Summer as a State of Mind

Mid-July: a heady time. For most who operate on a traditional school year, the middle of July is summer’s peak, equidistant from the school year’s final, exuberant days and August’s back-to-school anticipation (or dread, as the case may be). For me, it’s always been a precarious time. From basically first grade through twelfth, I was a kid in love with summer vacation. I couldn’t wait until Memorial Day weekend rolled around each year, spelling the end of the school year and the beginning of endless summer days stretching ahead, running around playing all day with the neighborhood kids, eating Hot Pockets for lunch and watching hours of brain-rotting television like American Gladiators and the MTV Beach House.

As I got older and there was less running around to be done, the summers started to get boring – the days hot in our house without air conditioning, and nowhere to go to cool off but a part time pharmacy job and a semi-dead mall. But I still relished summer nonetheless. I developed a feeling I find to be best encapsulated in a lyric by the band Spoon, from their 2001 song “Anything You Want”: “Now time is my time / time is my own / and I feel so alive / yet I feel so alone.” That about sums it up for me, though I wasn’t really “alone” in the sense that I always had my parents, my brother, and a few friends to hang out with. But I loved that deep dive into the self that summer offered – to think things over, to create things, to discover and obsess over strange new books, movies, and bands. To get to know myself, away from the cacophony of the high school halls.

But at a mere three months, summer is a cruel mistress, and so it went that usually around mid-July, I would start to get the “Feeling.” The Feeling can be described as a sort of nebulous dread – not a dread of the school year, per se, but the dread of a loss. The loss of that summer comfort, the days of doing and thinking mostly whatever I wanted, without scrutiny. The Feeling is one I can remember going back to first grade, when it would sneak up on me every Sunday night during the opening credits of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Whenever the theme song started up, it would hit me that in a mere 13-or-so hours, I would have to leave the welcoming arms of the weekend for the cold, institutional confines of school – a place of cranky teachers and scantron bubbles and so many obnoxious kids. (That theme song, with all its forceful cheer, is Pavlovian for me – it can still put me in the mindset of a melancholy child.)

The Sunday Feeling turned into the late-summer Feeling, one that hits about four weeks before school begins. It was a pretty foolish thing: here I was at the peak of the summer, wasting half of it worrying about what was to come. Sure, by the time school drew near, there would be initial excitement – riding bikes to school with friends to decorate lockers, comparing class schedules, shopping with my parents for new outfits and school supplies. But part of me knew it would quickly dissipate after the first week, when my special adjustable locker shelves collapsed under the weight of my books, and the sweltering August heat made it impossible to debut my new American Eagle sweaters and Levi’s flares.

When I started college, however, I was pleased to find that the Feeling disappeared. In the late summer, I couldn’t wait to get back to school for the fall. And my first two summers spent at home, though comforting, were less intoxicating than they had been previously. I longed to get back to my new, adult life. But then just like that, I graduated college, and summer as I knew it abruptly stopped being a thing at all. First to a full-time job and then to graduate school, my summers ceased existing, consumed by work and, in grad school, financial and existential stress. Eventually, I got a job in higher education, and though the school year was still a part of my life, I was officially an 8 to 5 working-stiff, spending my summers in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless office working with an endless flow of summer school students.

I always chuckled hard at the line in one of my favorite Simpsons episodes, “Bart of Darkness,” in which Homer consoles Bart, who has to sit out summer with a broken leg: “Don’t worry boy,” he says, “When you get a job, like me, you’ll miss every summer!” It’s the perfect summation of how many working people feel: you do your best to enjoy the summer, but no matter how much vacation time you burn, it’s not the same as when you were a kid. And to be honest, I’m not sure many of us, so used to filling our days to the last moment with activity and productivity, would feel comfortable with so much free, unstructured time. During most of the six years I was working full-time staff jobs in higher ed., I told myself I felt that way. Duty called. I was a working professional, and summer was one of my sacrifices. “Don’t look back / You can never look back,” Don Henley sang in the hit 1985 song “Boys of Summer.” But “Boys of Summer” is an elegy, and Don Henley is a cynical bastard. Who’s to say a grown-up, even a childless one like me, can’t recapture some of the joy of summer? And this time around, be smart enough to vanquish the Feeling?

About two years ago, I started to realize that I wasn’t really happy in my full-time job. It wasn’t just that the job didn’t fit with what I wanted to be doing, but I was also unhappy with my lack of unstructured time. Having such busy summers, especially, put me at odds with my professor-husband’s summer schedule, which involved trips abroad and throughout the United States to teach and research. Off he would go, while I stayed behind to clock the 8 to 5. The combination of these two factors prompted me, after careful planning, to quit my advising job last summer. I had spent the better part of the year slowly lining up freelance writing gigs, and I had applied to teach some courses as an adjunct, determined to finally make an effort to write and teach as a career. And while transitioning was tough – freelancing has its challenges and financial shortcomings and crazy periods – the freedom and flexibility has been worth it for me. And one of the perks? I can have a summer again, at least in a way.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I took two weeks and set out on the road with two of our best graduate school friends, exploring a number of National Parks – Joshua Tree, Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns, and Big Bend. We wanted to see a little bit more of America. This is not something I could have done when I was working in higher ed., as I was only allowed a week off in the summer. But as a freelancer, I was able to organize my work schedule to allow for this somewhat longer detour. It was a valuable time with friends that I’ll never forget, as well as a valuable time with myself – that same old self that used to love to spend the hottest part of the year in contemplation and discovery.

Even apart from that trip, I feel I’ve gained summer back this year, as I’m able to arrange my schedule how I like, to work on creative projects, and most important, to be alert and able to really think again. I’m not so tired as I used to be from long weeks at the office. And though I teach on campus every fall semester, meaning my schedule changes a bit come late August, I manage to keep the Feeling at bay. Why? Because I like teaching, and I enjoy my students, but it’s more than that. It’s because I’ve found a balance. Turns out, I’m a person that’s not at her best on a rigid schedule, spending my days in meetings, tackling problem after problem. Which, I recognize after all these years, is probably why I valued summer vacation so much to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong: now that I’m freelancing, I still work every weekday (and even weekends) – I’m not sitting around eating Hot Pockets and watching American Gladiators. But my new schedule has helped me realize how much I value time to think, write, and stay acquainted with myself. And it was this realization that led me to another: summer, as I had conceived of it, was a state of mind, not a season. And while I can’t, of course, go back to the days when responsibility rolled off my back like sprinkle of water, I’ve found that with a little life adjustment, I can let more of that summer in, all year ‘round – with no dread, no Feeling, anywhere in sight.