Growing up, I longed for summer.
I missed my summer self. It was deeper than school going silent, and the promise of returning in three months “a year older.” I’ve always loved the heat. Even in 100°+, I’m happier. I’d happily take an endless summer in Tucson over four seasons in Massachusetts. In summer, possibilities open where responsibilities had blocked the way.
I waited all year to go the local swimming hole, marshall my courage, and attempt the high dive. In summer it’s so easy to loaf—on the roof, in a hammock, in a lawn chair, on the couch. I had choices: explore the woods, bike around, go to a friend’s house, start a water fight, or stay in and play video games. It gets hot enough no one has the energy to scold you.
All of which means summer is the ideal time to travel. Much better than winter, unless you’re traveling into summer. But either way…
Your summer self will find you.
Every June, my mom comes to visit. The odd years she comes here, to Albuquerque, and the evens we meet my sister and sister-in-law in Denver. Every year my mom and I go on to Berkeley, to visit our adoptive family. Then we break formation and head our separate ways.
But this year, I stayed with her.
And the travel became what we all hope for travel to become: a journey that can only be understood later, in a story. The summer self.
A Tale of Two Denvers
As long as I’ve visited Denver, I’ve liked it.
The poetry scene is solid; my sister lives there; and since they legalized pot, I can even forgive their winters.
The first time I was in Denver, I was eight or nine. I raced my sister through a mall to a shoe store, where our aunt was waiting. I did think it was weird that you had to climb a step to enter the store, but mostly, I was concerned with beating my sister onto that step. I was proud I’d adapted to this new information. I jumped proudly onto that step, at least a foot ahead of her, and slammed into a mirror.
Denver’s always been a little tricky that way.
There’s the crowd I’ve met as an adult: the poets, mostly, and some recent additions, like my badass friend Katix. Katix gave up a cushy, corporate career to plough snow and patch potholes.
And there’s family—my sister and sister-in-law, who live in a more suburban part of town. (Given my sister got married a few years back, I can’t say she didn’t beat me to that step, too. That’s fine; I’ve been studying the mirror.)
So you see, two Denvers: Friend Denver and Family Denver.
And these Denvers braided in strange patterns.
The day I got in, my best friend’s grandma died, in Albuquerque. She had raised him as much as his mother, who passed when he was 15. I called Southwest, but it wasn’t possible. I sat in my sister’s house, wondering.
Meanwhile, we went on a wine tour for our mom’s birthday. Mom took everyone she could find out for dinner. While the ladies got manicures, I ran into the Tejon Street Corner Thieves on the 16th Street Mall.
Our last night in town, Mom and I finally got a chance to talk about the real things. Family, friends, depression, the journey ahead. And then Katix joined us, and the two of them got to meet. And it was strange. And it was strangely beautiful.
Each of us, our summer self.
Return to Berkeley
Flying with my mom is fun.
In an airport, she flips her disability into privilege, and we get to stroll through the TSA line, then board ahead of everyone. This time, I even took the right suitcase from the bag claim.
Then, finally, we got to Casa de Barlow.
I’ve always been the type of father who’s more interested in the someday-conversations I can have with my child than ways we talk now. I’ve always been a talker. And I’ve always preferred talking about life, better life, and death.
But now some day is here. He talks. We talk. I mean we talk while we play.
Like all kids, James and Ben have elaborate explanations for why certain Lego ships carry cargo, others carry prisoners.* Or sudden reasons why we can’t let the ball we’re throwing touch the ground. It’s what kids do. And it’s so, so cool to be a part of those conversations. Sometimes—rarely—I even offer an explanation they’ll accept.
We played and talked and ate and played and celebrated Granberry’s—Mom’s—birthday. Mom climbed the many stairs to their house, and again, to their room, admirably, and read them to sleep a second time this year. Magic.
I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to hack my way back to childhood.
You can’t ever get there, of course—you’re too experienced, too disillusioned, had your heart broken, and hurt at least one person in a way you know now you’ll never understand—but you can try. You can make a sort of hybrid adult-childhood place for yourself. Sure, it’s not the same, but in return for giving up your limitless imagination, you get to play in the realm of your convictions. And that’s true magic.
But also magic is being invited to the child world again. By your own child, and his brother. You could argue the summer self is your adult-child self.
We adults got to play some, too. I spent the Fourth circling Lake Merritt with my old friend Dan. Mom again took a bunch of us out to dinner. It was summertime. The living was easy.
*It makes me really sad they’ve already internalized this story. I get it, they’re kids, but adults, we have trouble with “good guys & bad guys.” We could spend some time, as a culture, retooling our stories of “good” and “bad,” and who knows what our children would believe?
New England Chow-Down
Here’s where the track broke off.
Normally, now, I’d get on a train and go home. This time I got on a plane and went almost to my first home. The Home I feel profoundly conflicted about. When I come home, I go to the places near Home; the places my parents now live, which are not quite the place I grew up.
First was Cranston. Except for a few choice nights once in Providence, I have no nostalgia for Rhode Island. I do have memories of the place—my mom’s lived in this birdhouse-sized state for 15 years—but nothing I long to return to, or for.
I could say the same of Boston. The Cantab Lounge, my first poetry venue, embraces its evolution, and so refuses my nostalgia. And Arlington is my dad’s town; it’s where he lives. I’ve lived in both their houses, but as an adult. And my life was on a high-wire.
None of these places are where I’m from.
If you know me at all, you know how close to my heart I hold my hometown. (And if you know that story, you know when left to explore in my own inner world, I become my essential summer self.)
So what do you do when you’re near Home, but can’t really go Home? Well, if you’re at Mom’s house, you eat. And work from her couch, and conduct Skype meetings in her living room, and watch all of Game of Thrones, and eat. I could probably fast for a month before my body feels normal again. As it should be.
I did also visit my beloved bestie Erin, in Cambridge. And, for the first time since his wedding, I finally got some face time with my second-oldest friend Sean. His mom is my second mom, and she was just diagnosed with breast cancer, so it was a higher priority than normal to see her. I’m so grateful we each got to do the the critical work of catching up.
And there were birthdays. Mine, and my son’s brother’s, both of us turning a proud and mighty 9. I took no pictures then. I was too busy fishing a frisbee out of the woods and and making faces at the boys while we blew giant bubbles.
So what was left? Spend some time with Wellesley, the birthplace of my summer self.
I spent three days skulking my hometown with camera. Preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school. Woods and streams and long-moved old friends’ houses. There’s construction everywhere in Wellesley. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” must mean everything there is broken.
In addition to the usual interesting shapes and shadows, I took a lot of ‘I’d just like to remember what this looks like’s. None of those photographs are below. Like all my feelings about Wellesley, I’ll do something with them, I’m just not sure when.
I’m never sure when.
There were many reasons for this summer trip.
Originally, I was going to book a poetry tour, and visit my aunt before she died. But I haven’t sharpened my chops nor maintained my name recognition, and my aunt didn’t make it through March. One time-sensitive event I couldn’t pass on was my old friend Jill’s wedding.
I don’t have a lot to say about weddings. Even when they’re heartfelt, they’re emotionally complicated for the single and wandering. Jill and David’s wedding was so full of heart. Jill planned it in hardly any time, they both brought a bouquet of wonderful people together for it, and kept us busy with food and wine and last-minute scrambling. As are all weddings. As it should be.
Maybe one shortcoming of the summer self is that with all that freedom to fly, it’s so easy to fall through the floor.
It’s not like I sulked. I jumped in and helped with program design, with transport logistics, by wing-manning while Jill told the midnight hotel staff what’s what. And I couchsurfed with some radical vegan cyclists in Northampton, where I met a Swedish traveler, and other young folks, like me, transitioning between places we can’t name.
Truly, I didn’t sulk. I just put a lot of energy into being my own boyfriend. Maybe that’s another form of the summer self. One who is their own partner.
The wedding was held at Hampshire College. In some ways, that place pressure-cooked me. Sometimes there, even in winter, I could find my summer self. I’m very, very lucky for that. If I could’ve known how to care for myself then as I know how now, well…. Anyway.
It was a place of memories.
Jill and David pitched their chuppah under a gorgeous tree at the front of campus. (Where 12 years earlier I determined I was in love with someone who wasn’t my partner. It turned out I was in love my partner, which was a feeling I didn’t recognize, and I was scared of it. So went that relationship.) Jill’s father was too sick to attend, so one of the wedding party FaceTimed him into the ceremony. And then there was food, and booze, and sneaking off, and sighingly telling a fire dancer I wouldn’t be around later that week to take pictures of her spinning.
I made a new BFF, Mark. With his wife Aliza, and their friend Eirann, we formed an unassailable team of top-quality wedding guests. We’re freelance-ready, if you need us. So now, I have new memories.
I shot a lot on the drive out of Amherst. 20 miles from the car rental shop in Providence, the car told me I had 30 miles of gas. I was 10 miles out when it decided it had so little gas it couldn’t really say how many miles, really. I wouldn’t be surprised if they couldn’t move the car into the lot. That’s how I like it. Use it all, baby, and be done.
Every story is marked by other stories.
Sometimes they’re big, and they deserve their own telling, but in a different context. Sometimes they seem insignificant, because for us they were only a moment. A fog that wrapped the building while you were inside, a beer a friend bought you, an unexpected new friendship. A dozen other stories you intersected, but weren’t yours.
The summer self requires these stories.
Some are tiny, and worthy of scaffolding just for a punchline… but they just don’t fit the broad story. The big one, the one everyone came out tonight to hear. A lifetime of those stories can start to accrue, and if you’re not careful to make a place for them, they’ll wither and rot, the way of all organic things.
On my way to Decatur I stayed a night with my ridiculously brilliant, legally inspired friend Sam. I caught up with my high school brother, Alex, in New York.
On the (profoundly inelegant) route from Atlanta to Albuquerque, I made another BFF, Merita. The train makes it easy to be your summer self. We talked all afternoon, then all morning, then had breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s—just as my friend Baz suggested Lou Mitchell’s for lunch.
And then, with a thud, I was home.