As I write this, it’s raining to beat the band. The temperature is falling, and all that’s left on the maple tree outside my second-story window are bunches of brown and brittle seeds. It’s my favorite kind of weather. I like my skies grey, although I don’t tolerate the cold very well. Viewed from the warm indoors, I’ll take a cold rain or raging blizzard any day, as long as I don’t have to go out.
I wasn’t always like this. Like many Iowans of a certain age, I grew up in a time when children were sent outside to play, and only tolerated indoors when it was time to eat or the temperature had plunged to minus-20. Outside, we made up stories using the tools at hand, which were mostly natural – trees, grass, acorns, fences, wildflowers.
One day at the “old” house, where I spent my preschool years, my friend and I discovered an amazing place, just a few blocks away. It was an abandoned lot, or maybe a house for sale. The yard had gone unmowed for so long, the grass was close to our height, and had literally gone to seed. Oh, what a wonder. We spent a whole day packing the grass down here and there, creating our own outdoor house, with all sorts of paths and walls, entrances and exits.
We couldn’t wait to go back the next day. But to our dismay, some efficient grownup had run a lawnmower all over our handiwork, turning it back into just a plain green lawn again. Phooey.
When we moved to the northwest part of town, I made a new best friend, and spent days with Marti wandering all over creation, as my mom liked to say. This part of town was so new, I get nostalgic when I hear the sound of hammers and saws creating new houses. There was still a farm down the street, where we could feed grass to horses that came to the fence. There was even a creek running along the bottom of my street. Soon enough, the farm and the creek would disappear, with more new houses popping up where they had been, each of them festooned with a baby tree in the front and back yard, not ready to climb for years.
We still had our special place, beyond the developed world. It was just that, the outdoors beyond the houses, a place of dirt and wild daisies and a great big fallen tree we loved to play on. We named the tree The Dragon, and we called the whole place Up On the Hill. “Do you want to go play up on the hill?” one of us would ask nearly every summer morning, and the other would answer, “Of course!”
I don’t recall what, if anything, we took with us. Probably nothing, which seems funny, now that I’m a woman who won’t leave the house without a purse and, most often, an auxiliary bag weighed down with a beverage, a hat, and a snack. Maybe a notebook, too.
Back then, we were free as birds. We would enact stories, get tan without meaning to, collect rocks and weathered glass, wade in whatever water we found, and not go home until we were hungry or ready to play with our Barbies.
Even at home, though, we mostly played outside. My dad had built a split-rail fence around our back yard, and sometimes Marti and I would put blankets on them, tie ropes around the uprights, and pretend they were horses. I loved to create tents, draping the quilts my mom and grandma made over the clothesline and lying down inside, reading or listening to my transistor radio as the breeze blew through the open ends.
Winter didn’t keep us inside for long. There were forts to build and snowmen to stack and snowballs to stockpile for the next neighborhood battle. I have pictures of the igloo my dad helped us build, a structure that was oddly warm inside. We would take our sleds out to the alley or the street, where drivers knew to look out for us. (Sledding would have been easier if the city hadn’t strewn the streets with cinders to give the cars some traction. These were the days before salt melted the snow like magic.)
My family spent weekends picnicking in the country, and summer vacation up at a lake in Minnesota. Digging in the sand, skipping rocks on the water – these little things are what we remember. My parents were rock hounds, mostly hunting for agates, and I felt like I’d won a prize the day I found my first one. Dad found a three-pounder once, and to this day, I wonder how he knew what it was. From the outside, it looks like any rock, but when he sliced a piece off one end, it revealed a dazzling secret inside. Just like a geode, those rocks contained wonders.
In the fall, everyone would rake and then Dad would set the pile on fire, back when that was legal. It’s a smell that takes me so far back, I wasn’t surprised when I heard of a chef who serves an autumn meal with a burning oak leaf for ambience. I’ll bet the whole restaurant turned and sighed when that dish went by.
These days, I sometimes listen to recordings designed to help relieve headaches. My favorite one asks you to imagine a favorite place, and to pretend that’s where you are. For me, the place may vary, but two things are always the same: I am a child, and I am outdoors. Relaxation follows like magic, every time.