I heard a rumor last week that summer was over. The person who mentioned it didn’t actually refer to summer’s death. It was more like she announced its funeral. “July is ending,” wrote my friend Amalia, in her no nonsense way, “which means one thing: the syllabus must happen.”
At the time I snorted, filled with the starchy hauteur of a woman in denial. It’s the middle of July, I thought, as I rolled my eyes. That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Even those of us wrapped in the cocoon of a forthcoming leave feel a muted sense of alarm when August comes around—so I blew off her comment. Then a few days later, I was trying to think through what I wanted to get done the next week, and I saw that “next week” and “August” were the same thing. Damn, I thought. Summer’s over.
I’ve seen and heard this phrase in virtually every text, email, conversation, and coaching session I’ve had in the last two weeks. It’s not because the summer is actually over. If you live anywhere fit for human habitation, you’re still donning sunglasses at 10 in the morning, and the hours-long fade from day to dark remains a delicious indulgence.
But while some believe summer to be a time of the year, scholars understand that summer is a possible self. Its fundamental feature isn’t the length of the day. Instead it’s a life that now has space for all its most important parts. A time when you can more easily limit your availability to the journals, professors, committees, students, associations, disciplines, and administrators who want your time. Instead you get to dawdle with your kids at the park; hit the gym regularly; and read. Books, I mean. All the way through. Summer isn’t just freedom, if you’re an academic. It’s youdom.
Our Summer Selves aren’t something we talk about, which seems odd when you first think about it, since academics usually talk things to death. But we don’t need to talk about it. Instead we live it every year, sinking into it with relief and exhaustion. And I suspect we’re afraid that to speak of the Summer Self would be first to taint it, then to whittle it away even faster than nature will herself. When we do refer to it, we do so sideways, speaking instead of the chapters we’ll finish and the camping trips we’re planning. Of the mammogram we’re dreading, but glad we’ve finally scheduled. We talk about all the things we’re going to do during summer. But what we mean is this is who I’m going to be.
Which is why, in late July, our days begin shortening before others’ do. Worst of all, no one sees it but us. When non academics overhear our August lament, they manage to cast us as both shiftless (“Mgh. Must be nice to have the summers off.”) and sulky (“What do you mean summer’s over? Class doesn’t start for 5 weeks!!”). I once treated myself to a massage a couple weeks before class, with a massage therapist who liked to check in on my “energy” before getting started. “Well it’s August,” I said, “so…you know.” She raised her eyebrows in patient, yogic expectation. “Class is starting in a few weeks,” I explained. The eyebrows only rose higher. “It’s just--it takes up a lot of energy” I said, feeling foolish and defensive. “I’m just trying to gear up for it, you know. Figure out what I’m gonna do. How I’m gonna manage it.” The eyebrows lowered and knitted themselves into a pattern reserved for the unstable. “You know,” she said, “you make it sound like you’re going into battle.”
I am, I thought, as she steered me toward the massage table. And they’re going to crush me. I was so lost in my horrible fantasy that I barely registered the rest of her words, the beginnings of The Speech. You know the one I’m talking about. The one about how summer’s not over, how there’s still a “whole month” left to enjoy, how I could choose to approach the semester with an open hea—yakkety, yakkety, yakkety yak.
I’m not gonna lie. I had plans to give you that speech.
From the safety of my seat on the I’m-On-Leave cruise liner, I’d planned to plumb the depths of my calm and offer sage advice about how to maintain your Summer Self all through the year. But you know what? That ain’t happening and there’s no point in denying it. Even if you enjoy teaching, the relentless tide of demands and obligations cannot be stopped. It cannot be controlled. And heaven knows it feels impossible to resist.
But you can resist it. And your resistance will bear fruit.
I’m not arguing that you can maintain your whole Summer Self throughout the school year. I am suggesting that you can save its most essential parts and draw on them to guide you through the semester. When we capitulate to the idea that our Summer Self and our Semester Self can’t coexist, we’ve already lost the battle. But if we hold tight to the most nourishing parts of life, we can use them to remind ourselves of why we’re in the struggle in the first place; and of what matters most when we’re caught up in the fray.
So what’s the thing you like most about who you are right now? Is it that you’re doing yoga every day? Calling your bestie every week? That you’re not checking email until after you’ve finished your writing? Before you order your books or respond to your first meeting Doodle, commit to keeping that one thing up throughout the year. You might have to do it less often than you do now. But do it anyway. Book a massage every other month. Schedule a weekend trip in February to see your brother. Write your colleague back and say no to a meeting schedule that conflicts with your writing time.
Now schedule that part of your Summer Self into your calendar. And treat her like a new friend on whom you want to make a good impression. You wouldn’t break that date, would you? Don’t break this one either. It will also help if you tell your friends (or your writing group, or your partner) what you’re planning. When things get tough, and you’re thinking of cutting your Summer Self loose, they can remind you of what you promised yourself way back in August, and why.
It’s like wiping on a bit of sunscreen before stepping outside in January. Into one of those days that’s brilliantly sunny and brutally cold. The sunscreen won’t make you feel any warmer. But it’ll fill you with visions of summer to help carry you through the day.
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