“Best” summers are like best kisses. They were undoubtedly really, really good, but the context in which the event is contained is what makes it so memorable. Another kiss may have been as good – or better – but because it happened on a more ordinary day it may not live on so vividly.
So if I’m called out on a trivia night to name my best summer, it is the summer of 1986 when my best friend April and I worked in Acadia National Park at the Jordan Pond gift shop selling tshirts, stuffed puffins, and sachets of cedar wood. We slept in bunk beds in a cabin in the woods along with other college kids, a few retirees, and a guy from France. In the evenings, we ate the stale, soggy popovers the waitstaff from the restaurant brought over – remains from the tourists’ meals. Early in the summer, still swathed in wool sweaters, April and I had had the task of spooning strawberry jam from huge tin cans of a very industrial sort into pretty little mason jars with a Jordan Pond sticker meant to entice people to purchase “homemade” jam after their tea and popovers on the lawn.
On days off, we’d explore – together or alone – the carriage paths of the park, finding perches over the ocean, hidden little lakes, or patches of blueberries growing in rocky outcroppings on the tops of hills. It was a magical place, full of the unexpected. A gate that led into a beautiful garden. A large Buddha statue in the woods beckoned to the remains of an old Rockefeller estate. A roommate who lived in a New York apartment that rivaled our wildest dreams of wealth and posh upbringings.
Of all of the days of that idyl, one I remember most is sitting on a rock in Bracy Cove (a place I’d reencounter years later as part of an example sentence in Strunk & White’s tome on grammar). With an entire day to myself, I’d walked there via the Little Long Pond trail and found a large flat rock on which to sun myself. I was wearing the hot pink bikini I’d bought the summer before in France when I’d been too shy to go topless like all of my friends. It is the only bikini I ever owned.
And I’m reading Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. I loved Salinger so much then. I didn’t see any of the ways that we’ve come to turn our noses up at the man and his work. All I saw were the words and the precious little worlds he brought to life. I wanted to be Franny. I wanted Salinger’s books to go on and on, but of course they were like the most perfect little pastries brought directly from France – at the end of the box, when each little morsel was gone, you knew you’d never taste them again.
This day in Bracy’s Cove was when I would reach the end of Nine Stories. It was the day I would read my last word of Salinger – at least for the first time through. And the final story is “Teddy,” about a boy on a ship with his parents. An extreme boy – as all of Salinger’s children are extreme. But his was not book smarts so much as some kind of mystical presence. I had spent the previous school year taking several classes on eastern religion and the story echoed what I was drawn to in my readings of Siddhartha and parts of Bhagavad Gita.
I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all, Teddy said. It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.
It was that very last phrase that made this pure Salinger and decidedly not Herman Hesse. And it stopped me. It ran through me. When I started meditating in my 20s and had a moment one morning when the toast and the toaster and the counter and everyone nearby was one – a flash of perhaps thirty seconds – I remembered this scene. I’ve yearned to return there. To that moment when all is God, without doubt or hesitation or mind games.
When I think of the summer of ’86 – of all of those lovely trails and the endless stars at night, of being cozied into a down comforter in the middle of July – I remember with particular brightness this moment at Bracy’s Cove when the world stood in utter stillness and beauty, opening through words on a page into infinite possibility.