And so a new year begins
By Phillip Lopate
September 16, 2016
My favorite time of the year is September. Despite the groans of everyone, including myself, regarding the end of summer, the truth is that by Labor Day I am more than happy to get back to work and a regular routine. If summer carries with it the promise of transformation, of exploring other potential selves you might hope to stir awake through travel and leisure, it can also put you in scary contact with your emptiness and shallowness. My embrace of September is therefore founded on the relief that I can return to my essentially limited but dependable self-repertoire.
There is also something about the light at this time of year: a crisper sun kissing the leaves of trees, an extra blueness in the sky—I can’t quite put it into words. I’ve always been intrigued by those mini-essays on the changing of the seasons that would appear at the foot of the Times editorial page. I wish I could summon now that knowingness about flora and fauna as it relates to the seasons and indulge in a few paragraphs of lyrical twaddle. No chance of that happening; and in any case, my whole appreciation of this time of year is governed by a quickening pulse in the urban calendar: the arrival of blockbuster exhibits in the museums and galleries, the start of the New York Film Festival, with its challenging parade of world cinema (after a sleepy summer of comic book-derived sequels and animated family pictures), the excitement of the baseball season’s final month (especially if one’s team is still vying for a wild card), the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the Jewish High Holidays (the one time of year I can actually be counted on to go to synagogue and confront my spiritual shortcomings), and of course, for those of us on an academic schedule, the return to school.
Each New Year begins for me not on January 1, not on Rosh Hashanah, but on the first day of classes. I must then put away my laconic interiority, my meditative vegetative stupidity, and perform that public act of assertive eloquence and flimflam showmanship known as teaching. It can be a wrenching transition, and I have discovered I am not alone in feeling frightened the first day. Other university teachers I have spoken to, who have been at it even longer than I have, report butterflies in their stomach, a tightening of the chest, and the equivalent of stage fright. Fortunately, that first day I can get away with passing out syllabi, projecting an air of authority, cracking a few jokes, and dismissing the group early. It is in the second week that I will truly have to pull myself together.
This September was the first one in memory that I was no longer in sync with my daughter’s schedule. Lily, having graduated from college in May, secured a job shortly after and is taking the subway into downtown Manhattan every morning, while I alone return to the groves of academe. I feel like a dumb overgrown boy in high school who has been left back. At the same time, I am lugubriously aware that I get older and older, while the students, the new crop of them, remain more or less the same age, bursting with youthful promise. There is something wrong with this picture. Ah, let me not think about it! Let me rejoice instead in September’s beautiful temperate weather.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.