We like to share what we call “snapshots” from time to time, brief reflections from a particular moment of the year in the life of an ESN author or member. We hope these glimpses of God’s work in the lives of fellow academics are encouraging to early career scholars as they navigate the calendar of the academic year and the everyday calling of following Christ in their work and lives. Today we share some thoughts on the end of summer by literature professor Angela O’Neal. You can read her previous posts here.
William Carlos Williams once wrote, “In summer, the song sings itself.” Isn’t that a lovely idea? It certainly captured my mood back in May as I danced around the proverbial maypole and looked over the vast expanse of the summer months blooming ahead and envisioned halcyon days tidying my garden, hours of reading whatever books I chose, untethered from my calendar, capturing Instagram-worthy moments of travel, donning beach hair, sun-kissed faces—I looked forward to being “off-the-hook,” as the old saying goes, free from unrelenting duty and responsibility. Yes, let the song sing itself for a while; I’ve earned it!
Now, deep in the heavy, canicular days of summer when the new academic year presses close so soon again, I wonder what quote captures my mood now? Maybe, heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go.
Truth is, this summer didn’t exactly live up to my expectations. But then again, it never really does. Life as a single parent with two kids, three dogs, and an antique house ever in need of some repair moves at a frenetic pace, whether it’s June or January. This summer was no exception. I got a lot done: trees trimmed, trampoline erected (a monument to my soft parenting), half a dozen doctor appointments and counting (no lie), laundry room cleaned out, new tires on the car, bathroom shower fixed, bedrooms rearranged to suit a growing teen and tween. The list could go on. In June, my father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had multiple hospital stays. My girls and I made several trips back home to support him and my mom. A faculty member resigned, and as department chair it was my responsibility to lead the search for a replacement, and pronto. I found myself eyeing social media posts by friends whose summer seemed a lot more exotic, or relaxing, or more memorable than mine, which had become, in my mind, just an extension of the school year (only difference being we’re slightly more tanned). I even had to break out the old calendar to keep track of what needed to be done and when.
Summer? What summer?
But maybe it’s not my schedule that needs adjusting but my heart. You see, freedom is a powerful and intoxicating concept, and it’s exactly what drives so many of my expectations, including the myth of summertime: the fantasy that I can escape obligation for a while, take life off the hook and live for leisure, or even the very notion that leisure is a precondition of freedom.
Of course, I’m not denying the virtue of rest, but in a fallen world even rest is something we must work at. We can’t get outside of work, no matter how hard we try, no matter how long our vacation lasts or how great that spa massage might be. Leisure will always be haunted by work.
And we will always see freedom through the distorted lens of personal expectation.
Scripture has lots to say about this. In 1 Peter 2:16 (ESV), Peter writes, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
Here, Peter gives us a paradox: he equates freedom with service to God. It gets even better in verses 18-19, 21:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. . . For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
Friends, we are not called to leisure, and we will never find the freedom we crave in the pursuit of the good life, chasing what we think we deserve or have earned. A life so lived is a life lived in bondage, unconscious of God and chasing our own tails. We will never get to the end of our to-do lists. We will always confront work: in our best and worst relationships, whether our job is drudgery or a dream, whether we’re single or married, own or rent, parenting or childless, young or old, whether it’s June or January.
So, as we begin a new school year, whether you’ve had a summer that met or crushed your expectations, whether you head back to campus feeling affirmed or afflicted, whether you’re pressing on or pressed upon, join me in praying not for ease or for more of what we want but rather for what we need: the grace to become servants for God, working in our ordained sphere under the perfect freedom of his yoke. It’s the only freedom that will satisfy.
As my weed-infested garden will attest, summer’s song has a dark side. So, I think I’ll close with lines from G.M. Hopkins’ poem “Inversnaid,” one of my favorites and one that gives us a more accurate view of both summer and life: “O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
About the author:
Angie Crea O'Neal is an associate professor of English at Shorter University where she also holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English and serves as the chair of English, Modern Languages, and Liberal Arts. Her poems have recently appeared in The Cumberland River Review, Kentucky Review, and San Pedro River Review. She lives in Rome, Georgia with her daughters, Marin and Maeve.