Summer isn’t always synonymous with vacation, as most adults know all too well. Long days spent yachting on the lake? Late nights lingering over a glass of wine on a restaurant patio? Raise your hand if none of that happened this season.
Besides kids and college students, the only folks who get a summer break are their teachers. What, we wondered, do they do with their months off?
To help ease them into the back-to-school state of mind, we turned the tables and asked a handful of college professors to pen the classic first-day-of-school essay: “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.” Call it payback time.
And, like the grade-A students you know they once were, these profs put on their thinking caps and completed their homework. Not a single one lobbied for an extension. Looks like they’re ready for the classroom after all.
Strange for a cultural anthropologist, but many summers I refuse to travel. There is no place on Earth more beautiful than Underhill in the deep summer, especially the land I grew up on. After teaching all of the academic year about modern-day slavery, poverty, sex trafficking and war, the challenge is to see how fully present I can be in each summer moment, not letting the mind wander off into anything but the beauty at hand.
First, the liquid flute of the hermit thrush, then steamy nights packed with the moist chirp of shiny, well-fed insects, songs of the sweet and overripe. My kids and I pick berries, juicy and dimpled, with my mother, who hobbles up through the woods with her posse of dogs. I proudly watch our garden swell, planted by my husband, a Dutchman botanically starved by Vermont winters. I relish in its obscenities, overflowing, engorged, the green bulbs desperate for release, leaking at first touch — I vow to pick the stems clean, but never really do.
I watch my little boy sleep, the warmth seeping from his brown back like a rock that glows for hours even after the sun has moved on. I feel giddy with pride as my daughter canters on a horse in the open fields. Wobbling red efts, green snakes, toads, indigo buntings, fox, monarchs and moose.
All this and more until the shock of the first blazing-red maple leaf, when I dig into the present even further, trying to stay encased in the warm, humid pupa of a brief Vermont summer, thankful that the Canada geese haven’t started clawing across the sky toward the south, sending that stitch of ache across my chest, knowing autumn is about to explode with its crimson-orange wings of fire and loss.
When I stepped out of the front terminal doors of Dhaka airport, the rain seemed to be emerging from invisible pores in the air itself. The temperature was a mere 90 degrees, but the humidity was 104 percent. The air, in short, was sweating.
My shirt was already sodden. My socks were already sodden. I looked down at the directions to find my driver, but the paper had begun to droop from my hand. Given that I was trying to carry my knapsack, my traveling guitar, my suitcase and my glasses, this droopage presented a major problem. I had to bend forward and try to read the map upside down.
I had a phone number for my driver, but it was in very small, upside-down print, and if I took my iPhone out of its little padded pouch, its innards would immediately achieve 104-percent humidity and it would never work again, except perhaps in the shower.
I was in Bangladesh for two reasons: to do some public health writing and to look for endangered alphabets.
Two years ago, I discovered that fully one-third of the world’s alphabets are endangered, and I set about trying to preserve them by carving them on boards of Vermont curly maple. Much of my summer was spent persuading libraries and museums to host my carved exhibition. Bangladesh was a field trip, an attempt to find three indigenous scripts — Chakma, Mro and Marma — before they vanished.
A week later, as the monsoon streamed down my guesthouse windows, I met Shantimoy Chakma. He knew the importance of script loss only too well: His father was a noted writer in the traditional Chakma script, but during routine harassment by the army, their house was burned down twice, and all his works were lost. Shantimoy and his siblings grew up speaking Chakma but unable to read or write it. His own father’s work was lost to him.
But he knew a man who knew a man — and, shortly after I got back to Vermont, Shantimoy emailed me text in both the Chamka and Mro scripts. I rubbed my hands and reached for my gouges.
The final piece of the story remains to be written. I’m trying to raise funds to take my carvings on a world tour, returning them to the countries where they have been lost, forgotten or suppressed. I’ve got until August 29 to raise the cash. Until the end of my summer vacation, in fact.
Summer is a social construction. For most academics and all school children, summer functions as an imaginary space where there is always more: more time, more pleasure, more sleep.
As a kid, I counted the days till summer vacation would begin and I could finally sleep in and go swimming and watch all the TV I wanted. As an adult, summer still functions as the reward, shimmering in the distance, which gets me through the school year. When I am working from 6 a.m. till midnight, when weekends are spent grading, when I am so exhausted from yet another research trip or conference, I close my eyes and imagine summer. Summer is when I will finally catch up with my friends, when I’ll nap on the beach, when I’ll read that novel, when I will make dinner every night.
Of course, summer exists not just as an imaginative landscape but in real time, too. In real time, summer is far less full of possibility. Somewhere during June, July and August, I traveled to some lovely beaches, on which I took some lovely naps. I read some novels and spent some time with the people I love most.
I also worked most days, and most weekends — writing my next book, doing interviews for my last book, organizing a fall conference, reading texts for a new course, blogging. Not exactly the June, July and August that brightened my harried and overworked self last March. There are novels unread, friends unseen, work unfinished. This summer, like all summers, failed to live up to my imagination. But the summer was, and will always be, far more pregnant with possibility than is the academic year.
On Father’s Day, we buried Dad among the blueberries. More accurately, Nancy and I spread the last quarter of his “cremains” among the blueberries, I having deposited the rest on what had become his own hallowed ground, down 18 holes at a golf course, two months after he died.
He died alone in the middle of the night, a victim of unwanted medical intervention and New York state law. He had been in a coma for 30 days, unable to breathe on his own and slowly hemorrhaging internally. Tubes and wires snaked around and through him, the silence of the darkened room punctuated only by the pneumatic rasp of a ventilator and the beeps of monitors.
My earliest memory is of him. I am not yet 2. I am preverbal and terrified as I lie amid a tangle of electrical cords, which I perceive as snakes. We live in an old house and in my room there is only one electrical outlet, directly behind the bed. I am old enough to have graduated from the crib but not old enough to navigate my new sleeping terrain adeptly. I am screaming, having somehow slipped off the bed from the front, waking up as I hit the floor. But soon, my father reaches for me and I am gently extracted from the tangle. The screaming stops, replaced by a feeling of unshakable safety.
Now, it is late summer and when I am down among those blueberries, I find myself thinking a lot about my father. Mostly, I wish I could have done for him what he did for me so many years ago. I wish I could have freed him from that terrifying tangle of cords and wires and tubes, taken him in my arms and carried him to safety.
I love teaching, and I love summer. I like its measurements: two cords of wood, hand split and stacked for winter warmth. One thousand pounds of Vermont Yak Company farm-fresh yak meat, processed and delivered to adventurous locavore neighbors. Twenty articles edited and published for Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence. Two dozen “music for happy brains” gigs with the Phineas Gage Project.
Eighteen miles swum in Blueberry Lake, tucked up in a little notch of the Mad River Valley’s southeast corner. (I’d tell you its exact location, but then I’d have to kill you.)
Eighty kilometers paddled on the Penobscot River’s west branch. (Yes, I know — northern Maine — but part of summer in Vermont is stealing away from time to time for regional adventuring.)
One hundred and twenty-seven animals from all over the world in New York City’s Bronx Zoo. (Not a single yak to be found, but more than one dozen gorillas).
Five hundred acres of outdoor sculpture — Calder, di Suvero, Noguchi, Goldsworthy — toured in a single day along the Hudson River’s Storm King Art Center.
Seventeen (extended) family members, packed into a little fishing cabin along the shore of Great Pond in Maine’s Belgrade Lakes for three August days of paddling, sailing, swimming, eating, drinking and laughing. Lots of laughing.
And the openness — time and space — to collaborate on projects that feed the soul and make the mortgage payments.