The Air in August

It’s starting to feel like fall here, except of course it feels like bizarro-fall. My husband (a HS teacher) is back at work, attending zoom meetings while wearing a mask. His students arrive in cohorts next week. I’m waiting for the email with my first grader’s teacher assignment, realizing I forgot to initial the COVID forms from my son’s preschool, making and re-making lists of things I can cook for dinner while I’m also writing a book. My kids will be in school in opposite shifts (AM preschool; PM elementary school cohort) and so I’m also trying to figure out how to compress the things I do for work (teaching, writing) and fun (running) into a small window or how to make them young-kid friendly. (For example, my five year old is an emergent [I think that’s the official term?] reader, so she can practice reading while I make a rough outline for my class if this happens while her little brother is at school and so she’s not also competing with him for my attention. Or, I can run with my son in the jogging stroller [WHY did I give away the double-version last fall?] while my daughter is in afternoon school.)

I’m also just feeling disoriented by how exactly the same fall is, despite all this. I bought the kids new clothes and shoes that I hope fit until spring. I sharpened our pencils and donated outgrown toys and clothes. The air is crisp, at least on some mornings, and the sun is rising later. It feels just like everything I love about fall, except of course, for the existential, political, and public health disasters unfurling steadily in the background (or sometimes foreground) of my days.

Last fall I was training for a marathon and was the fastest I’d ever been. Other falls, I’ve been coaching cross country or racing myself, for either my college or high school teams. There’s always this point in late summer when the humidity breaks and your pace drops significantly. Running feels like playing, and the idea of racing feels possible, even if you know there are a lot of miles and intervals and weeks between the first fall weather and the important races.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been at first surprised by and then pathologically devoted to not getting slower. An obsession with the illusions of control and immortality is so obviously behind this devotion to continued racing and improving that the deep sadness I have over this fall’s superficial difference (no races for me or for my old college teammates, no high school cross country state meet with its nausea-inducing starting line) is also obvious. The illusion that time was not passing, that my body was not aging was always going to come to an end at some point. It was never a given that I’d have another season to race, another big personal (but ultimately frivolous) goal to train for, or even any more time of life as I’ve always known it at all.

A few weeks ago, my high school coach rode by on his elliptical bike. When I was teaching at my own high school, we coached together—he the boys, I the girls—and so I had the great but sometimes disorienting experience of getting to know him as an adult. He told me about the decisions his college-bound runners were wrestling with, about the possible ways to have at least a few competitions, about his grandchildren’s schools re-opening plans. He made a joke (that he’s been making in some form for many years) that this might be the thing that drives him, already in his mid-70s, to retire.

It’s lovely but also sometimes claustrophobic or even startling to be raising my kids where I grew up, to have worked at my former school, to see my former track athletes out on a pre-dawn jog, to wonder if my own children will be taught be a colleague I always admired. And, I’m naturally a little nostalgic. I like traditions, both informal and formal—the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot I’ve run each year for 21 years, the particular smell of mid-morning on a Connecticut late May day, and the change in light and air that comes at the end of each summer.

So many people have lost so much more, of course, than a cross country season or the illusion of permanent, calm progression of seasons cycling over and over again. But, still, to lose these things is sad, lonely and even frightening.