Nantucket Essays

Summertime Drift

by Robert P. Barsanti

The sky announces the end of summer.

During my solitary walk to the trash can late at night, I saw a long streak cross the southern sky before it disappeared behind a low rolling cloud. The Perseid meteor shower lights up the middle of August and calls out “last call.”

Summer hangs on, in spite of the stars. On the south shore, the north Atlantic is bathwater warm, but awash in seaweed and jellyfish. The fairways and backyards have burned up, while the hydrangea are browning and the beach plums are reddening. The corn is ripe, the tomatoes are heavy, and summertime stretches into the wet, warm night.

I once taught with an old Vermont farmer named Ken Wheeling. In June, on the last day of school, he took his watch off and dumped it into the top drawer of his desk. “Ask me what time it is?” He demanded.

“Summertime” he answered the silence.

And so it is. In this plague year, we are in timeless “summertime.” The hours have fled across the sky and the clocks have hid their faces in a cloud of fog. Even the town clock has stopped chiming.

This year, the milestones that measure out the course of summer have disappeared. Figawi, the 4th of July Fireworks, the Carnival, the Pops, Race Week and the collapse of the Red Sox bullpen have all left the future, skipped out on the present, and faded into history and photography.

Instead, we know that the bonito are back and feeding in the rips. We know that the sun is setting earlier, the fog is burning off quicker, and storms have sent waves ahead. We know that the kids have left New York and placed their careers into the back bedroom. We know that they brought their significant others so that we could learn more about them than we needed to. And they could learn the same things about us.

We don’t know when the kids are going back to school. We don’t know when our college students have to head back to dorms and drinks. We don’t know when the office in Brooklyn will want the creatives back at their desks. We don’t know when we will have to be shut back inside with Netflix and toilet paper. We have been washed off the beach of clocks and calendars, then swept out into an ocean of time.

And we are drifting.

I drift in the middle of the night, in the humidity and noise of the fan until I get up, drift downstairs (and open the fridge) then drift outside. I have murdered sleep and have replaced it with sharks. They have bills, of course. In the middle of the night, I worry if I can stay afloat on top of the bills, invoices, and automatic deductions. The life events float beyond reach. Retirement, college graduations, careers, weddings, grandchildren: all line up like buoys. But instead of motoring up the channel, I am drifting. The tide may take me away from them all.

My life has been kept afloat up by white male privilege. I was given opportunities and second chances that others never got. I stood in the chapel of a revered school in Vermont and heard, listed for me, the advantages I was to receive while I attended and, later, when I graduated. That list was punctuated, emphatically, with a call to action: “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Expected.” The patriarchy and the privilege in that statement does not diminish its power. “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

While my ship was chugging along, paycheck to payment, the answer to that question was scrawled on pizza boxes and gas station receipts. But now, adrift on an August night, those answers do not qualify: what can be expected now? Who are you when the clocks stop, when the velocity drops, and the stars stop blinking? We are now sidereal and solar, under the grinding motion of the stars.

If our clocks and calendars no longer measure out our days, what will? When we have nobody to measure us by our games, our classrooms, or our hours in the mill, how do we measure that “expectation”? Do we measure out our lives in coffee spoons and lost golf balls? In “Likes,” “Shares,” and Candy Crushed?

So much of the sleep-robbing anxiety of today comes from what we can’t control. We can’t control who gets votes, who gets arrested, and who gets sick. What we can control, our habits and our routines, seems small. I walked today. I wrote today. I called someone. But, those are the drips of water that will wear down the mountain. Everything I do, gives me control, gives me agency, and gives me hope. Everything that scrolls by does not.

My one wild and precious life sits on an Adirondack chair in the back yard and judges me. She doesn’t have anything else to do right now. The Chicken Box has closed for the night, the beach parties have been broken up, and she has run out of golf balls. Alone, out in the serious moonlight, she eyes me. Much remains expected.

Normal has slipped over the horizon. The new normal—masked and gloved— rises with Orion out of the sea. We don’t know the changes and challenges that will restart the clocks. But before that happens, we should make a plan for that one wild and precious life. Will we measure it in people and places, or in miles run, pages read, and letters sent? That life we can control. The one that is grinding over the horizon will be beyond our hands. There is work to do up close.

Articles by Date from 2012