EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: Fill up summer to slow it down

I’m thinking what you’re thinking. This is the best time of the year to live in Marblehead and New England. This season is our revenge. Those who moved to Florida or Arizona and posted palm tree pictures in my Facebook feed all winter? I’ll see your post with mine of a perfect sunset over the harbor, and raise you an overflowing lobster roll. 

Every year at about this time, my husband and I start talking about all the plans we want to make for the summer. Who do we want to invite over for a barbeque? How many cooking fires can we fit in at Goldthwait Reservation? What shows might we try to see? We have to get to Woodman’s. And spend a day at Wingaersheek Beach. A few years ago, we walked to Little Harbor Lobster Company and sat on a bench and ate cold shrimp and lobster. Let’s do that again, we plan. And take the Salem Ferry into town to have lunch in the North End. Catch a couple Red Sox games. 

Inevitably, the Fourth of July arrives about two minutes after Memorial Day. Then Labor Day comes and we wonder where the summer went, and register all the May-dreamt plans that didn’t come together. We say we’ll definitely do them next year. Yes, September and October are often glorious but, no matter our age, the coming of Labor Day marks the end of sitting on the beach and the beginning of organizing, so to speak, our life’s shiny new notebooks and sharpened pencils. 

This year, I want it to be different. I want summer to unwind slower, like it did when I was a kid. 

Why did summer feel like it lasted forever back then? Each day unfolded pretty much like the one before. I didn’t have any definite plans. My days went something like this: Eat breakfast, get on my bike with the banana seat, ride to my best friend’s house, walk our dogs, watch my brothers and the neighborhood boys play home run derby or basketball and occasionally join them, go for a ride with my dad to get penny candy or with my mom to get fresh corn from a farm stand. Sit on the front stairs at night. Capture fireflies. Feel sad I captured them and let them go. Every day was some variation of this. And summer went by so slowly. 

I logically concluded that formless repetitive days were the solution to our summertime time warp. I was about to cancel our May discussion and all summer plans. Long languid days on the backyard deck were all I was going to put on the calendar. 

Turns out, I’ve got it all wrong. First of all, some research shows children perceive time differently than adults, at least very young children, so the comparison to childhood summers doesn’t hold up. It feels like summer passed more slowly when we were children, because we perceived everything passing more slowly. Our “working memory, attention and executive function” were still developing and our “neural transmission is in effect physically slower compared to adults. This in turn affects how they perceive the passage of time,” according to neuroscientist Patricia Costello, PhD, in an NBC news report on the subject.

What, then, is a better strategy to slow down summer as an adult? 

“Modern research supports the 1885 advice of philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau. He said to lengthen time, ‘Fill it, if you have the chance, with a thousand new things.’” That’s the advice Claudia Hammond, a radio presenter and psychologist, gave in a fascinating BBC “All in the mind” episode. “When you do lots of different things, time flies. But we perceive time in two different ways: we judge how fast it’s going right now and we also look back, asking ourselves how long it felt. We partly make that judgment by considering how many new memories we made, so the more different things you pack into one weekend, the longer that weekend will feel when it comes to Monday morning,” she said, adding “A weekend spent at home lazing and reading the papers will feel relaxing at the time, but gives rise to so few new memories that the weekend will not stand out from any other, making time appear to have gone faster.”

A slower summer is one where we actually do all the things we planned in May. It’s a summer filled with a thousand new things. I’m thinking what you’re thinking — that sounds exhausting! But I’ll try it. I can nap after Labor Day once I organize my pencils.   

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

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