by Natalie Christensen
When I was young summer felt epic. In my mind’s eye, the school months were stacked up, jumbled and cramped, and the summer months were a hazy, vast yellow prairie. In fact my image of summer included waist-high golden grass even though I lived on the coast, between sand and redwoods. Summer was so immense, so sizeable that you never knew who you might be—how different, how tall, how smart—by the end of it, or that there would even be an end to it.
I still think of summer this way, although my nostalgic view may have something to do with two key factors:
1. Montana winter.
Okay, so I skip town for a chunk of the winter these days, but that’s because I am traumatized! This West Coast girl still can’t accept that there’s a real chance of frost and snow from October through April. One year my birthday was celebrated with a snowstorm. My birthday is in June.
When the first crocus pushes it’s brave head through frozen dirt, emerging into a grey world of bare branches, people in this part of the country cry from joy. The Facebook feed fills with photos and rumors of said crocus, and some of us make a quick pilgrimage to witness the first bulb. We do this to feel better about life and to store some spring optimism because a single flower does not a warm season make. There may still remain weeks and weeks of long underwear and puffy coats.
So yes, summer, after the long dark winter, does seem unimaginably incredible, forgiving, and languid.
2. I have kids.
Kids are built for summer.
Now, here are the two factors that continually harsh my summer vibe—like a bully on the playground that edges you up against the chainlink fence to forcefeed you the truth about Santa. These pieces form a rival summer perception that competes for my brainspace.
The girls’ first summer ritual is to sit at the kitchen counter and make a long list of summer goals. I usually save these lists for the baby books because they are so darned endearing. The list includes things like going to the river, lemonade stands, ice cream, camping, and fort-making.
I love these lists because they are innocent and sweet. Every year they are nearly the same, although these days there are a few teen-like activities thrown on top, like “tie-dye my jean jacket.” These lists also stress me out because the girls are serious about them and when I look at the lineup, stretching longer than my arm, and I look at the calendar, I know that it won’t all happen.
There isn’t enough time.
If I were to sum up a classic summer day from my childhood it would include a bathing suit, massive amounts of time in the water, and snacks in the shade. Now that I am an adult, I can see that our red and white cooler filled with food did not magically appear. (Sorry to just be realizing this now, Mom) Cheese chunks, apple slices, cold grapes, all of these, all of the delicious snacks I devoured, pouring energy back into my waterlogged little body, were orchestrated by my parents.
Summer doesn’t feel like a blur of yellow sun and bathing suits anymore because now I am one of the people who has to locate the blasted bathing suits. (Do they even still fit?) And if kids are going to eat snacks in the shade someone better go to the grocery store.
Summer, instead of being languid and easy, is actually the season of most work. In the winter you finish your workday, eat dinner, and call it good. But in summer you hurry to finish your workday, and then work several additional hours prepping for the camping trip or rafting trip or beach trip. I know it’s always been this way. Parents have always labored behind the scenes. I was just too little to notice.
These dual realities bring mixed emotions. I feel lovesick, yearning for summer even as it’s unfolding, and yet I also feel overwhelmed and stressed, nervous about it’s arrival. It’s uncomfortable to hold both of these perceptions in one body and yet, I know I can’t yield to either one.
I can’t sink fully into summer as I did as a kid. I can’t stay at the river all day and still, without planning, come home to a hearty fresh meal. Despite a positive body image and a forgiving lifestyle, I still can’t wear a bathing suit all day, every day. I also can’t give summer the middle finger and tell it to grow up already. I can’t allow myself to be a person that knocks out the days like they are just like any other.
What I can do is accept.
I can make peace as quickly as possible with the rapid turn of the earth. I don’t have to hold the calendar in a death grip and shoot dirty looks at the sun as it sets a little earlier each night. (I’ve actually done this.) I can embrace the limited number of days, live them fully knowing I can’t say “there’s always tomorrow.”
I can come to terms with the fact that there is hustle involved in summer. Early hours where you get shit done, late hours where you unpack the ragged dirty car, meals made and eaten and cleaned up after, trips to the grocery store, and other mundane, very un-summer-like tasks such as meetings and paying bills. I don’t like it that the world doesn’t stop on June 1st, but I don’t have to cry about it. (I’ve done this too.)
I can acknowledge that all the regular parts of life still need to get done and yet not think incessantly about the next task, or the next scheduling snafu. I can sit by the river and do nothing, smell the cottonwoods, toss a pebble, just stand there and enjoy it like it’s the true snapshot, the summation of summer.
Because it is.
My kids, belly deep in riverside mud, will certainly hold this moment as summer. That jumbo bag of pretzels they are munching on did appear out of nowhere, at least to them. Lapping waves, birdsong, and mowers, will be the soundtrack for their summer nostalgia and the motivation they will need to hustle extra hard, decades from now, so that their kids have a similar golden-hued snapshot to hold.
And it’s not just because my children are young and carefree. It’s not because they have no idea what the grocery budget may be or when a bill is due. It’s because that riverside hour is the most important part of the day and they know it. Children always know what takes us years to relearn.
My childhood summers weren’t actually endless, without tedium or regular crappy life stuff; it’s that those aren’t the parts that matter, those aren’t the pieces I’ve stored in my heart. I am so glad for that, so glad that I don’t have to stop the earth from turning, or muster dark magic to keep the fridge full, in order to enjoy a classic summer. I need only notice it when it’s happening.
About Natalie Christensen
“PARENTING WITH EMPATHY.”
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog. Join Natalie and Carrie-Anne for the September edition of MOTHER.