There are certain times each year that feel especially bittersweet; the day after Christmas, when a kid's birthday party has wrapped up and you survey a house strewn with used paper plates, crumpled wrapping paper and discarded toys. But no day draws conflicting emotions quite like the first day of school - I think it will forever remain King. I spend a lot of early summer trying not to think of that looming square on the calendar and in those first days of freedom it's easy to do. The summer stretches out before us full of anticipation and excitement and we sit around asking, "What should we do this summer?" then feel slightly punchy and giddy when the answer is, "We can do anything! We have the WHOLE SUMMER!" It feels as if time is standing still, just for us, so we can soak up long days of alternating between activity and laziness. We fall into a rhythm, we forget that we ever lived differently. We talk about last year's teachers and assignments as if we were visiting home decades later. We tick things off our little bucket list, we plan days with friends we miss and we put on a big show of getting up each morning and packing up for one of our few camps..."It's so early! I can't believe I'll have to be up even earlier for this when school starts!" "I forgot how to pack a lunch."
For my part, I make an ambitious list of home projects and personal improvements I want to tackle each summer. Some come to fruition, some fall by the wayside. I alternate between jumping in whole heartedly with the boys and their friends and feeling angsty and overwhelmed that I'm suddenly on the hook to be cruise director, camp counselor, play mate and fully functioning adult. And then, at some point, I'll be walking up the street or pulling into the driveway and I'll notice that one of our many sunflowers has opened. We'll ooh and ahh over the first bloom and then, just as quickly as my excitement appeared, it will be overtaken by a sudden panic as I remember how long ago it felt that we'd noticed the slender stalks emerging from the ground, the times we'd casually commented on how numerous the sunflowers were this year, the moments when I'd furrowed my brow and felt slightly annoyed that when our yard was at its mangiest and most unkept the sunflowers did little to help keep our lawn from looking like an overgrown forest.
Once this feeling hits I suddenly spend a significant amount of time beating it back. Potential land mines of comparison and FOMO are all around and I regret our decision to not take a big vacation. I worry that I didn't plan enough, that they'll head back to school with too little to bolster them for a year of schedules and confinement. I'll berate myself for the nights that I spent inside, folding laundry and watching bad tv instead of sitting on the back patio drinking wine and listening to records under the lights. And then, to solidify my worst fear, that summer is winding down and I will be forced to part with my boys and all the chaos they bring, the emails start to roll in. First from the school, then from teachers. Soccer coaches, always a particularly overeager bunch, will already have held team meetings and started bombarding us with dates and motivational texts. I'll sit anxiously and consider the reality of homeschooling. I'll feverishly try to book in that one last camping trip or quick getaway on Orbitz. Basically, I'll feel like a failure, like I frittered away an entire summer. And then, I'll look through my pictures. I'm quickly reminded of the first water balloon fight of summer, of nights spent out driving with the radio up loud and the windows down, of coming around the corner in the backyard to find a guilty looking toddler and dog crouched over the plate of watermelon they'd stolen, rinds scattered near their feet. We'll hit our favorite public pool and I'll feel grateful that we've managed to make it at least once a week so far this summer and as I'm mumbling about how messy the house is while scooping up armloads of laundry the boys will casually mention that they are headed out on their bikes and ask when they should be back. The water at the creek near our house will start to drop enough for kayaking and tubing and we'll savor the lessened crowds, allowing us a couple morning hours with our favorite spots all to ourselves each day. We'll start the annual debate on whether an 8pm dip in the rushing water does or does not qualify as a shower. I'll rally. I always do. I'll kick the can down the road for another month or so, reminding myself that summer isn't really over until the novelty of a garden bed overrun with squash has worn off and the first crickets start chirping.