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Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Here in the dark before dawn of another summer day, well before the hour when I will be caught up in another round of hurried errands and tasks to be accomplished before a full day in my bookstore, followed by yet another evening of insufficient attention to the work of house and yard (one load of laundry brought in from the line and folded and gardens watered, but bathroom and floors passed by and no grass mowed), here in the still, quiet solitude of the long porch with only two lights at this end, obscurity beyond, I think of the differences between my summer and winter lives. Climate, geography, culture, history, plants and animals — from Michigan summer to Arizona winter, there is little similarity. And yet, for me, the most salient difference is that of time.
Since I am neither retired nor in a position to hire help, either in my place of business or at home, it is only by waking in the dark and neglecting housework that I make time at all (I don’t find it sitting around waiting for me: I must carve it out with deliberation) for reflection on time’s passing, or, more accurately, my hurtling passage through time. “How’s your summer going?” people ask. I tell them it is a blur. When the season winds down, the question will be, “How was your summer?” and my answer again will be, “It was a blur.” Against the blurred, high-speed background (blossoms to fruit to harvest in the blink of an eye), a few moments will remain. The fox at the side of the road, hungry baby robins, delphinium spikes vividly, royally blue in the evening sun. Moments that stopped my hurry, life holding out a gift. Here, look. See?
A customer in the bookstore one day, a man perhaps the age of my own son, asked me what I would be doing in January, and when I mentioned Arizona, he was scornful. “Chicken!” was his parting shot as he went out the door. Well, I have many Michigan winters under my belt. I have known two years when all five of the Great Lakes froze over. I have gone through winter power outages, once for four days, in an old farmhouse. I have kept my bookstore open through many frozen months, though it made absolutely no financial sense whatsoever to do so, and one year the bookstore served as winter coffee shop for the village, no other business in town inclined to provide the desired social outlet for year-rounders’ cabin fever. In short, you could say that I have paid my dues, but there is so much more to it than that. I have loved the beauty and challenge of my Michigan winters, from January 1967 onward and have hundreds of photos taken over the years to remind me of them all.
However — again I beat this tiresome drum — I am not retired, and so the travel rewards that others reap in retirement (or, while still working, as summer vacation) I take now in annual winter installments. “Summers off!” we graduate students used to remind each other, anticipating academic careers. That was a path I left those friends pursuing without me, and now, as they retire one by one to golden years of leisure and I continue to work, as they fly and sail through the summer from one continent to another, stopping at islands in between, I whisper to myself from time to time, “Winters off!”
Anyone, though, who thinks I love southern Arizona only as an escape from Michigan blizzards sells me and Arizona short. Tourists and summer people from Chicago and St. Louis do not come to northern Michigan in summer only to escape the heat, after all. They love the world they find here, as I have come to love the high desert of the Southwest. Leaving aside for a moment the wondrous details of horses and cows, ghost towns and dust, mountain roads and dry washes, and without getting, I hope, too metaphysical in a Kantian or even a Bergsonian kind of way, I love the space and time of my Arizona winters. Our winter cabin is small, but it is essentially one large room, and that room is not crowded or cluttered. There is plenty of space for yoga stretches. And outdoors my view stretches to mountains in every direction. The very emptiness of space is the luxury of it. And the same is true for time. So few demands! Time to dream, to explore, to read and write, or simply to be — out in the sun, looking off down the wash for cows or wildlife or up to the mountains to do nothing more than watch the light change.
And still more. Not only space and time but an alternative history I might have had. Born somewhere else, to a different family, growing up on a ranch — in the high desert I come as close as possible to imagining that other life, the one I never lived. It feels almost within reach…. I would have been placed in the saddle when still a toddler. Before adolescence, I would have been rousted from sleep in the dark to help my parents and older siblings move cattle before the heat of the day. Throughout my school years, I would have competed in rodeo events and by this time of life have earned a deeply creased and brown face attesting to years lived in the sun….
I love my Michigan life — verdant hills and sparkling waters, talented writers and devoted readers, green fields and woods and back roads from Indiana to Ontario. Michigan has been very good to this Dakota-born, Illinois-raised transplant. But life’s brevity, as I see it, demands of me that I laminate possibilities like layers. “You’re living my dream!” people have said to me in my bookstore over the course of twenty-five years, and they love getting close to that dream, visiting it from one summer to the next. It’s a life they can imagine themselves having lived. And that is the spirit I take to Junior Rodeo in Willcox, Arizona, where my heart thrills to see young cowgirls living my dream — the other one, the one never made real. Underneath the bookseller, there lives a cowgirl, a rancher, a farmer.
The dreams we work to achieve, the realized dreams that others see, define us to the world, but the dreams that persist in us simply as dreams, whether anyone else sees them in us or not, are very much a part of us, too. Don't you feel that way about yours?