Let me tell you about the best summer of my life.
It started at a Cinco De Mayo party. I had just started feeling comfortable wearing dresses on occasion. Since it was a warm evening, I took a chance and wore one to the party. I ended up having conversations that night that unlocked issues I had been hoarding in my heart for decades. At the end of the night, I was a little drunk. I remember one moment where I stood in the driveway feeling the breeze ruffle my skirt deliciously on my thighs, matching the sway of the brightly colored paper cutouts fluttering in the windows and doorways. My body felt free and confident in a way I had not felt so deeply any time before. That moment is imprinted so strongly in my memory I can see it and feel it when I just close my eyes.
With this shift in how I viewed myself and how I felt in my body, I barreled into That Summer headfirst.
On the drive to and from work, I would blast my CD player and sing along at the top of my lungs. At the time I was not happy with my day job, but it was still before things had gotten so bad that I would end up crying in my car every single lunch break.
My husband had also been at a day job he hated and in June we crunched the numbers and decided we could make it on my income. I told him to hit the f&ck it button and quit. He did and signed up for summer quarter at a community college. We had to put textbooks on a credit card, but oh well. We were happy with our decision and the relief was euphoric.
During that summer, I lived for the weekends. Nothing was better than Friday at 5 o’clock. I turned my music up extra loud on those evenings.
While my husband went to school he was able to do a lot of the housework. Which meant on the weekends I got to spend more time reading. I shelled out what few pennies I had saved every week to buy used books from thrift stores or used online. I piled books on my patio table, soaked myself in sun cream, and spent all day outside reading. Sometimes I’d help mow the yard… sometimes.
By night, I went out whenever anyone asked. Before that summer, I had always been timid and anxious. Going out for a few hours used to mean I’d spend just as much time getting ready to go out, agonizing over clothes and pumping myself up to be social. This time around, I just threw on a dress and went out. I pretty much lived on Snapchat and when people would ask me to go out, I went. I never said no. My husband was now always available to be my designated driver so I also drank when I went out. If someone offered me a drink… I never said no.
I didn’t have a party phase when I was younger because of my health issues and my own insecurities. I never even tasted alcohol until I was 24. But I made up for it that summer. I never missed work, but I learned what a hangover was.
Everything about that summer felt so good. Colors were brighter, sugar was sweeter, music was practically orgasmic. Every summer since I’ve spent trying to make feel like That One Summer. A summer of music and people, cold drinks and books. Freedom and a little peace that we were, in a way, living life on our own terms.
But the truth of the matter is: this was not the best summer of my life.
This was simply a perfect storm that created a few months in time where I successfully avoided all my problems.
I didn’t do much that summer that helped my life at all. Aside from getting some party experience out of my system, I did nothing to move forward or improve my life. I was bestowed the gift of confidence but I didn’t use it to leave my toxic job or invest in anything meaningful.
In all actuality, it was kind of sad. I happened to be healthy enough at the time to poison my body every weekend and still make it to work. All those times I said yes to doing anything meant I said yes to things I shouldn’t have. I spent a lot of meaningless evenings with people who didn’t really care about me or were even just using me. All those books I bought were fun. But I was broke, so I bought books I didn’t really want to read. But, hey, they were a dollar and I could afford them. I ended up donating them all to the library used book sale the next year. Having my husband home doing things and going to school was great—we did spend some quality time together. But it wasn’t because we were in a stable place. We were just doing it to make ourselves feel better and motivate me to stay at the job I hated since I was now the only income breadwinner. And the weather was nice. Who doesn’t love that?
That summer was a break from the daily grind of mental and physical pain. We enjoyed it. But it was just a plateau of distraction.
Regardless of all this, I still remember that summer fondly.
They say we always forget the bad and remember the good. It’s in our bones from the caveman days to help us live our lives and carry on during tough times. But sometimes I think we cling to these nostalgic times in our lives not just because we are forgetting the bad—we truly believe we have the power to recreate those perfect set of circumstances that brought us relief for a season. We buy the car, listen to the music, do the things we did during that magic time when it was so easy to capture happiness like stardust in a jar.
Thing is… we can’t recreate that perfect storm. Unless we make progress in our lives, find meaning in our current situation, and build stability in our day to day, these other ingredients of nostalgia won’t help us.
I stayed at the toxic job because I needed health insurance–and that was a very good reason. Sometimes we can’t progress in our lives because of real barriers that take years or longer to overcome. But the truth is, I also made excuses. Even though I was miserable, I was trying to make something work that wasn’t going to work and I made up reasons to stay stuck and miserable. I don’t know why–my ego, maybe. Or fear of the unknown. Or just a lack of experience keeping me from understanding how to help myself.
At the end of it all, I was not making progress, found very little meaning in my job, and had zero stability in my daily life off the clock. And every summer that rolled around, I would try to medicate with nostalgia: music or liquor, old movies or old back roads I used to cruise around on when I was younger. And it didn’t work.
Lots of us try to force this star-dust-in-a-jar feeling and can’t ever quite make it happen again. We feel defeated. We spend more money. We make lots of stupid decisions chasing that feeling.
You are probably aware of the problem areas in your life. Even if you lie to yourself most of the time, deep down, you really know. Maybe there’s only one or two things. Maybe there’s, well, everything. And speaking from experience, that’s when nostalgia feels the best.
If you find yourself thinking more about the past than the future, it’s time to make some changes. Your life might need to be disrupted drastically in order to make the change. But from my own experiences and of other’s I’ve known, it’s worth it. It won’t be easy. It will probably hurt. But living in the past or spinning your wheels with shallow distractions won’t help the situation.
If you’re up against a barrier, invest in daily structure and do small things to get yourself headed in the right direction. Start preparing for the future you want, not the present you’re stuck in. You never know when the opportunity to get out of your situation will arise. Start preparing for when it does, so you can be ready to take the chance rather than make another excuse for why you can’t.
While I was stuck at that job I hated, I invested in a couple pieces of business dress clothes. The first day at my new job, I just walked to my closet and pulled out the outfit that had been waiting for over a year. I kept up my public librarian certification even though I was hopeless that I’d ever return to the library field. I now hold a titled full time position in a library. Even though I was often sick, I kept writing. I took a month to finish a story instead of two weeks, but at the end of the year I would still have multiple pieces published. I prioritized saving money and paying off debt to give my life more stability.
Each one of these things was better for me in the long run than that entire summer.
But look, I’m not all gloom and doom. We can use nostalgia positively. When paired with positive action, nostalgia can be a tool in coping through difficult times.
We can also use nostalgia to help us build the best years of our lives.
When the weather started warming up this year, I got this overwhelming sense of nostalgia for That One Summer. I popped the CD I listened to on repeat that summer back into my CD player (It was Gaga’s The Fame, btw) and turned it up.
And it felt f&cking amazing. All the good feelings from That Summer flooded back and I felt on top of the world.
In that moment I realized that with some reflection and intention, this summer could be everything I wanted That Summer to be.
I’m in a much better place. When I blast my music after work it’s not because I’m escaping, it’s because I’m celebrating feeling accomplished and productive at a meaningful job.
My husband works a job with flexible hours and is often at home but it is because he can be. With health insurance through my job and the debt we’ve paid down, we are actually in a stable place. No f&ck it button this time.
My health is on an upswing and I don’t intend to test my physical limits with alcohol and partying. I’m doing my best to eat healthy, get sleep, rest when I need, and pace myself between work and play.
And I am buying lots of books this summer—but since I’m making more money I can afford to buy the books I want to read and actually read them. I only buy a couple at a time and am staying on top of them rather than letting sloppy piles stack up on my bookshelves.
Nostalgia is pleasurable and intimate. It should be a part of our lives. But it should not be our entire life.
I’m taking all the good things from That One Summer and leaving behind the bad.
No spending time on shallow relationships.
No hating my job.
Yes to meaningful experiences.
Yes to setting boundaries and building structure.
Yes to wearing lots of dresses.
With summer’s sails open wide, I implore you to look back on some nostalgic times of your own. Not hoping to relive them, but to evaluate where you’ve been, take the good, and use those memories as tools to live the season of your life you were always meant to live—with genuine happiness, deeper meaning, and real contentment.
Raise your glass. Here’s to the best summer of our lives.