The predictability of early summer in Chapel Hill: the honeysuckle rioting over every sidelined bush; furniture and other castoffs along the sides of the road (four pans on Patterson Place, all alone); the shock of new heat; our branch of Morgan Creek dried up and the snakes crawling out onto the road looking for water, smashed, silver stripes on the pavement; the pervasive quiet of campus in the mid-afternoon; prayers for the pepper plants (may they not crisp up and die); a sunburn I should have prevented; our very loving neighbors opening their bedroom window at night; long afternoon walks with sweat and a book; and a mess in the kitchen when I rediscover the glory and potential of a room-temperature strawberry.
But then, the whole month of May bursts red with potential, fecund with the creative possibility of warmth and free time. And familiar as ever, the need to choose how to utilize that time: consumption of self in work or consumption of self in self. I think of summer as a regenerative season, the time that both heals the distress of the school year and unites the disjointed imaginings and still fresh and vulnerable learnings of the year. To know summer as a salve comes from living in this town, which needs to rest every summer, recover from the pressure of students, and once again, let the town overtake the gown.
“Every summer, though, when the liberal professors and their ultraliberal students went away on tax-supported travel, the main Franklin Street recovered from them all. In every lane relatively calm drivers would pass; there were empty parking spaces; prices dropped. Not a single summer sport produced bonfires or riots by Tar Heel fans.”
It’s certainly funny, but what truth at the heart of it: summer serves as a rehabilitator. More than any other year, I need it. Two weeks removed, I know now that this past semester was not just difficult, it was discouraging. I did not love my work and it fell into tedium and disappointment. I met the kinds of professors I was warned about: unreceptive to digital work, unwilling to hear me out, but integral, I fear, in furthering my research. The political drama unfolding at the University breaks my heart anew with each news story: an marvelous professor moving onto Duke, a warning from our outgoing system President on the peril we find ourselves in, academic centers closed by trustees, precipitated by lack of funds.
My attempt at recovery for the past two weeks has been to devour novels, pick honeysuckle greedily, walk maybe too much, go on vacation to sit in the sun and drink beer, also greedily, talk with my partner about the promising summer he has in store, make promises about the next years, and not think of the University’s troubles as best I can. Two weeks of practicing indulgence and egoism. Consumption of self in self. It feels so good.
Driving home from the Keys my mind faltered, and I thought about what work I needed to return to–a new project for the Lab, consults for research for a professor, beginning planning an event for another organization, returning part-time to another old job, and my own research. Sitting in my office now, I feel dread and excitement at the prospect of all this. Projects and meetings to look forward to. Consumption of self in work. It too, I remember, can feel so good.
How to reconcile? Summer is a vulnerable time as the University repairs itself. Blows to the University fall the hardest in the heat because so few are here to fight and yell back. Last summer, the Board of Governors passed a resolution that brought a cap to need-based aid, and began conversations about the removal of President Tom Ross. I am frightened of what summer will bring to Chapel Hill this year, and frightened of what I will choose to consume me. The answer I know is work. We still have a clipping of Abraham Lincoln’s advise to a young law student, like my partner I suppose, on the fridge: “Work, work, work is the main thing.” The fact that it hasn’t disappeared yet I’ll take for a sign for what I will choose and the intention of that choice, another inevitability of early summer.