Of course I wish my summer traditions were cooler. Parasailing. Skydiving. Running ultramarathons. Skateboarding in the X Games. Climbing up the sheer outside walls of skyscrapers like a daring raccoon.
But no. I grow basil and make pesto. I get together with high school friends at Lake Ann. During tomato season, I eat a tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwich every day. On at least one hot day every summer I visit a Dairy Queen and get a cone. Vanilla, of course.
But my most cherished tradition is this: On summer evenings when I’m home and it’s not raining, I sit out on the patio reading.
Yup, that’s even less exciting than a vanilla cone. In a culture that worships athletic achievements and exotic adventures, “sitting around reading” is such an unimpressive pastime you wouldn’t even list it under “hobbies” on a job application.
But I have long enjoyed sitting outside on those quiet, relaxing summer evenings with a stack of newspapers or magazines or a book. When it gets too dark to read print I switch to a tablet. When the mosquitoes get bad, I head inside.
Enjoyable habits have a way of becoming cherished traditions.
My patio is not fancy, not one of those glamorous “outdoor rooms” with full kitchens and high-end furniture, like you see in decorating magazines. It’s a concrete slab, cracked in places, furnished with a gas grill, a black metal table and chairs. The backyard is nice enough — a smallish Minneapolis yard, fenced and shrubbed in a way that allows casual conversations with my nice next-door neighbors but provides a scrim of privacy. I’ve planted flowers and hostas and solar-powered lights. My dog roams around, looking for rodents. As dusk falls, the moon rises over the fence. I snap photos with my phone, but never succeed in permanently capturing its beauty.
My favorite patio evenings are the ones so warm you’ll never need a sweater, when the sky holds light past 9 p.m. That’s a fleeting time, as any Minnesotan knows. I have always mourned summer’s passing, as the pools close, the “back to school” aisles pop up and the catalogs carry pictures of sweaters. By late September, sunset falls at 7 p.m. and patio evenings are chilly.
I’ve been following some version of this tradition for decades, ever since I’ve been lucky enough to live in homes with a comfortable outside space. On a porch swing in New Orleans, rocking my infant sons. On the shade-dappled patio of a different, earlier Minneapolis home. On a small wooden deck in Oak Park, Ill., gazing out on a yard sparkling with fireflies.
When I moved into my current house about 10 years ago with my middle-school-age sons, that patio was a big draw.
A few days after we moved in, a friend and I sat out on the patio. I told her how worried I was about things. I’d left newspaper work to freelance years earlier, but now I needed a steady job. Newspapers had been shedding reporters for years, and now the Great Recession was making everything far worse. The future seemed terrifying.
“I get it, that’s stressful,” my friend said. “But think about this: Right now, right here in this moment, life is wonderful.”
Her words have stayed with me over the years. Lately, the country is awash in problems and conflicts. Headlines are troubling, times seem grim. And I’m still worried about my own things: work, money, kids. As a journalist who covers aging I can’t help wondering, more often than is comfortable, what my own old age will bring.
But then I remind myself. If, at least in this moment, life seems wonderful, savor it.
This year, my patio tradition may change before the summer ends. My sons are now out of college and my house, while not huge, is bigger than I need. So I’m cleaning and painting, preparing it to sell. I haven’t chosen a place to live next. I hope it will have a patio or a deck or a balcony — I’ll place high priority on that. But homes are expensive these days. I’m not sure where I’ll wind up.
One bittersweet quality of cherished traditions is that they hold the seeds of their own inevitable demise. Your favorite cafe or coffee shop closes. Your kids get too old for the playground. Your grandmother is no longer up to hosting Thanksgiving. Summer traditions end every summer, and eventually they end forever.
But out on the patio, right there in that moment, life is wonderful.