What Will You Do With Your Wild And Precious Summer?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

There’s something about the change of seasons that makes us take stock of our lives. So since the calendar, the radio DJs and the morning news anchors are crowing about the fact that today is the first day of summer, it’s the perfect time to think about what your best summer actually looks like.

Maybe you’ve already been rocking your summer so far. Maybe you’re reading this from the patio with a drink in your hand, all blissed out and relaxed. Maybe you already have a summer vacation under your belt.

But it’s equally likely that you’re still in denial that it’s almost the end of June, because seriously, wasn’t it just March? Maybe summer doesn’t feel even a little bit different to you, because your to-do list doesn’t change and you can’t even wear short sleeves because they crank up the AC in the office and it feel like the Arctic until the snow falls again.

Or maybe summer is the hardest season of the year for you. Maybe your work is seasonal and your hours double as you get up with the sun. Maybe you find yourself serving as a caregiver this summer and you’ve realized how quickly and easily the needs of your loved ones fill up every minute of your day. Maybe you’re battling and illness or missing someone or something. Your life is in transition and you really just want it to be like it was before.

Here’s a revolutionary question; how do you want your summer to be? If you could choose, how would you spend your days?

Now let me tell you something vitally important; you can choose to deliberately carve out more time to do whatever it is that makes you happier and healthier — even if you’re a full time caregiver, or working extra hours, or struggling to find ways to get out of bed in the morning. In fact, I think if you’re in the midst of any of these things, it’s all the more important to take time to slow down, engage in the world around us and take time to treat ourselves gently by experiencing things we love.

I really like the Mary Oliver line that opens this post and I go back to it all the time when I’m feeling burned out of tire. It’s so easy to see our day-to-day lives as a collection of things we have to do, a series of appointments and obligations, instead of our “one wild and precious life.”

So what is it that you want to do?

Make a list. Pick a few things (three to five works well) and write them down. The scientists that study the brain and how it forms habits tell us that if we keep our goal list short and pick items that are specific and meaningful to us, we’re more apt to stick with them.

These don’t have to be giant bucket list goals. (In fact, it’s often better if they aren’t.) The most soothing and useful summer goals are the ones that involve our senses, the goals that encourage us to open up to the world around us and treat ourselves well. Just close your eyes and think about summer. Whatever pops into your head and makes your smile or think, “ahhhhh” is exactly where you should spend your time.


Medora Fudge and Ice Cream Depot in Medora, North Dakota

The list will be different for everyone. For some of you, outdoor concerts or spending time at the lake is key. Others would rather get ice cream, go to a few baseball games or spend more time fishing or on a motorcycle. Maybe you want to read a book in a hammock, cut flowers from the garden, run through sprinklers, go on picnics or head to the park and grill a few hot dogs. There are no wrong answers.

As we get older, it’s so easy to lose touch with the things that made us shriek with delight when we were kids. The simple act of doing something that we love can have incredible results. It reduces stress, improves our mood and makes us feel more engage in our lives. Even if we still have to work as hard (or harder) than we do in the winter, we can still create our best summer ever.

It helps to tell people in your life about your goals so they can send you ideas and gently remind you to have fun if you’re working a little too hard. It also might inspire them to create their own lists and can lead to some very fun conversations and activities that can open up new opportunities and experiences for you, with very little effort on your part.

I asked my son what he wanted to do this summer and he didn’t hesitate for an instant. He wanted to go to a waterslide, go to the park learn more about the moon and space. (I wrote an article about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and we both got a little obsessed.)

That’s not particularly how I would have articulated my own ideal summer. (My goals were to hike as much as possible, get outside every day and have brunch with friends – which is usually followed by a walk or window shopping– at least once a month.) But there are lots of ways that the things we love overlap.


Brunch at Black Coffee and Waffle Bar

So now we walk or bike to the park almost every morning (which makes us both happy) and he plays with the neighborhood kids almost every night while I garden, read, write or work on the patio. I bring good shoes and research hiking paths on every work trip, accept my friend Jo’s invitations to Friday night hikes at Buffalo River State Park and have made it to both units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and multiple stretches of the Maah Daah Hey Trail by June 15 — which is almost certainly my most ambitious personal hiking season yet.

We take regular trips to the library to check out books and movies about space. He even signed up for STEAM camp at our local library where he’s learning about the constellations as I write this story. We’ll check out a few local waterslides later this summer and he tags along on brunch dates, where our crew gathers to gorge on carbs, sip endless cups of coffee and happily do a whole lot of nothing.

And yes, I put these items on my calendar. I think it’s as important to honor the commitments we make to ourselves as it is to honor those we make to other people. That’s a countercultural position, I know. But if you have a hard time doing that, tell yourself that (especially in the Midwest and in other cold climates) summer is fleeting and you need to enjoy it while you can.


Hiking in Fort Ransom State Park with my friend Ayat
Photo by Ayat Hussein

So what will you do with your wonderful and fleeting summer? What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Tell us about it below!

What makes a summer wonderful for you?
What are your favorite summer traditions?
How do you and your friends and family stay active in the summer?
What are your favorite summer treats?
What were the summer things you loved doing as a kid?
What’s on your summer to do list?

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

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