Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet
“What’s your favorite season?”
I’ve asked this question countless times, to kids all over the place, and for the most part the response is the same everywhere. They stare at me, perplexed, their pauses pregnant with incredulity. There is only one right answer, and my failure to understand that, the temerity to even ask a question suggesting that I don’t get it, means that I’m somehow part of the problem. Which, of course, I am. Because—
“Um, no school,” comes the shrugged, averted-gaze reply.
“Right,” I say. “Obviously. But is that all? I mean, what if that wasn’t part of it? What if you still had school in the summer—” open mouths, stricken stares “—or… or you didn’t have to go to school at all? Like, you were just working and then in the summer you were just… still working? Would you still like it best?”
Sometimes the answers get interesting then, as school-averse adolescents remember that there are actually four seasons rather than just the two, School and No School, seasons that will someday expire for them. Someday, unless like me they dodge the question entirely.
For the record, as an adult who likes her teaching job, I’ve never had a favorite season, but I’ve also never stepped off the two-season treadmill until now. I do have a least favorite, spring, season of allergies and too many commitments and disappointing weather, but otherwise I like the other seasons about equally in their own time. I love the leaves and crispness of fall, the cozy indoor rituals of winter, and of course the endless days and recreation of summer.
What I’m learning this year, though, is that even though I’m a proud adult who knows about real seasons, for me the seasons themselves are still tied up in the academic year. Fall is still about new beginnings, spring about goodbyes. And yes, summer still means freedom, change, a glorious departure from routine, vacationing into long days spent outside doing whatever suits my fancy.
This year, though, summer is really none of these things. This was only my second year without school in the last 29, and the other one began and ended with transcontinental moves, quite enough “summer change” to satisfy my need for new horizons. Last summer we moved twice, and I was pregnant, and it was all quite different and interesting. Now, even though I’m not working just like I never work in this season, summer has brought precisely zero changes in my life circumstances.
Surely my peers confronted this problem as soon as they graduated and got long-term jobs, but it’s new to me. So I return to the question I once asked my students: What makes summer so special?
In Letters To a Young Poet, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged his young correspondent to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” As silly as it may sound, this week’s discovery, that I don’t really know what to do with summer as an adult, has been a surprisingly disorienting one. I’ve been frustrated with myself, thinking about how my peers have doubtless figured this season out years ago, while I was still blithely taking two months off like a kid. And I think about Rilke, whose various exhortations to patience have haunted other stages of my life, and how this time it’s not patience with circumstances that I need, but patience with myself. It takes time, I consider, to learn a new way of being, even if it’s with something as simple as enjoying summer.
I shared my summer woes with my sister a few weeks ago over text message, and she immediately replied with a long list of delights, beautiful moments to be snatched from the ever more sultry summers of Seattle. “You watch the sky lose its bright hue and fade into dusk,” she wrote. “You don’t actually put on a sweater until it’s dark.” And I think back to all the conversations that have taken place at just that time, talking the color out of the world as the sun sank low and the world finally felt cool, that it didn’t matter what we were saying, just that we were outside saying it, stealing the extra light from the day. Surely that still happens, even if the rest of my life is different.
When my daughters wake up from their naps, we spend a while in their plastic swimming pool, no more than six inches of water and four feet across. I used to wonder who found these little pools thrilling. Now I know.
And whether it’s remembering the pleasures of childhood or looking at life to discover new marvels, I’m learning that it will take patience. That growing up—this summer part of it—may not all come at once, but a few moments at a time, if I’m willing to look and learn.