Psalm for a Summer Night

It’s a late summer evening on Martha’s Vineyard and I’m playing cards with my friend Heidi at the kitchen table as breezes waft through our rented farmhouse. It’s one of my favorite things about summer: how the wind fills the house like a welcome tide. Lie down near an open window and it drifts across your body in waves like gentle surf.

The air is warm, heavy and humid, and for me it’s like breathing cream. It makes the old house feel like a tent or open-air tabernacle. An animal snorts -- a deer? Or is it Binty, the mare who pastures nearby?

Heidi and I argue about whether I smoke too much, as I puff my pipe, and the peaceful mood is momentarily shattered, eventually to reform along new conversational lines. No matter.

The old house fits like a supple glove worn by many past hands. Whalers, farmers and artists precede us here. A kind of epiphany stirs: I think of all the conversations flowing tonight, on porches from Oak Bluffs to Oahu. Can there really be anything better?

Our farmhouse is off the road and has no porch, but the kitchen table is a good substitute. With the Dutch door flung open on one side of the room, and a screen door opposite, I am somehow connected to all those imagined conversations, those lights in the darkness. I think of the tiny dots you see from planes crossing the continent at night, wondering if the orange-tinted blob below you is Cedar Rapids or Sioux City, and what they are saying down there.

We’re lucky to be on this Island. Elsewhere tonight, people are on the road, or shut up in tenements; others are anchored in rural poverty or the monotony of suburbs. But somewhere in those pools of light people are rocking on porches and talking.

My son has just written an excited e-mail about climbing solo up Mt. Adams, the second highest peak in Washington; I’m proud and a bit fearful of his adventuresome spirit. It’s my job as a parent not to stifle it. I, however, was made to talk and read and play cards and listen to ballgames: I was designed for porches. It’s an accident that I don’t actually have one at the moment. This breeze-swept table will do.

How we talk is important. Heidi claims that playing cards allows for easy conversation. I see it more as a pretext for verbal sparring and the cursing of cards. Each to their own.

Walking through the back streets of Vineyard towns on a summer evening, everywhere you look people are talking quietly on front porches.  What could be more serene -- or, for that matter, more uniquely American?  Such conversations keep us flowing: each of us a river with our own tempo, surface mood, temperature, depth, looking for points of confluence.

Are there porches like ours anywhere else in the world? In parts of Canada perhaps. But it’s not how they live in Chile or France or Japan. Is it one of our gifts, to ourselves if not the world?

“Summertime . . . and the living is easy.” Gershwin may have intended it ironically, but as with all irony, there’s truth in it too; and it just may be the greatest American song. Anyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Janis Joplin could bring it to life. Is it not an anthem for porches and rockers?

Flights of imagination don’t come as easily to me now, as age begins to tap my shoulder; and that’s for the best. But there’s still the occasional lapse. If we can’t find poetry in ordinary life and simple things, what good is it all? And wasn’t our August visitor-in-chief asking us to talk to one another -- and to listen better -- on the nation’s messy and sprawling front porch?

A pair of hurricane lamps flicker on my table. I am drawn to them, as to some houses, people and books, because they are old. They bear messages from the past. The lamps also fit the mood: delicate twins with etched-glass bowls, a graceful curve, candle-lit from within, allowing us momentarily to time-travel and escape electricity.

You can find them on eBay.

I wonder how many other time-travelers are out there tonight, burning hurricane or oil lamps and talking: not looking for the past but for a softer present, occasionally graced by easy-flowing conversations, off the grid, even in our darker places. It seems a classic American dream: simple, robust, elusive, but one that, for a brief time in a special place, comes true and brings us home.

First published in the Vineyard Gazette on Sept. 11,2009.. Reprinted with permission from the Vineyard Gazette. Copyright Vineyard Gazette 2009. All rights reserved.

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