By Anne T. Donahue
I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with summer. As a kid, it was perfect. As a teen, it was a blank canvas onto which I projected the promise of every YA movie. And as a twenty-something, I began each with the vow that I was embarking on The Best Summer Yet™ — a promise I doubled down on once social media became the fastest way to capture just exactly how fun I was.
Of course, I wasn’t. By the time I was 30, I was a ball of anxiety who soldiered through plans with the mental assurance that eventually I’d get to go home. I told myself cancelling or leaving early would mean I was a bad friend or straight-up boring, and while I confided how I felt to my best friends (who can erase my anxiety with even a meme), I buried my fears and fatigue and need to be perfect in hopes that if I could seem like a cool, fun summer freak, I would eventually morph into one.
Which never really happened. First, because growing up meant realizing that a season does not a fun person make, and second, because it was too tiring. By the time the pandemic hit, I was content to hunker down on the deck or go for walks with my dad and was relieved to do so. I, amidst the fear of death, began to exist more and perform less. My social media became boring, and visits with pals were documented by memory, not by stories or posts. I was learning to exist in a way I hadn’t for a long time. And I was starting to lower my shoulders from my ears on my own accord, not at the suggestion of someone “helpful” on Twitter. (I used to be a “drink water!” poster, and for that I am eternally sorry.) Finally, going into summer 2021, I felt ready: I’d complete my transition into a person who revels in sunshine in warmth, makes plans with pals for their company, not for content, and who lives a quiet life outside of the incessant need to document everything.
The last part was easy after my dad died last July. And, a few weeks after that, my grandpa’s strokes led to the beginning of a heartbreaking end. Social media could go largely to hell. Plans with anyone I couldn’t be my devastated self with were off the table. Performativism in any capacity made me feel sick. The idea of summer adventures outside the funeral home or long term care facility seemed laughable. My only goal was to survive – a feat I wasn’t sure I had the endurance for, as the distance between tragedy and my day-to-day life didn’t serve to heal, but to remind me that time was passing and soon my dad’s death would feel like history instead of the acute pain it was delivering by the hour. And it carried on that way. Through summer, through my grandpa’s passing, through my uncle’s sudden death in the winter. My only goal was To Get Through It which I did (so far) by cocooning. I loved my friends and I wanted to see them, but I was too deep down the rabbit hole. I didn’t know what I could offer outside of quiet despair.
So I looked to summer. By March, my mom and I started planning and plotting our makeshift garden (see: pots on the deck because we’re not digging up shit), picking up outdoor pillows and Astroturf in preparation for when we’d be privy to a little bit of light. With every container, pink flamingo, or oversize pinwheel, I started to feel an anticipation for summer I didn’t think I’d feel again. I began to look forward to it. To count down to it. I used it to mask the knowledge that come July 3, it would be a year since I said goodbye to my dad on his way out the door and confirmed that we’d be watching Top Chef together later. I knew this summer would be hard, and I knew it’d be different. But it would also mark the fact that my mom and I had made it; that we’d landed somewhere on the other side. By the time we’d begun buying flowers and giving them their own little homes, I was starting to feel something resembling . . . not profound sorrow. I began making plans (small ones, close to home) and telling the friends who don’t live nearby how I’ve (actually) been doing. Summer wasn’t my enemy nor was it my most trusted ally: it was proof that time passes, and that time is a gift. But evidently, it’s not a waste of time to simply be quiet, live outside of the (Instagram) grid, and move so slow a sloth would pass you.
This summer I know I’ve probably been a little too quiet. I go out less, I don’t drive as far, I spend an inordinate amount of time alone at Value Village, finding tops that your favourite teacher from eighth grade once wore. But I’ve also learned that a good/great/best summer isn’t defined by activities and adventures, but by whether we’re doing what we most need. Sometimes, I need an adventure. Others, I need to sit outside and read and give myself space to keep growing into the person I’ve become. Some days, I want to go for a walk the way me and my dad used to. I want to go to Ikea with my mom. I want to watch my friends on Instagram who leave me in awe of, well, everything they do. I want to eat snacks on the deck with my pals, or walk around the mall because nothing in this world is as comforting. Sometimes, I want to post what I’m wearing. Most of the time, I want to post screencaps from The Simpsons because my taste in everything is excellent.
But I also don’t want to limit these things to the summer, a season that always feels too short. In the same year the last year was one of the worst of my life (I will not jinx myself by assuming it can’t be eclipsed in some way), it pushed me into re-defining what “best” means since the definition changes all the time. Today, my best summer looks like me writing this piece while eating chicken fingers and jellybeans. Tomorrow, it could look like admiring the sidewalk chalk art the kids next door made on my driveway. I just aim to make neither this summer or year one of performance or of insincerity. I am boring, but I am maneuvering. Which may make this summer the best of all.
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