True Summer

Last summer, I found myself dead broke. I’d had a wild spring, horribly mismanaging my healthy grad school stipend, and came out of the whirlwind with just enough money to make rent until the fall. Following panicked and useless attempts at finding a summer job, I resigned myself to scraping by on credit cards (and, shamefully, borrowing money from my parents). All this made me feel terribly dumb (I was twenty-five, for chrissakes) and a little scared. But! I was newly in love, and that, along with all that impoverished time on my hands, made it a magical, if twisted, summer. I wandered through the streets, lovesick and feeling vaguely homeless, barely more equipped to afford any of the goods around than the vagrants, with whom I felt an uneasy kinship. I made weird concoctions in my house — pasta plus beans for lunch, stale crackers topped with Hershey’s syrup for dessert. Every time I walked to the grocery store, I passed a stream sprouting enormous, tall yellow flowers from its banks — it seemed completely improbable that this heat could produce such splendor, and the vision contributed to my sense of being on the fringes of sanity. Most of my friends had gone elsewhere for the summer, so my future fiancé was essentially the only person I ever saw. I woke up at strange hours and usually started my day by sitting on the floor half-naked, zoning out, the blinds shut. I wrote a cycle called The Bubonic Love Poems of Central Texas in which I set my new relationship in the landscape of the medieval plague, which is how it felt, and began communing with Baba Yaga. I felt deranged, certainly, but also thankful in a way — grateful to feel like a kid again, finding herself in another slow, stupid summer, when the world gets small and the self gets big, and time and space warp.

True summer is when all goes slack, no more urgency. That kind of time tends to come easily — and abruptly — on an academic schedule. One moment you’re wrapped up in all manner of activities and the next you’re standing in your darkened apartment kitchen, an endless afternoon circling with the ceiling fan. The feeling is not unpleasant. It’s like slipping outside of time — societal, human time. It’s in these slack summers that I feel most immortal, as unknown and useless as a god, unseen by any mortal eye and somehow full of a vain and hopeless majesty. I fill up more space in the room. Strange thoughts grow unimpeded. At fifteen years old and back in Alaska for the summer, no car to drive into town with, no friends (we’d moved to Fairbanks right after I started boarding school), and my family at work, I got it into my head that I needed to lose forty pounds because I once saw cellulite on my thighs. I probably weighed around one hundred pounds, a teenager with a crazy metabolism, but somehow this became my frenzied truth. The ballooning, bloating time on my hands turned one glance in the mirror into a monster. (I had no interest in starving or even exercising, so nothing happened.) Usually, though, my imagination brought forth less dangerous, more delightful creations, given the room to be its own rightful beast.

You could call summers like this a colossal waste of time. But that’s what feels immortal about them — wasting time, colossally, as the gods must do. And as energizing and healthy as it can be to participate in society and be a good citizen, I’m greedy for time with the soul, or at least with my brain, the neurons firing fiercely even when I’m sluggish — all those mysterious goings-on, so easy to ignore in the productive life.

And there’s something essential and delicious about getting off the social map of work and school, no one knowing what you’re doing or even really thinking about you. You begin to lose the boundaries of yourself. Part of society’s function is to say clearly: this is your job and these are your accomplishments, this is your family and your social circle, this is what you look like and your general identifiable personality. It’s comforting and necessary to be so defined. And we are social animals, and all of that, and there’s definitely good reason to engage, engage, engage with the world — by which is largely meant, other people. But I’ve always been more drawn to the nonhuman world, to the fringes of knowability — space and prehistory, the first attempts at civilizations, the alien nature of reptiles and creatures of the deep sea. I think most of us are this way, sometimes, secretly, and it’s difficult to engage with such things while on a lunch break at the office, gossiping about the boss. Somehow it’s easier at home, wearing a sloppy shirt. And even easier on a walk in the dead heat of summer of your college town, just you and the senior citizens out there, having a few stray thoughts. The self free of the fetters and comforts of occupation and so taking up as much space as it cares to, so much space that it might seem a bit scary. Roaming and thinking or not even thinking. Nothing glamorous or romantic about it at all, but somehow, sometimes, closer to the unknowable and the elusive. One minute you’re eating a tomato and red onion sandwich off your belly while loading up Netflix, and the next you’re pouring a glass of water and feeling somehow closer to God.

It is important to fall through the holes of humanity on occasion.

You could say, fairly, that my experience is a privileged one. My family rose from subsisting on my father’s doctoral student stipend when we arrived in America to achieving uncomfortable middle-classdom, saddled with debt and mortgages and my expensive arts school education, by the time I was a teenager. Unlike many immigrants, my parents didn’t encourage me to choose some profitable career; we’d come here on account of my father’s childhood dream to become a scientist, and they treated my creative ambitions just as seriously and without the pressure of success. If I’m to have more of these summers in my future — and I insist on them — it’ll be due to the blessings of academia or, also likely, a life of relative poverty.

Perhaps this is an unpopular view with those who already see Americans as slothful, complacent, and self-obsessed. But I feel my need for space and solitude was bred into me by my Russian parents, back in Siberia where we were all born and later in our shadowy, cloistered life in the States. I absorbed my parents’ solitude. Most often, even when we were all in the house together, we weren’t talking — and not in a depressed way, but in a thoughtful way. So I pursue my summer slothdom with all the air of my peasant-y, Asiatic past, or what I imagine of it. The lying in the dark after a hard day’s work picking potatoes. The child on the farm, bored out of his mind and cracking fertilized eggs open in the barn to learn about the stirrings of life. Long walks through shitty roads, thinking about nothing.

And so my parents — bless their hearts — never forced me to occupy myself in the traditional ways. I was never on sports teams; I didn’t hold character-building summer jobs. I didn’t look after the elderly or volunteer at pet adoption agencies. The one time I did volunteer was at the local Fairbanks library; my main duty was wiping drool off the private, strangely submerged computer screens. I didn’t want to think about what the customers were drooling over and quit on my second day. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t do the gap year things — traveling abroad or joining Houses for Humanity. I made up, possibly, for my lack of summer jobs by spending my first year out of private arts high school working full-time at a bookstore, where I got that experience and then some — the fooling around and trying to cheat the system but largely learning about the tedium of most work and most lives, and then the utter relief of going home and, thank Jesus God, being in solitude again.

I continued my summer tradition in between and after my college years. I didn’t apply for internships or AmeriCorps or Teach for America. Nay, I watched “The Wire” and “Mad Men” with my boyfriend in his parents’ pristine, glorious basement. A friend asked us what we’d been up to. “We played tennis, once, I think?” It had taken me a languorous month to read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons somewhere in there. A curious encounter with the Florentine Codex in a stray textbook, Aztec jaguars and flowers. Vague attempts at hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. What else? Lunches out where we had nothing to say, really, because we’d spent all day and all night together for the past month, doing nothing. One drunk evening of red wine with some friends passing through, when most of the cork ended up floating in little bits in the bottle, because we were all newly twenty-one and stupid and had been too nerdy to drink in high school.

As much time as I wasted, I never felt despair or emptiness. I never had the sense of being a derelict or someone whose life was really going off the rails. Always deeply ambitious, I knew I would, soon enough, grow into a fully committed writer. But for that there would be boundless time.

But maybe, goddammit, it would’ve done me good to be more engaged. Sometimes I got angry at myself for shying away from being a productive young citizen, at my parents for not pushing me to join some kind of a club or something, at my boyfriend and his relaxed, affluent family for making it so beautifully easy to do nothing. Why couldn’t I have been a Bright Young Person concerned about the plight of nations, taking an active stance? A promising young lady who Knew What Was Going On in the World? Making New Friends and all? But this was not my disposition or my inclination, and for a long time I found myself in the ditches of life, where I was happy if languid.

These endless summers, shapeless months, have shaped me. If there are virtues to my poems, rampant imagination is one of them — the kind of imagination allowed to stew forever, cultivated and protected, growing as tall and lush as it likes. Trees, dogs, brains, refrigerators, cemeteries, storms, tongues, skulls, rivers, beans. If I had tried harder to make something of myself during those summers, would such images mean what they mean to me now? Would I value all my strange and monstrous thoughts, which lurk away fading when topped by a hat of purpose?

Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night. It was raining. My fiancé, who always sleeps well, was sleeping well. The pressure of the summer had been building, and now it was breaking open with the rain. It was talking to me as it always had, the playful heavy serious beast of it, letting me be inside it. I lay in bed thinking: The summer just broke open. It seemed wildly important; I promised myself that I would remember it and write it down the next day, so I said it over and over to myself until I fell asleep.

Taisia Kitaiskaia is a poet, writer, Michener Center for Writers fellow, and mouth for Baba Yaga.

Photo via Michelle Brea/Flickr