It was summer when I got my first job. I was sixteen, the age at which a parent harps on the need for responsibility, for time to be spent wisely. In my hometown — Holland, Mich. — farms with plentiful crops cover the town in patches, all ripe with job opportunities. Predictably then, I ended up manning a blueberry-picking stand.
Because of my time there, summer calls to mind the particular sound of a shooting sprinkler and the stepping crunch of gravel. I was a tanned teenager when I strolled through the fields after closing time, snagging plump berries off bushes just before going home for dinner. The hum of insects running and jumping across the dividing paths was enchanting; those days were so balmy and idle. It was as if not a sour thought, nor berry, could spoil the calm I felt walking along these paths.
Since my stint at the farm, I have been a barista, a hostess and a cashier. These jobs demanded more from me than manning the picking stand, because of their duller duties: filling the air with false pleasantries, repeating items off a menu that hung above me or perfecting an artificial laugh. But those were jobs meant to be a bit unpleasant and a bit false — jobs that will “build character.” I’ve always thought of “building character” as a funny way of assigning importance to what is unpleasant.
Now in university and with the totality of adulthood looming, this summer was meant to be a busy season: a focus on scholarships, internships and planning for post-graduation. Clearly, this summer is not one that I would now describe as busy, at least not in the literal sense. Rather, it was — distinctly and unavoidably — idle.
As I write this from a porch fronted by bushes with lodged, discarded beer cans, I close my eyes and try to hold onto the static feeling of my last few months at home. The sunlight begins to beat mercilessly on my head, and I think of a particular day in late August that I spent idling in my hometown. I recall 8th Street, back in Holland, which is the most populous strip in the area. That day, that street, represents to me the many versions of life that we inevitably take on, whether we are aware of when or why.
Walking down 8th Street donning a mask, I had stopped to notice a violinist who looked to be about my age, if not a little younger, opening her case and tuning taut strings. Tapping her foot in synchrony with the beginning of her song, she played beautifully and without a blunder. But she, too, exists under the same pressures I do: She must earn enough money to attend a good enough school, work hard enough to achieve a satisfying enough career. As she performed in front of a building that is unquestionably the most ornate in town, her bow ran fast, teeming with tension.
Moving on from the music, I strode past clusters of people and subconsciously adjusted my mask, arriving inside a clothing store that used to be a clock tower which before that was a bank. Finding a seat likely meant for the tired company of an avid shopper, I watched life happen outside like silent film, movements noiseless and conversations vacant. I watched as a woman outside wearing a gray blouse and drawn-up hair reprimanded — with downcast eyes and flashing bottom teeth — a man with brown loafers who sat opposite to her. Toying with the sleeve on his coffee cup, the man began to interject but noticeably faltered. From what I could see, adults were leading adult lives, which appeared to be quite sterile and despondent. They are who I hope not to become, who I find myself fighting at every turn.
But as I ventured back outside and into the beating sun, the details of life became much clearer and much more heartening. A woman biked by, her freckled arms gripping widely-set handlebars. She even flashed a smile as her spokes turned past. I knew that she smiled even though she donned a mask because I took notice of her skin creasing at the sides of her eyes. I creased mine back. Her gleeful air on a slow summer afternoon reminded me that living pleasurably can look quite simple.
As I drove away from my afternoon in town, the road choked with traffic and an old Melody Gardot song began to play. The tune was sweeter than honey, her smooth voice dripping right out of my speakers. As traffic slowed to a crawl, I leaned my tired head against the frame of the car. Closing my eyes for a couple of seconds, I drank in the cool air. That is the kind of reprieve I am trying to hold onto now, still sitting on this littered college porch.
This past summer seemed to put a pause on growing up: internships canceled, international traveling banned and a move back home, which at first felt quite disastrous and regressive. But as the season rolled through, moments spent with those we should’ve been spending more time with in the first place felt like a fortune. The hurried order of college life rarely allows for idle moments or slow evenings, yet this pause became a lens through which certain priorities were clarified. That the weekly reading was definitely less important than, say, maintaining sanity, was a clarification that was obvious yet necessary.
Granted, many did not experience this summer as any kind of reprieve, let alone idled. Some students, faced with grave financial circumstances, have dropped out of school entirely. Some students, beset with grief from loss due to the pandemic or other aggravating factors, can’t even comprehend completing another semester, let alone one that is either fully remote or online.
For me, this fall semester is unlike any other, and not just because I won’t have any classes in person. It also means leaving behind a final summer of idleness, of home. I may very well return home next summer, but it won’t have the odd inertia that this summer seemed to have.
As I shift my chair over to a sunny spot on the porch, staring at the loosely defined lines on the logos of the beer cans, I think of the rainstorm that my Dad and I were caught in one June day, laughing the whole ride back as we were assailed by the warm pellets of water. I think of the firm place at the top of my dog’s head and how nicely it fits the width of my hand when I pet him. I think of the neighbor’s house, the one I see out of my window every morning, and I know that if someone asked me to, I could draw it from memory with only a few mistakes, I know it that well.
As the stifling air slowly becomes tolerably cool, September brings with it a clearer understanding of what this summer meant to me: ultimately, it was time to pause and reflect. Back in Ann Arbor, I don’t quite know yet what the rest of adulthood, or college for that matter, holds for me, and I don’t pretend to. I may have ideas about what it is that I’d like to work in, or where it is that I’d like to work, but making exact plans and predictions at this time seems a bit pointless. It would feel falsely confident. I would be naively unaware of confounding and invariable factors to plan my future in such a strict way. The odd line we straddle as college students between planning and living, abiding and enjoying is thin and ill-defined. If I were to wish for any future self, it would be one that shoots smiles at strangers despite a masked face.