Outside, the sun is warm and the world is still, but my mind is on Thanksgiving. And I’m worried.
Thanksgiving marks the first major holiday on a calendar that exists only in the mind of a parent. The “official” calendar, those 12 blocks of irregularly shaped months? That was concocted by emperors and popes, none of whom ever spent “Augustus” searching for contact paper and all-black shoes with no logos. We may date our checks the way Pope Gregory XIII decreed, but that is not how we measure the seasons of our lives.
Kurt Vonnegut knew this. Just a few years before his death, I saw him speak about the seasons at Ithaca College. The fact that he lifted that lecture directly from his 1978 commencement address at Fredonia State College—a fact I just now learned—allows me to quote from it extensively:
“Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. November and December aren’t winter. They’re Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold! What comes next? Not spring. ‘Unlocking’ comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be?”
Vonnegut believed that weather depresses us because we’re expecting one thing and get another, and as the proud owner of a birthday on the second day of “spring,” I can confirm this is 100 percent true. March 22 is inevitably cold, drizzly and flu-inducing. Vonnegut helped me understand there was nothing wrong with feeling vaguely disappointed every time the spring equinox rolled around—no, there’s something wrong with our relationship to time.
As a parent, I divide most years into five seasons. There is the season of the Start, the new year, arriving as it does in late August or early September with fresh spirits and new shoes. That season culminates in a harvest celebration on the fourth Thursday in November as we gather with family to prepare our hearts and minds for the season of the Sprint, a monthlong blur of concerts and pageants, Amazon days and boozy nights.
“Losing Spring, that really hurt. It’s possible to have known, intellectually, that the virus wouldn’t blow away with the first warm breeze, but biorhythms don’t listen to the brain.”
And then, by mutual agreement of all adult peoples of the Western world, the party ends, the cleanse begins and we enter the season of Slog, week after week after week, days getting longer but not warmer, basketball season without end, forever and ever, amen.
But then, Spring. This lasts for only five minutes, but we cram a million milestones that would never feel right inside the Slog, with all the rites of passage that bring closure to our year.
And then it is Summer, a season outside the natural order. We are unmoored, living among little hedonists. It’s hard to resist the lure of beach days and pool parties, the luxury of late-night movies and mornings without morons in the car line. Summer wipes clean the slate and prepares us for the transition to a new schedule, a new level, a new school, a new year and everything those things bring.
That’s it. The Start, the Sprint, the Slog, Spring, Summer. That’s my year. Even in those precious few newlywed years my wife and I spent off cycle, taking fantastically cheap and crowd-free vacations in early May and mid-October, it felt like we were getting away with something. But the first day of kindergarten brought me back in tune with a familiar rhythm, and I lived within it for a decade.
And then, 2020.
The lockdown started in the middle of Slog. There were sacrifices, to be sure, but those first two weeks of lockdown could feel like a simple trade, one Slog for another.
Losing Spring, that really hurt. It’s possible to have known, intellectually, that the virus wouldn’t blow away with the first warm breeze, but biorhythms don’t listen to the brain. Then the calendar said summer, but Slog continued. Time is out of joint.
“Understand that whatever you’re going through, it’s not forever.”
Vonnegut would see right through what’s happening. “The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time,” he said.
The poetry of our lives cannot account for a pandemic.
We need another way of thinking. And to that, I offer a story so unlikely, I have to ask you to take my word that this really did happen:
A few months ago, at dinner, my son emerged from his Madden-induced torpor to ask me if I knew about the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Stockdale, he had learned—maybe on Instagram?—spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In his time, it was said he could guess which prisoners would make it and which wouldn’t. At the top of the “wouldn’t” list? The optimists, those who believed that they would be released on this day or that day, at Easter, at Christmas, at the end of the year.
“If hope is based on a date, losing that date can kill you,” my son said. “It’s about a balance between hope and reality. Understand that whatever you’re going through, it’s not forever. You have to deal with what’s happening now, without focusing on the end.”
My son has missed a track season, school trips to Washington, D.C., and New York City, an eighth-grade graduation, a normal first day of high school and so much more, but he’s dealt with the pandemic better than just about anyone I know. For that, I’m grateful to Admiral Stockdale and … Instagram? I guess I’m grateful for Instagram.
But for the rest of us, I still worry about Thanksgiving and the coming change of season. Will there be a vaccine by then? Or will there be another wave? What markers and milestones will we miss? How long can one season of Slog last?
I don’t know, but I do know this: It’s not forever. I’ll try to keep hope and reality in balance, even as I watch eagerly for any sign of Spring.