A summer night can feel like black velvet — the air as close and warm as the living land’s breath. You can feel it on your skin. Gentle waves stir the trees, float rumors that the playful god Pan is afoot. Magic distills in the sweet-scented summer nights of memory — fireflies, hide-and-seek, ghosts in the graveyard. Here’s another.
It is August a year ago. My wife and I have retreated to a little town in southern Indiana — a spry country village given over to gift shops and antique stores, handmade furniture and good things to eat. We’ve done that all day and have found the third-floor balcony of our B&B, overlooking the back alleys and parking lots a block off Main Street.
We sit in rocking chairs. We look out over rain-puddled rooftops and into windows glowing amber in the dark. The afternoon downpours have traveled into the forested hills along the southern horizon; lightning flashes — mute and distant. There are stars now and a breeze and the papery scuffling of voices as late diners head to their cars or duck into darkened doorways. We bathe in our reveries, no words between us.
This getaway weekend celebrates our wedding anniversary and my wife’s birthday at an age that ends in zero. Our three children are back home with grandparents. They have just turned 6. They will start all-day kindergarten in a week; the carefree, wonder-full years coming to a close. My two grown sons both married last spring. My parents are recently gone, my 89-year-old mother not inclined to stick around long after my dad died, leaving my sister and me to clean out the family home a few months ago. So it feels right to sit in silence and take it all in.
The rush of life carries us along so, that it’s good to step out, sit down, survey the vista from a lookout when you get there. Even though any finish line is temporary — with more demands barking up the road a ways — a deep breath and downtime are good. Idleness is not just the devil’s workshop. It can heal the soul, let the psyche rest and reconnoiter, give space to thought and the imagination. We all need summer in our lives. And in every season.
Maybe it’s the humidity in the air, or simply being outdoors at night, but the breezes carry my thoughts to growing up in Louisiana. We gathered lightning bugs in jars, played a lot of kick-the-can. We delighted in the game’s hiding out, the sneaking up, the spring into action, the scattering into secret gardens in the dark.
And then it came time to settle down, sit on the porch awhile before going in, letting the sweat dry, letting the house cool down from the sun-drenched day . . . little white wood-frame house, air passing in and out of screened windows. It was more stoop than porch. We all sat there together — my parents, sister, aunt and grandmother — watching the black of night come on, first stars twinkling. The grownups talked and told stories, but I remember the peaceful silences, too. It was always such a comfort — the exhale from another day. The ice cream truck, friendly neighbors and fog man — those slow-going trucks that came down our street spewing a dense cloud of DDT to kill mosquitoes. We’d race along behind the truck, running right into the stinky, fuliginous stream of poison, our parents’ only warning was to be careful not to run blindly smack-dab into the truck.
I first learned of the passing of time from summer. The jubilation of bounteous freedom stretched from the final days of May across an infinite expanse of joyous play and doing nothing. A vast horizon of Wiffle ball, alleyways and vacant lots, baseball cards and happy boredom, frolicking in summer rains, pedaling bikes and swimming. As I grew older my universe expanded — solo trips to the corner store, new parks and neighborhoods and, eventually, alien creatures in our midst: long-haired and summer-skinned and fetchingly disturbing.
Each new summer came with a posted list of chores — tasks my mother assigned to maintain the school-year diligence, instill responsibility, make sure my sister and I didn’t waste our time. There’d be a quota of books to read and trips to the library. But the regimen usually dissolved by July. By then my sister had gone away to summer camp in Texas, while I stayed in town so I wouldn’t miss any kid-league baseball games. My parents gave me my days till I turned 15, when summer jobs with 40-hour work weeks were required.
Until then, the idyllic summers of my memory were footloose and open-ended — long days running free with a pack of neighborhood kids, in and out of friends’ houses, roaming from parks to playgrounds. If left alone, I’d read, spread toy soldiers across imaginary battlefields, concoct dramatic baseball games by throwing a tennis ball against the wall of my room, the side of the house. A new, big pile of dirt in a vacant lot could provide four days of entertainment. A rain-swollen creek would sprout a carnival of worms, toads, crawfish and racing sticks.
As summer flowed into August the weeks became more dear. Three to go, two, then one. Counting down the last days of summer — it was heartache, that impending doom of having something to do, somewhere to be, a system so rigid and so large that I couldn’t outlast or out-maneuver it. It was in August just before third grade, the story goes, that I expressed surprise that I had to go back to school again. “I did that already,” I said, and was told I would do it again. And again. And again. Through 12 years of schooling, with at least four years of college on top of that. I remember feeling inconsolably crushed, as if I had been sentenced to a lifetime of perpetual torment.
My sense of summer’s end was the same as Huck Finn’s reaction to the Widow Douglas, who “introduced him into society — no, dragged him into it — and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear. The widow’s servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed. . . . The bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.”
Summer was to live for, finite though it was.
My feelings about summer haven’t changed since I was a kid, but the world has. There were no video games then; the neighborhoods were friendly and safe. We made it up as we went along; we weren’t driven from one planned activity to another, our time methodically scheduled with organized, supervised activities. The mothers were around, not away at work, not conscripted as designated drivers, providing happy meals en route from class to camp to game. They were there, keeping watch out windows for everyone’s kids. And our porch-sit repose at the end of the day had not been supplanted by TV and air-conditioned comfort.
I was lucky to come along when I did. The lush three-month vacation for which I am nostalgic is rooted in America’s agrarian past when children were needed to help in the fields during the summer growing season. But the time off school has since been afforded to generations of children with almost no working knowledge of agriculture or animal husbandry. And now many educators and educational systems are thinking it’s time to put them back to work.
A Time cover story, “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” declared: “When American students are competing with children around the world, who are in many cases spending four weeks longer in school each year, larking through summer is a luxury we can’t afford.” The truth is, our educational system, once the lifeblood of national health and hope for a bright future, is ailing, lagging behind those of other countries and placing our children at a disadvantage in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
While the causes of our educational woes are numerous and complex, many academics cite the long summer break as a major hindrance to educational progress. Time identified “the summer slide” as “among the most pernicious — if least acknowledged — causes of achievement gaps in America’s schools.” The most vulnerable victims are not the sons and daughters of those who keep their charges busily engaged with enriching activities but children with far fewer opportunities, whose parents may not have the mindset or the resources to involve their children in classes, programs, camps, museum tours or mind-expanding vacation trips.
Educators, rather, worry about those kids loosely supervised or left alone — often by single parents who must work outside the home — who are bored and at risk, watching TV for hours, captivated by video games, aimlessly falling behind and away. While these underprivileged youngsters make comparable progress during the school year, they regress over the long summer layoff. Failing to keep pace with peers whose summers offer greater intellectual stimulation, they fall further behind with the passing years.
One obvious solution is to shorten the time away from school, to alter the cycles of the traditional academic year. Some schools are choosing this route, with year-round schooling punctuated by shorter vacations between semesters. Other societal forces resist such change, and funding can be an obstacle for economically strapped school systems. But the development is applauded by many.
A related trend has been the growth in summer programming — educational, recreational, cultural — sponsored by community organizations, county parks, privately owned businesses and government agencies. These initiatives serve the underprivileged as well as those on-the-go families in which both parents work outside the home and summer presents child-care issues far more troublesome and costly than during the academic year.
Inarguably, there is value in providing children with developmental opportunities, in helping families give what’s best to their kids and strengthening a frayed social fabric by helping to care for the nation’s future. And worries about America’s standing in the world of tomorrow are indeed well-founded.
But I wonder about our cultural bias that time must be filled, that we have to save children from having time on their hands, that “downtime” is lost or wasted time. Hours need not always be scheduled and accounted for, with any lull between activities plugged by television or video games. There’s value in quiet interludes, having time to let the imagination blossom, giving the brain some room to grow. Kids need the leisure to explore their own interior landscapes. I think it’s good to let them create their own entertainment, make up their own games, devise their own rules, and learn to get along without adult supervision. There’s a lot to be learned when no one is looking. It’s good for them to take the initiative.
About the same time that one newsweekly advised rethinking the concept of summer another ran a cover story on creativity in America, recommending ways to instill in our children innovative thinking and techniques “to reignite our imaginations.” The article took a hard look at outmoded means of transmitting knowledge, the emphasis on standardized tests and memorization. It prescribed methods for encouraging problem-solving, thinking outside established boundaries and figuring things out by doing them. It would be great if school fostered such independent thinking; generations of children know this comes to them naturally.
One of my concerns is that sometimes I wonder if childhood itself is being lost. I feel bad for children who aren’t allowed to be kids. I also realize American children have been affected by historical tides. They have provided labor in previous centuries. They have endured economic hardships in tough times. They have also benefited from the affluence and privilege of prosperous decades. And they have enjoyed elevated status in families geared primarily toward making the next generation’s lives better than the preceding one’s. Other cultures are much less child-centered; our offspring are recipients of abundant attention, sacrifice and devotion.
What I mean about the loss of childhood in America today is how soon children are exposed to the forces and complexities that haunt all of us — from the threats of violence to the powerful mysteries of sex, from the availability of drugs and alcohol to the toxic messages from old and new media. Kids just get there sooner than they used to.
And not only is it harder to protect children or prepare them for these realities but we also seem to be increasingly motivated to treat them like aspiring adults. We start them early, manage their lives and usher them onto the fast track. Despite the judgments of Amy Chua, the notorious Chinese Tiger Mom who scolded American parents for being soft on the young, I see plenty of evidence of parents competitively hustling their children toward high-achiever status.
I have been there, too, wanting what’s best for my kids, seeing how they compare to others, hoping they get what’s best for them, fretting over the little ways they may get left behind. And I’ve taken family vacations where the scenery and routine changed, but not the pace. But occasionally I get stopped in my tracks, then tarry at one of life’s scenic overviews where I can survey the surroundings. And I ask the same things I ask when I see adults in a hurry to get ahead: Where are they racing to? What do they hope to find there? Will it bring peace? Will it bring love? Happiness? Fulfillment? Where do you go to get such things?
In the months before she died, my mother expressed concern about all the things in the house she lived in for 50 years — all that had been accumulated, bought, received as gifts, and treasured. In a reversal from the position she stubbornly took when we argued years ago about America’s materialistic ways, she said none of it really mattered anymore — climbing the social ladder, urging my dad up the corporate rungs, the pursuit of things. Things held memories for her, she said, each piece could tell a story, but the stories would be gone with her. “I don’t know what it was all for,” she said, having reached life’s razor’s edge, and with a final wisdom that became clearer and stronger as death’s door opened to her.
Hearing her question what really mattered in those final days has widened my eyes too, and brought a renewed gratitude. I benefited from our family’s real treasures, although I also carried some things from the house — things that tell me good stories and remind me what it was all for.
On this summer night, sitting and thinking and recouping from a dizzying convergence of life transitions, there’s time for such thoughts to sink in. Life doesn’t give many recesses anymore, but I take them when I can. I am grateful when a lunch partner is late, or if an appointment keeps me waiting. I’m happy to have a reason to sit idly by. I don’t carry a cell phone; I need to think as I go from one place to another. Thinking isn’t something that comes quickly or easily to me; I need time to connect the dots, time for my thoughts to marinate, to reach the surface. And I miss operating on a school-year cycle as I did when I was young — nine months of intellectual exercise followed by three months of physical labor.
Employees, apparently, also do best when allowed to switch gears. Warning organizations about “the acceleration trap” that has become prevalent in the corporate world, a pair of experts say brakes should be applied to our overdrive culture. “The problem is pervasive,” they explained in the Harvard Business Review, “especially in the current environment of 24/7 accessibility and cost cutting,” in which employees get overloaded with too many activities and work continuously under elevated time pressures.
Periodic intensity is tolerable, say Heike Bruch, author of Fully Charged, and Jochen Menges, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, but prolonged hyperactivity leads to unfocused action and, eventually, burnout. “Companies get into the habit of constant change, or perpetual loading,” they say, which “deprives workers of any hope of retreat for recharging their energy,” adding, “When leaders neglect to call a halt to periods of furious activity, employees feel imprisoned by the debilitating frenzy.”
Tony Schwartz, also writing in the Harvard Business Review, cites a worldwide study of 90,000 workers that showed 40 percent felt disenchanted or disengaged, significantly affecting performance and productivity (not to mention physical and psychological health). Schwartz advises different strategies to counter the resulting energy drain. “The first,” he writes, is “to stop expecting people to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, running multiple programs at the same time — and to recognize that human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.”
After offering case studies and suggesting some Dos (do get away from your desk) and Don’ts (don’t do multiple things at the same time), he adds, “A remaining issue was the expectation that team members would reply to email in the evenings and all through the weekends. The result was that they felt perpetually on call. Their inability to let go of work was a source of resentment and an energy drain for many of the leaders.”
One of the risks in taking the off-ramp and leaving the high-speed chase behind is that it’s countercultural. Some may question your work ethic, your commitment or your desire to succeed. Going your own way may bring its own kinds of stress.
Writing in Ode magazine, Tara Sophia Mohr recommends people make sure they carve out more “white space” in their lives, but says it will take some mettle. “In our culture, busyness is celebrated,” she says. “Many workplaces celebrate martyrs who sacrifice themselves to busyness, instead of recognizing those who produce great results without long, overwhelming work days. Recognize that these cultural forces are alive in your life. Creating white space requires leaving the herd. You’ll need courage to do it.”
The excursions of my thoughts are interrupted by the clatter and clang of trash barrels and service doors swinging wide. A white-aproned teenager drags a couple of garbage bins out the back of a restaurant. He hoists them up and heaves the contents into the Dumpster in the alley. I hear a shout and notice a gang of boys — backlit silhouettes only — shuffling up the alley, hands stabbed deep into pockets. They and the busboy seem to be friends. The voices carry, but I can only make out random words — but it’s clearly the sound of youth and bravado, exuberance and freedom.
One of the boys hops into the lower branches of a maple tree and disappears into its arms. A car rumbles onto the scene, music throbbing out the windows. The voices grow louder, the jawing more brash, the tree-climber hopping onto the pavement, the busboy returning to work. The car peels away, and the boys saunter six abreast down the middle of the street — shadowy beneath the streetlamp — before disappearing from sight.
I realize I’m smiling at this timeless cameo. I remember it all so well. Feels like just a few summers ago. The guys and a car, the darkness all around, striding right down the middle of the street like we owned the town. Like the whole world was ours for the taking. Summer nights when we were young and loose and full of swagger. Flexing our souls.
And my wife, breaking the long silence, says, “Boys.” As if that word said it all, said enough. And I think of them — all the boys I’ve seen and known and hung with on all my summer nights — me ranging over the years in my head with a sweet, wistful longing . . . and some unspoken advice: Enjoy it now, every minute of it. Because school starts in a week and life is coming fast. And so few grownups still know what you know in the summers of your mind. Enjoy it now, every minute of it. Don’t forget.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.