Today, Labor Day 2014, marks the unofficial end of my 37th summer on the planet. I don’t remember much about the first given that I was just a blob of drool and other bodily functions, having been born in early August. During the second, I was trying to get a handle on that walking and talking stuff. Many cognitive psychologists believe that memories won’t fully develop until one has the language to describe and store them for later recall.
And so it was during the third summer, shortly after the arrival of my baby sister Jennifer, that seasonal reminiscences began to coalesce. Another August child, my first strong recollection is of being pulled from a friend’s backyard pool to visit little Jenny. Then, as now, I did not like the party to start or stop without me. If you’re now envisioning a 1980’s toddler precursor to Ke$ha, well that’s embarrassingly accurate.
Happily, my father knew how to manipulate my stormy baby moods and let me have control of the radio on the way to the hospital. I had strong (positive) opinions about the canon of Christopher Cross as a young lass of two years and three days old. Thus I belted out “Ride Like the Wind” through drying tears, sort of a joyous prompt for the complete awe that would dominate when I finally beheld the newborn girl. That summer I learned that it might not always be a bad thing to get out of the pool before you’re ready.
Summer is my favorite season, for a multitude of reasons. The hardened Chicagoan’s stoic survival of harsh Windy City winters begets frenzied exultation at three months of beaches, sidewalk seating and outdoor exercise. The melancholy writer struggles with seasonal affective disorder and craves Vitamin D furnished by 14 hours of daylight. The anarchist within adores the sense of limitless possibility. And for the student of life, there are always lessons and wisdom to absorbed as people literally and metaphorically throw off their coats.
It was during the summer of 1984 I learned that the arbitrary work of a moment, a face first implant into a living room radiator, could affect every moment thereafter. Self-esteem, opportunity, even the literal shape of a jaw went on another trajectory after an accident that took 25 years from which to fully recover. I also learned that even if I’d been born cute, I might not always be so. Looks can go at any time. Decency, intelligence and hard work became unconscious driving forces as the meaner kids mocked my crooked teeth and thick glasses.
During the post-Communism heat of 1994, I left the U.S. for the first time, and learned that the world is a large, diverse yet strikingly level place. Journeying to Russia and Poland on a cultural goodwill tour with the Chicago Children’s Choir I added the following essential truths to my life book: underage traveling without parents is awesome, there is no amount of dirtiness or fatigue that can prevent a teenage crush and everyone likes Ace of Base.
I wrapped up high school with another CCC tour in the summer of 1996, this time a five-week sojourn to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. It was there I became aware that family can be chosen, appearances can be deceiving and that the summit of Table Mountain is a great place to use a pay phone.
Ensuing summers taught tougher lessons. 2009 was the summer of prematurely burying friends and coming to understand that desire alone is not strong enough to open a heart that’s closed. The warm months of 2011 were the season of illness that doesn’t make you appear sick and the crippling realization that two people in love can be genuinely, horribly toxic together.
But as I move into my late 30s, the conclusion of my 37th summer, the instruction remains poignant, and the circle is opening more fully. This was the season of horse back riding, wedding singing in Spanish, running races in Canada, hiking, outdoor music, bike rides through the forest at dark, murder mystery theater, new friends and fedoras. It was the summer of saying “yes” to everything external after Chiberia 2014’s confinement and discovering the joys of other terrain besides the concrete jungle.
It was also the season of writer’s block. Or was it? Is the living I’ve done over the last three to four months fodder for more exciting, experiential work? Perhaps I’ll find out next year. Because another lesson my 37th summer has taught me is that I don’t need, or maybe even want, all the answers today. The rewards is in the search, not the explanation.