- Photo by David McIntyre
- An anomalous cloudy day on the river this summer near the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse with the sail freight schooner Apollonia in the foreground.
Summer is a strange season. It creeps in stealthily, but not without warning. It’s foreshadowed by spring’s balmy April afternoons, the plush light of May, and the devil-may-care attitude of early June. Then it’s suddenly here, like a houseguest arriving precisely on time and completely unexpectedly. Summer catches me off-guard in this way every year. Its abundant sunshine and absurdly long days that I can never settle into are a gift and an unasked-for responsibility. I’m never sure the right way to fill all that time, what activities the hours of light demand. I can hear Mary Oliver asking, insistently, “What will you do with your wild and precious 90-some-odd summer evenings, Brian?”
(Poetry can be a great consolation but it can also be a hectoring schoolmaster.)
Summer’s seeming expansion of light and time—a celestial magic trick I’ll never understand, no matter how many times the cosine projection effect is explained to me—is tough to adjust to and can be downright anxiety-inducing. It’s a daily rehash of the old Kundera conundrum from Unbearable Lightness—“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”—under conditions of infinite abundance that are distinct to summer.
In winter, evening activities are constrained, limited to mostly indoor pursuits that follow inexorable patterns. Darkness falls. Sigh. Leave work. First the gym, then the store, then home to walk the dogs, cook dinner, and Netflix (and maybe chill). Then bed. What time is it? Who cares? It’s been dark for hours. It’s never too early to hit the sack in January.
But in summer, one almost feels obligated to fill the long days with activities. But which ones? Hike or swim? Mountain bike or kayak? A trail run? Catch up on the stack of unread books while reclining on the back deck? Take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner? It feels like time is so much on your side that it makes you top-heavy with the weight of it.
On summer break as a child, it seemed inconceivable that summer would end. Every day promised another game of Wiffle ball or digging the hole to China in the garden and every night another chance to catch lightning bugs in Mason jars. Poor lightning bugs. In memory, every day was blue skies and fluffy white clouds that never obscured the sun followed by nights of bright stars.
On my first trip to San Diego decades ago, I experienced something similar to the blue skies of childhood. Day after day of uninterrupted sunshine. To a New Yorker, such constant good weather contains an element of the uncanny, possibly the occult. The only person more unnerved by it than me was the TV weatherman. He gritted his teeth and seemed to hold back tears of frustration as he recited the same forecast day after day. Monday: Sunny and dry. Tuesday: Dry and sunny. Wednesday: More of the same. I sometimes think of that weatherman and wonder if he’s okay. If he ever decided to leave the land of eternal summer for somewhere with actual weather.
Summer’s not to blame, of course. And countering Kundera’s ambivalence is the hard-won optimism of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Live as if you were living already for the second time, and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” My simplistic reading of this is: There are no incorrect answers—just choose somethig and get on with it. Easy for Frankl to say. Actually, maybe not so easy.
Maybe it just come down to the fact that I think of winter as the default season. The other seasons are placeholders until winter returns. This is clearly balderdash from a logical point of view, but I keep my ice scraper in the car year-round.
And then, one day I wake up, having fretted and frittered away the summer, and, it’s suddenly September again. This strange season is almost over—just as I’ve begun to find my rhythm in the days of longer light and lengthening shadows. Luckily, winter’s right around the corner.