It’s hardly novel to think that the real start of the New Year comes every September when kids go back to school and life shifts from the slower rhythm of summer to the more hectic pace of autumn. I realize that I’m roughly the eleven-billionth writer to use this concept. Forgive me, my mind has been dulled by weeks of sun exposure, brisk swims, coolers full of iced tea, beach novels, alfresco dinners, ice cream, more than a few glasses of wine, and nights spent being grateful for the brilliant invention that is central air conditioning.
Original ideas are hard to come by when life rotates around the pleasures of a New England summer. But my daughter has returned to her college campus, the morning sun takes longer to rise, and the night sky darkens earlier. Autumn approaches and with it my seasonal battle with a condition my friend Kathleen called, “weltschmerz,” which she used to tell me was German for “world pain.” I don’t know if she is right about that or not, but it seemed to describe so well the ache in my chest and an unnamable restlessness and anxiety that dance at the edges of my days.
When the rhythm of the year is set by the school calendar…
Anyone who grew up the child of teachers, as I did, understands that the rhythms of your year are set by the school calendar. Ours seemed even more defined by a year that began in September, as we lived on the campus of a residential school where my mother taught and my father was superintendent.
I still remember the hot ‘trapped air’ smell of the school buildings in August when I would go with my mother to her classroom to put up the first bulletin board of the year. How the floors were freshly mopped and the desks freshly shined. I would sit on my back porch with my dog and watch the teachers come back for the first days of meetings before the students arrived.
My father started wearing coats and ties again, my mother went back to her pantyhose and skirts and sensible shoes and as a family we waited for the big bus to pull onto campus bringing the students from all parts of the state back for another year. There was promise and excitement in the air, tinged with the sadness of knowing that our summer had ended. We kids returned to our small-town schools until one by one we each left for college and lives of our own.
When you have no kids returning to school…
Now, in my early-fifties with a daughter in college, I still struggle with a complicated relationship with September. It feels like a beginning and an end. Because I’m not tied to the local school calendar any more, I feel like a visitor in my own town as I watch the neighboring kids line up for the bus each morning. From our deck we can hear the marching bands playing at the football games. The local park sprouts painted lines for area cross-country meets. My five-year-old neighbor comes home bursting to tell me about his soccer games.
And summer ends. And I feel restless and edgy, as if I too should be heading ‘back’ to something. I catalogue my summer resolutions to read more, eat better, exercise more and consign them all to growing list of things I failed at, when faced instead with the tempting prospect of a nap on the beach.
September used to slam into my life like a freight train filled with packets of forms to fill out for the school secretary, notices about ‘meet the teacher’ nights, new schedules for dance or soccer or chorus. It threw away my leisurely summer nights and left me with a schedule so color coded it looked like one of the National Weather Service’s hurricane forecasts.
It took my wine and cheese on the deck and replaced it with fast food in the car. These days however, “back to school” consists of moving some bins and boxes into a dorm on a humid August day and calling it good. I have a friend who calls September “adult summer,” and I love that. But I’ve never quite been able to buy into it. My roots in the school calendar run too deep.
I tell myself I’ll keep going to the beach, but I never seem to. My nights on the deck grow as short as the evening sunset. And I wonder how it will feel in a few years when I no longer have any reason to think of the words “back to school” at all. And then I remember my mother’s classroom, my father’s ties, and the waxed classroom floors and know that long after my daughter takes her last walk across the graduation stage, September will always be “back-to-school” for me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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