My daughter and her family live in a rambling, 140-year old house in rural Pennsylvania. The house sits on the grounds of a private school, where my son-in-law is employed. The place is as peaceful and as quiet as you can imagine.
Recently, my daughter’s friend, Lisa, came for a week’s visit. Lisa is a nurse in Milwaukee and lives in the middle of that city. Because her apartment lacks air-conditioning, she leaves the windows open. In the week prior to her visit, she slept little at night because of the protests and looting taking place in the nearby streets: the shouts, the chants, the screams, the sound of breaking glass.
Once, she became so frightened for her safety that she fled the apartment to spend the night with her parents.
“This place is just what I needed,” Lisa said again and again to my daughter of her property. “It’s so quiet here. The sun’s out, and everything seems so normal. It’s like a breath of fresh air for my soul.”
A Falling-Apart Summer?
An old hymn starts with these lyrics:
“I’ve got peace like a river
“I’ve got peace like a river
“I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.”
For many people, “peace like a river” this summer appears an impossibility. Some of us are still in a phase of the pandemic lockdown, riots and protests have brought mayhem to our cities, and we are fast approaching national elections, which means more conflict and turmoil. Because of the pandemic, our summer vacation plans may have fallen apart, sports events are postponed or canceled, and swimming pools are closed.
Conducted in late May, a national poll found Americans the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years.
Given these circumstances, how do we recreate those relaxed and leisurely summers we once knew, particularly for our children? How do we try to fight against our own unhappiness?
If you’re looking for ways to make life “normal,” as Lisa put it, and even for a little of that “peace like a river,” here are some tips on how to kick into summer and fill it with some wonderful memories.
Beware of obsession with the news. Good citizens need to keep abreast of the news and understand the implications of events for our country, but to watch television news for hours a day or to return again and again to our electronic devices for the latest reports is unhealthy.
We must be especially aware of the effects of the news and our discussions of it on our smaller children. The old saying “Little pitchers have big ears” applies here, and those little pitchers also have big imaginations. My 8-year-old granddaughter heard her parents and some friends discussing the burning and looting of recent days, and became extremely anxious that people were coming to set fire to their house.
We are just now emerging from a quarantine that has left many of us feeling isolated and alone. Some people talk as if we can never return to the days of parties, concerts, and sports events, and that we are living in the age of the “new normal.” If you’re like me, if you prefer the “old normal,” then we must make the effort to restore what we have lost during this quarantine.
And summer is the perfect time to begin that restoration. Fire up the backyard grill. Invite family members to a potluck supper. Tell your friends to bring a bottle of their favorite wine and host an after-dinner wine tasting, with lemonade or sparkling cider for the younger set. Offer a movie, inviting friends to watch with you.
Take a Break
Whether you’ve suffered unemployment and can’t afford that beach house you rent for a week every July or whether you canceled plans for a trip to Disney World, you still need a vacation, perhaps now more than ever. The word derives from the Latin “vacatio,” meaning “leisure, freedom, exempt from duty,” and though you may have enjoyed more leisure time during the pandemic, freedom and exemption from duty were likely in short supply.
Consider taking your vacation from home this year.
Here’s the difficult part: You have to really make it a vacation, meaning you won’t spend time this week painting the kitchen or cleaning out the basement. During this week, close your eyes to cluttered closets and weeds in the garden, and look instead for entertainment, rest, and relaxation. It’s time to have some fun.
Most of us live within an easy drive of places we rarely or never visit, historic sites, small towns, nature parks, and art museums. In Front Royal, Virginia, for example, are wineries unfamiliar to me, a small airport offering inexpensive plane rides that would delight visiting grandchildren, several canoeing outfits, and the Skyline Drive. Within an hour’s drive are Civil War battlefields like Manassas and a host of small towns I’ve never visited. Pack the kids in the car and explore your own backyard.
And pamper yourself. You’re on vacation. Instead of cooking supper, dine out at a restaurant or order Chinese takeout. Pack a picnic lunch and some books, set up some lawn chairs or spread out some towels in the backyard or a park, and bask in the sun, reading and building your supply of Vitamin D. Relax. You’re on vacation.
In the mid-1960s, America went through a 50-mile hiking mania. The Kennedy administration was trying to get Americans to exercise more, some Marines hiked 50 miles in less than 20 hours, and when Robert Kennedy did the same, the 50-mile hike became a craze, with both young and old participating.
We need not hike for 50 miles, but walking is good for all of us. Whether it’s five miles on Virginia’s Skyline Drive or three miles through the streets of Manhattan, walking gets us out of the house and out of ourselves. Not only is it physically healthy, but walking is also good for the mind and soul as well.
In her online article, “Why Famous Writers Loved Long Walks,” Nicole Bianchi points out that authors such as Thoreau, Dickens, and Hemingway all touted walking as beneficial to their thinking and their writing. Bianchi mentions the old Latin tag, “Solvitur Ambulando,” which translates “It is solved by walking.”
Often, we can literally walk away our troubles, finding a deeper sense of tranquility through movement and the scenery around us.
Look for Joy
I have a friend, Anne, who often speaks of sending out love to others. She tries to bring this spirit of love to them in person, and if that isn’t an option, through her thoughts and prayer. She is a quiet, generally shy person, and is also one of the most joyful people I know. Her joy is genuine, fed by a sometimes-forced optimism and an uncanny ability to find silver linings in the darkest of clouds.
While speaking to Anne recently, I was reminded of a little book my mother gave me long ago. Though I haven’t read James Allen’s classic “As a Man Thinketh” for years, his words made a profound impression on my younger self. Allen tells us that we become what we think, that our thoughts shape who and what we are, and that we are capable of controlling those thoughts. If we want to be happier, for instance, we must think our way toward that goal.
Let’s do it. Let’s aim for joy and find some pleasure in this summer.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.