Summer Breeze & Intimations of Mortality

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As we say goodbye to summer…

summer clouds

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COMMENTARY

It seemed sadly fitting that Jimmy Buffet’s death came over the Labor Day weekend. Though Jimmy’s carefree, hungover, beach-bum persona was about as far from mine as 2 personae can get, I always smiled when his iconic song, “Margaritaville” would play. But the Buffet song I really loved was “Come Monday,”1 with its wistful notes of loss, yearning and reunion, and Jimmy crooning about:

Headin' out to San Francisco
For the Labor Day weekend show

No show this Labor Day, Jimmy—and, strangely, I will miss you.

Summer this year seemed to buck and howl like some wild, wounded animal. Boston had its second rainiest summer on record, and July’s torrential rains pummeled Vermont and western Massachusetts, washing away bridges and flooding farms. The Southwest baked in relentless, otherworldly heat, as wildfires in Canada turned skies Martian red or milky white. The southern sea surged as Hurricane Idalia ripped through Florida. July was Earth’s hottest month ever recorded,2 following the hottest June on record. If our pale blue dot of a planet could cry out, I believe it would keen like a mother over her lost child.

Separation Anxiety

Sometime in mid-July, the scintillations started in my left eye. Zipping by like shooting stars, the flashes moved diagonally from the left, upper quadrant of my visual field to the right lower quadrant. I had dealt with so-called floaters for many years, but this experience was new and a little scary.

I knew enough ophthalmology to consider retinal detachment in the differential diagnosis, and I booked the first available appointment with the eye doctor. In the wilds of upstate New York, that meant seeing an optometrist—ophthalmologists were available only for complicated cases. Fortunately, “Dr B” was careful, through and reassuring. Three successive fundoscopic exams revealed no signs of retinal detachment.

No, he said, this was PVD—posterior vitreous detachment, which is described as “a natural, age-related process of separation between the vitreous and the retina.”3

The storm of sparks and flashes occurs as the deteriorating vitreous humor pulls away from the retina. So long as the separation is amicable, there are usually no complications. Still, as I enter my 70s, the experience left me with a darkened sense of vulnerability—and a heightened awareness that time’s arrow flies in only one direction. Yes, “summer's lease hath all too short a date”4and so, too, has our lease on life.

A Funky Little Beast

In truth, summer and I have always had a conflictual relationship. There is one part of me that welcomes the long, languorous days of summer. I am transported back to my college days and the “sweet days of summer,” so beautifully captured in Jim Seals and Dash Crofts’ 1972 anthem5:

Summer breeze makes me feel fine,
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind…

This part of me sees summer as a kind of reprieve from the intensity and productivity of the rest of the year—and perhaps a chance to let go of the fierce drivenness that has both propelled and diminished my life.

At the same time, another part of me rebels against summer’s entropy, pushing back against its sweaty torpor. Far from channeling Seals and Crofts, this darker part of me hears the sullen voice of the poet Sylvia Plath, writing in her journal:

"August rain: the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time."

Plath goes on6:

"This morning I am at a low ebb. I did not sleep well last night, waking, tossing, and dreaming sordid, incoherent little dreams. I awoke, my head heavy, feeling as if I had just emerged from a swim in a pool of warm polluted water...The thick August air does not help. I sit here lumpishly, an ache at the back of my neck."

These sodden lines remind me that for some of our patients, summer is no breeze; but rather, a time of considerable distress. Summer SAD (seasonal affective disorder) can cause some to experience insomnia, poor appetite, restlessness, anxiety and irritability. And many younger people may feel increased pressure to “party hearty” in the summer months, for fear of “missing out” or becoming a social outcast.7

As one college student so vividly put it8:

“Look, summer is a funky little beast. The pressures associated with the school year are finally gone, but they have only been replaced with this insane pressure to “have fun” and “make the most of your free time.” You can rejoice that you no longer have to be in class, but if you’re not surrounded by friends at every moment, then you might as well be a hermit.”

Autumn’s Promise

And so, while one part of me will miss the summer, the other will be well satisfied to see it go. I am, at heart, a man of autumn. I think the soul settles in the fall, when the air no longer stifles but enlivens; when “life starts all over again,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed.9

Poised between summer’s fervor and winter’s shiver, the fall gets it just right for me. I can almost hear the geese calling out in the slate-grey, late September sky.

Dr Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007-2010). Dr Pies is the author of Psychiatry at the Crossroads and other works that can be found on Amazon. His most recent book is the novelette, The Unmoved Mover.

References

1. Come Monday – Jimmy Buffet. Margaritaville. YouTube. February 24, 2015. Accessed September 14, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKGw_hrlaOY

2. NASA clocks July 2023 as hottest month on record ever since 1880. NASA. August 14, 2023. Accessed September 14, 2023. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-clocks-july-2023-as-hottest-month-on-record-ever-since-1880

3. Koller EC, Kraker JA, Hwang ES. Progression of partial posterior vitreous detachment over time. Retina. 2021;41(7):1396-1402.

4. Shakespeare W. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18). Poets.org. Accessed September 14, 2023. https://poets.org/poem/shall-i-compare-thee-summers-day-sonnet-18

5. Summer Breeze - Seals & Croft #1 Hit(1972). JCVdude. YouTube. June 1, 2009. Accessed September 14, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsW8rXPcnM0

6. Plath S; Kukil KV, ed. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Anchor; 2000.

7. Noonan SJ. The other SAD: summer seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatric Times. August 15, 2023. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/the-other-sad-summer-seasonal-affective-disorder

8. Capizzi J. Summer and the pressure to enjoy yourself. Odyssey. May 9, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2023. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/summer-and-the-pressure-have-fun

9. Fitzgerald FS. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1925.

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