Across the country, kids are headed back to school — whether in-person, remote learning, or hybrid — and adjusting to their new classes. Some of them are dancing in the empty bleachers and on top of (socially distanced) cafeteria tables, singing, “Tell me more! Tell me more!”
Okay, that last part might be from the movie Grease.
The point is, one story has ended for them and another new one is beginning. (Hopefully, one that will be less eventful for them than the last school year was.)
It’s not quite that way for adults, of course. I don’t know about you, but my springs, summers, autumns, and winters are all kind of one long story broken out into chapters with different weather. Because that’s the nature of doing something (a job) all year round, rather than doing it nine months on and three months off. Of course, this doesn’t mean I can’t remember what it was like being a kid. And the first thing I can remember most vividly about summers growing up was The Shack (not to be confused with the novel of the same name).
In the small town I grew up in back in the 70s, we kids pretty much had the luxury of wandering around and doing as we pleased all summer, as long as we were home in time for dinner. But in order to keep us from getting into too much trouble, at some point long before I was ever born, the town created The Shack. As the name implies, this was a wooden building, maybe the size of a one-car garage painted green. It sat next to the basketball courts in the middle of a large grassy park on one side of town that was three blocks long and also housed a baseball field, a softball field, and a playground.
Most of the year, the story of The Shack was that it was locked up tight. If you were new to town at any time of year other than summer, you might wonder what this mysterious building was that nobody ever went into or out of. What was its purpose? And why did the kids on the playground seem to look over at it with such a faraway longing in their eyes?
When summer rolled around, though, that would all change.
To be honest, I don’t recall exactly what time The Shack was opened every day. I’m guessing maybe 8 am or so. But whenever it was, there would be at least a handful of us lined up in front of the padlocked door, waiting patiently for the teenager with the keys to show up.
And when they did, it was like Christmas morning. Because inside The Shack was everything you needed.
Baseballs, basketballs, footballs, kickballs, soccer balls, and wiffleballs. Mitts, bats, bases, horseshoes, badminton rackets, birdies, and even a tetherball pole. Shovels and buckets for little kids to play in the sandbox with. Arts and crafts supplies ranging from giant pieces of paper to paints to popsicle sticks. Even some old decks of playing cards. In short, there was any and everything you needed to waste a summer day having fun during a time before video games, the internet, smartphones, and cable TV.
Horseshoes were my favorite. Because it wasn’t one of those newfangled sets made out of rubber to keep kids safe. It was the old-fashioned kind, with metal horseshoes and a metal stake that had to be pounded into the ground with a small sledgehammer.
My summers were filled with the satisfying sound of metal clanging against metal for hours on end, scoring “ringers” and “leaners” and never quite being sure if somebody was going to throw too soon before you could get out of the way, and whack you in the leg with a horseshoe, leaving you with a bruise at best or a limp at worst.
Those, as the saying goes, were the days.
Oddly enough, what has me thinking about The Shack is the chocolate cream pie sitting in our refrigerator right now. It’s been taunting me for a couple of days, because I’m on kind of a dessert diet this month. But the weird thing is, I don’t actually like chocolate cream pie. So then why do I keep opening the fridge to look at it?
Then last night, I remembered something.
Besides tending to the equipment, part of the job of the teenager in charge of The Shack was organizing activities for us kids. Arts and crafts, running and jumping and throwing competitions, and — one time at least — even a pie-eating contest. So I have a visceral memory of being maybe nine or ten, putting my hands behind my back one sunny afternoon, and slamming my face into a chocolate cream pie topped with a giant mound of whipped cream. I never stood a chance, of course. I was small for my age, and there were kids with appetites three times the size of mine who made short order of their pies long before I was even halfway done.
Clearly, I wasn’t destined for a future as a competitive eater.
My other memory of that day, of course, is my mother asking me at the dinner table why I didn’t seem to have any appetite. I didn’t think she’d appreciate the real reason, so I ad-libbed something about not feeling well.
What happened at The Shack stayed at The Shack.
Like the time I when I was eleven, and got into the first and only fistfight of my entire life. Over a girl. Kind of.
There was a girl who lived down the street from me who liked me a lot for some reason. Enough that one of my best friends at the time convinced me I should ask her to be my girlfriend. So I did. The relationship didn’t really amount to much except holding hands during “Moonlight Couples” while roller skating in the church gymnasium on Friday nights. But I can at least say I had a girlfriend when I was eleven.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that having a girlfriend meant having to do things like step up to “defend her honor” sometimes. Which is what I had to do one day at The Shack, when some boy a year younger than me, a notorious jerk, called her a name. So in a move that was uncharacteristically me, and egged on by the same friend who’d urged me to ask her out in the first place, I challenged this boy to a fight.
The build-up to the fight was about ten minutes long, with kids taking sides, possibly placing bets, and some of them giving me all kinds of advice gleaned from Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee movies about what I should do with my hands and feet. The actual fight lasted about thirty seconds. He threw a punch at me and I dodged it. I threw a punch at him and missed by a mile. Then he threw one more punch, hit me in the cheek, I saw some stars, and that was enough for me. I walked away.
Clearly, I wasn’t destined for a future as a competitive fighter.
That night, at the dinner table, my mother asked me how I’d gotten the bruise on my cheek. As with the pie eating, I didn’t think she’d appreciate the real reason. So I ad-libbed a story about an accident at the monkey bars.
I’m sure I could dig up a hundred other stories like this about my misspent days at The Shack. But the point is just to say that when you’re a kid, summer has its own story. And maybe it’s that way for some adults as well.
For better or worse, my summer this year read pretty much like all the months that came before it, from a perspective of what I did on a daily and weekly basis. So I’m not quite feeling the same boost of “singing and dancing in the bleachers” energy that comes with starting something new.
And sometimes we need that.
Because neither school nor The Shack would feel special to us if it lasted all year long. Things need to end eventually. Stories need to end. To be replaced by other fresh, new stories. We need to have something to look back at in order to appreciate where we are now, and where we’re going.
As kids, adults hand us this blessing, giving us school years broken up by summer breaks. But as adults, we may need to give this to ourselves sometimes. Otherwise, it can feel as if the years are simply flowing one into the other.
Often, these articles I write are like The Shack for me. I open up my brain each week and find all these wonders that are locked up most of the time, sitting in the dark unused, gathering dust, waiting to shine. And when I do, it helps me to better understand where I’ve been … and what needs to happen next.
I ended a couple of stories for myself this past month. Wrapped up my first session of the Own the Turn workshop. And made the hard decision to walk away from several amazing masterminds I’ve had the privilege to be a part of this year.
Because it was time for those stories to end, at least for now, and for new adventures to begin.
And just as no kid is ever quite sure how a new school year will go, I’m not entirely sure yet what’s on the road ahead of me. I have some ideas, of course. I always have ideas. “The Shack” is full of those too.
But now and then, we have to be willing to create the space of a blank page for ourselves before we can decide how we’re going to fill it.
So for now, I’m embracing the freedom of that blank page.