Taking Stock as Summer Wanes

Two weeks from today the summer ends. What have you made of it? A couple of months ago, you thought surely this would be the season of quiet. You knew you needed a period of recovery, even if you could not say precisely -- recovery from what? You aimed to steal afternoons from work, go to the beach, and contemplate the sky. Long walks, exercise, reading without a pencil in your hand, stretching out in the sand to watch the clouds -- such was the agenda you imagined for yourself. In the summer, time has a different feel, perhaps because your first sense of it was set in childhood by the idea of vacation. The word comes from vacate, after all, which means to make void, to empty. On vacation, you were allowed to be vacuous, live in a vacuum, go vacant. Summer agenda? What the summer actually invites is no agenda whatsoever.

But it has not happened. Is it possible to be so exhausted as to be incapable of rest? Your nation feels that way this year. The interminable terms of the Bush administration have turned the United States into an apocalyptic road show, with nearly every aspect of life upended, all of it enacted on the edge of a precipice. The child-geniuses of Washington were rescued from their hysteria about Iran by the tread of Russian boots (and tanks) in Georgia, which sparked a new hysteria. And where was this sensitivity to tensions between Russia and its neighbors back when NATO's expansion drums were beating? Suddenly, the punditry began reminding you of all the wars that August spawned down through the years. (Ten years ago tomorrow, to take one, US strikes against Osama bin Laden began with Bill Clinton's cruise missile attacks against camps in Afghanistan.)

The nascent presidential campaign is reducing public discourse to bickering, with candidates poised to outdo each other in ugliness. Already, television commentary foresees the upcoming conventions as political survival shows, as if reality TV has any relationship with reality. The tanking economy, meanwhile, has thrown you and everyone you know back on your own resources. Forget the exotic journey. Even a day trip to the beach is measured in mileage. The weather's still hot, and already you feel the pinch of winter heating oil. Not even your home is a refuge from such stress, as you watch its value plummet. You aren't even thinking about selling your house, but you can't wait for the housing market to turn around, in case you change your mind.

The hit play on Broadway this year is "August: Osage County," and from what you know of it, the lacerating family drama renders the existential mood of this month perfectly. What else do people at the end of their ropes do but turn those ropes into whips? The Olympics, instead of being a global festival of athletic excellence, seem a replay of Cold War hyper-nationalism, with China in the self-appointed role of Commie nemesis. The Reds still cheat -- in China's case by fielding underage female gymnasts. Geopolitics is trumping sport again, and that is sad.

Once, the calendar was crammed with saints' days and religious festivals, the pragmatic purpose of which was to offer ways out of the daily fray. Our secular holidays do a meager job of such release, and the innovations of electronic gadgetry have destroyed what remained of the divide between work and leisure. All of this has left you with the three-pronged question: how and when and where can you put the static out of your mind for a while?

Which brings you back to these two remaining weeks of summer. You used to think that you loved going to the beach for the water and the sand, for the communal gaiety, freedom of the bathing suit. But now, when you manage to get there, what strikes you is the sky. That vast blue canopy gave your forebears their first hint of transcendence. They thought it was an opening to the infinite. Even if you know better -- the sky is nothing but a few miles of atmosphere -- it draws you out of yourself. Self-transcendence is the transcendence that counts. And that is all you hope for in what remains of summer.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

(c) Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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