Ireland is just over there my grandfather said to me as we stood on the shores of the Atlantic, when I was about six years old. I strained my eyes but hard as I tried I could not see Ireland, just an expanse of water and thin blue line where ocean met sky.
As a child, the “end of summer” always seemed just as far away. If June was the shore, September was land on the other side – and an ocean of time and space lay between now and then.
To fill this mass of time I took on what I call “small challenges”.
One of my favorites, and in retrospect most ridiculous, was the Pogo Stick Challenge of 1999. I’d gotten one for Christmas and enlisted my good friend and neighbor Annabeth to join me in the challenge of reaching 1500 consecutive hops. In the heat of August, using a toy that had rusted over the winter months, this took some perseverance. But all summer long we worked on our goal, stopping only to refuel on cookies and lemonade.
Bounce. Creak. Bounce. Creak. At the end of August I finally hit the magic number – 1500 HOPS! We shrieked and clapped and moved on to a much quieter hobby – making jewelry. I’m sure the neighbors were thankful.
Two summers later, when I was 11, my challenge was writing a book of poems. Looking back, I’m amazed at my productivity before self-criticism got in the way. I’d wake up in the morning and write a poem in my notebook, then type it up on the old Dell after lunch. At the end of the summer I printed out all my poems, brought them to school to be bound and considered myself “published”.
I always dreaded running in gym class, so the summer I turned 13 my challenge was to build endurance. It started as two laps around the block that became three, four and five. I liked the way running toned my body and decided to pair exercise with a diet. At our Labor Day barbecue I refused to eat dessert, and my “small challenge” turned into an obsession that grew cancerously through fall and winter and spring.
That summer I realized it’s possible to take challenges too seriously, self-improvement too far.
Wonderful as they were – summer has always been my favorite season – they’d never again be vast as an ocean. Future summers were filled with reading lists, sports practices and college applications. Read 10 books! Learn to code! Write five short stories! Small challenges got bigger and I started feeling guilt for everything I hadn’t accomplished, rather than pride in what I had.
Now, as a young professional in New York City, summer months aren’t technically different from any other part of the year. I am working five days a week and time is limited. But I still associate the period from June to August with self-reflection and goal-setting. The thing is, because there’s so little time, every challenge feels like it should have some greater purpose. If your friend is going back to school for a Masters degree, you don’t want to be working towards the mid-20s equivalent of pogo sticking. In this city, there are no isolated goals, only goals that help you become a more successful version of yourself.
What happened to small challenges, of taking on random endeavors simply for one’s own enjoyment? Is it possible to do something entirely for you and not for your Instagram?
I’ll always be ambitious. But in a city that constantly shouts think big! dream big! I want to go back to dreaming small, just for one summer.
Image of Atlantic Ocean by jfleischmann