Soundings: Summer Song

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

Sometime in the spring my kids started asking if it were summer yet. They’re still young enough to struggle with concepts of time and time passing, but I said it depended on what they meant by summer. The looks on their faces told me I had clarified nothing.

I said I had always defined summer as summer vacation — time out of school. And they were still in school, which prompted a counting of days till summer.

But sometimes, I said, now that school extends well into June, you could explain summer by temperature levels, the fullness of trees, the need to cut grass, being too hot at a Memorial Day picnic. It looks and feels like summer.

Then again, I added, there’s this summer solstice thing, which I think comes in late June. That’s the way the planets, stars and cosmos mark summer. It’s like a giant universal clock, and the vast wheels turn and the orbs gyre and the sun and length of days account for the really official calendar of summer (although our lives today are much removed from such natural law and order).

Most of us know there are no clear boundaries dividing seasons. We say seasons come early. Or we pause and detect a touch of autumn in the air. Or, on some particular day, we can feel the veil, the weight of winter lift, and know that spring has come, even though it may retreat time and again until it’s here to stay.

Sometimes it’s merely a smell, or the way the light filters through the air — the way the earth speaks to us.

I was always attuned to seasons, but now I savor each rotation more. They all seem more precious as I age.

Summer is still for me the magical season. It fetches the sensations of childhood. It’s the soft and plentiful time of year. Although steeped in yard work, I am glad to have reason to be outdoors, interacting with all the living things claiming their existence, reaching and striving upward, toward sunlight — even the weeds so joyously proclaiming their rightful place in the earthly garden.

I love the long days. Twilight is my favorite time — the placid, languishing sunsets, the deepening shadows, the voices of neighborhood kids, the quiet and calm of the world. But I can also enjoy the dawns and early mornings . . . will sit outside with cereal and coffee, watching the world wake up — something that brings shudders and aches and grumbling any other time of year.

Winter mornings literally hurt; but summer coming through the window at 6 or 6:30 is like a call from the eastern, sunrise sky.

Summer is baseball and fireflies, kick-the-can and running through the sprinklers. Seemingly endless afternoons at the community pool, a well-equipped foray to the Lake Michigan beaches. It’s neighbors hanging out talking in the street, chatting about yards and fertilizer and the poison ivy scaling on their forearms.

It’s more communal, more leisurely than my no-look wave as they drive past me shoveling snow, everyone bundled in winter gear or hidden away in dark domestic hibernation, going their own trundling way.

If winter is the choke-hold and autumn the omen of all things mortal, and if spring is the leap and promise of resurrection, then summer is freedom’s pasture.

I’m sure this impression has its DNA in childhood, but it is nurtured by having school-tied kids most of my adult life and working at an academic institution.

What I do year-round is pretty much the same, but I’m aware of student absence and campus is very different when they are gone. The work day eases with fewer people here, faculty off on research projects and administrators taking much-deserved vacations — fewer emails and phone calls, questions, distractions, meetings and demands. More freedom. A more peaceful place.

It seems OK to sit still, to linger a bit in conversation, to look at the beauty of campus.

I am sure that my sense of summer is deeply pressed by my growing up in the South, especially when I did. In the days before air conditioning it was simply too hot to move too fast, too sultry to get too much done. Life in slow motion. Minimize the sweat.

I remember fondly, though, the summer evenings when we’d all go outdoors, try to let the night air cool the house through open windows, visit with neighbors, sit on the porch and tell stories, the lazy call of a baseball game in the background. Not too much activity. Cooling down. Settling in. Taking it easy.

This past spring, as my kids kept asking if it were summer yet, I eventually resorted to “not yet.” But we’re there now, and I trust our time together is making summer memories they will someday relish, that will bathe them in memory when it’s their turn to explain what summer is.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.