My two boys are well into their second week of kindergarten, and at times it seems like summer is far behind us. But what I am regularly reminded of is the amazing discoveries I made in these last few months, and how I will carry them with me throughout this year.
I really mean it when I say that we as a family had the best summer we’ve had since moving to California. It was unfraught. Having little kids is the best, and it’s also really hard some times. The lack of sleep. The lack of time for yourself. Mix that with all that was happening at school, and heading into this summer there was a lot going on. But it was all manageable. And that allowed me to step into some parts of my life that had been dormant for awhile. In all honesty, the most profound experience of my summer was rediscovering my intellectual life.
It began when I read All the Light We Cannot See. I originally wanted to read it because I loved the title and was intrigued by the cover. I was also dying to know what this book about WWII was going to be about. I felt the prose was poetic, rich, never over done, sparing when it needed to be, and laid on at other times. And the dynamic of that central metaphor of how blindness leads to sight and how sight can lead to blindness. That book just brought me back into the beauty of language and trying to say something important about the human experience.
The second great moment came from a gift Nicole Stanton gave to me as she was leaving her role of Dean Of Faculty. One of the things Nicole and I bonded over the last few years was our love of 19th Century British Literature. We have shared this back and forth, and she knows that George Eliot’s Middlemarch has changed my life. The book that Nicole gave me was My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Mead is a writer for the New Yorker, and Middlemarch was a defining book in her life, and her new book looks at how going back and re-reading Middlemarch shows her that the text mirrors her own development as adult. While I have read Middlemarch 12 times, this new book reminded me about the importance of having an interior life. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last couple of days. We all have an inner life. And how we choose to engage with it shapes how we think and live in the world. Not only did I rediscover my intellectual life, but I also really engaged with my own inner life. And I think that that has allowed a return to some of the things I truly love. What I loved about reading My Life in Middlemarch was that it reminded me that literature — and for others it’s other things — is a window into understanding the world in addition to enjoying it.
My third moment was completely by chance. It’s funny. I didn’t love to read as kid, and I didn’t start reading for pleasure until I was 22 years old. For me, I loved literature, but it was an intellectual exercise and it was not for enjoyment. So what I would read for enjoyment were biographies, and someone left the biography of Teddy Roosevelt at the house where we were staying. That experience of reading, and looking at time through another perspective, was like falling into another world again. Two fascinating things stand out for me from this biography. First, Teddy’s experience of the Civil War was conflicted because his father paid to avoid participating in the war and his mother was from Alabama and supported the war. This familial strife gave me a new perspective on what Teddy’s life at that time must have been like. Second, when Teddy went off to Harvard in the 1876 he spent $2000 on clothes that year. I can’t even imagine what that would be in today’s dollars. The book was also interesting because there was a lot about Teddy’s lack of a structured education in his childhood. His education was about learning while doing, and yes he had the money to travel the world, but his experiences got him excited about topics and ideas, and then he pursued those passions. It was a really interesting way to look at the development of a child. Sure the 19th Century was a more formal time, but whose strategic and formality we try to imitate now.
As I look back on this summer and balance that with what is ahead, I am reminded of the power of stepping away. It’s ok to take off a solid block of time and rest and allow my boys to enjoy the ocean. And it’s ok for me to use that time to rediscover some parts of myself that bring me joy and rekindle what I love about life.