Today is September 19, 2016, and on Thursday the autumnal equinox will occur, officially ending summer and bringing fall. I know I speak for a lot of people when I say that I’m relieved to see this change in the calendar. In the United States at least, but also for much of the rest of the world, summer 2016 has been a bitter, scary and depressing season. I’ve even heard several people, in person and on social media and such, declare that 2016 has been the “worst summer ever.” Even under the best of conditions there’s a certain wistful and romantic quality about the end of summer, the last warm days of long hours of sunlight, the last chance for those outdoor activities–beach walks, barbecues, what-have-you–that will soon be impracticable because of rain or temperature or school schedules. I named this article after a favorite song from the ’80s, by Belinda Carlisle, that captures that wistful quality. But after a summer like this, when so many worrisome and wearisome things have happened, the effect seems especially pronounced. The change of seasons is less a catharsis than an absolution, or at least the chance of one. I think that’s how a lot of us feel deep down.
The calamities of summer 2016, political and otherwise, scarcely need introduction. The summer’s very first official day, June 23, brought a potentially world-shaking event, the “Brexit” referendum for Britain to bolt the European Union, which history may judge to be one of the most disastrous decisions a country has made in recent times. A few days later we were shaken by the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, the horrifying massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, motivated by hatred of LGBT people. Indeed, hate has had a banner year in 2016. The almost daily taunts and outrages by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President–most rooted in racism, sexism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories and toxic nationalism–have left us all kind of numb. Police shootings and incidents of racist violence or rhetoric were seldom out of the news this summer. The sum total is simply a sense of exhaustion.
Belinda Carlisle’s “Circle in the Sand” has been on my mind at the end of every summer since 1988.
For me, even positive and innocent moments from the summer wound up being somehow tainted. On a muggy July afternoon my husband and I went to see the new Ghostbusters film, which was a fun and cheerful way to escape from the world’s problems for a few hours. A few days later I read that one of the stars of the film, Leslie Jones, was hounded, harassed, attacked and vilified so grotesquely and relentlessly by misogynist “MRA” trolls on Twitter that she quit the site. Her transgression? Being an African-American woman. I loved the new Ghostbusters, but I doubt I will ever see it again without thinking about the shocking and shameful spectacle of the abuse that followed Ms. Jones and other stars of the film. This is America, where we all have an equal chance? Where we should be judged by the content of our character? Where we strive to form a more perfect union? This is America? It seemed hard to believe it this summer.
Then there’s climate change. If summer 2016 was marked by hatred and intolerance, it was seared and baked and cauterized by global warming–the slow-motion apocalypse that has become, without any doubt, the world’s most serious problem. Temperatures broke records all over the world this summer, with the Middle East suffering the worst. I’ll remember this summer as an almost unbroken stretch of sweaty walks home, droning fans, sleepless nights and stifling car rides. I taught a class this summer on the history of climate change, quite topical, and thus some days this summer nearly every waking moment was a reminder, one way or another, of the problem. Some of my students spoke of the change in seasons they’ve noticed and how this summer seemed “worse” than any before. My students were all in their 20s. They’ve noticed the effects of climate change in their own lives–which have been shorter than the entire broadcast run of The Simpsons.
The horror and sadness of the Pulse nightclub shooting in late June 2016 was a reminder of the awful power of hatred and prejudice.
That said–as awful as this summer has been on so many levels–it’s far from being the worst ever. I talked about this in an article I wrote two years ago, when a writer for The Daily Beast, reacting to racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri, war in the Middle East and the suicide of actor Robin Williams, grandiosely declared 2014 to be the “worst summer ever.” That summer was certainly no picnic, but as I pointed out, the victims of the Black Death (1348), the battle of Cold Harbor in the U.S. Civil War (1864), the tens of thousands of soldiers who had to go “over the top” during the Battle of the Somme (1916) or the hundreds of thousands of Jews gassed at Auschwitz in the height of the Holocaust (1944) would have little sympathy for us complaining about 2014. Historians have a habit of deflating careless hyperbole like “worst ever.” As bad as things are, you only have to open a history book to find an example of a time that was much worse. I guess it’s small comfort in a way. The Black Death and the First World War happened to somebody else, people who lived very long ago. Donald Trump, Pulse and climate change are happening to us. I understand why people want to use hyperbole like “worst ever.”
There’s also a disconnect, I think, between our public lives and our private ones. Most of the unhappiness I experienced this summer came from without, not within. I have to think of the beauty and majesty I saw this summer–in mighty waves on the Oregon Coast, for one thing, which also makes me think of that Belinda Carlisle song which speaks of sand, waves and beaches. I spent time with my nephews. I drank wine and ate wonderful food with family and friends. I stayed in a very interesting hotel. I reconnected with some old friends I hadn’t talked to in a while. I finished perhaps my best novel and wrote some other great stories. I enjoyed the love and companionship of my husband and my family. From that standpoint, summer 2016 wasn’t so bad.
I took this photo on the Oregon Coast in July 2016–a reminder of things more powerful and far less transient than the human concerns of this terrible summer.
At the end of every bad season there is always, if nothing else, hope. Lately I’ve been resisting getting carried away by apocalyptic narratives, especially political ones. The seemingly endless political season will end, most likely with Trump’s defeat. With regard to climate change, at the very end of this summer I witnessed something that left me tremendously hopeful, a court proceeding that could have a very big and very positive impact on how we deal with the crisis. In both my personal and professional life there’s considerable room for optimism. And the one liberating thing about a bad season is that, while of course it could always get worse (as history shows us), the worse it is now, the more likely it is to get at least a little better. The universe balances itself out.
If you’re relieved to feel a slight crispness in the morning air or spy a tree whose leaves are beginning to turn gold, I’m right there with you. There have been worse summers than 2016. Unfortunately there probably will be again. But times do change. We must make the best of them.