I wrote this poem, the first summer I ever felt really overwhelmed by the news and what was happening in the world. Since I was a child, I’ve always watched the news. It was something my family did. We sat down, ate dinner together, and then watched the news. My parents did not try to shelter my sister and I from any of it. In fact, we were actively encouraged to state our opinions and feelings regarding the state of the world. My parents involved us in campaigns for mayors, local city officials. We went to vote with my parents when they voted. In third grade, I became the campaign manager for one of the candidates in our school’s election, and I worked hard making those posters and knowing the facts. I did two years of national service after college. I spent much of my high school years volunteering and was a multi-time winner of ‘youth volunteer of the year,’ in our town. My dream was, for quite a while, to be a reporter; however, I did not think I had the look and hated my voice. This is before I realized many people who work in news never step in front of a camera. I was older and there was a lot that was going on the summer I realized I was ‘burned out’ by the news. Looking back by today’s standards, it was an introduction class. I worked a lot that summer, and I was working at an inpatient hospital unit. My job was demanding, we were short staffed, and I worked constantly. There were months were I would get a day or two maybe off. I had lived in a lot of tropical places or climates where the weather was reasonable all year long. This was my first year back in northern Wisconsin. I will say, I grew up here and always felt people overrate the experience and cold conditions, but I also am conditioned to them. The first year back, I noticed them heavily, as I always have when I’ve returned. It’s not so much the cold or the snow (which get old, esp. snow for me); however, it’s the endless grayness. The lack of sunlight. It’s something we don’t think about when it’s there, but the sun provides us with much better mental health, etc. That year, I remember it got close to August and stores were starting to have their ‘back to school sales.’ When you live in a place where summer can be three months and the rest of the year is made up of a lot of winter, when you hit August, there’s this feeling always of ‘where did the summer go?’ I think because we imagine it all year. It’s our escape. The mere threat of it leaving, causes us all to have some feelings of sadness, disappointment. The end of August (even though summer here often goes into September and takes a bit of June to get revved up), has a strong presence to it. The air feels different, although it’s not really. This particular year, the combination of it being my first year back, not having a lot of friends around, working all the time, I think it really hit me. I remember, though, it was the news that just ‘engulfed me,’ to the point where I could not take any more news. It was around the time that the Taliban cut off a young reporter’s head and videotaped it in broad daylight. Much of my career has been working for the armed forces at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the peak of the war in Afghanistan. I specialize in trauma, so I have heard horrific tales from men and women, first hand accounts of the tragedies of those wars. Still, there was something about it that caused me to pause. I told my boss I was taking off for a bit. I bought a ticket to Florida and called my sister and asked her to drive and pick me up from the airport, and I went. I told very few people where I was. I stayed at a small resort on the ocean. I spent most of my days swimming in the ocean. I avoided all televisions, did not turn on my laptop, and just soaked up the disappearing summer. When I wrote the poem, it was about a summer where nothing big happened. I thought about it like if I were a student and the teacher asked me to write about ‘what I did over the summer?’ There was hikes on trails after work. I did get out and enjoyed nature when I could, but it was, maybe, the first summer where nothing spectacular happened. The summers of my childhood and my twenties were packed with trips to see friends, random excursions that would become the folklore (to this day) that my friends and I talk about. This summer was, maybe, my first summer as a true adult. I was at the age where my friends were all married and having children and I was divorced and entering my mid-thirties. I also was working all the time by mandate because we were so short staffed, so I couldn’t use vacation time. So much of what I saw was out of the ‘shatter proof’ glass windows of an inpatient mental hospital unit. Then there was the news, which at that time, seemed really, really bad. I remember people were horrified about it. I ran into this poem last night. I think what’s fascinating about it, is remembering how that 24 hour news cycle and all the negativity ‘pushed me over the edge.’ Since then, that’s grown exponentially. You can’t pick up a phone or turn on a computer without there being a new ‘breaking headline.’ It often feels like (especially this year) how much more can happen in a year? The funny thing is, I read the poem and it reminded me a bit of the ‘universality’ that many people are facing this summer. I live in Milwaukee, WI, which is called ‘festival city,’ because we have a festival every week in the summer. We have the world’s largest music festival ‘Summerfest,’ that goes for two weeks around July 4th. Each weekend from June to the end of August is filled with a festival (Germanfest, Festa Italiana, Bastille Days, Irish Fest, Polish Fest, State Fair). There’s concerts and live music all summer. It defines the life of people and the city. This year, everything was cancelled. Truly, it often seems strange walking around downtown, near the festival grounds where I live, on weekends because it’s quiet. It’s just another summer day. The season that we prop on a pedestal and wait for all year, usually full of events, is like every other season. It’s just passing through. There’s even a strange peace in a quiet summer. It feels like a summer from long ago placed in a modern time period. Of course, the news is beyond overwhelming, but in the years since that summer where I first felt ‘overwhelmed by it,’ I’ve had to learn to disengage, as I’m sure many of us have. I still keep up to date on the news, but I can’t live in the twenty four seven news cycle of today, it’d be way too much. One thing writing does is it chronicles our history personally and as a country. It also shows us that, although different, we do see patterns. One thing I’ve enjoyed about writing this blog and reviewing old pieces is the sense of perspective. I wrote this poem simply thinking of it as a prompt by a teacher, “What did you do this summer,’ and it was my way of saying ‘nothing really special, yet it was summer and it flew by, and I’m sad it’s gone.’ I think it was also my way of writing about how it was the first summer that felt special by not being special at all, which I think perfectly describes the summer we’re in today. It’s incredibly unique and special because of the lack of special things happening. It’s completely up to us on entertaining ourselves, which as much as I miss concerts and events, it’s not a terrible thing. I think, this summer could be a blessing in disguise. In this age of constant entertainment, this is the summer where we had to entertain ourselves and enjoy summer for the season it is, without the frills we’ve built into it.
How Summer Passed
So that’s how summer passed
without love in moonlight, without
encounters with strangers, somewhere
in the heartland of the living. Smiles
like resurrected sparks aware
of what they can grow into.
It was not youthfulness. I wasn’t digging
into the immortal grave of imagination or memoir.
I was comfortable slumbering
on jagged rocks, plucking ripest fruit,
considering the painful risks
of speaking words which might define me.
I wanted to be neither blue of the stratosphere
or the deep, dark abyss of blackness where the blue stops
and gravity lets go
and the endearing romanticism of the world (the kind we all share)
ceases to become something new.
That’s how the summer passed. In plateaus
that lacked the peaks of paradise. In inexpensive
wines drank in backyards that fumbled
the inebriated questions I typically cast upon myself.
That’s how summer passed.
All around, a wonderment of why, how, and what,
traveling the geography of my mentality,
jumping into the spirits of my pundits,
sitting beneath dirt antiquated trees,
in forests of sermon mounting words.
That’s how the summer passed.
There were morbid words and diseased garnished language
in the news that assaulted,
that cried out to the humanistic side in us all. I left
what I could on a bed of beatitude for all that I loved
and pledged to exclamations that with my best sentiments,
I was going to hide from the city
in places where solid blocks of water pound on the docks,
learning to be drenched in what is not covered
in dreams that perspire from every pore.
I needed to go there, to know more,
to understand what happens after in life
when the idyllic tropics have been in your grip
and you’ve seen sunlight and serenity
and comforting arms and atmospheres gathering you close
relaxing my hands,
I let the reins go loose and the Clydesdale’s run.
In the clutter.
In the thud.
That is how summer passed.