I told him.

“Well, that’s pretty much the deal,” he joked back.

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“How was your winter?” I asked.

He had so much to tell me. He read Homer, in Greek, again.

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“Truthfully, Starshine,” he said, “making it through a winter is a miracle. You don’t know cold until you live through a winter here. But I’ve done it for a while. There’s so much planning: chopping and stacking cords of wood. Laying up supplies. Doling it out carefully to last until the thaw, or even longer, in case we get a second cold-spell. There’s always a fear of not making it, even if I figure I will. In my bones, there’s that ancient winter dread that settles in, and that, somehow, makes it feel all the more miraculous to survive.”

“I’d love to spend a winter up here sometime,” I told him.

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He asked me what I’d learn on my adventure in the world. The way he asked it, he made me feel like I was just as much an adventurer back in the normal world of San Myshuno High as he was living up here.

I told him all about my temporary stay at the park where Deon’s office was, and then I told him about YOTO. I filled him in on the cross country team and the track team. I told him about the mentors. And I told him about reading Goethe’s Young Werther.

“You did well,” he said. “You took all you learned last summer, and you brought it back to the world with you.”

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I felt proud the way he said that. It felt like the universe had a plan, and I was part of it.

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“Do you believe in a personal universe?” I asked him.

“Hell, no!” he said. “The universe doesn’t care about me personally!”

I laughed. I thought he was joking.

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But he said he wasn’t.

I don’t know what to think now. I thought that all I’d learned, spiritually, about connection and stuff, was what Ted believed, too, and that somehow I was on the right track, and he was going to teach me more.

But if he doesn’t believe the same as I do, then what does that mean about what I believe? Is it all wrong, what I learned last summer and what’s pulled me through this far? Is it just the magical thinking of a lonely girl who doesn’t want to grow up?

I’m suddenly wondering what I’m doing here this summer. If I have to give up what I believe at heart, then what will I learn? Is it worth knowing something if it supplants what’s kept you going for so long?

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Three Rivers 19.1

Nineteenth Sim of Thirty Sims at Three Rivers

19. All day long we found tadpoles

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Serena’s niece Sylvia wasn’t sure how she felt about spending the summer way out in the country with her aunt.

“I was supposed to do piano lessons,” Sylvia said.

“I’ve got a piano,” said Serena. “And I’ll be happy to teach you.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Sylvia.

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“Of course not,” said Serena.

Sylvia’s mother had been assigned an extra teaching load at the university this summer, and, as she was also wrapping up her Ph.D. thesis, she wasn’t sure what to do with Sylvia. She was too little to be left alone in the city all day, and too big to tag along at the university.

“Let her spend the summer with me,” Serena volunteered. “There’s plenty of room for her to run outside, and she can come with me to the island on the days I work at the Villareals’.”

So Sylvia arrived at Serena’s cottage out in the countryside with her suitcase full of frilly dresses.

“Oh, these won’t do,” said Serena.

“What do you mean?” asked Sylvia.

“How can you climb trees and chase frogs in a dress?”

Serena asked her friend and neighbor Mila Munch, the mother of three boys, if she had any hand-me-downs that they might borrow until they had time to go to town to buy more appropriate play clothes.

“More than enough!” said Mila, and she insisted, bringing over a box full of hats, jeans, overalls, and t-shirts that her boys had outgrown, that Serena and Sylvia keep them.

The next morning, Saturday, while Serena read with a cup of coffee, Sylvia asked if she might explore.

“Of course,” said Serena. “Come home when you’re hungry!”

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Sylvia ran down the hill to the fork in the road at the bottom, and there she found a wide meadow.

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Stalks of blue flowers grew taller than her, and grasshoppers jumped out of her path.

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She played a game of jump-hop with the grasshoppers. They won, of course, and Sylvia thought she had never played a more fun game.

A thrush sang from the branches of an old oak. Sylvia thought that she had never heard better music.

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On Sunday afternoon, too, Sylvia roamed.

“Come back by sunset,” said Serena, who sat happily playing the piano.

Sylvia crossed a stone bridge, and there, at the edge of the meadow, flowed a small waterfall.

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She had never seen a waterfall before, unless one counted the fountains at her mother’s university as a waterfall. But this was different.

This roared.

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She felt the spray on her face, and the cascading water shouted her name: Sylvia! Sylvia!

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Serena had told her that there was a tall waterfall at the old mill, and Sylvia, now that she’d seen the little falls, wanted to find the tall one.

A lady with binoculars and a funny hat made of straw pointed the way to her. She had to run through a very large meadow to get there. Her whole neighborhood in the city would fit in this meadow, she thought, but she was so glad that it was full only with birches, grasshoppers, sparrows, and wrens.

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All the songs of the meadow fell away as the tall waterfall roared. It must have said every name that ever was and ever will be, all at once, not just “Sylvia!” but an entire cacophony of a roll-call!

Maybe this was the river of life!

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The sun began to set, and Sylvia remembered that she had to be home. She had such a long way to go! She hoped she remembered which way to turn when she came to the road.

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As it grew dark, she found herself by a house she didn’t recognize.

“What’s a little one like you doing on the road?” asked a man who talked in a low, funny voice.

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“My cottage disappeared,” she said.

He laughed. “Cottages tend to do that.”

They talked of waterfalls and meadows. Sylvia learned that he lived in the woods near an old orchard, not in a house at all. When at last he discovered that she was Serena’s niece he pointed her in the right direction.

“You’ll be home before the moon!” he said.

nineteen23

Before breakfast the next day, Serena packed a basket of books, paper, and paints for Sylvia.

“This should keep you busy!” she said.

“But I don’t want to be busy,” said Sylvia. “I want to be in the meadows!”

“But I won’t be here,” said Serena. “I have to go to my work at the Villareals’. You’ll like it. You can play in the woods near their house, and we’ll bring plenty of projects for you to do, while I work.”

“I want to stay here. If I can’t stay alone, let me stay with the funny man.”

“What man is that?” asked Serena.

“He lives in the woods, by the orchard. I don’t know his name, but he knows you. He calls you Se-Se!”

“You must mean Sebastian,” Serena said. “No, you can’t stay alone with Sebastian all day while I am at the Villareals’.”

So that day, Sylvia went with Serena to the island. She played on the beach and drew pictures and read books. It was fun, but it was nothing like the meadows. She missed the grasshoppers, the thrush, the sparrows and wrens, and most of all, she missed the brook and the waterfalls.

“Can’t I please stay home tomorrow?” she asked Serena, on the ferry ride back at the end of the day.

“Don’t you like the ferry?” asked Serena.

“I do. But I would like to stay home tomorrow, please?”

When they got back to the cottage, Serena called her friend and neighbor.

“Of course, she can spend the day with us!” said Mila. “Lucas will love to have a little friend to explore with!”

So all the next day, Lucas and Sylvia roved.

“I know where tadpoles are,” said Lucas.

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Sylvia had never seen tadpoles before.

“Not even pollywogs?” Lucas asked.

Not even pollywogs.

They ran through an old garden at a forgotten estate. There in a broken fountain filled with green water swam brown tadpoles, bigger than her fist!

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“They’ll be bullfrogs when they get their legs,” said Lucas.

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They found a maze made of hedges.

“Race you!” cried Sylvia, and she ran down the narrow path that twisted and turned, and not once did she get lost!

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“Which way?” called Lucas.

“Follow your nose!” said Sylvia.

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Sylvia came out in an opening, thick with mist from a nearby waterfall.

She saw something move from out of the corner of her eye, and she turned just in time to see a huge bullfrog leap from the rock into the pond below.

“It was this big!” she told Lucas, measuring a span with her hands.

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They couldn’t scale the rocks to get to the pond below, so they lay on their bellies and looked down into the clear water, where large brown tadpoles swam with small black pollywogs and tiny little fish.

Next it was back to the meadows where the tall flowers grew and another game of jump-hop with the grasshoppers. It was more fun with two.

nineteen03

As the sun reached low and the long shadows stretched, Sylvia and Lucas found themselves beside a quiet still pond where ducks foraged.

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“This is a good tadpole hole,” said Lucas. They waded in the water and waited quietly while the tadpoles swam over their toes, then, they darted their hands in quickly and each caught one!

“It tickles!” said Sylvia.

“Happy summer,” whispered Lucas to the tadpole in his hand, and then he gently let it go.

They watched their tadpoles swim away and settle into the thick dark mud.

“When we come back tomorrow, they might start to be having legs,” said Lucas.

“I think we should come back every day,” said Sylvia. “Forever and always.”

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