At four, my daughter is confused about why we say it’s summer when school is out and June has come, when the calendar clearly states that the first day of summer isn’t until June 21.
Her September birthday gives us the same problem.
“My teacher says my birthday is in fall, but she’s wrong because it isn’t really. The first day of fall isn’t until the end of September. So my birthday is in summer. Right?”
She’s thinking so hard I can almost hear the wheels turning in her brain. She knows she must be right. The calendar should be a reliable source. But surely her teacher wouldn’t mislead her?
“You’re back in school for your birthday,” I tell her. “That’s what your teacher means. But you’re right, too. The first day of fall isn’t until September 21 or 22. Technically, your birthday is in summer, right at the very end.”
“I thought we didn’t go to school in summer.”
Bewildering, the way grown-ups order the world.
Then there’s winter, which doesn’t start until a few days before Christmas. “But there’s already snow by then.”
Her mind, trying to categorize, is confused by the ridiculous notions adults take for granted. It’s not really even summer until June 21, but we call that day midsummer. Tell me how that makes sense.
“Fake summer,” she declares, finally satisfied, having figured out the truth of the time between Memorial Day and the summer solstice.
“Cultural summer,” I offer a few days later, an attempt to make sense of the nonsensical, to defend the grown-ups.
People who don’t spend a lot of time around small children often imagine they’re purveyors of nonsense, but I’ve never met a single grown-up who had half the logic of a small child. We’re the ones who are fanciful, calling June 21 midsummer, when it’s barely summer at all.
Ever mindful of opportunities for teaching by following her interests, I make a big deal about the summer solstice. We read books that show how the earth revolves around the sun, tilting toward it in summer and away in winter. We go on a scavenger hunt for “summer things,” flip-flops, pool towels, flowers in every color. At lunch, I dump a circle of buttery pasta with orange cheddar cheese from a bowl to the center of a plate and surround it with carrot stick rays of light. For dinner, we eat toast with an egg cracked into the middle to represent the sun. We sit outside in pajamas until sunset, which we can’t see because it’s cloudy, but the clouds glow golden.
I, too, am fascinated by the seasons, by the way they roll around us and within us. When I was a little girl, I made up a diagram in my head to make sense of life. I thought of a hundred-year lifespan divided into quarters. Spring, I decided, was when you were a kid. 0-25. Summer was for the years from 26-50, fall for 51-75, and winter for 76-100. I’m hardly the first person to compare the human life to seasons. No doubt I got it from Shakespeare, or someone like him.
The summer my daughter is four, I am thirty-seven and a half. Thirty-seven and a half exactly, an older Alice in Wonderland, long accustomed to the madness of this world, might say. There’s no doubt about the season of my birth. I was born in the depths of winter, so my half birthday falls in summer. (July to be precise, but as we are learning, there is nothing so imprecise as the seasons. Snow in the fall and the spring, indeed. We needed a blanket to sit on the patio on the summer solstice.)
At my age, 25 plus 12 1/2, I am halfway through summer, according to the way my childhood brain made sense of a life. If you think of midsummer as halfway through summer rather than its first day, I’m there.
I understand why the solstice is often called midsummer. You don’t notice it at first, but from here on, summer is ending, the days becoming shorter. The earth is making the turn toward the fall equinox (a few days after my daughter’s birthday), when for a moment the planet will hold the hours of daylight and darkness in equal, perfect tension. From there the days, while they may be less exhausting than those spent in the constant busy heat of summer, will shorten. There will be more darkness than daylight.
My favorite chapter of the Bible has long been Ecclesiastes 3, that span of poetry that begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” and then supports that declaration with over a dozen examples that read like the slow inhale and exhale of breath, like the way we mark the seconds of our lives.
“You are still so young,” says my mother. “You don’t realize how young you are.” Maybe the young never do. All I see are the new gray hairs that appear every morning, the lines my husband wisely claims not to notice. All I know is that when my daughter was born I could hold her a few inches from my face and study every soft curve, and now when she pulls me down for kisses at night, her features blur before my eyes. I know how fast five years went by. More than a quarter of the time before she will graduate high school has passed with the journeys of the earth around the sun.
No one can slow time, no one can stop the earth from tilting away from the sun. I know the darkness is coming, and that it too can be kind. All parents of young children know that no one sleeps much when the daylight comes so early and stays so late. The darkness will bring its own gifts, and first among them, I hope, is rest. And after all, the seasons do sneak into each other. There are warm days in November and cool nights in July. I have seen snow in May and watched a few last leaves fall in March. Life always holds surprises. But for now it is midsummer, and there are long days to enjoy and then recover from. For now we work and play. For now we sit outside in our pajamas, seeking the sun, soaking up the light and the golden glow of the clouds, for as long as we can.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker writes poetry, essays, and novels. Her 2014 novel, The Last Sister, won the IPPY Silver Medal for Historical Fiction, and her essays and poetry have been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Highlights HELLO, Highlights High Five, and Mothers Always Write. Follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit or visit her website at courtneymckinneywhitaker.com.
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