Attention conservation notice: This is a long entry on what I learned this summer and how, against all expectation, it was the best summer ever. Which it was.
Everything is always turning into something else.
Here it is August, with record 93-degree heat, and next month might hold the first cold front of the year. It was only a few weeks ago the roses of sharon, those harbingers of high summer, first began to bloom. And not long after there were spiderwebs on the ground, those gray webs of late summer that cover the earth like spots of silvery mold. The spiderwebs on the ground mean fall is coming (and the fall term).
Everything is always turning into something else.
Soon there’ll be that even stronger sign of coming fall: Webs spun not just on the ground, but between branches. The kind you walk into in September and October. And I don’t think it’s just the drought that is turning some leaves yellow and making them fall. It’s the change of season, already begun. The season of heat has become the season of harvest, when fruit ripens and leaves fall.
I myself am a ripe little fruit of sorts, feeling sufficiently sunned and funned and ready to move from my summertime world of sleeping in and taking it easy back to my beloved world of learning.
Against all expectation, this was the best summer ever.
Last summer was the worst summer ever. I spent it indoors, seeking out new clients and working in the community college math lab, teaching students and reteaching myself Calc I. I think I went out once or twice. Mostly I stayed in and worked or watched a documentary alone on my couch, knitting away, having nothing else to do. People who find boredom a blessing have not been single for 20 years. Solitude can be a blessing, but isolation is a trial. It takes skill, effort and wisdom to endure it well but sometimes, like illness or sleeplessness, it must simply be endured.
But this summer I went to the beach, to a wedding and to downtown Savannah. I went to a back-porch birthday party and ate tater tot casserole and listened to a friend’s exciting stories of being a Colorado river guide. I floated down a river all day and ate pretzels on Snack Island. I cleaned up a park and made it beautiful again. I celebrated my mom’s birthday in summer style with an ice cream cake and a Paul Potts bootleg CD.
I WHACKED DOWN THOSE OVERGROWN HEDGES.
It took me about 7 hours. They look pretty great!
I cleaned up my gas grill, barbecued some chicken and grilled some homegrown veggies from my mom’s little farm.
I chased a baby raccoon out of the house in the middle of the night when he wandered in to eat the cats’ food. I smelled the most amazing aroma in the world, the scent of the otherworldly white flowers of my Queen of the Night cactus that hangs in my maple tree, which made 20 blooms for me this year. I ushered a grassroots comedy festival and watched two friends usher themselves into a new definition of what they and I and anyone could do with their lives with a little risk and bravery, and a little bit of rushing right in and letting the details take care of themselves, something I am not inclined to do (TO SAY THE LEAST).
I made some absolutely amazing playlists that have kept me rocking in the car all summer. I rediscovered my love of old-time and country music. I realized it was time to declare myself a Southerner, specifically a naturalized Southerner, for good and all. I dropped all pretense of not having an accent and was swiftly not understood by two people from another state (I called it a personal victory). I went to the best local ballgame of the year, where the home team won with a grand slam.
I toned down my diet of documentaries and watched Nanny McPhee, Slither, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lonesome Dove and Night at the Museum (the most charming kids’ movie I’ve seen in years). I started brainstorming and designing a tattoo. I planned an annual river trip and an annual beach trip to South Carolina. I blogged my heart out, joined the BlogAsheville team and debuted locally as a reasonably prominent Asheville blogger.
I didn’t chase down a single client and I took on so little work that I put myself a little further in debt. But I was busy every day, busier and happier than I’d ever been during any summer since I started school four years ago this August.
After four years of work and school pushing my life in one direction, it was time to go in the other direction. Work is good, but balance is better and there is the Dionysian side of life as well and the Apollonian. Achievement is good, but so is noticing you’ve turned a shade darker from all your time in the sun. You are not a pasty grub anymore, extracted from your lair blinking and uncertain, always wishing you were back home when you find yourself somewhere too unfamiliar. You are floating on a river in the sun (You! You’re in a river!), learning that one can prefer doing to being but that being has more going for it than you knew.
I feel changed and reintegrated. Mostly, I just feel like I had the first really good summer, ever.
It’s all Katie’s fault, I think.
Her partner Laura had a birthday, and I was invited, and I went. Over the last few years I have historically almost always been too busy to go much of anywhere, and have a select few planned events to step out to, like Knit Night. I was never spontaneous. I also rarely go out by myself, a strange habit that I acquired over the years, and do not like. I think that because I spend so much of my life alone, I don’t always feel motivated to do things without another human being directly involved. It’s companionship and connection I want, not endless meaningless trotting myself out like a socialite during the social season.
I think that I broke my own habits for two reasons: I adore Katie and Laura, and I found myself with a real live actual free evening. So I went to the party, and I went by myself knowing there wouldn’t be anyone there I could hang out with (with Katie and Laura serving as hostesses), and I had a ball.
And as things wound down Katie sat with me in the evening dark drinking a margarita and telling me, with deep sincerity, that her favorite thing was to go on the river, to be on the river, with the mountains all around her. It was her favorite thing to do all year.
In fact she had an extra float, if I wanted it.
I looked into my heart and saw something odd. I wanted that float. I did not want to spend my Saturday trimming the hedge or fixing the porch screen or blogging about how all I ever did was write for pay do my homework and work in the yard. I did not want to spend the weekend within walls. I made plans the next day to drive to Hot Springs with Rowan. And I had the absolute time of my life on the river, which was everything Katie said it was.
When Heather’s wedding rolled around, involving a five-hour trip to Savannah to go to the beach (I never go anywhere, never take vacations, and haven’t been to the beach in 15 years or more), I didn’t need to look into my heart because I already knew what I wanted, which was to be there for the wedding of my friend. And I had had fun. I wanted more. So I sent emails and rounded up 3 companions, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t another home run of fun.
After a protracted absence, I stepped out into the world this summer only to find it was much more fun that I remembered it being. I really must have been doing the wrong things before. I don’t think that I was necessarily a workaholic. I think that I just never really had so many people before that I cared to be with. That I had so much in common with. That treated me so well and took so much pleasure in my presence. I’ve had friends before, but never really had people who liked to have the kind of fun that I like to have. At 38, raised by a family that had no hobbies and rarely took vacations, I am learning how to have my own kind of fun at last.
Summer was fun this year because I somehow stumbled into the cure I needed: Tearing myself away from routine and connecting to people who loved me enough to show me a good time. Summer’s not for loners. And loners aren’t forever. People change. It’s amazing what a little fun can do, and how easy it is to change when change is fun.
I don’t know what my takeaway is. All I can say is that my life feels more precious now that I know it could have river trips in it, and that when I watched Greg B. pull off that comedy festival I realized that when you must have an answer for every what-if in life, you may find yourself trimming hedges as your friends float down rivers, and you will never, ever get a tattoo. There. You want a takeaway? That’s it.
The Best Summer Ever isn’t even over yet. There’s still another river trip next weekend and a trip this week to the nature center and then out for ice cream and to see Harry Potter. Which in one week is more fun than I had all summer last summer.
And then back to school on August 20. It’s a win-win situation for me, for whether I am in the French Broad River or in the mighty river of learning, surrounded by nerds and books and other things I love, I am happy to float the day away. A mai tai would be an appropriate beverage to my mood in either place. One is more stressful, yes, but it is also far more intoxicating.
I am learning at 38 what color my skin turns when tanned, wondering if I would like camping, learning that routine is for me not only a defense against boredom but a substitute for a life far less rich than it could be. I am learning Greg’s lesson. I still want that tattoo.
The landscape is not the only thing that has its seasons. And everything is always turning into something else.