Summer, for me, conjures up memories of long leisurely days spent at the pool or beach, bubblegum ice cream and french fries, and catching fireflies in my backyard. As a kid it meant camping trips, bonfires, coordinating our own neighborhood summer olympics with roller skating and bike racing competitions, and stargazing on the dock behind my neighbor’s house. Most of all, it meant having the whole summer off to enjoy our free time, play, and run wild.
As a college student, I spent several summers working as a camp counselor, and perhaps managed to hold onto that summer vacation feel longer than many. My first post-college, non-camp summer job as a volunteer coordinator at a local nonprofit was a huge shock. How, I wondered with a fair amount of angst, was one to enjoy a summer spent cooped up in a tiny office with a single fan? How could you even begin to reflect on the beauty and freedom of the summer while sweating away the minutes in business casual? I missed pine trees, lakes, and above all, my freedom. That summer was long and boring, and the plain truth, I decided emphatically, was that one could not, no matter what, enjoy summer while simultaneously holding a day job. Despite this decision, the reality was that I still needed to work in an office during the summer, and there was nothing left to change but my attitude.
This is my third year holding a normal day job during the summer, and I’ve had some time to reflect. I’ve discovered that my daydreams of escape to cabins in the woods and swimming holes often prevent me from engaging with and enjoying my real-world environment. My half-hearted imaginings of taking a dip beneath the stars or stretching out with a cup of coffee on a dock only remind me of what I can’t have, while simultaneously causing me to ignore the person at the photocopier or sitting one desk over. Caught halfway between dream world and reality, my escapist attitude causes both my work ethic and relationships to suffer.
Now, I’m very attached to my own daydreams, and coming to the realization that my dreams of escape weren’t doing me any good was a difficult one. But I’m also a big believer in the spiritual practice of being present, of noticing the people, places, and things around you and engaging with and being grateful for them. In order to do that, I had to let my daydreams go.
Turning my focus to the well-being of the people around me has allowed me to think less about my own dissatisfaction, and allowed me to be a better community member. I’ve discovered greater contentment through simply noticing the people around me — my coworkers, my friends, the people I pass on the street, check-out clerks who I have small conversations with. I’ve found that the best way to combat escapism is through choosing to engage: to visit community gardens and talk with volunteers about their plants, to attend church potlucks and choir practice, to sit down with a friend who also works in an office and ask them about how their summer is going. To notice when other people are having bad days, and not just myself. To remember not only to stop dreaming about islands, but that I am not an island, and I should stop behaving like one.
It’s also helpful to extend the practice of being present to physical spaces. Often the things we see every day simply blend into the category of familiar, and we miss the beauty that surrounds us. While moping around because I wasn’t living in a forest, I failed to notice the tree-lined streets, community gardens, and green spaces in my own city. There was always bigger, better, elsewhere. What was a tree compared to a whole forest? But by noticing the nature that did surround me, I became more grateful, more physically rooted, and more content.
I still miss the summers of my childhood and still hope that one day I’ll get to experience something like them again. For now, I will remember that forests and lakes and campfires are good, but so are the people and spaces that surround me, and while I’m here in this city, no matter the season, I am called to be mindful of them.