To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...
As Labor Day brought the “official” end to the summer season, I sensed within me that same feeling millions have at this time of year: sadness at the prospect of summer’s end.
And I don’t even like summer!
For years summer meant some menial job (usually factory work) at low pay to earn meager sums of money I would never see anyway. This was called “paying your way through school,” and it reduced my summers to debt-reduction drudgery.
Once I entered the workforce full-time, summer often meant shifting my activities from day-to-day deadlines to advance planning for the coming parish year. But then I discovered how little I like warm weather (working in heat lacked the appeal of a childhood spent camping at the lake). As I’ve aged, I gradually developed a new rhythm: as spring ends I resign myself to the heat ahead, enduring it as creatively and comfortably as possible, and I wait for the arrival of “sweater weather.”
With this outlook, why in the world does summer’s end nonetheless make me sad? The answer, I suspect, lies on several levels.
On the surface, my sadness is about lost opportunities. In a four-season climate, summer promises options unavailable the rest of the year: cookouts, picnics, outdoor concerts, lazy outdoor meals and gatherings, beach and boats and swimming and biking and reading on the deck. Inevitably the possibilities cannot be squeezed into the 8 weeks between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, so at summer’s end my hindsight focuses on all the things that happened without me. I never fail to feel that summer’s bounty has somehow slipped through my fingers.
Of course, the sense of summer’s missed opportunities naturally resonates on a deeper level—it inevitably reminds me of my life’s missed opportunities. Relationships I neglected, skills never learned, books unread, trips bypassed, careers I never explored---all these come to mind and compound the feeling of unfulfilled potential and lost time.
Our life’s time passes so swiftly, summer reminds us—especially in places like New England where summer is so brief.
And then, of course, summer’s end brings autumn. In New England as elsewhere, autumn brings bright colors that reveal another side of creation’s glory.
But autumn also brings longer nights and shorter days, colder weather and harvest time as the growing season ends. And, of course, even those brilliant leaves are merely blazing briefly before falling to earth, dead.
Summer’s end thus holds before us the prospect of a world ending its productive growth and returning to the seasons when many things die and lie dormant in the ground. It reminds us that no earthly life lasts forever. It reminds us that we all live lives that begin in spring, blossom in summer, blaze in brief glory during autumn and finally arrive at winter. It reminds us, finally, that if we have missed some of life’s opportunities, we will not get to replay our lives, and we cannot rewind them.
In short, summer’s end is sad because it reminds us of our own mortality. Summer itself may be, as Scott Turow writes, “The season of ripeness and promise”—but summer’s end is the beginning of the end, and it reminds us of our own end.
So our sadness combines regret for what might have been, and anxiety about what will come.
But this feeling is not, of course, the same for every person. It’s true, as Dick Francis wrote, that we are all dying at the same rate—one day at a time. But for each of us, those days depend on the season our life has reached.
When my mother died in April, at 91, she had clearly reached the deep winter of her life. On my last visit I raised the window blinds so she could turn her head to gaze out at the blooming dogwoods. Her eyes glowed and she smiled, grateful for one last glimpse of new life on her last full day.
Some weeks later my great-niece Nora celebrated her third birthday, blooming pink much like those dogwoods, still early in the spring of her life.
My youngest son turns 30 next month, and now all three of my children live in the full summer of their lives.
The pills on my kitchen table, the cane at my side, the white in my beard all suggest that my life passed summer’s end some years ago. Autumn has always been my favorite season, October my favorite month, Thanksgiving my favorite holiday—and now I am deep in the autumn of my life, perhaps still blazing brilliant colors but still moving to winter.
My father, at 94, has entered hospice care at home, embracing the winter solstice of his life with remarkable serenity.
As our lives pass summer, the beginning of the end comes in many forms. For many, it is forgetfulness, or stiffened joints, or the progressive loss of muscle, or deafness, or just the decision to finally invest in a pair of reading glasses. Accepting our life’s seasons with grace is one of the prime challenges of all our lives.
It is easy to overlook the simple fact: all summer long, the days are already getting shorter and the nights longer. And the summer of our lives is already moving us to our autumn.
I am reminded of the musical version of Les Miserables. The show is in two acts, and both acts end with the same rousing song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The tune remains the same, but the lyrics and singers do not. In Act I, the song is a political battle cry sung by rebels mounting the barricades of revolution. In Act II, the song becomes the hymn of all those fallen in battle, singing not of revolution but of salvation.
The show's imagery and language is drenched in the Catholic notion of two communities linked by divine Providence. The first is the earthly communion (once called the “Church militant”) of all who struggle in faith to transform a fallen world. The second is the “Communion of Saints” (once called the “Church triumphant”) who support our earthly struggles from beyond the grave.
In Les Miserables, both communions share a common tune with different lyrics. And both march forward toward tomorrow.
As summer 2012 ends, we all march too. Regrets and fears may have their place, but we know that however sad or eager we are, however much we focus on what might have been or what may come, we know one thing is true, one thing is our constant condition: no matter what, we march into tomorrow.
Bernard F. Swain PhD 2012