It’s hardly original to think that the real start of the New Year comes every September when kids go back to school and life shifts from the slower rhythm of summer to the more hectic pace of autumn. I realize that I’m roughly the eleventy billionth writer to use this concept as the theme for an essay. Forgive me, my mind has been dulled by weekend after weekend of sun exposure, coolers full of diet lemon Snapple, five beach novels (3 set on Nantucket and one set on a fictional island that clearly was Nantucket), alfresco dinners, morning walks, and nights spent being grateful for the brilliant invention that is central air conditioning. But the remaining August days are few, and morning sun takes longer and longer to shine, and night sky darkens earlier and earlier. Autumn approaches and with it my seasonal battle with a condition my friend Kath used to call “weltschmerz,” or “world pain.” It starts with a dull ache in my chest as I grapple with the end of another perfect summer, the pit of anxiety in my stomach as I contemplate the schedule-juggling, and heightened work-load that arrives like clockwork after Labor Day, and an inescapable, unnameable sadness that dances at the edges of every day.
Now, as any good native New Englander should, I do love Autumn and its bursts of color, its crisp days, cider donuts, and trips to Mack’s Apples for Cortlands, and the chance to pull my jeans out after they’ve lain forgotten in my bottom drawer all summer. My sadness isn’t even tied to Liza being yet another year older, (although next year when she starts high school perhaps I will recant this declaration), for I love the way each September brings challenges for her in the form of higher levels of dance classes, more advanced classes, new opportunities, and the joy that is watching her bloom into an extraordinary young woman. Rather my “weltschmerz,” is rooted in closing the door on another summer – the season I love most of all – with its slower pace, reduced expectations for productivity, and precious, precious time with my family. I’ve written before about my lack of ambition, and my inability to jump on the workaholic train with any sense of authenticity. Summer fits me perfectly. People slow down, take time off, vanish to summer homes on lakes and beaches, they take lunch hours to stroll downtown or sit at sidewalk tables a bit longer, even at work they are tan, rested, relaxed, happy, as if the burden of work becomes lighter and more bearable between Father’s Day and Labor Day. This is heaven for someone like me, who sees the work day as a major obstacle between me and my time with family and friends. But come the Tuesday after Labor Day and it’s as if a switch has been thrown sending everyone back into “high gear,” (a phrase I particularly loathe).
I cling to my summer the way Liza used to cling to her pacifier as a baby – greedily, angrily, and with the completely certain knowledge that it was going to be taken away at any second. But my petulance is futile. For just as ripping those first red leaves off the Swamp Maples will not slow the steady march of Fall, nor will stomping my feet and pouting stop those around me from changing, and growing and moving on with the business of life, leaving me stuck in “summer mode.”
Yesterday, on our last long-weekend outing of the summer, I noticed the creeping tide of color on the hills over Lake Sunapee, and for a moment I felt that ache in my chest again and wanted to freeze time so we could always stay happy, tanned, relaxed and with a big bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and stacks of good books at our side. But then, as I contemplated the excitement that awaited Liza as the top dog 8th grader at her junior high, the opportunities that awaited Kelly in her new studies, and the (almost terrifying) giddiness I felt at having a new show to rehearse with a completely new company of people, I took a deep breath, said a silent thanks for an absolutely perfect summer, and exhaled. I let summer go. After all, I’m reasonably sure it will be back… someday.
Happy autumn. Happy New Year.
We take summer seriously in my family. We also take fun seriously. We’re big fans of fun. Nothing makes me happier than when Kelly and I, or all three of us, are off on adventure. Kelly usually drives and I co-pilot which means usually sitting with my feet on the dashboard (because my wife drives a car which doesn’t quite fit my legs) and our conversations generally go something along the lines of me asking her if she has any kind of plan or directions or general sense where we’re going and her responding along the lines of “sort of…we’ll figure it out!” And we always do. We’ve traveled the back roads of Sugar Hill in search of legendary cheddar cheese, we’ve walked through the eerie emptiness of the closed-for–the- season York’s Animal Kingdom on our way to a local ‘Harvest Festival.” We’ve posed with the nude statues on the grounds of The Ogunquit Museum of American Art, gone to wine tastings at a vineyard in Sandown, and snuck onto the grounds of The Indian Head Resort in Lincoln to take photos in their decorative teepee. We’ve relaxed in Adirondack chairs near a waterfall in Peterborough, had an impromptu swim and nap at the town docks in Newbury, eaten ice cream in the middle of Harvard Yard, giggled through an auction at a Methodist church in Gilford, and gone to open houses for multimillion dollar homes in Provincetown. A friend of mine remarked that we seem to “experience an entire summer vacation in one weekend,” and she couldn’t be more right. We love our adventures and we love taking friends along for the ride, in fact I still smile remembering the weekend that Joe and Kelly and I embarked on a hijinks that took us from the top of Cannon Mountain to the Hopkinton fair and everywhere in between with the goal of ‘seeing as much foliage and eating as much maple as possible in one weekend.” Our excursions are unpredictable and even when the occasional outing is kind of a bust, they are always fun and they are always an escape from the work that awaits us during the week.
Ah yes work. Work is the one thing that pretty much never comes along for the ride on our weekends and vacations. I’m as Yankee as they come but I have to admit somewhere that Puritanical work ethic skipped over me. I shouldn’t be surprised. I grew up in a family where my dad routinely sauntered home from his office for lunch and a nap, where running to the store for some cereal could be turned into a family outing, and where the concept of working on the weekend was as anathema as buying jarred sauce for the lasagna. It simply didn’t happen. Is it any wonder with nap-loving, road-trip taking, ice-cream eating roots like these that I grow impatient with our current culture of prizing overwork as some sort of moral superiority? When I read that Hillary Clinton (a political and personal hero of mine) was praised for promoting work/life balance because she encouraged her staff to go home to their families at SEVEN O’CLOCK at night, I thought “really?” By seven I like to be through dinner, into my glass of wine and readying for my nightly Jeopardy match with Kelly, or finishing up an evening dip in the condo pool or an after-dinner stroll not just walking out the door to go home. When I hear someone announce they “took the weekend off” from their desk job at an arts organization, I think “really?” Weekends are given to you, you don’t “take” them and for the love of Pete what kind of arts emergency is really going to arise over the weekend that can’t be dealt with Monday morning? When a dear friend proudly announces her work email is turned off while we’re at the beach, my eyes can’t help but roll a little (OK, alot). When I ask a friend to join us for fun, food and friendship on a Saturday and hear “oh I’m at the office” I think, really? WHY? Once I was even semi-scolded by a friend after I spent a weekend away, “well it must be nice but there are things that must be done!” Um. What things? We grocery shop, we do laundry, we do dishes, we go to work, we do all the things everyone else does. Why is the concept of hitting the road for a day, a weekend or a week, or even the concept of a rainy day spent at home with movies and popcorn, so hard for some people to grasp? I don’t get it.
Several years ago I went through my state’s leadership program and met over 30 amazing people – all dedicated, hard working and terrifically fun and friendly folks. I spent the summer after that program taking advantage of their geographic diversity to seize some new experiences – ice cream at a new spot in Jaffrey, a swim in a tiny lake followed by a barbecue in Warner, Mexican food in Rochester. It was a blast. Upon hearing of my travels one classmate said to me “Wow, when do you WORK?” I was taken by surprise. I had done all these things on weekends or evenings. I go to work like everyone else does. I work hard, I get my job done, I get it done pretty damn well. The fact that my fun with my new friends was seen as being mutually exclusive with work was a little unsettling to me.
Look, I get that for some people work is relaxation. I don’t understand it but I get it. So if sitting at the office on a sunny Saturday afternoon is how you chill out then I guess all I can say is ‘enjoy.’ And of course I realize that even the most dedicated slackers among us have those days when a grant is due, or a presentation needs to be polished, or a big event is coming up and we put in a few extra hours, but those are exceptions, not the rule. And because it’s almost impossible to avoid it these days, my work emails do come to my phone and home computer. But I turn them off when we hit the road or when I’m on vacation. And every time I feel the urge to answer an email I now ask myself “can this wait ‘til tomorrow, ‘til Monday?” Happily, 99.9% of the time the answer is yes and I let it go. For a long time I really thought there was something wrong with me because I seemed to lack this compulsion to work all the time. But then I realized that great truth that none of us really want to face. I’m just not THAT important. I fund raise for a theater and I do it well, but is that REALLY a job that requires constant connection, and weekend work? Please. No. just.. no. Is the legacy we want to leave really one that begins with “well they spent a lot of extra time at the office?” My wife is a psychiatric nurse. Her job is about a bazillion times more critical than the one I do, but I don’t catch her volunteering for extra shifts or reading case studies on the weekend. She knows what she does matters and she does it in the time she’s there. Period. More people should take a page from Kelly’s book.
So my friends, as summer draws to a close here is my wish for you. Turn off your email notifications, leave your office keys at home, pick a destination that sounds fun, hop in the car with someone you love, and (if you’re not driving) put your feet on the dashboard, roll the windows down, and enjoy. And don’t forget my family’s number one rule of summer adventures: stop for ice cream!
Sturdy. Rugged. Capable. Responsible. Strong: all adjectives that have been used to describe me at some point in my life. Admit it, you’re thinking of some stocky Russian peasant woman with a stern expression and babooshka on her head aren’t you? Awesome.
I’m not quite sure where the roots of my sturdy and strong reputation took hold. I remember learning early on that there were precious few who would come to the rescue of the crying fat girl. So I stopped crying. I remember my mother, a native of Utah who was far more Yankee than any proper New Englander, telling me that there was a time and a place to ‘indulge” strong feelings and that it certainly wasn’t in public. My mother, the inventor and master of the greatest weapon in the lexicon of confrontation, which I have long since coined “the Stare of Death,” did not believe in showing your hand, betraying your weaknesses, or giving anyone the satisfaction of seeing you cry. She had a reputation of being ‘strong,’ a reputation she handed down to me. The child of deaf parents my mother was incapable of talking without using her hands, and confided in me that when in a difficult situation rather than display her emotions or enter into an argument, she would sit on her hands to keep from talking. And she would just stare. Woe to those on the receiving end of that stare. It had the ability to drop the temperature of a room by 20 degrees and cripple those who were unfortunate enough to be caught in its wake. (I am but a humble apprentice of the Stare of Death but I like to think I use it well in my own fashion.) But I knew that at home she would retreat to her room or even the bathroom (probably the one sanctuary from her demanding daughters) and pray, and cry, and “give in,” but only a little and only in private. In public she was strong, unyielding and unflinching in the face of challenges to her family and faith that would have leveled anyone else. I watched her and I learned to be strong as well, and that there wasn’t anything life could throw at us, any fool that would cross our path that couldn’t be stared down.
I’m not sure when I learned that staring down difficulty was easier if I bit the inside of my cheek, but I that know I have a lifetime of scars and canker sores and worn teeth from doing so. When you’re 5’10” by the time you’re in 7th grade and built like a junior linebacker you learn pretty quickly that people are not going to indulge your feelings the same way they indulge those of the more delicate girls. You know who they are. The ones who sigh wistfully and brush at their hair until someone just has to ask what’s wrong. (In high school I was that girl who all the boys called to ask what had been bothering the moody beautiful girl they all had crushes on. Did I know? Was it them? Oh what could they do to help that precious princess through her pain?” It’s not altogether possible to give the Stare of Death over the phone but Lord knows I tried). These girls are the ones who grew up to be women who regularly use phrases like “I’m not strong enough to handle things like that,” or “I need time to process this.” The ones who quote Rilke or Mary Oliver or Virginia Woolf on their Facebook walls until the whole cyber world falls over themselves to reassure them that yes they are good enough and smart enough and beautiful enough and so absolutely wondrous they are a sight to behold, and by the way can I get you an iced coffee, write you a poem or sing you a song to make you feel better? The ones like the heroine in the beach novel I just finished who ‘retreated” to a friends Nantucket house after a personal trauma and spends most of the book being applauded for rallying the strength to sit on the deck and read a book and gaze wistfully at the ocean (Wrapped of course in a Pashmina, oh those fragile women love them their wraps don’t they?).
Yeah. I’m not them. Even if I TRIED I couldn’t be them. No matter how much I wanted to be them for even a day I couldn’t pull it of. My sister was, however, a different story. She would regularly take to her bed with ‘headaches’ or “sorrow’ for an entire day, missing school or work to lie with the shades drawn watching the ABC soaps lineup and drinking Tab. My mother would excuse it all by saying “oh your sister is different. Sometimes she just needs a day. She’s not as strong as you.” And I bit my cheek and never asked how she was so sure I didn’t need a day every now and then myself.
The year my mother died, a few of my co-workers also suffered personal losses of their own. Each time there was a collection to give my bereaved friends a gift certificate to a spa so they could be pampered and relax and have some ‘me time’ in the face of their deep personal pain. I was totally on board with this and contributed happily. After all, I am a massage junkie and I know well how restorative its powers can be. Then my mother died and I had to travel to Maine for several days for the services and my co workers sent me…. A Harry and David boxed collection of nuts, crackers, cheese fruit and chocolate. Because clearly what the fat girl needs is a hearty snack to heal her grief. Don’t get me wrong. They were and continue to be well-intentioned and lovely people who I hold dear, and their gift absolutely came from the heart. But I confess that I thought “really?” when it was delivered. Oh sure, I was able to get a pretty good comedy routine out of it, but I also knew in that moment that my Yankee stoicism and “strength’ was interpreted by others as not needing the same kind of care and comfort as those more, God help me, ‘fragile’ than I. Others needed pampering and soothing. Apparently I just needed a hunk of cheddar and some moose crunch caramel popcorn.
Now I will confess that my mother’s admonition to ‘be strong” and “don’t give in” didn’t always work. During the most difficult time in my life, in my mid-thirties I grew tired with biting my cheek and had what can only be described as a massive personal crisis. My neediness during that time knew no bounds and when I think of how I behaved and how I abused the good intentions of my friends, I cringe. A few times I even uttered the “I’m not strong enough for this“ phrase but it felt hollow and as if it didn’t fit me. Eventually I grew weary of trailing my long list of problems behind me like Linus’s blanket and I did what I had to do. I sucked it up, I dealt with it, and I moved on, vowing never again to allow myself to go to that desperate place. To never again be anything but strong.
Sometimes all this sucking up and moving on makes me impatient and irritable with others and I’ll admit it’s gotten me a bit of a cyber reputation on my favorite message boards as ‘the cranky Yankee’ who doesn’t suffer anyone who wants to process or who needs validation. But another thing I learned from my mother is that being strong brings with it a responsibility to be strong for others. My mother listened, supported, encouraged and stood by her friends. She was strong for them and in doing so she showed me the importance of being strong for mine. And in my own way, I do try to be that.
After all this, I still bite the inside of my cheek and I still wish that just once I could be the one wrapped in a Pashmina gazing at the ocean while people fret and cluck about me. But there are worse things to be known as than strong so for now I’ll take it.
Just don’t call me sturdy. I really hate that one.