The insupportable burden of summer
On summer's impossible promise, NY vs. LA, the loneliness of the farmer's market, seasonal yearning.
I woke up this morning with the urge to share an old piece, written during a different, lonelier phase of life in Los Angeles. I got married last weekend, in a celebration that the word “magical” does not do justice. The gathering of our friends and family from around the world, their witnessing of my love with Ben, felt like the apotheosis of my life thus far, and, I see in revisiting this piece, it was the culmination of so much yearning—yearning for community, for love, for rootedness.
I can’t remember the last time I was lonely. Having friends over for leisurely summer lunches on our patio is now a fixture of life, as is sharing the bounty of our farmshare box. I rarely walk alone now that we have a dog. And yet, it seems like just yesterday that my ache for a fuller life was omnipresent, and that my hunger and restlessness were part of my experience of being alive—especially during the summer season, which always seemed to exacerbate the sense that I was failing in some way. I don’t mean to share this on the other side of marriage this as a smug missive of hope. The moral of this story is not that romantic love always satisfies that hunger. But perhaps my frustration with having to wait, my fixation on walking ten thousand steps a day, stemmed from an intuitive sense—a hope—of what was to come: a man who came home from our mini-moon and made two giant plum crumbles for friends with the dozens of plums threatening to rot in an acacia fruit bowl.
There is a sigh of relief in September, the Mondayness of the return to routine after summer’s ceaseless arrhythmia. Walking out of my house one morning after Labor Day, I sense something has dissipated, like humidity the morning after a storm. Lower in the sky now, the sun casts different shadows. The anxious whine of air conditioning is gone, replaced with the chatter of a mother and child eating breakfast through an open window. The shift comes with dew on my windshield and the U.S. Open final, with bright blue skies and the changing of the leaves on the sycamores in Hancock Park– the subtle markers of the passage of time that I have grown attuned to as a childless adult living in Los Angeles. I can sit still again.
I have now spent five summers in LA. And while I still very much experience LA through the anthropological goggles of a transplant, this is, in fact, as many summers as I spent in New York, the place from which I can’t help but still feel like I am from. In New York, summer is unbearable by late June, as soon as the lower platform at West 4th feels like an industrial furnace, and the novelty of walking home from work while it is still light out wears off. LA is never quite so unbearable, which is perhaps why, growing up on the east coast, Southern California was marketed to me as a land without seasons. But now that I live in LA, I realize there are seasons here; we wait and wait for summer as everywhere else does. Before we can have summer, we suffer “May Grey” and “June Gloom,” a thin layer of low-lying clouds that separates us from the sun for over a month. Though the sun performs a dramatic striptease every afternoon in time for a glorious sunset, it is not until the end of June that the gloom really burns off, at which point I am as grateful for the consistent warmth on my limbs as I ever was back east. And by August, I crave the reprieve of September and the energetic shift that occurs even though the temperatures won’t fall in Southern California for another couple of months.
Even in a place where the sun shines year-round, summer’s arrival begets irrepressible—even unreasonable—expectation. Rather than expose the cracks in my life’s foundation, I find myself hoping summer will allow its disparate pieces to crystallize, and that I will finally feel some sense of arrival in my own life. I recognize the foolishness in yoking summer, which has never been my season, to my escape from a liminal state of becoming. This unrealized version of my life exists outside of myself, as if I’ll find it only when I allow summer’s heat and restlessness to push me outside, out of town, forcing me to mix and mingle and chase after it in a way I do not the rest of the year.
Beginning in May, I develop an inability to sit at home while the neon blush of evening still lingers – a fear of squandering some intangible potentiality keeps me wandering the streets until long after the sun sets, walking to Whole Foods or for ice cream or around my neighborhood in all directions. I’m not sure what I’m looking for – what exactly pulls me out of the house night after night. There’s a recognition that, in LA, you have to make a conscious choice to be in the world. Perhaps I’m merely trying to maximize my chances of happenstance happening in a city structured to shuttle me in a car from home to work to yoga to dinner without ever getting to enjoy the thrilling uncertainty of a sidewalk and who or what I might encounter there. Here, even when the nights are long and warm, the streets are mostly quiet and beg the questions where everyone is and where I should be. Here, it is not as apparent as it is in New York, where it is painfully obvious that everyone is having more fun than you, crammed into bistro chairs on trash-scented sidewalks, ordering chilled rosé by the bottle, carrying their monogrammed weekend luggage on the train on Friday mornings. In LA, you see only the dogs and their walkers, the blue hum of televisions in the windows, and the traffic never dies, and I’m not sure whether this coast’s loneliness is better or worse.
Summer comes and it’s only a matter of weeks before the promise of the season and its bounty become an unsupportable burden. Wasting warm rose-tinged nights feels like throwing away spoiled produce; both are symptoms of my failure to make something of summer’s raw material—plums and heat and long nights. I marvel at the power of the seasonal rhythms, so relentless that they eclipse my own memory of the previous year’s letdown. In a way, I’m grateful that the mere fact of the sun hitting the earth at a particular angle can, without fail, imbue my cells with so much optimism. It reminds me that I’m an animal, wired to surrender to hope. But if I am an animal, I must be a goldfish. Each year I manage to forget summer’s inevitable melancholy, and once again foolishly project so much onto these few short months. And each year, the background thump of disappointment – the sound of the gap between what summer could be and what it is– grows louder and assumes more significance, until it takes its place as the ominous bass line of summer’s symphony and seems to provide some more terminal diagnosis of my life.
I can’t pinpoint the precise moment of summer’s anticlimax, but it seems each year it comes earlier. It is foreshadowed by the first extrinsic indicators of summer—the end of school and the emergence of sandals and the arrival of stone fruit and strawberries. The ecstasy of the first ripe peach, eaten at the wheel while juice dribbles down my chin! But soon, the farmer’s market begins to reflect tiny disappointments back at me each weekend – my failure to be able to easily assemble friends for a last-minute dinner party, the subsequent failure to have an opportunity to serve grilled fish and Spanish wine and tomatoes and eggplants and zucchini on a long table lined with sunflowers. In the summer, everyone is always at a wedding, and it hits me that there are only so many friends I can text without exposing myself to a twinge of vulnerability from admitting there are things I want to do and that I need someone to do them with. It feels like everyone else is at sleepaway camp all over again. Being single requires taking constant initiative to stave off isolation, particularly in the summer, yet a cruel irony is that the effort required to make plans can inadvertently trigger the loneliness, the sense that we are all living our own lives, going to our own friends’ weddings, swirling around each other in LA and sometimes meeting for a drink, and my failure to make it to a performance of the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl for the second year in a row, for no better reason than not wanting to have to text yet another person, causes a dull ache. Something like shame. Or hunger for a community that I never imagined having to work to cultivate, far from what was once home but is no longer. In admitting there is something I want that I don’t have, I feel a hot flush of this shamehunger, and fear that I have fallen through the cracks and missed the chance to weave myself into the fabric of some community, even as I know it is my job to do the weaving.
What are you doing for the Fourth? I text. There is still a hopeful thrill as this long-awaited month begins, and the fleeting sense that there is plenty of time. Arriving at a friend’s apartment complex carrying a beach towel and a platter of hummus and crudités, I feel a burst of optimism as I greet her other friends sitting around the shady pool. Perhaps this is the day that my life will take root, perhaps we will be able to recreate summer as it once was—the sort of summer I assumed I would one day find my way back to. The air is weighty with my suburban nostalgia for dads grilling hamburgers in loafers and golf shirts, nostalgia for watermelon and those red white and blue popsicles shaped like rockets, the ensuing blue lips and sticky fingers, the inevitable ketchup stains on a new Old Navy flag tee shirt. Nostalgia for bare feet, hot pavement, and having to be careful to step only in the wet spots. Nostalgia for needing permission to go in the pool, for goggles and those multicolored neon rings, for wanting your mom to watch you dive. For being scared of fireworks and your neighbor’s dog but being excited to run around in the dark. As a child, summer stretched on endlessly with days-that-turned-into-evenings like this. Now there is only this one day, a day that is over before it begins, and as we slice watermelon and grill hotdogs and make orzo salads and listen to Fleetwood Mac and clink beers, it hits me we can never go back to a time when summer seemed to creep more slowly than an entire year does now—a time when days like this were taken for granted. Just when I begin to experience a not uncomplicated gratitude, if not exactly for this country, then for this glimpse of community and my freedom to enjoy it, it is time for us to scatter, back to work and our own lives.
Summer flies until August and then it crawls. How are there so many weekends in August? August is a month of Sunday scaries, of idle dread and squandered leisure. It’s a hangover that persists all day, when I’m not sure I ever even enjoyed a buzz. I walk home from a friend’s pool and flop facedown on my bed under the ceiling fan in the middle of the afternoon and am not sure if my indolence signifies contentment or the onset of depression. There is a fine line between the sweetness of having nowhere to be and the loneliness of having nowhere to go.
These are the “dog days” – the days when Sirius resumes its place in the night sky and heralds the hottest days of the year in the Northern hemisphere. In Clavis Calendaria, John Brady’s 1813 “Compendious Analysis of the Calendar,” he described the dog days as a time wherein “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, Quinto raged with anger, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies." The news is bad in all directions, even worse than usual. Sobbing children in cages, another massacre. It’s a known fact that crime rates spike in the summer, and there has always been some sort of scandal, but now we get mass shootings too, intentional cruelty as policy, and the ceaseless idiotic rancor of the president on Twitter. It all weighs heavier on me in the heat; I don’t quite have the same will to fight during a time of year traditionally set aside for leisure. I worry no one else does either. Congress is on recess and the ACLU lawyers are on Martha’s Vineyard and our best senators are on the campaign trail and it’s unclear who is left defending decency.
As it has for as long as I can remember, my appetite for dinner predictably leaves town in late June and doesn’t return until after Labor Day. I blame it on the heat, even though unlike back east, the evenings cool as soon as the sun sinks behind the palm trees’ towering silhouettes. I still can’t sit at home long enough to eat, let alone cook. Dinner consists of a few olives, or a piece of toast, eaten over the sink, or most nights, just ice cream. Perhaps some ancient wisdom from a pre-agrarian time is embedded in my body, a wisdom that compels constant movement in pursuit of an endless bounty that permits one to eat only when hungry. My first summer in New York as an adult, I ate nothing but watermelon and frozen yogurt for dinner, after which I’d go for long runs down West End Avenue under the watchful eyes of doormen after dark. Though I have learned how to better take care of myself in those intervening years, on summer evenings it feels like little has changed. I eat just enough so that I won’t wake up hungry, leave my barely touched glass of wine on the counter, and glance out the window at the last sliver of sunlight. The dusk pulls me and I grab my keys and my phone.
For the love I’d fallen on / in the swampy August dawn, sings Bon Iver in my ears, though falling on love in August is unfathomable, falling on love in the midst of torpor, of wearing tired sandals, of looking at my watch. Yet what else propels me out the door to wander night after night though my hip flexors ache? What else prevents me from succumbing to listlessness? What is the magnetic force pulling me out the door and into the future each evening. Keep moving, you don’t have a choice, it seems to be telling me. You will know when you arrive, though whether it’s in the fall or in my forties, I have no idea, I just know I have to keep walking.
I’ve always found August more melancholy than September, the same way that Sundays can be more melancholy than Mondays. The dread of a Monday can ruin a perfectly fine Sunday, but then Monday comes and all is fine once the dread of Monday lifts, and I make it to the gym and have a salad for lunch and feel hopeful that maybe this week I’ll find the right groove. So I feel in September, even at this time and place in my life when September is not meaningfully different from August. But there is nevertheless a new urgency to things. It is the end of indolence. Where does this even come from? Am I benefiting from some impalpable societal stability that comes from other people’s children going back to school? My coworkers coming back from vacation? After all these years, there is still anticipation of newness as soon as the lights shifts and the crickets dissipate. There’s a spiritual muscle memory of fresh notebooks, the ripping of tags off new clothes, even when those rituals are long gone and the weather here is getting better rather than worse. I still find relief in being back in a rhythm, once it’s cool enough for oatmeal, for more than a top sheet, for overeager scarves at the bus stop in the morning, though the apples and the air are not yet crisp. Deep within, I recognize the opportunity for reorientation and relaunching that each September provided. I can sense something around the bend. Maybe this openness is why I’ve always fallen in love in autumn. Or maybe it’s just the opposite – that I sense something around the bend because I’ve always fallen in love in autumn.
Certain seasons of our lives hang suspended, like a chord waiting to be resolved. In no season do I feel this more deeply than summer, as I sense the year running out and crave some denouement before its end. It is only now that I live in a place where the seasons are no longer clearly demarcated realms that I appreciate the way in which the lived extremes of the seasons governed not only the practical realities of life in the Northeast, but the way in which they permanently altered my emotional rhythms. Twenty-seven years on the east coast hardwired into my psychology a sort of seasonal manic depression, as evidenced by the mania that still drives me outside each summer evening to stockpile light and warmth as it learned to do to survive in the past. A time to plant, a time to reap, etc. I cannot shake the sense that my time to live out in the world is finite, that I’m hurtling towards some indeterminate future with nothing to show for it.
But in a way, I take comfort in the circularity of the seasons. Perhaps this is why I grasp for any natural marker of the delineation of the seasons and their distinct emotional states – to fight my tendency towards scarcity and the belief that there is not enough time. Even as summer wanes, there is a deep knowing that it will be back. A Twitter thread on “calendar synesthesia” reveals that I am not alone in my obsession with the perception of time. Some, I learn, perceive the calendar year linearly, a horizontal timeline stretching from January to December; others confess to perceiving time as a hula hoop, or a horizontal chain of rectangles. For others with “aphantasia,” a year is just an arbitrary definition of time, with no visual component. I realize that my understanding of the circularity of the calendar stem stems from the fact that I visualize it as a clock, with January at the top, the months ticking clockwise towards September at 9 o’clock. Each year is a palimpsest, providing an opportunity to rewrite ourselves on top of the previous year. Some memories and nostalgias, however, are never fully erased, and inexorably affect the way we approach the seasons of our lives. And so I reach for subtle shifts in the light and chills in the air that feel like they have been carried from far away. The persistence of the seasonal rhythms allow me to feel like I am moving forward at the same time that I am reaching back, that I am walking towards some place familiar, that I will know when I have arrived.
There are so many passages in this piece that evoked an emotional familiarity, a “yes that is exactly how that feels”as I read them.
“There is a sigh of relief in September, the Mondayness of the return to route after summer’s ceaseless arrhythmia.”
Your description of the loneliness of single life was so painful I had to read in stages. I was single for 10 years as an adult and remember this feeling like it was yesterday:
“it hits me that there are only so many friends I can text without exposing myself to a twinge of vulnerability from admitting there are things I want to do and that I need someone to do them with.”
You captured so accurately the pain and awkwardness of being single on holidays. The section about July 4th resonated deeply.
If the point of art/writing is to evoke feeling you in all respects succeeded.
Cried when I read this the first time and cried today from happiness on the other end . You capture the ambiance of summer both east and west coast with such poignancy.